Book Review: Sally Morris, et al. The Handbook of Journal Publishing
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Sally Morris, Ed Barnas, Douglas LaFrenier, Margaret Reich, The Handbook of Journal Publishing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. $32.99 Paperback, $95 Cloth.
In the preface to The Handbook of Journal Publishing, the authors state one goal and make one prediction for the book: that it will serve as a useful resource for those who “have come to journals publishing after a spell with books, or are completely new to publishing,” and that it may be best used as a reference book, rather than read from cover to cover (xi). Still a bit of a newbie to the journal publishing industry myself—having worked on academic journals for more than three years, but only from within the confines of an Open Access, library-based publisher—I tackled this book with these aims in mind.
The Handbook provides substantial background, context, and practical guidance for novices in the business of publishing academic journals, although the treatment of production and preservation matters could have been more thorough. A few of the authors’ assumptions concerned me, and the book itself is a bit difficult to navigate and dip into as a reference work. Nevertheless, it will be an extremely valuable resource for anyone new to scholarly journal publishing.
The bulk of The Handbook consists of 11 chapters, each dedicated to one major aspect of journal publishing, sandwiched by introductory and concluding chapters. The introduction provides a working definition, justification for, and brief history of the scholarly journal. This chapter lays out in a non-polarizing way how the constant push and pull among researchers, publishers, and libraries over the last 60 years have given rise to the economic models in use today: consortial negotiations, bundled subscriptions, opaque pricing, etc. The chapter also identifies major turning points, such as online publication and the Open Access movement, and teases out how the consequences of these changes have or have not affected the business as predicted. The conclusion outlines a number of questions and challenges on the horizon, pointing out specific ways that the fields of librarianship and publishing are converging, and identifies how each will have to adapt in order to continue to meet the needs of authors and readers.
The strongest and most useful chapters are those focused on the business of building and nurturing journals: “Managing Journals,” “Editing,” “Journal Finances,” “Contract Publishing,” and “Copyright and Other Legal Aspects.” Each of these provides basic grounding in terminology (what is a gross margin?), roles and responsibilities (how do the editor-in-chief, managing editor, production editor, and copy-editor work together?), and practical steps (how do you shut down a journal?) that are extremely helpful for someone new to industry jargon and expectations.
These chapters also provide detailed examples and checklists for just about every aspect of the journal life cycle, from launching (48) and closing a journal (71), to developing a Request for Proposals for a journal publisher (300), to what rights the publisher needs to have in order to do its job distributing and protecting scholarly material (332). Notably, chapter 8 (“Journal Finances”) contains the most specific examples to be found anywhere in the book, with 10 tables and two figures illustrating sample profit and loss statements and budget projections.
Given the substantial, practical nature of the chapters described above, chapter 4 (“The Production Process”) falls short. The chapter articulates important concepts and vocabulary, but it does not go far enough in discussing practical and technical elements of digital publishing production. Box 4.1 purports to give an overview of markup languages but does so inadequately—someone who is not already familiar with XML, SGML, HTML, and HTML5 will only be bewildered by this list. This chapter would be stronger if it included an example of encoded digital text, perhaps juxtaposed with an example of an article as it would display online, so that readers could grasp more concretely at least what tags are, and how they are used to describe the structure of the article.
This lack of engagement with specific file formats bleeds over into the authors’ concerns about preservation. Throughout the book, the authors repeatedly raise concerns about providing long term access to journal content published online. This is presented as an economic and organizational issue, but also a technological one. They are right, of course, to point out this shift in responsibility from libraries to publishers, and to recognize that preservation of digital content requires planning and resources. However, ensuring that content will be readable in the future need not be as much of an unsolved mystery as the authors suggest. Content creators could go a long way by using standard, open formats, such as XML and PDF/A. Since the most detailed discussion of preservation occurs in the chapter on production, it would have been nice to see the authors draw this connection between production choices and preservation.
When discussing terminology and definitions, the authors are careful to be precise and judicious. However, as they move into discussions of practices, some of this is lost. For example, in the introduction, when defining Gold and Green open access, the authors are careful to write that Gold OA “refers to articles which are published in the usual way, but in journals which are freely accessible to readers. In most cases, the costs of ‘Gold’ publication ... are covered by a flat author-side publication charge” (emphasis mine) (19). That is, Open Access means that journals are freely accessible to readers, and this is frequently—but not always—accomplished through author charges. And yet, a few pages later, they write broadly that “OA enables a different approach to acceptance criteria, since ... the more papers published, the greater the revenue” (23). While this may indeed be true of OA journals relying on an author pays model, many OA journals do not charge such fees at all. This slippage occurs again in chapter 8 where “author-side” is given as a synonym for OA (229), revealing a troubling conflation of “open access” with “author pays.”
Another example occurs in the chapter on metrics. In discussing the Thomson Reuters Journal Impact Factor (JIF), the authors identify ten known problems with relying solely on citation-based metrics as indicators of journal quality. Two of these are “Variations by article type” (that is, some kinds of articles inherently cite more, and invite more citations, than others) and “Potential for manipulation” (that is, publishers who know how the system works can game it) (137-138). Yet in the chapter on management, the authors write that “The simplest way to raise the impact factor is to publish more highly citable papers.” (64). It surprised me that the authors would identify this practice as a known issue undermining the significance of the JIF, and at the same time recommend it as an obvious course of action to improve the performance of an ailing journal. They are open about this apparent contradiction, though, and state matter-of-factly, that despite all of the known problems with the JIF, journals wishing to succeed must be willing and able to participate in this process.
Finally, the book itself is indeed well organized to function as a reference work. Although chapters refer to one another, they stand well on their own. Additionally, the glossary and appendices of resources and vendors are valuable for quickly checking an acronym or as a starting point for researching service providers. However, the lack of navigational markers made it difficult for me to actually move around this book with ease. While chapters are numbered, heading and subheadings are not. And while the running heads do include the chapter and section names, they do not include a chapter number. I frequently found myself flipping back and forth to find the “parent” of the subsection I was reading. Numbering chapter sections and subsections, displaying subsections in the table of contents, and displaying chapter and section numbers in the running heads would all go a long way to aid quick look up and cross-referencing.
Although some recommendations and practices may not be applicable to readers outside of traditional publishing companies, The Handbook of Journal Publishing is a thorough, easy-to-read guide that will help readers quickly get up to speed both on important events and hot button issues in the history of journal publishing, and equip them to jump into running existing titles, or launching new projects.
Rebecca Welzenbach is the coordinator of Michigan Publishing's journals program, which is home to 25 actively publishing scholarly journals (most fully open access), as well as a number of archived publications. Her responsibilities include supporting editors and potential partners, improving Michigan Publishing's services and resources for journals, and acquiring new titles.