The present and future of journal publishing

It was three hundred and fifty years ago last year that the world’s first science journal, Philosophical Transactions, was published to explore and disseminate scientific knowledge. That single publication laid down the basic ground rules and format that are still at the heart of the almost 30,000 academic journals in circulation today.
However, for the first time since then, academic publishing (as we know it) is facing a challenge in the form of the internet and the unceasing rise of digital media. John Katzman, the founder of the Princeton Review, went so far as to say “the internet is the first technology since the printing press which could lower the cost of a great education.”
At the same time, the revenue for academic journals is increasing every year. In fact, 95% of this revenue originates from digital sales and subscriptions.
So, what does the future of scholarly publishing look like in the digital age?


As the statistics show, overall revenue is increasing within the academic journal market. But is there a danger that this is masking more fundamental long-term problems?
Part of the reason for the rise in sales is the generally expanding academic market. There are more titles being published than ever – something that arguable stems from pressure on academics to publish as high a volume of papers as possible for ambitious institutions. In this day and age, name recognition in a wide variety of academic journals is critical to a researcher’s career progression, and the security of their role in a highly competitive arena.
And there are more niches than ever, too. The internet has formed a communications network in which it’s much easier to share information, removing the barrier of physical geography to enable specialists from all over the world to come together and collaborate.
This brings like-minded people together to form niche research groups and niche publishers, feeding the hungry beast that is the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data that’s created every day.
The publishing industry can sometimes be cumbersome to adapt, whilst the number of academics seeking publishing outlets continues to increase. The for-profit business model also has a stake in promoting such growth. Profitable journal subscriptions are crucial for funding book publishing, so it’s in everybody’s interest to get behind that growth.

Libraries & Journal Publishing

This however, is causing other problems, as library budgets are increasingly having difficulty keeping pace with the rising costs of journal subscriptions. As a consequence, some academics are engaged in a quiet (or not-so-quiet) revolution, boycotting the big publishers and preferring to publish online where access is free for all. This has knock-on effects on the amount of books that publishing houses can produce.
Libraries – one of the few places outside a university where academics could usually hope to read research en masse – are also facing a crisis, with a quarter of jobs and over 300 libraries disappearing in the last six years. At the same time, university fees have been rising and belts have been tightened due to Brexit and America’s uncertain political climate.
Meanwhile, unprecedented numbers of new students are using digital tools to release their own research, from personal websites and blogs to YouTube videos and presentations that present their research in more user-friendly and dynamic ways.
For many academics, who are still early on in their careers and who might find it difficult to be peer reviewed and published in a major journal, these alternative routes may offer different opportunities to reach a significant audience.

Technology’s impact

Beyond this, technology is impacting the publisher’s role in academic work. Some of the functions they were established to perform are now tackled independently by third parties. For example – peer review, which was traditionally carried out by experts selected by the editor or the author themselves, is now available from independent reviewers that can be sought through a range of digital services.
Many open sites even provide real-time feedback, allowing an author to shape and develop his or her work. The author is able to gain reviews, update versions, and establish impact without the need to engage with a traditional journal.
This model itself is becoming more common across other industries, with sites like Github for programmers and Wattpad for authors offering users the ability to upload works in progress for peer feedback.
However, away from the technological field, this practice is proving slow to emerge.

Evolution and revolution

The real strength of digital publishing is the breadth of content that can be found. Open Access online journals offer avenues for knowledge sharing that have never been available before. But the technology is yet to be used to its full potential.
Articles remain commonly accessed as static PDF files without making full use of the media available. The form remains much as it would in the traditional print journal, but this is bound to change in the future. In fact, uploading static PDF files is bad for both journals and their readers, because it can be more difficult for search engines to surface papers when the subject matter is sought, and neither the reader nor the journal truly benefits. Instead, many journals now post excerpts on their websites – thus encouraging people to pay to access the full studies.
Modern technologies allow journals to support written studies with video and high-quality imagery, which can be a great way of illustrating a complex concept. Mathematical studies can be backed with infographics that bring the data to life, while even the most forward-thinking scientific papers can usually benefit from the inclusion of a conceptual visual. After all, 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, and visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text.
Potential changes of format are only just starting to show through. After all, the first thirty years of internet publishing was all about broadening reach. But with a variety of platforms now hosting many hundreds of titles each, the potential both for author and reader to develop the way information is disseminated is phenomenal.
For an excellent example of how long-form reports, studies, and stories can be represented on digital media, check out the BBC’s parallax project on The Reykjavik Confessions.

A harmonious relationship?

So where does all this leave the traditional format? Maybe new media formats will move onto that territory and the print sector will see a certain amount of contraction. However, the likelihood is that, as with other areas, a strong, but streamlined, traditional print sector will sit long-term alongside the new formats.
After all, a journal has always been an indication of quality and respectability. If an article is published in a reputable journal, it is considered as reliable, regulated, and worthy of trust and responsible criticism. This reputation is the biggest weapon in traditional print’s armoury, and one that can be further exploited through effective communications and audience management.
This is something for publishers to bear in mind when releasing a traditional journal online. On the one hand they can tap into their existing reputation; on the other, they have to ensure the online reader’s experience matches up with expectations.
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Picking apart the challenges

Whatever their academic discipline, academic researchers establish their reputation, and credibility, through publication of their work in specialist journals.
Career progression is often determined by such things, with the simple quality assurance of being peer-reviewed by at least two other experts in the field, bringing a higher level of recognition to their work.

Peer Reviews

Of course, not all journals are equal and different levels of prestige are attached to each name. Often such prestige is earned through the length of time a journal’s been established, through to the quality of the works it’s published, and the academics conducting the reviews within.
This comprehensive report by Bernard Forgues describes the reviewing process:

“Reviewers, like authors, work for free [although sometimes receive a small amount of money]. They accept this task for many reasons. First, many are aware that the entire system relies on volunteers to write reviews and they simply find it natural to take on their share of this job. Second, reviewing is a way to keep aware of the latest research developments. Third, one can learn a great deal about writing from reviewing, which, although indirect, is another clear benefit. Fourth, reviewing can be a way to climb the ladder at a journal: good reviewers are invited to serve as editorial board members and might eventually be named journal editors. More generally, reviewing can serve longer-term career evolution through visibility, recognition, tenure, and so on. Fifth, reviewers increase their power in their own field as they contribute to the selection of published works. They contribute to steering the field in a given direction by deeming what research work is legitimate and important. Finally, a slightly more petty motive to review can be to improve one’s own citation counts by suggesting works to reference. All in all, the reward for participating in reviewing is more one of potential power than money.”

However, this well-established route to success in academia is under increasing threat from modern globalised communications, and the drive to get ever more material into print. The demand by increasing numbers of academics for reputable and impactful publishing space has seen researchers willing to pay significant sums to appear in the best publications.
This allows them to get peer reviewed by more established and well-respected academics. In the eyes of critics, some publishers are beginning to treat this as a money-for-nothing exercise, which is further compounded by the high subscription costs being charged to the universities that ultimately receive the journal.
The situation as it now stands is beginning to find serious criticism from within the academic world. Something of a rebellion has built up, leading many scholars to favour publication of their work outside the subscription paywall. But this approach has also started to bring its own problems.

Impact Factor

As described by UIC, Impact Factor is “a measure of the frequency with which the average article in a journal has been cited in a particular year. It is used to measure the importance or rank of a journal by calculating the times it’s articles are cited.”
It’s calculated by dividing the number of times a journal’s articles have been cited elsewhere with the number of citable articles. Commonly used as the primary indicator of quality and reputation, it has seen somewhat of a backlash in recent years.
A number of critiques have emerged about the all-important Impact Factor (IF) assessment of academic journals. As referenced in this Open Science article, the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment stated:

“There is a pressing need to improve the ways in which the output of scientific research is evaluated by funding agencies, academic institutions, and other parties. The Journal Impact Factor is frequently used as the primary parameter with which to compare the scientific output of individuals and institutions. The Journal Impact Factor, as calculated by Thomson Reuters, was originally created as a tool to help librarians identify journals to purchase, not as a measure of the scientific quality of research in an article. With that in mind, it is critical to understand that the Journal Impact Factor has a number of well-documented deficiencies as a tool for research assessment.”

Further critical assessment comes from Philip Campbell of Nature, as mentioned in this online piece by Cogent:

“I am concerned by the tendency within academic administrations to focus on a journal’s Impact Factor when judging the worth of scientific contributions by researchers, affecting promotions, recruitment and, in some countries, financial bonuses for each paper. Our own internal research demonstrates how a high journal Impact Factor can be the skewed result of many citations of a few papers rather than the average level of the majority, reducing its value as an objective measure of an individual paper.”


Predator publications

In the cut-throat world of the early twenty-first century academic sector, many institutions are finding the best way of boosting their rankings is by getting as many articles as possible published by their own staff in academic journals.
In doing so, too often, they sometimes sacrifice quality of research to quantity of papers, with many established journals becoming inundated with submissions. As a result, researchers are looking for more diverse and obscure outlets to publish their work in order to survive and prosper in the competitive academic sector.
Many of the better-known publishers are now accepting as few as 10% of the papers they receive. This has led to a proliferation of blogs and Open Access journals in order to publish the vast reams of otherwise rejected work. It’s also created a chicken and egg situation for up-and-coming academics, who struggle to get published because they don’t have an existing portfolio.
Demand for publishing space is such that a class of journals has emerged to prey on less established and sophisticated authors, charging significant fees to publish in an environment that claims to be peer reviewed but lacks any real academic standing.
Motivation for such publications tends to be financial rather than academic, and with increasingly professional presentation and plausible-sounding titles, it’s now becoming more difficult for students to tell such publications from the genuine article, with clear implications for knowledge integrity.
In addition to this, given that search engines use a citation-based algorithm, many of these lower-quality journals use unethical techniques to trick the system into ranking them high in the results.

Open Access

Open Access journals – those published and freely available online – aren’t necessarily of lesser quality. In many ways, represent the most significant threat to traditional forms of publishing, although many publishers are incorporating elements of open accessibility into their portfolio.
Also read: The present and future of educational publishing
Many are backed by academic institutions, and many institutions have created e-journals themselves that can be accessed at will by their own academic staff and others. Publications produced in this way stand a better-than-average chance of achieving respectability through reputable peer-reviewing.
However, the greatest weakness of this form of academic publishing, in the eyes of many academics at least, is that without using the safety net of a subscription model that demands high standards are maintained (else customers will stop buying), the sector will continue to be open to the unscrupulous. This presents the danger that the reading public will be unable to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to consuming available academic research.
Technology and globalisation have undoubtedly brought huge benefits to academic writing through the breadth and depth of material available. Indeed, the internet itself was pioneered as a means of sharing academic papers. However, these technological developments have been accompanied by a near anarchy in the sharing of knowledge, which is having major impacts on the quality of material and scholarship that is now available.

Adopting the scientific approach

One interesting side-effect of the rise of electronic platforms is that in-depth scientific studies are no longer exclusive to traditional journals and academic publishers. Nowadays, businesses often step into the ring by funding research in areas that relate back to their industry, allowing researchers to bypass traditional journals and to benefit from the exposure via the brand.
Examples of this research includes HubSpot’s annual State of Inbound Marketing report and Kellogg’s No Food for Thought: The Impact of Hunger in UK Classrooms. This type of collaboration between brands and academics,  is on the rise, although academics risk being perceived to be in the pockets of their sponsors. In the case of Kellogg’s, the bias is clear, even if the data is sound.
In the long run, this trend shouldn’t pose a threat to the publishers of academic journals. Instead, it does give them an opportunity to declare a point of difference by focusing in on more integral topics, whilst maintaining objectivity and the utmost credibility.


Academic journals will always be required, in some form. In the future we’re likely to see them being distributed in different ways, but their basic format and role in society will remain relevant. As a method of sharing information – and of building upon one another’s research – the scientific journal is a tried-and-tested way for academics to shape and reshape the world around them, one step at a time.
It’s likely that, given time, academic journals will embrace new technologies to enhance their existing content. For example, engineering journals could allow contributors to enhance their papers by including downloadable 3D printing files that allow the reader to create their own prototype. It doesn’t stop there; imagine a world in which academics gave students and peers access to virtual reality representations of their findings, in support of their analyses.
In many ways, publishers of journals have an advantageous position. Because it’s a relatively slow-moving industry, journal publishers can monitor trends in magazine and book publishing, and apply tactics and techniques to their own output.
Goliath publishers have a lot at stake, but bigger budgets with which to innovate and test new ideas. Business models can – and do – change. As technology develops to form an ever-increasingly integral part of young academics’ lives, journal publishing will inevitably follow suit. For the time being, with such a rich heritage and around 1.5 million peer reviewed papers being published every year, academic journal publishing is here to stay. Here’s to the next three hundred and fifty years!
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