Where Do We Go From Here? Starting Up an Academic Journal In a Smaller Institution
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This is the article length version of the author’s presentation given at IFLA 2016. View the video recording of the author’s presentation. The presentation begins at 47:47.
There is no reliable formula for starting or sustaining a scholarly journal. This essay encourages readers to develop and address sustainable editorial and publication processes, addressing five key elements that increase the likelihood that a journal can be successfully sustained over time.
Adding one’s voice to the slow, measured conversation that is professional literature is one of the key functions of academic life. Disseminating advances in knowledge and understanding has traditionally been a function of academic institutions and professional organizations. For five hundred years that conversation has involved printed matter, first in the form of books and then scholarly journals. Within a handful of years from 1450 the number of printers and publishers in operation skyrocketed from one press to over two hundred. Many presses were associated formally or informally with universities, creating an explosion in the availability and expectations of scholarship, inquiry, and creativity from which we are still feeling the repercussions five centuries later. Printing became thereafter a commercial enterprise requiring heavy investments in equipment, supplies, and expertise. During the industrial age universities exploited the widespread availability of printing to begin publications targeted at small and focused readerships in particular fields. Only in the past two centuries has peer review added rigor to the process of scholarly communication. By the mid-twentieth century, the rise of commercial publishers began to aggregate the publication functions, taking over journals from universities and professional societies. One result has been a continuous spiral of journal subscription costs. The digital revolution once again puts the capacity for a “printing press” within the reach of academic institutions and levels the field for scholarship. What we have lost in the intervening years is familiarity with the decisions and procedures of publication within the academic support structure, and within libraries specifically.
This essay illustrates decisions and opportunities which need definition when establishing and disseminating a viable scholarly journal. Each concern and issue should be considered and resolved; each decision will lead to other decisions as academic institutions once again transcend being merely warehouses for knowledge and become again disseminators of it. The comments here are drawn from lessons learned over several years working in the publishing industry and as an author myself. It is not a how-to guide, nor does it guarantee success. The observations are prompts intended to help librarians as would-be publishers think carefully. The goal for this article is not to encourage library publishing per se, but rather to help readers understand the moving parts involved in establishing a flexible, resilient process that can sustain a publication in the long term and independent of the personalities driving its creation. I presume that libraries will be required to start small and bootstrap their journals into existence, for the sort of investment capital start-up common to the tech and software industries is typically lacking in academia. I also presume that institutions will craft a scholarly journal rather than a trade journal or non-specialist magazine. Comments are grouped into five broad sections or processes for convenience. Key points are rendered in italics for convenience and clarity within paragraphs.
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Define a scope and target readership
Having a great scope is only part of beginning a journal. Advances in communication have made possible an emerging and broadening era of long-tail publications. It is possible to create material for increasingly targeted or specialized readerships. New publications in virtually any field can be successfully built around content specialization, but in defining a scope for a new journal select a focus and also broader circles of interest that the journal will publish. The goal is to avoid too narrow a specialization, and to attract the interest of those reading in similar or overlapping fields. For instance, it may be possible to begin a journal targeted to creating and using open educational resources in mathematics, but it will be easier to fill out page counts by including math-related fields such as OER in engineering and physics as well, or OER in the physical sciences.
A sound rationale is not the only key decision point; some hard-nosed realities must be addressed as well. It is a simple reality that non-commercial journals are rarely “self-supporting,” either editorially or fiscally. Trusting that publishing and distributing a journal—especially a small one—can return enough income to offset the dollar equivalent in staff-time editorial and production expenses, is a high and generally over-ambitious assumption. Commercial publishers have slowly acquired control of journals with long tenures and wide institutional distribution (institutions which pay ever-spiraling subscription with a grumble, but pay it nonetheless); a new journal will not likely be able to invest capital expecting a return from circulation alone. For the past century it has been a simple fact that most journals are not distributed or read by subscribers but rather by aggregators. If the fundamental issue in starting a journal is whether sales/subscriptions can cover the investment needed to produce it, then consider reevaluating commitment to journal publishing. As mentioned above, aligning a journal’s scope with an institutional mission or priority creates an incentive for an institution to support a scholarly-journal venture.
A second, related matter is nearly as important. Establishing a potential impact is probably more important to a journal proposal/business plan than in setting a proposal for subscription-based cost recovery. Traditional “impact factors” for journals have taken some sound criticism in the past few years. I am not referring to metrics or alt-metrics. Instead, I emphasize that in crafting a proposal, think in terms of a likely contributor/readership base rather than a subscriber base, and how the journal will reach that readership. Even in a topically specific publication there are typically far more readers interested in occasional articles from a journal, than in buying the journal to read every issue cover to cover. Similar to a daily or weekly newspaper, a potential readership may exist, but deciding whether there is an actual reader base within the subject is important. There may be historical merit for a county or regional historical and genealogical journal, but are there enough readers who will also contribute? Conducting a survey of prospective readers may reveal reading preferences of the target audience and generate data that can define or refine future publication plans. Certainly there should be discussions with key practitioners within a field. However it is gained, understanding what interested readers are likely to read is far more important than having “a great idea” for a journal or all the support in the world.
Secure institutional support and cooperation
In academia, a journal needs some form of institutional sponsorship and space in which to operate. Ultimately an editor or editorial board will need to decide (and eventually defend) “Why are we doing this?” Deciding whether the journal fulfills a need within a broader field or sustaining an institutional initiative will help build support. Institutions have common goals but differing priorities and take different routes in pursuing those goals. One of the key factors behind the publication of a forthcoming journal at my institution titled Experiential Learning and Teaching in Higher Education is my own campus’s commitment to experiential and integrative learning across the curriculum. A journal reflecting some campus priority, educational mission, or notable program will find support far easier to secure than does simply “a good idea.” In short, accept an administrative blessing, but seek a participative investment.
Publishing a journal will require a genuine investment in institutional resources. Aligning with institutional priorities or contributions helps sell the creation of a journal to the hosting institution. Since most journals, particularly small ones, are frankly not self-supporting, it will be institutional commitment to the publication that keeps it viable. Demonstrating that a journal aligns with institutional goals or that it fills a vacant niche that is important to the publishing institution is a mission-critical function in defining and establishing a journal.
One means of reaching beyond an institution for support is to find an organizational partner(s) in the form of a professional society or industry group. More than just a sponsor for the publication, and closely tied to the idea of institutional mission, explore forming a partnership with a suitable professional organization. Such a relationship can generate an immediate pool of prospective readers/subscribers, and a smaller but still significant pool of potential contributors. If the new journal can be negotiated as an official publication for the organization, it can produce a prospective subscription stream as well. Put a cooperative agreement in writing to formalize a relationship and define specific contributions and expectations of both parties and to deflect possible disagreements or conflicts in the future.
Part of any funding proposal should be to estimate a realistic and defensible budget which includes time involved, personnel, and fiscal accounting. Institutional support will be critical in securing the assets needed to begin publication in terms of a start-up budget, whether the budget comes in the form of a cash allotment, or in-kind contributions in terms of a partial staff position, formal release from other responsibilities, or office space and digital infrastructure (like a Web page). Having a clear statement of what costs can or should be absorbed by the sponsoring institution, and whether there is an actual budget to absorb cost or offset cost, is often a limiting qualification.
At some point a journal proposal will need to anticipate and respond to opposition. Another simple fact is that it is a rare librarian who has the topical knowledge and editorial and project management skills to carry a journal. At some point the objection “We/you are a library, not a publisher” is certain to be raised. There is some protection in the fact that a publisher’s chief function is to coordinate, not to (necessarily) be the expert in the field. So how will it be done? Having a written proposal that addresses potential contentions and lays out a plan will be a solid support; having a list of talking points to address specific challenges will help address potential objections fairly and forthrightly. Don’t dismiss negative concerns, engage them as a learning exercise in scope and process (up to a point; there will always be those who say no at all costs)
Establish a submission/production cycle
Generating concise submission guidelines is essential information for potential contributors, but the process of codifying substantive, helpful guidelines helps reify the thinking involved in establishing a journal. Deciding how and where submissions must be sent helps solidify the internal processes of tracking and routing submissions for review. Stating a preferred file format and citation form should spark conversations and decisions about acceptable image styles, table and graph requirements, and output. Settling submission guidelines can be a useful exercise in thinking about journal publication as a process involving discrete steps, and in making plans to staff and chart various publication functions.
Similarly, settling a volume/issue cycle helps determine how much work will have to be done at different times during the year. Serials by nature require on-going effort, but having an idea of how often a finished issue must be pushed out helps to balance assets against other demands. For instance, if one issue annually will report the proceedings of a conference, it is unlikely that the proceedings will be available in the journal immediately after the conference, since submitted conference presentations go through full review and editorial processes.
Determining the issue frequency will determine the way that production schedules are pursued. Drafting an issue-based production cycle, scheduling target dates for repetitive and cyclical tasks, will reveal what kinds of tasks for different issues may overlap during the year, and help budget the need to devote editorial or staff time throughout the year. Having benchmark dates for key publication functions, even stated generally in terms of week-of dates, helps internal processes stay on track and helps keep staff who may have different responsibilities coordinate needed effort. Having a publication schedule is often useful information for potential contributors, as well.
Sustain editorial/production functions
Part of the attraction of the digital world is that one can get in fairly simply with commonly available software. There is a trap in the ubiquity of digital tools that puts the function of page composition into anyone’s hands. A would-be publisher might be tempted to decide that “anyone” can set pages. In one sense it is true that anyone can, but a scholarly journal needs to dress the part and that means not just anyone should: a scholarly journal needs to look like a scholarly journal, not like a local newsletter. Prior to publication the journal’s page template—its presentation and layout—should be intentionally designed, reviewed, and set up as a template to be used each time an issue is created from accepted content. Even if a digital-only publication, any journal with a page-image presentation needs to be well designed and typeset rather than just run through a word processor. A “trim size” or page dimension should be fixed, with text and titling fonts, heading and sub-heading styles established and standardized. Graphics need to be correctly captioned and displayed. Clip art should be avoided, as the pages should be designed rather than decorated. “Dressing the part” involves consistency, sound editorial decisions, and a visual sense of balance and proportion. Poor design reflects poorly on the publisher and ultimately on one or more sponsoring entities.
A journal publisher is a coordinator of functions, not necessarily the one who handles each task. Part of the opportunity inherent in the common availability of digital media is the opportunity to consider outsourcing basic publication functions like art (graphics), copyediting, and page makeup. Depending on how much effort a publisher wishes to expend maintaining and motivating a pool of volunteers, soliciting help from qualified alumni or students to volunteer as copyeditors, illustrators, or in page-makeup, may lower expenses such as salary, but may increase frustration or the effort needed to coordinate necessary functions.
A journal cannot be tossed together; publication for serials involves processes and routines that need to operate sequentially and consistently. While an editor may handle the outward-facing functions of communication, securing dependable administrative support for the clerical functions in terms of budgetary accounting, billing, and editorial traffic, is at least equally important to establishing an editorial process. It is an old adage of history that “an army travels on its stomach” and is comparably true that a journal is successful or not largely on its internal management. Part of that management involves regular, productive editorial and production meetings among the staff. Whether a journal’s staff is all in the same office or distributed between institutions, regular coordination meetings are important. There individual issue themes and contents, editorial issues and directions, and niggling details in process, are hammered out as a group so that everyone is informed and acting. Email is not enough—attention and input from everyone in real time is essential. Establishing a publication probably involves more rather than fewer meetings, but they need not be long ones. The most productive meeting structure involves reports of individual accountability, discussion of matters requiring decisions, and consensus decisions rather than the issuance of arbitrary marching orders from a central authority.
An important hallmark of scholarly journals is the presence and function of an editorial board, which provides both energy and oversight for the content. In beginning a small journal there may be a temptation to gather up supportive individuals from within an institution, but doing so shorts the strength of broad involvement. Ideally a board involves interested peers from across a discipline to involve a breadth of experience and perspective. I recommend involving not more than one local person on an editorial board to maintain editorial breadth and compensate for institutional subjectivity. In establishing the board and its charge, folks better understand that they are expected to contribute; if they do not or cannot be involved, non-participatory board members should be replaced. As a body of peers the board should have an active, participative voice in the journal’s content and direction. Doing so implies that the board either meets or communicates regularly where the journal’s editor presents recommended material to the board in terms of the journal’s stated goals, and solicits a formal publishing decision. Unless submission traffic is unexpectedly high, one way to keep the board actively involved is to assign at least one board member to read and comment on individual submissions along with one or more external peer reviewers. Even if they do not read, the board should have an opportunity to weigh in and approve journal-issue content from the full submission, not merely title data.
Discussing board input has brought up the defining characteristic of scholarly journals: publication decisions based on the input from external peer readers. Journals established with the cooperation of a partner organization can draw reviewing readers from the organization membership. If there is no partner, then some process for soliciting and involving readers must be established prior to publication. Part of the communication traffic in journal management is in scattering submissions effectively between a pool of prospective readers so as to keep them engaged with the journal without overwhelming them with review work. Making “cold call” invitations to prospective reviewers well beyond the institution itself is reasonable, though editors should be careful to inquire first, and only send a manuscript file for review if a person responds they are willing to act as a reader (remember to send a deadline date for the review when a manuscript is dispatched, and track the status and location of material out for review).
A journal requires at least two key personnel: an editor, who handles content (reviewing and, when necessary, soliciting submissions), and a manager, who handles the mechanics of tracking submissions and coordinating production. Settling key personnel, more than anything, creates an engine that powers a journal. Professional notoriety of the editor is nice but not critical; far more is accomplished by a committed unknown professional than an unengaged giant in the field. Whoever the named editor may be, the manager (managing editor or director) is probably the more critical of the two, for while the editor provides the fuel in the form of contributors and reviewers, the manager keeps the engine of editorial processes maintained and running smoothly.
One useful bellwether for the ability to meet future challenges is in attracting initial content. Ideally, reviewed and accepted content sufficient to fill three or four full issues of a journal should be on hand prior to the public release of the first issue—sort of a shock absorber that lets a journal begin regular issuance while attracting attention sufficient within the readership to build a regular, independent submission stream and allowing an editor to establish a robust review process. To get that content an editor may need to invite submissions, which would still pass through review and board acceptance, well in advance of a public announcement of the journal’s forthcoming publication. Beyond assigning reviewers, part of an editor’s task is to engineer a stream of submissions. They will decide when and how to issue calls for papers. When submissions only trickle in, they increase the flow by inviting submissions from relevant conference attendees, prior authors of published work, and by following up on submissions that may have been previously turned down. Driving content is not either a one-time or an overnight process.
Resolve practical matters of dissemination
A journal has an impact comparable to the readership it attracts. How the journal is to get into the hands of readers and researchers—dissemination—should be a matter settled well before the proposal state. Digital publication is common to most journals these days, but print-on-demand is convenient and simple enough that producing small numbers of print copies (both for archival holdings and die-hard print readers) is an option that can be considered. Determining a distribution format will drive other decisions. Digital publications of any sort require the same editorial interventions; where an HTML publication can be relatively simple, publication requires very different production steps than does a digital page-image PDF publication. There is merit to preferring a page-image over HTML publication, but the extra effort and expertise in using adequate composition software (Quark XPress, InDesign) is a demand that has to be balanced against available assets. Fortunately, new software like the Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journal System (OJS), Issuu, and Pokret (both WordPress plug-ins) provide new opportunities for small-scale-serial design, publication, and distribution.
Related to earlier points of determining a targeted readership and dissemination format is the need to conclude how the journal will exist in the market. The situation facing distribution of an open-access publication may differ from one distributed as a membership benefit for a partner organization, and will certainly differ from one that is expected to rely on page charges and/or subscriptions to provide its fiscal life-blood. Remember that the publication and distribution of an open-access journal shifts rather than eliminates costs; costs in staff time and infrastructure are born or absorbed by the journal’s sponsor or publisher rather than by subscription income. OA scholarly publications are the academic equivalent of charitable contributions. On the other hand, if a subscription cost of any sort will be levied, the publishing office will need an adequate independent bookkeeping and auditing system.
Publishers will want to explore the opportunity for aggregators like Ebsco, ProQuest, and topical databases to harvest content for broad distribution. Most libraries now buy aggregated content rather than individual subscriptions, so part of driving a readership is to provide opportunities for aggregation. One interesting comparison is my school’s Journal of the Wooden O, now in its fifteenth year of publishing performance-based interpretation of Shakespeare’s and related works. The journal has a total of four paying subscribers, but non-subscriber article downloads through aggregation platforms tops fifty thousand downloads annually and has for several years. Aggregation is worthwhile. Open journals should certainly contribute content through the Directory of Open Access Journals, and through disciplinary or national indexes.
If a journal will have a subscriber list, either independently or by virtue of a partner organization, sustaining the distribution list will be a key function of the journal’s management staff. The process will be more straightforward if an organizational list is available from a partner institution. One way or the other, the journal will want to take steps to secure and update records in terms of maintaining both current contacts and safeguarding the confidentiality of those contacts. Refined mailing lists are available commercially at reasonable costs and for notices like new journals organizations will often allow membership lists to be used to generate contacts. At least as a journal is brought into being, buying a carefully tailored list for some form of direct-mail campaign might be worthwhile.
Every publisher should certainly create a supporting Web presence as a landing page for interested contributors to a publication. A Web page should concisely answer the questions a potential contributor might have, providing data in multiple formats for online and off-line reading: a scope statement and open call for submissions, manuscript and image guidelines, lists of forthcoming and past issue contents, contact information for the staff, a list of the editorial board members and credentials, policies on reviews, solicitations, and other details. Obviously the presentation of such a resource should be visually comparable to the level of sophistication and topical expertise the journal wishes to present. For good or ill and despite editors’ efforts, the Web page becomes the public face of a journal.
Generating an idea that could fuel a journal is easy, sustaining a publication is less so, but the value of journals is their publication across time and the ongoing conversation between professionals which they represent. It may be old-fashioned, but there are two hundred years of reasons that journals remain respected and highly valued venues within academic life. The most compelling publication idea in the world is of little value if it cannot be sustained or makes no substantive contribution to its readers and their discipline.
In deciding whether to begin a scholarly journal planners need encouragement to think in terms of establishing strategic stability (process) and less in terms of securing immediate assets. The process of establishing a journal is more about the key issue of sustaining rather than beginning publication, and more about succession than establishment. Every figure involved in a journal’s publication should be committed to actively developing and training one or more likely successors. The measure of a publication’s success is not in its beginnings but in the transitions it successfully makes.
Craft a written proposal comparable to a genuine business plan. Anticipate questions and problems, provide direct answers even when the answer is “we didn’t think of that yet.” Talk face to face with potential supporters and contributors—but hand them something hard that they can visit and revisit.
No one should close their eyes to the difficulties of journal publication, nor should the excitement of a new idea overwhelm the practical decisions and arrangements that really need to be realistically agreed upon and settled before publication commences. I am convinced, however, that it is time for academic institutions to take back custodianship of the professional literature that academic faculty generate—but that means shouldering the expense, effort, and investment at an institutional level required to make them work. Thanks partially to modern digital technology and communication it can be done and can be done well; the process requires effort and forethought and planning—and, admittedly, a bit of luck.
This essay expands on a presentation titled “Where Do We Go From Here?: Starting Up an Academic Journal in a Smaller Institution,” made at Libraries as Publishers: Building a Global Community, Library Publishing Coalition, and International Federation of Library Associations satellite meeting, Ann Arbor, Mich., 10–12 August 2016. Thanks to Aajay Murphy, Caitlin Gerrity, Phil Roché for revision-worthy comments.
Richard Saunders is long-time academic librarian currently serving as dean of library services at Southern Utah University. He has authored or edited a dozen books in US history and American literature, and written articles in history and library science. His academic-library work experience includes service as an academic-library cataloguer, reference librarian, library development officer, and archivist, and he spent a number of years as a project/production manager for Interactive Composition Corp./WestWords Inc. Dr. Saunders holds an MLIS and PhD in history and is a Certified Archivist.