Not Just for the Academics: How the PKP Can Streamline Workflow for Magazines, Too

Back in September, one of our classmates, Lee Wyndham, presented to our technology class on streamlining publisher workflows. The idea of workflows in publishing wasn’t something I had put a lot of thought into until then. I had always managed to find my own level of chaotic organization, but with very small-scale projects. It felt like I was about to enter a big world of a million files and different file types, and wouldn’t have any idea where to start organizing things.

That was, until I got past the initial fear and began to really evaluate the idea. One of Lee’s proposed solutions was to make use of content management systems–programs that would ensure that content is managed within a set digital system–from the start of a project to the end. Not only would this streamline workflow as she suggested, keeping tasks organized within a preset system, but make it easier to transition to multiple file-types as the end product.

Until I started the MPub program at SFU last fall, the publishing projects I had worked on had always been haphazard affairs. Word files shared precariously by email or through Dropbox, a million poorly labelled versions of articles at varying stages of review, and images and references stored precariously alongside the files they were meant to accompany. Despite my persistent housekeeping efforts, it was near impossible to coordinate the group efforts of people with varying degrees of experience, reliability, and project understanding. That was the disorganized world of the student-run publications and startup magazines that ignited my interest in publishing, and is probably more common than anyone would like to admit.

If we evaluated how experienced publishing teams manage workflow, it would probably be pretty efficient for the most part. But would any say that there isn’t room for improvement? And, how do small and less established publishers deal with an ever-increasing to-do list of file conversions and marketing, in addition to the usual nuts and bolts of development and production? If there is anything that we’ve learned in MPub, it’s that publishers, and in particular small magazine publishers, are increasingly strapped for time. They need shortcuts that don’t sacrifice quality of content output and quality of contributor experience.

When Karen Meijer-Kline of the Public Knowledge Project (PKP) came to speak to our class about their work with Open Journal Systems (OJS) and Open Monograph Press (OMP) early this January, one of my first thoughts was, “why aren’t magazine publishers making use of these?” I looked back at Braden and Lauren, two other magazine people in our class, and noticed them having a similar “aha” moment. What if there was a program that took care of the finicky details of organization and correspondence for you? OJS and OMP are it. I would like to argue that, while not targeted at magazines, the flexibility of PKP software like OJS and OMP have enormous potential to lower production costs for magazine publishers without sacrificing quality or experience.

OJS is one of the first projects that the PKP produced, and is now used by over 14,000 journals world-wide. OMP is still in the early stages of development, and functions similarly to OJS but with an emphasis on “book” publishing, i.e. what the PKP’s website calls “edited volumes and scholarly editions.” Both programs are part of a larger initiative started by the PKP, founded by Dr. John Willinsky when he was working at my alma mater, the University of British Columbia, in 1998.

Why the Software Came About

OJS emerged out of a sort of “crisis” Dr. Willinsky saw in the areas of scholarly publication and communication, when libraries, unable to afford skyrocketing journal subscription rates, began to drop subscriptions. Dr. Willinsky, from his background in the department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, saw the trend as an increasing barrier to information sharing and the public’s right to access publicly funded research. The PKP started out with the motive to increase access to scholarly research, beyond the academic community, and continues to do this by developing open-source software. OJS and OMP are open-source content management systems, designed for the academic community but with the potential to do so, so much more. OMP evolved along a similar line of thought, intending to provide the same workflow management to academic publishers outside of the “journal” category. Both OJS and OMP have useful features for magazine publishers, though which is more relevant depends on the existing workflow and content needs of a publication.

What OJS and OMP Do and Don’t For You

OJS and OMP are by no means a traditional workflow for publishing, but they do streamline the many steps of content development–from submission of the raw content (solicited or unsolicited) to editing to export of the final draft–into an almost fully automated system. In short, they do the leg work while you, as an administrator, are required only to make decisions about who to delegate which tasks to and when content is ready for publication.

These are programs for content management, task delegation and correspondence management. With every action you take, you are prompted to categorize, set timelines, and arrange for notifications. It’s like a second brain for you, so you can let it take care of minor to-do lists while you take on other projects.

Overflow features from academic publishing can be used to your advantage. OJS and OMP offer the option to send articles to multiple editors for review, and rate editors and contributors according to their performance. This is excellent if editing or review are ever outsourced, to keep track of quality of output from different editors and contributors.

OJS and OMP are a hosted software, a lot like WordPress. They allow you to add or remove users with varying degrees of access to the back end, as the site administrator decides, as well as an optional public interface like the front end of any web page.

Despite the ability to customize the public interface with themes, they aren’t especially aesthetic. For a magazine with a strong online presence, it might be better to consider OJS and OMP as content management systems, and not a one-stop alternative to WordPress–at least, for the present. In its current form, the default OJS public interface reflects the industry it was born into: academic and content heavy. Some of the early explorations of OMP are, however, showing fantastic potential in a book publishing model. It will be exciting to see how future versions of PKP software incorporate customizable features, in addition to improving the back-end usability.

Neither offers design features beyond the option to auto-export files as PDFs, HTML, or Postscript, but this shouldn’t be an issue for magazines that takes care of design as a step complimentary to content development.

Why They’re Still Worth It

Increased efficiency leads to higher margins. Using OJS or OMP gives you limitless accessibility (anytime, anywhere) because it is hosted and managed online. Your only responsibility as a publisher is to host the software, which is a small investment in the scope of hours spent taking care of tasks with office hours.

In Conclusion

No, magazine publishers are not managing their workflow wrong, but in any process there is room for improvement. To quote Dr. Willinsky, “OJS has been designed to reduce the time and energy devoted to the clerical and managerial tasks associated with editing a journal, while improving the record keeping and efficiency of editorial processes.”1 The same can be said of OMP, in its own context. While OJS and OMP might not work for everyone, and there is no data about consumer magazines making use of either, I believe that the lack of adoption lies not in the softwares’ relevancy but rather in the narrow scope of their target audience. The PKP arouse from a need in academic publishing; the content was there, but the cost of development was deterring publishers from creating journals and libraries from investing in costly subscriptions.

Un-linkable Sources

  1. John Willinsky, (2005) “Open Journal Systems: An example of open source software for journal management and publishing”, Library Hi Tech, Vol. 23 Iss: 4, pp.504 – 519


  1. I am very intrigued by the idea of using OJS to streamline workflows in magazines. The indie music/culture magazine I worked at prior to MPub relied on volunteers who were paid in “trade” (coupons and gift certificates from advertisers) to edit the magazine. This was our system: articles to be edited were printed on the backside of misprinted art/design proofs to save paper. The editor-in-chief would then pen in spots for fact checker, edit 1, and edit 2 where we would sign our names after completing edits. After edit 2, the article would go to someone who would enter the changes into the document saved on “the brain” (the central server). The document would then be renamed and the previously saved version trashed.

    While we actually did a surprisingly good job with this somewhat haphazard system, we ran into some problems: Editors frequently couldn’t or wouldn’t show up consistently due to the awkward timing of the meeting and the fact that they were only volunteers anyway. Articles weren’t assigned to editors by experience or expertise on a subject; rather, we edited whatever was next in the pile of documents. Frequently editors would forget to sign their names on the docs, or it was unclear whose pen made what edit if there was need to confirm it later. Lastly, there were only a few computers connected to the brain, which meant the process frequently stalled at entering changes.

    Having OJS would allow that small magazine to assign articles to specific volunteers earlier in the week, so that if they couldn’t attend the meeting they could still edit (thus saving the rest of us from hours long editing sessions on low staff days). Or, the editor-in-chief could assign all articles to the staff to have completed prior to the in-person meeting, so that we could use the in-person meetings for proofing and discussing fine details. Also, it would always be clear who edited what, because we’d each have usernames. And, we could all access OJS on our laptops, so it wouldn’t be necessary to be connected to the brain to make final changes.

    Of course, OJS is still not the answer to all small magazines’ troubles. You make some good points about quality control. In changing workflow to include OJS, magazine publishers would need to be vigilant that content isn’t being altered without clear approval from the editor-in-chief. However, I think that the ability to rate and track the performance of contributors and editors will help magazines quickly identify weak links and either re-train their staff, or replace them. As OJS software currently stands, I also agree that it’s not ready for actual online magazine publishing. But, for small publishers with limited resources, I think it’s a fantastic option for sharing, editing, and compiling articles prior to sending them to the design team.

    I’ll definitely keep my eye on this software for the future.

  2. I am in agreement with both you and KC here; OJS has a lot of potential for magazine management. I think Braden and I both had the same reaction as you, Angelina, because we both work on magazines that are managed by staff in different cities. Where the current solution is to send a ton of emails and use a shared google calendar, taking that process and organizing through a system like OJS seems like a wonderful prospect. I think it would be even more useful the larger the magazine and more geographically separated the contributors and editors. These two factors might not have been part of Dr. Willinsky’s initial plan, but I bet they have a lot to do with how well the software has been received and how quickly it has gained a large user base.

    Developing a version of OJS for magazines (OMS?) that addresses some of the limitations that both you and KC highlight here could have real potential in a commercial market for small magazine producers. There is so much potential in the software, and it would be interesting to see what could come of it if the basic structure was used and the other functionalities were addressed.

    Thanks for drawing the comparison here, Angelina. It definitely got me thinking about it.


  3. Very nice exploration of the ah-ha moment. Some tactical examples related to magazine publisher adoption of these tools would be helpful too for readers not familiar with the functions. Interesting idea definitely.

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