Over the last few years, several studies have been conducted to evaluate the financial impact of open access publishing requirements on scholarly journals, notably in the fields of the humanities, the social sciences, the arts and literature (Paquin 2015; Lefebvre 2018; Comité de suivi de l’édition scientifique [France] 2019). The majority of these studies relied on a socioeconomic perspective, with their authors attempting to calculate the budget required to operate a scholarly journal in an open access environment.
One study, Canadian scholarly journals in the humanities and social sciences, conducted in 2019 and published in 2021 under the supervision of Vincent Larivière, professor of information science at the Université de Montréal and the scientific director for Érudit, had this same objective: by surveying a pool of journals, its authors tried to identify the inputs and outputs – whether financial, material or symbolic – involved in the production of a scholarly journal. With the transition to open access accelerating both at home and abroad, questions about the sustainability of scholarly journals boil down to the nagging problem of finding the financial model that allows open access journals to operate.
The sample contained 12 scholarly journals selected based on four criteria (field, country of origin, commercial status, language), seven open access and five subscription-based, with a 12-month moving wall. The data collected came from interviews with the leadership team of each journal and from a standardized matrix containing organizational and financial data. (Statements made in interviews by the leadership teams of eight additional journals, who did not fill out the matrix, were also taken into account.) The objective was to collect and standardize the data related to revenues and expenses for these journals, but also the “in-kind” support that some journals enjoy (for example, access to facilities or computer equipment) and the hours worked by the editorial teams. The desired result of the study was to create a complete picture of how journals function in economic terms, and, in so doing, to identify the amounts that were actually involved during their transition to open access.
The Happiness Index
While we expected to find a clear distinction between “poor and flawed” and “rich and healthy” journals, this study revealed a situation that was much more complex.
To function well, scholarly journals absolutely do require certain resources, notably funding. However, a substantial number of editorial teams interviewed for the study said that their journal was running well despite comparatively lower budgets and revenues, while some teams with larger budgets stated that they were worried about their ability to keep operating.
While the collected data supports the popular adage that “money can’t buy happiness,” we went further to try to identify what it was that “happy” journals had that “unhappy” ones did not.
What makes a scholarly journal “happy”?
The journals that were most satisfied with their situations – in other words, the “happiest” – had three common characteristics: they enjoy significant institutional support, they face no issues finding qualified contributors for peer review in their field and they are up to date on current issues in the field of scientific publishing.
Among the editorial teams that filled out our survey, the happiest were the ones that enjoyed strong institutional support. This can take the shape of in-kind contributions (offloaded administrative tasks, access to a workspace, internet and phone access, etc.) or dispensations from teaching classes for those responsible for the journal.
The dispensations are usually given to professors whose research or creation activities require an important investment in time and energy. This provides concrete support to researchers by freeing up their time for editorial tasks, while also symbolically recognizing the importance given to these tasks by the institution.
Those who benefit from this support greatly appreciate these dispensations, and their statements highlight how much they value the time being freed up by the reduced teaching load. This aspect of institutional support is a key factor in the way teams perceive the vitality of their journal and the conditions in which it operates.
A happy journal enjoys material and symbolic means that reflect the essential role it plays in the research ecosystem.
Recruitment of reviewers
Peer review of submitted manuscripts is the process by which scholarly journals guarantee the quality of their content. This practice is a key point for evaluating how happy a journal is, particularly in the fields of humanities, the social sciences, the arts and literature. Indeed, considering the lack of institutional recognition for this labour and the explosion in the number of submitted manuscripts, it is not uncommon that a journal must ask a pool of anywhere from three to six competent reviewers to find one who will accept the task of evaluating a manuscript. This makes recruitment of such reviewers a particularly thankless and time-consuming task.
Happy journals highlighted the importance of support from an editorial board actively involved in operations and, particularly, in the manuscript review process. Several teams also noted that researchers responsible for thematic issues can help make this process more efficient by proposing potential reviewers and participating in the exchanges with the experts being contacted.
When the work is more evenly split, peer review is no longer a task dreaded by journal editors, but a reflection of the important position a journal holds in its intellectual network.
The happiest journals said that they managed to reduce the amount of time wasted looking for reviewers by making the process more collaborative and personal.
Understanding the trends in scientific publishing
The happiest teams stated that they were interested in editorial processes as such, beyond the disciplinary or scientific orientation of the published content. Familiarizing themselves with editorial practices as well as with the issues and challenges of scientific publishing is often a learning process for professors operating a journal. They need the time and the material resources to get through it.
That is especially the case today, as journals operate in the context of an accelerated shift to open access. Foregoing subscription revenues implies, among other things, an in-depth rethinking of how tasks are assigned within the editorial team, sometimes in consultation with partners such as university presses, a process that takes time and reflection to be carried out successfully. Keeping up with current scientific publishing practices allows editorial teams to position themselves in a quickly evolving environment.
What makes a scholarly journal “unhappy”?
Editorial teams who described themselves as being in a less favourable position were apparently hampered by three issues: a lack of institutional recognition and support, the feeling of being at odds with approaches adopted by funding agencies, and the feeling of being trapped in a cycle of burnout.
Lack of institutional recognition
Beyond the economic challenges, which are very real, editorial teams often perceive a lack of recognition for the work they do and its importance in the research ecosystem.
This symbolic lack of value can even take the shape of a concrete disengagement by academic institutions. For example, the head of one journal reported that one university had transformed its in-kind contributions into paid services, invoiced to periodicals with limited budgets. More generally, the lack of value assigned to editorial tasks when universities evaluate their professors contributes to the unhappiness of a journal.
Grant policies and feeling a lack of understanding
Less happy journals often feel misunderstood by granting agencies, whose policies are perceived as out-of-touch with the reality of scholarly publishing.
Every team finds grant applications demanding, but unhappy journals experience them as insurmountable challenges and sources of intense stress, two perspectives made even bleaker by the perception of increased competition. That is notably the case for relatively older periodicals; founded before the digital era they had become well established, but now see their position made less certain by the evolution of granting programs.
The feeling of a gap between the reality experienced by journals and the requirements set out in grant policies is made particularly acute by open access requirements, often perceived by editors as an arbitrary demand that threatens the survival of periodicals that already struggle with limited resources. Grants are awarded on a competitive basis every three or four years, which naturally results in discontinuity when it comes to funding. Without other structural support, like integration into a university ecosystem, journals face an ever-present risk of losing a grant, which makes their transition to open access treacherous. To add to that, this transition is very labour-intensive for the editorial teams.
Team and resource burnout
Unhappy teams often feel trapped in a cycle of burnout, both for its staff and its material resources.
This spiral might start with the loss of a grant, which strips the journal of its capacity to pay its administrative or coordination staff. Under these conditions, it becomes difficult to avoid delays when it comes to the management and publication of the journal, which in turn hampers its admissibility in the next round of grants, creating a vicious cycle.
Team burnout also happens when journals have trouble replacing editorial team members. If the same people remain in place to keep publication going, the risk exists that only immediate activities get priority, while neglecting longer-term initiatives – such as transitioning to open access, updating peer review practices or taking steps to be indexed in the Directory of Open Access Journals – despite the latter being key to the journal’s long-term survival. A team whose sole concern is short-term survival risks becoming unable to find ways to improve its journal and to ensure its long-term success.
The recipe for a happy journal?
Our interviews conducted with teams from about 20 scholarly journals show that a journal is happiest when it exists within a network of forces that feeds and supports the publication, rather than pressuring them, which is something that characterizes less happy journals.
Some of these forces are internal, like the interest shown by the members of the editorial team for scientific publishing as such or the collaboration of an active editorial board. Nonetheless, journals can only thrive if their environments, notably universities and granting agencies, support and amplify these internal forces. A journal is happy when it can operate in a favourable context which provides it with both material and symbolic means, which can take a variety of shapes: financial, in-kind and course load dispensations. Even if money can’t buy happiness, where journals are concerned, it sure helps.
Émilie Paquin is the director of and Suzanne Beth is a researcher with Érudit’s research and strategic development team, which operates under the scientific direction of Vincent Larivière.