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
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
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
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
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
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.