Journal publishing has undergone not one but two major revolutions over the past couple of decades. Although Open Access might be the revolution that first springs to mind, in fact it was only made possible by an earlier and more fundamental revolution – the move online. Journals pioneered the move toward online publication, starting in the mid-1990s. Since then, online journals have become increasingly sophisticated, with myriad features and supporting tools. Yet the essential nature and functions of journal publication – the selection, preparation and presentation of articles relevant to a particular readership – have changed very little. So publishers of all types still need to know about all the basic processes and roles that are involved in creating and running a journal.

Some things, however, have changed dramatically. How journals are sold has altered out of all recognition – from selling individual journals to bundles of several, or even all, of a given publisher’s journals and, at the other end of the scale, to selling individual articles; and from selling to single libraries to selling to consortia or even whole countries. Journal publishers’ sales staff thus need a range of new skills to deal with licenses and negotiation.

The technical side of online journals gives rise to new responsibilities for functional design, online delivery and support, as well as a slew of valuable new data about what is being used and how. It gives rise to exciting new possibilities for linking the ‘flat’ text internally, with other resources, and even with other media. It has also highlighted the problems of long-term preservation – now generally handled in partnership between publishers and libraries. So the roles and responsibilities of many of the players – authors, editors, publishers, librarians and readers – are continuing to change.

The Open Access ‘movement’ started soon after the advent of online journals. Its advocates urged that research articles should be freely available to all, primarily through authors depositing a version of their articles on the Web. Authors’ response, though, has been less than was hoped. However, another way of making published articles freely available to readers (with all their journal-related features intact) is to cover the costs of publication through author-side, rather than reader-side (i.e subscription) funding. This is possible thanks to a key feature of the economics of online journals: the costs are to all intents and purposes fixed, and – unlike in print – the addition of one or a hundred new readers barely affects the costs.

Many publishers responded positively, relaxing their policies to enable authors to deposit a version of their articles (not necessarily the final version published in the journal). And a number decided early on to take the plunge and introduce an option for their journal authors to pay to make their articles Open Access if they wished; some have gone the whole way and launched fully Open Access journals, or converted existing journals to this model. As a growing number of funders and even government agencies (not only in well-funded areas such as science and medicine, but now in the humanities as well) mandate one or both forms of Open Access for their grant recipients, every publisher needs an appropriate policy in place, and must monitor developments closely. So journal publishers need to add to their armoury of skills familiarity not just with the subscription business model, but also with the range of Open Access alternatives.

It is remarkable that the underlying nature of the basic unit of scholarly communication – the journal article – and of the package in which it is generally contained – the journal – has changed so little through these upheavals.. But perhaps the next revolution will be more fundamental still, affecting the very nature of scholarly communication, and thus of the role of ‘publication’ within it.

So to those embarking on a career in journals publishing in these interesting times we say: be flexible, be open-minded, and enjoy the ride!

– Sally Morris, Ed Barnas, Douglas LaFrenier, Margaret Reich

Sally Morris, Ed Barnas, Douglas LaFrenier, Margaret Reich have, between them, decades of experience encompassing these fundamental revolutions, and write from a variety of publishing perspectives (learned society, university press, commercial publisher). Find out more about their publication The Handbook of Journal Publishing


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