What is the better online journal format: periodical issues or open annual volumes?

The other day I received an email from Geoffrey Moore, the new editor of the journal Doxology: A Journal of Worship. Last year, this long-running journal (founded in 1984 by The Order of Saint Luke) converted from print to online, and from subscription-based access to open access. I’m always very interested in reporting on stories like this because it speaks encouragingly to increased awareness and momentum in favor of open access, even among established journals. I am preparing a profile of Doxology for an upcoming post.

In this post I thought it would be of interest to share my response to a question posed by Geoffrey. He was wondering about the best format for Doxology as it continues to move forward as an online open access journal. They could stay with the “traditional” mode of publishing discrete issues on a periodic basis (quarterly, bi-annually, annual, etc.), with each issue containing roughly the same amount of editorial, article, and review content (the print Doxology was published as an annual); or they could adopt an open annual volume format, with no fixed published quantity and new content continually added throughout the year as it becomes available (and passes the review process).

The first thing I said: There is no right or wrong answer to this question. I have interacted with open access journals that have utilized each approach to good effect. For example, Theological Librarianship (which I profiled here) publishes two issues a volume/year, though they don’t adhere slavishly to a set number of articles or pages per issue. In my most recent post, the Journal of Southern Religion uses an annual volume approach, with new content added as it is reviewed. The following thoughts and observations reflect a variety of philosophical and practical considerations.

* With print, you must commit to a fixed artifact in space and time. Additions, changes, corrections, etc. cannot be made to an existing artifact. You can only do these things after the fact. Further, print presents certain practical limitations of size and space. It is not coincidental that the typical print journal issue is a comfortable handheld size under 200 pages in length. Too much more and it becomes unwieldy.

* But these practical limitations from the print world have inadvertently created the impression that knowledge can only be disseminated in such a controlled fashion. This has long given strength to the notion that knowledge is a scarce commodity. Knowledge is believed to be more valuable when it is scarce. Scarce knowledge can fetch a higher price. The entire commercial journal publishing industry grew up around the practicalities of constrained dissemination of knowledge. Tellingly, while most commercially published journals have now moved online, they continue to promote this notion of knowledge scarcity.

* In the typical print journal issue you can publish, what, maybe 5-6 articles and 10 or so book reviews? If the journal is a quarterly, that’s 20-24 articles and 40 book reviews a year, which might be only a fraction of research production in any given discipline each year. This creates a backlog of research awaiting publication, and potentially reduces the timeliness of that research for the discipline. (There are, of course, often many journals dedicated to a given discipline to absorb more research production. Even so, backlogs remain.) It has been argued that timeliness is somewhat less of an issue in the humanities. Yes, it is true that humanities research generally has a longer “shelf life” than the sciences. But the progress of a scholar’s research career, or the advancement of a scholarly topic can be significantly impeded by a two year publication schedule.

* Incidentally, constrained by these practical limits in the print world (or artificially promoted limits in the online world), peer review is compelled not only to vet the quality of research methodology (arguably its primary purpose), but also to winnow the publication of research reporting to more manageable levels. As a consequence, this reinforces the notion that the articles deemed publishable in this limited format are of significantly higher quality than the rest. Hence, more valuable—more prestigious. Careers can be made on the basis of such prestige. It is a topic for another post to ask whether this approach to peer review appropriately serves the discipline.

* With online journal publishing—whether issue-based or open annual volumes—none of these practical obstacles need exist. Space isn’t a factor in the online environment. An “issue” of a journal can be published without page limits, or allowed to grow as needed to accommodate research production. There is no reason why many more articles cannot be published. Peer review can concentrate on vetting the soundness of research methodology, not winnowing against the practical limitations of space. Errors can be corrected on the spot.

* Journals that publish issues online are generally aware that practical space limits no longer apply, but they choose to constrain themselves with a periodic publication schedule. Those that take the open annual volume approach have decided not to impose in advance any limitations. “If we get 20 great articles that have passed peer review between January 1 and December 31, we will publish 20. If we get 50, we will publish 50.” It doesn’t appreciably cost more to publish 20, or 50, or 100 articles. It certainly doesn’t incur the costs that would be necessary to publish an additional issue in the print world. Continuous acceptance of articles also tends to reduce publication time. The time between submission and publication can now be measured in months (or even weeks) instead of years.

* That being said, a newly opened annual volume would seem to require some front-loading of content to make accessing the journal compelling for readers, though this might be truer for new journals just getting started. New journals may have trouble attracting and accepting what they consider an adequate amount of content. Then again, rather than being deterred or discouraged, in the first few years of its existence the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (profiled here) simply extended numbered volumes over two years because it didn’t have a surplus of content at the start. They don’t have this problem anymore.

* Too, an open annual volume requires that readers remain engaged with the journal site so that they will know when new content has been added. This is a good thing in any event. You want engaged readers, and it is easy enough to set up an RSS feed, or communicate updates through social media, etc. On the other hand, a proliferation of content within a single volume can potentially become overwhelming. Visually scanning a volume with too many items might be hard to take in.

* Conversely, while constrained by the practicalities mentioned, a typical print journal issue contains fixed content that can be comfortably “digested” in its conventional format. The articles provide diversity of content (unless it is a special topic issue), and the “periodicity” of publication creates a sense of predictability. Adopting an issue approach can bring these advantages into the online environment. An issue approach may be a good way to pace dissemination of your content. It is also a more self-contained format for presenting special topics, or publishing conference proceedings.

* I admit, as a librarian, there is also something organizationally attractive about maintaining a volume/issue approach, and to know that the content in each issue is fixed at the point of publication. In the near-term, at least, continuing the analogy to print in this respect can still be meaningful. Retaining an existing periodical schedule can also provide continuity for journals making the transition from print to online.

* At the same time, as a librarian, I have observed dramatic changes over the last 5-10 years in the way scholars and students search for and consume journal content. The article has become the principal currency of scholarship. The ability to search for relevant content in an online index, database, or search engine makes the issue almost superfluous. In this context, at least, the issue has all but lost its essential coherence as a container of distribution.

* Some might go so far as to suggest that journals themselves are on a similar trajectory, as users increasingly disassociate article access from its source. I frequently encounter students who are now mystified by the logic of citation. “I understand the article title, but what is the source title? Is that the database where I found the article?” That being said, I still believe creating a community around a journal remains important to provide a place to anchor articles to a stated mission and a definable scope within a scholarly discipline, a context for peer review, and an archive for ongoing, reliable access.

These thoughts and observations underscore what I said at the top—there is no right or wrong answer to this question. In the end, your choice of format will be determined by the philosophy, mission, and goals of your journal. Regardless of the format you choose, it is wonderful that you have chosen to make your journal open access.

Posted in Abstracting & Indexing, Commercial Publishing, Open Access, Scholarly Journals
5 comments on “What is the better online journal format: periodical issues or open annual volumes?
  1. True, in our current environment, there is no need for volume numbers, issue numbers, set number or size of articles, nor for a set publication schedule (all relics of the past environment in which the publisher had to mail out discrete issues to subscribers in print format). That said, I think open access online journals do well to bunch their offerings into discrete releases for several reasons:

    1. Having specific issue releases gives opportunity to make grand announcements that keep readers in tune with the journal. RSS feeds can be a bit iffy as announcement vehicles, while announcing a new issue can be done through any number of venues.
    2. Having issue dates can help authors, peer reviewers, and editors meet deadlines (as in, “We have to get issue 3 out by October 5.”). There’s nothing like having no schedule to foster procrastination.
    3. Issues give opportunity for the journal to group content by topic or simply to provide discrete numbers of articles for readers to peruse. An annual or continuous publication doesn’t give readers an easy way to bite off a discrete chunk of article offerings.
    4. Continuous publication, if it lacks volume and issue numbers, tends to look more like a series of web pages. Traditional academia may not recognize your journal as a journal, and students may struggle with citing articles in a manner that allows their professors to recognize that this is a real journal.

  2. Gary F. Daught says:

    Thanks Bill. An open annual volume would have at least a volume number and year to include in a citation. I believe Geoffrey is also thinking-through a system of section markers (for articles and reviews) with continuous pagination within each section as content is added. He intends to continue to use page layout in publication.

  3. Andy Keck says:

    There was some discussion about whether or not to make Theological Librarianship http://theolib.org open in this way. A significant point that Bill makes above is one of deadlines – nothing like a deadline to focus attention for what is a largely volunteer enterprise.

  4. Last year, the Association of European Research Libraries (LIBER) moved its Open Access journal ‘LIBER Quarterly’ to the OJS-platform run by Igitur, and we were confronted by the same problem. Fortunately, OJS offers an option that reconciles the advantages of both systems:
    – Upon acceptance and termination of the layout, each article is added to the “Future” section, where it is immediately accessible to the readers in an html-format.
    – Whenever a reasonable number of articles is present in this section, the editor can decide to publish them in a new issue (in pdf-format). Editors can add a short editorial, and interested readers and LIBER members receive at that moment an e-mail announcing the new issue.

  5. […] a previous post, I related a conversation I had with Geoffrey Moore, the new editor of the recently converted […]

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