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Too Much of a Good Thing — Strategies for Handling Article Overload in Journals - 2/9/2016 -

Too Much of a Good Thing — Strategies for Handling Article Overload in Journals

If your journal is regularly struggling with more content than it can print, here is an array of ideas to address the challenge.

By Oona Schmid

Just like the stomachaches after an indulgent Thanksgiving meal, publishers may experience a different pain when their journal has more articles than it can squeeze into its pages. This headache may begin with plaintive requests from authors: "When is my article going to publish?” Or, authors may express downright dismay when they hear their article is scheduled many months later than they hoped.

Authors rely on journal publishers to get their research published quickly and fear their information is growing stale or even scooped. Throbbing temples may quickly become a stomachache once the publisher tabulates the cost of more pages. Each additional page equates to more copyediting, more typesetting, more proofreading, more paper, more postage.

What is a publisher to do? This article explores strategies to handle article overload and get a journal back on track.


Make adjustments to typesetting. Very few association publishers do their own typesetting. One of the first places to turn if facing a surfeit of manuscripts is the typesetter. "There are a lot of options to consider. If you’re working with a vendor, get in touch with them to hear what they’ve done before with other clients,” suggests Joanna Gillette, sales manager at Allen Press. She adds with a laugh, however, that she hopes publishers will "keep an open mind” about what they hear.

In other words, while there are a lot of possible type-based interventions, they each have tradeoffs. For instance, one option might scrutinize the page layout, with an eye to adjusting margins and the spacing between lines and letters, i.e. leading and kerning. But Gillette points out "most layouts are already optimized.” While compressing design might squeeze in a few more lines of text, it’s unlikely to yield enough space to add another whole article to the issue. And, of course, readability stands in tension against efficient use of space. Few publishers want to tighten their journal to a point where their members are squinting or left hunting for magnifying glasses.

Change the trim size. In some less-common cases, a journal’s design may have wide margins or could be redesigned at a more efficient trim size. A publisher should talk to his or her printer to see what trim sizes are most efficient for their particular equipment. In some cases, a change to the trim size your printer suggests might yield production savings, meaning you can actually increase page counts. Your printer may also be able to suggest different papers that might impact overall production and distribution costs. Regardless, requesting design changes mid-issue can introduce delays and incur costs, so again, it’s critical to consult with the production team.

Implement tailing-in to your design template. Another option examines tailing-in articles, rather than beginning each piece of content on a new page. Gillette cautions publishers to remember their online versions; some publishers will have to separate articles for their online journal. Tailing in content is a better solution in sections of the journal where the content can be posted as a block, such as a book review section.

Consider optional distribution channels. Beyond page layout, Gillette advises publishers to "think about what other distribution channels you have for your content.” Can an extraneous image or large table be presented online only? Maybe a QR code can steer readers with smartphones to additional materials? Gillette says some journal clients have elected to publish articles online only, listing these articles in their Tables of Content or including the abstracts in the print journals. In some cases, authors are especially pleased to be offered the opportunity for additional color art, as is possible with online-only supporting materials.

If a journal struggles with a great deal of excess content, the publisher might consider curating a theme and producing a special issue. Ideally, this special issue should have sponsorship opportunities, and it might have a more targeted readership. Special issues can be published online only as digital supplements, but publishers need to connect their readers and subscribers to the content. If a journal is distributed in print, an announcement in the print publication might be critical to ensure their readers know and find the content online.

Don’t forget the authors. While under pressure to locate a solution, publishers need to balance more than their readers — they need to remember their authors as well. Communication with authors is essential to ensure expectations are met. Some authors would elect a longer time to publication in order to still be in a print issue; others would prefer faster publication and will jump at the opportunity to be published online only, if this is the best means to ensure their article publishes in the immediate future. Explaining the situation and presenting alternatives to authors maintains goodwill and may prevent hurt feelings from the perception that a "special issue” or being published online only is not an honor, but somehow an inferior selection.


While all of these quick-fix solutions may help the publisher manage content largesse, publishers can also implement more permanent remedies. As Todd Reitzel points out, excessive content invites a publisher to "assess quality and quantity.” As director of publishing at the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS), Reitzel describes how his society made this evaluation: "Do we need to raise the quality bar, or will the market tolerate an increase?” In this case, the society increased two of its journals’ frequencies from four issues a year to six issues a year.

Understand the importance of impact factor. Where a publisher elects quantity, it needs to exert particular care about impact factors. Gillette cautions that increasing the number of articles a journal publishes may dilute the number of citations as a ratio to the number of articles published, a calculation known as the impact factor. In some disciplines, maintaining a journal’s high impact factor is critical.

Reitzel offered a slightly different perspective. He concurs that citations usually "lag” compared to increasing the amount of content one publishes, but advocates that many librarians value download statistics more closely than impact factors. More content can grow downloads, and effective coordination with a marketing team can minimize the risk of growth by ensuring researchers receive prompt alerts about new content.

Raise your selectivity standards. If a publisher prefers to focus on quality, they need to engage their editors in conversations about selectivity. Discussions about the journal scope and optimal article format(s) may emphasize the need to revise a journal’s author guidelines. Article word counts and length can be reduced, and authors receive stricter guidance around the number of citations expected or allowed for a given article. Information to authors can highlight supporting information as the most appropriate location for certain kinds of information: tabular data, detailed descriptions of methodology, etc. Journal editors may be able to identify new content types like "brief dispatches” that meet a need without swelling the page count of a journal.

Launch a spin-off publication. When growth in articles is not a temporary blip — but rather, evidence of a trend — publishers might assess whether or not to spin off a new publication. Gillette says that new publications "provide a lot of opportunities.” A mature title may not be able to accommodate a new access model or a new funding model, but a born-digital publication can provide a society with a means to trial new ideas.

Reitzel recounts that a survey at the AAPS found 50 percent of its members were interested in open access. Because journal editors reported that they were receiving worthy papers — and to limit the amount of competition placed on the library market — in 2015, the society launched AAPS Open, a peer-review journal funded through author fees.

A publisher can prescribe a wide array of remedies to reduce its article overload and ensure it publishes articles promptly and within page budget. If only overeating were so easily dispatched!

Oona Schmid is director, publishing at the American Anthropological Association and a member of the Association Media & Publishing Content Creation Committee.


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