Help me publish an academic journal.
January 12, 2010 3:10 PM   Subscribe

I want to start an academic journal. Can I you offer some advice?

I work in a field that absolutely has a need for more peer reviewed journals. For example, papers can take as long as two years to appear in print after they are accepted for publication. Furthermore I have an idea for a publishing paradigm that would be new to this field. These two factors, I think, suggest that a new journal could be successful. (I am being cagey about details of the field because announcing too early can often be disastrous for a new business. The field is in the humanities.)

Of course, I have no idea how to go about getting started.

I know that I'll need to:
a) form a company,
b) get a website,
c) find peer reviewers,
d) do some PR, publish

(b) is not too hard (relatively speaking) and I've some experience with (d) from a previous job. Furthermore, (c) and (d) would seem to be secondary to (a). So I want to tackle that first.

Can anyone suggest a resource (on-line or off) for starting a publishing company, especially an academic one? Can you give advice on starting a business in general? (The company will be in Florida, USA.) Furthermore does there seem to you that there is anything that I've overlooked?

(I would especially like to establish contacts with anyone in academic publishing that is willing to serve as an adviser/mentor.)

I am aware that perhaps the main problem with academic publishing is dwindling markets and lack of revenue. I think that this can be partially mitigated by the publishing mechanism that I have in mind. However, if any librarians (since they are the main buyers of journals) would like to offer advice, I'd love to have it
posted by wellsaid to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I would suggest looking into an electronic journal. They're cheaper to publish (no paper! no shipping!), and as long as it's peer-reviewed, people will still respect it.
posted by elder18 at 3:17 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

When you say you work in the field, do you mean you have a tenure track or tenured position? Most academic journals have a departmental/institutional home from which they draw some basic infrastructural resources. If you don't have such a position, it's also unlikely you have the clout or the connections to pull this off. You don't need to start a company, and you will never make enough money to cover your costs without institutional support and/or a distribution deal with a major electronic aggregator.

There is no point starting a paper journal. Paper is almost dead. Electronic only is the future.

It doesn't matter if there aren't enough peer-reviewed journals (or perhaps there is too much bad writing, much more likely the case). If your journal doesn't have the prestige, it doesn't matter if it's peer-reviewed. 2 years is not actually a terrible turnaround time anyway. Be sure your market really exists -- not just for the writing rejected by the other journals, but for stuff from major people in the field.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:26 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have you looked into open access journals/open journal systems? A couple I know of (which happen to be in mathematics, but I don't see why the process would be any different for the humanities):

Ars Mathematica Contemporanea
Contributions to Discrete Mathematics (I think this uses the open journal system)

Before starting a journal, though: do you have well-known people who would be willing to serve as editors? How about referees? Are you well-enough known yourself that you could get people to serve and to submit? It's no good having a journal if no one thinks it's worth submitting to.
posted by leahwrenn at 3:32 PM on January 12, 2010

Response by poster: leahwrenn, I had not seen that before, but that looks like a promising tool. Thanks.

To address some of the concerns stated so far.

I am aware of the departmental demands of a journal (or at least aware that journals operate with departmental support). I have not broached the topic yet, but I have a department in mind. Furthermore, at least at first, I'm not sure that I will need much support. As you all have mentioned a new journal is not necessarily going to be overwhelmed with demand.

I plan to build prestige by publishing. Yes, this will be slow, but I figure that this is what QA and high standards are for. I have no doubt that there are ambitious, talented, young professionals who are frustrated by the old guard and would welcome the opportunity that the journal would present.

I don't have an editorial board and this is, admittedly, something I had not considered. What does an editorial board due? Normally I suppose they set standards and decide the how the journal will proceed, but I would be doing that. So, besides lending their prestige what would I need an editorial board for? (honest question, not a sarcastic rhetorical comment).
posted by wellsaid at 3:52 PM on January 12, 2010

These two factors, I think, suggest that a new journal could be successful.

To elaborate on some previous comments, journals serve a dual function in academia. The most apparent function is as a forum for research. But the other function, which is at least as significant but not nearly so apparent, is their role in academic hiring, tenure, and promotion. I don't really think a journal can succeed in the first role without succeeding in the second. To succeed in the second function, a journal needs to be well ranked, and respected. You will not get junior academics publishing in it because it is too much of a risk, even if the other journals are slower. I think this is the only factor that determines whether a journal will be successful, which is why people are asking you about your editorial board, reviewers, etc. This doesn't seem to me to be at all secondary to starting a company; there is no point in going forward if you can't rope famous and influential people into being on the editorial board.

Also, all of the successful recently started journals I'm aware of (admittedly, not a huge list) are free, electronic-only, open access journals run by volunteers who are senior academics in the relevant field. Also, I can't tell where you are career-wise. But this isn't something I'd touch with a ten foot pole pre-tenure.
posted by advil at 3:53 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Askme gave me some great advice way back. Since then I've published 4 issues of an international academic journal. A lot of what you're talking about (eg company, website) was avoided by being part of a member organisation. Is there a group who will sponsor you in this? Also, once an issue is published on a password protected part of the organisation's website, it's also sent to an indexing service that charges $33 per article downloaded.
posted by b33j at 3:53 PM on January 12, 2010

On post-preview: I have no doubt that there are ambitious, talented, young professionals who are frustrated by the old guard and would welcome the opportunity that the journal would present.

They aren't going to do this unless your journal will look good in their tenure case.
posted by advil at 3:54 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

The editorial board is who you delegate looking at submissions to: each submission is assigned an editor. The author communicates with the editor. If the editor thinkis the article is worth considering, the editor finds referees and sends the article to the referee(s). The referee communicates with the editor. The editor looks at the referees' reports and makes a suggestion to the editor-in-chief.

(At least, this is what I have figured out having been an author and a referee.)
posted by leahwrenn at 4:37 PM on January 12, 2010

Step one in your plan: Be a top person in your field. Someone known (by people in your field) throughout the US and/or world. Someone whose works are in every competent field seminar in every graduate program.

Step two: Convince another 10 top people to join with you.

I have no doubt that there are ambitious, talented, young professionals who are frustrated by the old guard and would welcome the opportunity that the journal would present.

Nope. I can think of real journals, already out there, that are marginally better than taking a paper to a conference. There are real, honest to God established journals such that if you're at a good department, publishing in them is actually worse than doing nothing.

If you want to establish a new journal that's not just another Journal of Last Resort, you need to create a journal that the "old guard" you denigrate above will respect. Because if the "old guard" don't respect it, it won't count for shit come tenure decisions, and there's no point in junior faculty doing things that don't count for shit in their tenure decisions. You would create a new journal that's more or less respected by the "old guard" by having an editor that everyone knows and respects, and by having an editorial board that's jam-packed with great minds.

The editorial board is who you delegate looking at submissions to: each submission is assigned an editor.

This varies by field and journal. On the editorial board I'm on, my duties consist of being available for prompt "emergency" reviews and showing up to the odd meeting here or there to discuss various issues. OTOH, this journal receives probably 75 submissions/year (and publishes 20-25 or so).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:10 PM on January 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I edit an academic journal in a niche field in the humanities. The only reason I've been able to keep it together is that I have an academic salary, institutional support from my department, and a strong network of contacts in the field. So, you need to ask the following questions:

** When you say you have a department in mind, do you mean you are a member of that department? If not, do you have a way of convincing a department who doesn't know you to sponsor what is essentially a money-sink (most academic journals run at a loss)?

** Who do you know in the field? You'll need a number of successful, respected scholars in the field to agree to be on the editorial board. These people become your "gate-keepers" and constitute your peer-review board. Most importantly, you'll need to have the clout to get those scholars to deliver their reviews in a timely fashion (this is hard!).

** How are you going to convince scholars to publish in your journal? i.e. what is your reputation in the field? And how are you going to convince tenure committees that yours is a tenurable publication venue?

If you aren't going for a departmental affiliation, you have a couple of other options: pitch the journal to an existing, respected press that publishes academic periodicals, or to a professional organization in your field. In both cases, you'll still need to be able to "sell" yourself as someone who knows & is respected in the field, and more importantly, can bring in the big names.

The best thing you can do right now is to work on raising your research profile, and networking as much as possible. Go to conferences in your field. Present papers and ask intelligent questions. Go to the mixers. Publish. If you're a young scholar, maybe junior faculty or grad student, start building a cohort now who can grow with you.

Good luck!
posted by media_itoku at 6:35 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

One more thing -- listed to advil. I'm pre-tenure & my journal work counts for virtually nothing in my tenure case. So, if you're on the tenure track, be very careful to guard your time so as not to cut into your research time.
posted by media_itoku at 6:39 PM on January 12, 2010

What is "QA" - quality assurance?

It sounds like you're thinking about this like a business venture. Remember the real capital in academia is reputational standing. Publishing is a loss leader in most cases.

The right reason to start a new journal is to promote an *idea* that isn't served or respected in the existing literature. Journals go with broader program, institution, and discipline building efforts. Even so, I think the value of new journals for advancing Big Ideas is often overstated. It's better to storm the ramparts and take over existing institutions by kicking ass.

As everyone is telling you, this is an act of martyrdom as much as entrepreneurship you are contemplating.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:06 PM on January 12, 2010

Nthing that open-access, electronic publishing is the way to go, if you decide to do this.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:53 PM on January 12, 2010

>I don't have an editorial board and this is, admittedly, something I had not considered. What does an editorial board due?

This sentence, for several reasons, tells me you are probably not ready to start a journal yet. Develop some more experience and a better grasp of publication, and then come back to it down the track.
posted by Sutekh at 9:28 PM on January 12, 2010

nthing the suggestion for online, open access. I worked for a library recently that had 10 journals in this model in its publishing stable. It was a lot of work. You need -

1. To have a reputation, as said above
2. Editorial board, preferably international
3. Enough lead time to get high quality submissions for the first issue
4. IT support to install, maintain the software and servers that you will use, and an absolute commitment to continuing access
5. Someone who knows the ins and outs of ISI to get your journal listed in citation indexes after a few years
6. Readership

Open access is unfortunately a very hard sell in most fields. The mega publishers have a firm grip on most disciplines. I wish it wasn't this way. If you can get a revolt of high profile academics from other journal editorial boards to join you, you may have the start of something here.

Conversely, it's actually easier and more reputable to publish a book via some academic libraries that are starting up on-demand open access publishing departments. That could be another option if you are interested in longer-form work.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:19 AM on January 13, 2010

Oh, and don't worry about being coy. Again, the humanities world is not the business world. There is no value in keeping the idea secret. No one will steal it if it's out there, I assure you. If you tell us the field, the several academics in this thread might actually be able to give you better advice. You will need to be out there peddling this idea for quite some time before it ever becomes "a publication." You can't keep it a secret, and there's no reason to do so.

I cannot tell you how many graduate students and junior faculty members have had this idea, just among people I know. It seems like common sense -- not enough places to publish? Start a new journal!

Unfortunately, scarcity is the key to the academic publishing economy. If you don't offer a prestigious forum for your authors (and editors, by the way, and reviewers) no one is going to take on the massive efforts you will need them to take on *for free.* No libraries will subscribe. No aggregators will be interested. Scholars locked out of journals might as well just post their papers on their own websites for crowdsourced peer review (and many do).

Despite a *massive* and *precipitous* decline in the economic support for academic journal publishing on the traditional model in recent years, there have been hundreds of new electronic journals that have come online in the same period. In my view, there are far *too many* journals in most social science and humanities fields. You could say journals expand to fill the demand for publishing platforms, but that's not exactly true. In my experience, bad and (should be) unpublishable writing is what's expanding, and a desperate demand to publish it anywhere possible as tenure track jobs decline (about a quarter to a third of the American professoriate is tenured or tenure track at this point, and it is declining rapidly) and a total glut of PhDs plays musical chairs with a hammered academic economy (looked at the news out of California lately? Do you know how many UC departments are going to have to stop subsidizing their local/specialized/small scale journals in the next couple of years?). A major factor is that the cost of entry into "publishing" has become so low with web publishing that anyone can put up a decent looking website and a few papers reviewed by their friends and call it a "journal" (and a huge number of electronic journals look like this, which is why web-only publishing in startup journals is so radically discounted come tenure review time).

My suggestion to you is that you really dig into academic publishing as a field. There are conferences, journals, websites, and forums devoted to it. There is also a ton of work begging for workers to do it. Contact the editors of small journals in your field and offer to be a reviewer (if you are at all credentialed to do it) and then do really thoughtful, diligent reviews. Volunteer for the editorial board of an existing small journal project. Go to national meetings of your field and talk to other people rolling out startup journals (they'll be in the book exhibit hall peddling their wares). Assemble an extended network of fellow younger scholars with similar disciplinary interests to yours. Keep developing your networks of senior scholars you'll need to bless and participate in this project. Most of all, have an idea that justifies this project *besides* "my field needs more journals." NO field needs more journals. All fields need better journals, and the best journals always need new talent. All fields need new ideas, and entrepreneurs who promote them.

I review a dozen papers for different journals per year. I have been the webmaster for a major journal (over 100 years old with a paid circulation of 8000 and a presence on every major aggregator that deals with my field). I have watched and helped colleagues start journals. I have also participated in the closing down of journals. My department currently publishes one old-line, prestigious, and student-run journal (the first student-run peer reviewed journal in the US, actually), currently transitioning from paper and restricted electronic access to an open access e-only model of economic necessity (you don't even want to know about the cost structures for paper publishing, but suffice it to say the only reason to print anything on paper is to raise the prestige of the journal in the eyes of colleagues; in practical terms, it's complete insanity).

This is the single worst moment to enter academic publishing as a field in decades, if not ever. The field is in turmoil. Its economics are collapsing and shifting to new models. A lot of very talented people are unemployed. Former sources of support -- university subventions, library subscriptions, society support -- are drying up. Commercial publishers are scooping up the most prestigious and popular mainline journals (and adding many new ones with very niche markets) on a model that prioritizes electronic revenue, and leads to very shoddy review processes and very little actual readership or citation outside of very narrow niche markets.

The vast majority of these journals will not last very long. And the vast majority of what they publish is such utter crap that this (certain failure) is a good thing. Unsustainable publishing models are leading, and have led, to a glut of publication by a glut of PhDs desperate to publish to increase their employment odds, and a glut of tenure-track junior faculty competing over too few tenured positions.

I barely read the main journals in my field anymore, other than the articles I have to review. My sense is that this is increasingly true among my colleagues. The ability to stay abreast of our fields by other means, the volume of new article publication, and the sheer interdisciplinarity of most of our work these days means the model of "keeping up with the journal literature as a hallmark of scholarly practice is becoming obsolete and/or impossible.

Your question, as many in the thread have said, implies that you aren't really familiar with the realities of this political economy of publishing in academia, as well as not being in much of a position to intervene successfully in it. No one wants to crush your dream, but some of us have heard this in half-baked form from a dozen grad students and colleagues in the last few years. It seems like an obvious idea, and the low barrier to entry makes it seem like it should be do-able with hard work and a little luck. That's an illusion. The hard part of academic publishing isn't making more writing available to the public. It's getting good writing at all. And getting any kind of prestige for publishing good writing. I can put my papers up on my own website if I don't have another way to publish them, and many younger scholars are doing just that these days. Any really good younger scholar is going to keep the best stuff aside for peer reviewed publication in a *major* journal in her field, and try to get the rest as widely circulated as possible.

So, yes, good luck, but don't do this stupidly or it's certain to fail. It's all too likely to fail even if you do everything right. And you must see a journal as a collective, not individual, project in order to take the first step of doing it right.

If you're not tenured, what everyone says here is right: don't waste time with this at this stage of your career. Write articles and submit them to prestigious journals. When they're rejected or sent back for revision, re-write them and re-submit them. You won't be taken seriously as a journal publisher if your own prior publication record is thin or non-existent. Good luck!
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:44 AM on January 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

I think an important concern for authors writing for a journal is that they are looking for a journal that will be around indefinitely into the future. A risk that an author would like to minimize is that, in a few years time, the journal doesn't exist. This is one issue that you would have to address if you setting up a publishing company from scratch, to publish just one journal: how can an author be assured that the journal will still be around 1, 5, 10, 20 years into the future? This is one of the strengths that a journal backed by a large publishing company, learned society, or university department can bring to the table: some sense that the journal is backed up by the commitment of an institution, and that it won't just vanish tomorrow if you get bored with it/go bankrupt/fall ill or whatever. How are you going to give that reassurance?
posted by Jabberwocky at 6:56 AM on January 13, 2010

Ambra is an alternative to the Open Journal System leahwrenn mentioned.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 7:05 AM on January 13, 2010

Fourcheesemac is ever so right.

I've worked in academic publishing for more than 20 years, on everything from student-run publications to a 90-year-old flagship journal in its field. I'll address this comment specifically:

Furthermore, at least at first, I'm not sure that I will need much support. As you all have mentioned a new journal is not necessarily going to be overwhelmed with demand.

Even the rinky-dinkiest journals I've ever worked for require a couple thousand dollars a year in operating expenses plus .5-1 FTE in general office labor, which can sometimes be scraped up in small doses on a volunteer basis but which usually requires some combination of compensated labor in the form of undergrad hourlies, graduate students, and faculty service release.

Regardless of how miraculously low-overhead your novel publishing paradigm may be, it takes countless hours before you get to the point of having anything worthwhile to publish.

To think that you can launch a successful academic publication on a few hundred dollars, in your spare time, is about as realistic as believing certain late-night infomercials claiming you can turn similar resources into a successful real estate enterprise.

If you have limited first-hand experience with academic publishing, to think so is a double folly.
posted by drlith at 8:50 AM on January 13, 2010

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