The Future of Academic Journals in a Digital Age*


Over the past few months I have been part of an ad hoc working group with colleagues from Newcastle and Durham Universities that has been exploring the future of academic publishing. Two problematics framed our analysis: how are changes initiated by the digital economy affecting academic journals and how might the editorial team of a top flight journal in the social sciences respond to these challenges? As previously posted–here and here–our initial conclusions have been that current models of academic journal publishing that rely on limiting access to research through pay-walls are no longer sustainable.

Academic journals, sustainability, and change

Academic journal sustainability is not just an economic issue. While the detrimental impacts of high subscription fees, low subscription bases, and the very clear signals sent by market forces that people are unwilling to pay for access to information in a digital age are important, there are other sustainability issues that need to be factored in. Primarily, transformations in the structures of the academy itself are posing challenges to the viability of traditional models of publishing. These include:

  • the inability of university resources to keep pace with increases in journal subscription fees;
  • a rapid increase in the number of academic journals available, in part a product of the fragmentation of academic disciplines into increasingly specialized sub-fields as well as the push for individual academics and departments to provide evidence of research excellence by establishing/editing journals in their recognized research strengths;
  • in the social sciences and humanities, low citation rates and impact factors–even for leading journals–that in part reflect the inability to capture a broad audience within an academic discipline, let alone establish a readership with practitioners and/or the general public;
  • the correspondingly small volume of articles that actually get cited, let alone cited extensively, from any journal outlet;
  • the renewed emphasis on public engagement, that is the directive that research must be transmitted to broader constituencies;
  • formal directives from government and funding agencies for academics to make their research available through open access platforms.

Thus, academic journals–and their publishers–find themselves in a situation where they are:

  • slowly pricing themselves out of their traditional market (i.e., academics and university libraries) (Abelson 2008);
  • increasing the supply of narrowly defined journal outlets;
  • increasing the competition for the pursuit of high quality research amongst these outlets with only journal reputation–as garnered through citation statistics–as an incentive to potential contributors;
  • diluting the overall volume of quality that can be claimed by any single journal;
  • failing to think about what other forms of value-added they might be able to provide for both contributors and their readership in order to promote specific scholarship, a specific research area, or a specific discipline (Pochoda 2008);
  • not establishing new audiences in the world of practitioners or amongst the general public.

Stay the course or change direction?

Many journals–for the moment– are currently good earners for both their publishers and/or the disciplinary association to which they are affiliated. Disciplinary association journals in particular have the advantage of having susbscription revenue subsidized by membership fees. Add in the income generated through university libraries and other research centers and revenues look solid. However, the audiences or potential subscription base for these journals remain tied up in the university system, a system that will be facing–at least in the UK–considerable budgetary pressures in the coming years. With published material in these journals being kept behind a pay-wall and the associated websites–for the journal and/or disciplinary association–typically lacking a dynamic interface, the probability of gaining new readers–let alone subscribers–from the general public or practitioners is remote. Yet, the default position being expressed by many editorial teams, disciplinary associations, and publishers is that apart from some tinkering around the edges, there is a strong case for staying the course (Bjork and Hedlund 2009).

Although staying the course might be a low risk strategy in the short-term, our research findings on the broader trends in media publishing in general, and scholarly publishing in particular, demonstrate that there are problems emerging over the horizon (Corbyn 2009). Add in the profound effects that new social media technologies are having on publishing and communication, and we argue that staying the course–in terms of content, public interface, and revenue models– will lead to negative outcomes within a decade’s time.

Primarily, pay-walls, an insufficient web presence, and a reluctance to embrace new social media technologies–whether out of a fear of the time commitment involved or a belief that these developments are a passing fad–combined with a reticence to adopt open access publishing and adapt revenue generating models will lead to significant negative impacts with respect to citation levels, overall readership, and the continuing ability to attract the very best scholarship.

Academic journals in a digital age: the way forward

So given this assessment of the situation, what might be the way forward for academic journals? Our initial position is that open access publishing models are the way forward if a journal wishes to maintain both readership and relevance in the medium to long term. Furthermore, if open access publishing is to be a success, it needs to creatively take advantage of relevant developments in new social media technologies. We believe that a publicly accessible academic journal that maintains strong commitments to original research, considered argument, and peer review can be complementary to the speed with which new media work to frame debates and identify authorities.

The Benefits of Open Access Publishing

Discerning the positive impacts for academic journals by embracing open access publish is not rocket science. Nor need its justification rest solely on a moral case that publicly funded research ought to be available to the public–though this is certainly a case that should be made. Improved access to a journal makes peer reviewed research available to a more extensive audience.

Research in the area of open access publishing has demonstrated that above anything else, open access articles on average get read more often than articles that are only available behind a pay-wall.

And the more extensive your audience, the greater the likelihood that your articles get cited. Research that has the analyzed the effects of accessibility in other disciplines–like physics– has shown that opening up access significantly raises the impact of articles, in some cases by as much as 300% (Brody et al 2004;Henneken et al 2006)

In the case of most journals in the social sciences, the difference between a mid-ranked journal’s current position on the Thomson Reuters-ISI index and a dramatic improvement in its standing is approximately one additional citation per every two articles published. Thus, very marginal changes produce significant impacts to quantitative measures of reputation in academic publishing. Reputation is a currency that can be used to solicit innovative research papers. Similarly, reputation helps to build an audience of readers who are attracted by the level of scholarship and novel research findings.

Harnessing new social media technologies

The way information is produced, authorized, distributed and shared has transformed. As the pursuit of information becomes both increasingly spontaneous and focused, opening up access allows for any interested party–whatever the reason for interest–to view and share material with others, creating a wider audience base through the best kind of promotion: word of mouth.

Furthermore, ready and extensive communication between producers and consumers–categories themselves blurred by new social media–are becoming the norm. By offering new forms of information distribution, social media technologies help to facilitate engagement across various global publics. Harnessing new forms of distribution and promoting interactive engagement are going to be central to the continuing economic and reputational vitality of academic journals.

What kind of new social media technologies can help academic journals? Well, one can divide these into three categories: those that allow for the presentation of content in non-traditional ways (e.g., videos and podcasts), those that allow content to be distributed across social networks (e.g., Twitter, Facebook), and those that allow for additional forms of dynamic engagement between researchers and audiences (e.g., blogs, comment functions, message boards).

Our research has identified some best practices that should be considered by journals if they want to build a strong foundation to be taken forward:

  • implementing a dynamic journal website–like Foreign Policy–where content is regularly updated and conduits are provided to facilitate interaction with the audience;
  • audio and video recordings of keynote speeches,lectures, interviews, or discussions that are available via podcasts, Youtube, Vimeo, or other media players. For example, see the interviews conducted by Contemporary Political Theory–if you can get behind the pay-wall that is…
  • on-line book reviews like those conducted by <H-Net or Global Discourse. These allow an outlet to highlight particular forms of research (e.g., world-leading and/or early career and/or controversial and/or innovative), foster dialog, and invite contributions from the wider readership;
  • blogs run by the editorial team and/or other members at large to showcase the importance of the subject area to a wider audience. Contextsis leading the way here with a fantastic set of blogs that demonstrate the value of sociology as applied to tangible contemporary issues;
  • alerting potential users of content updates through social networking tools like email, Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds (e.g., Surveillance & Society).

What are the costs?

There are costs associated with transforming academic journals. Open access obviously implies that revenue models that rely on subscriptions will need to switch to other forms of revenue generation. Potential revenue sources could include subscription for hard copies only, website advertising, or other forms of product tie ins (e.g., book clubs). Although it is unclear whether these revenue streams can fully replace current income generation levels, it bears noting that existing research has shown significant cost savings–especially for disciplinary associations–when journal delivery is switched to on-line only formats (Willinsky 2005). Thus, if costs are greatly reduced, income levels need not reach previous levels in order to generate the same level of net profit.

The other cost is time. Similar to the traditional tasks that define journal editorship, developing and running a dynamic website, generating content, and building up a social network for a journal will take a lot of effort. Two things should be kept in mind though. First, just as a strong editorial vision, good peer review procedures, exact copy-editing, and ability to source the very best research are essential tasks for journal editorship at the moment, so to will be the ability to harness new social media. Second, those journals who position themselves ahead of the curve will be able to establish themselves as first ports of call for user generated content–like conference keynote addresses, seminar presentations, round-tables– because of their recognition as websites with high audience numbers. Building a reputation and attracting the best user generated content will therefore make the production of high quality content less onerous for editorial teams.


There are of course going to be strong objections to what we are forecasting and proposing. Publishing houses are likely to reject our characterization that current publishing models for academic journals are not sustainable. In part, this is because revenues have not yet started to precipitously drop. In part, it is also because publishers are going to reject open access as a viable publishing strategy from first principles because it cuts them away from their primary form of income generation for academic journals. They may also reject the turn to new social media for fear of the additional costs that would be incurred.

Academics themselves may also express objections. For some, the issue is the maintenance of standards, a concern that many publishers themselves have been only too happy to promote. The argument is that open access will mean that poor quality papers based on weak scholarship will get published on a regular basis. This objection though fundamentally misunderstands that open access publishing does not necessarily imply the end of peer review. For a peer-reviewed journal, the ‘open’ of ‘open access’ refers to the ability for research to be accessed by readers and to be circulated, not an openness to publish anything that is submitted(Willinsky 2003). The opportunity to be published would still rely on the peer review process in order to maintain standards of scholarship.

The second objection is that the use of new social media to promote research is either gauche self-promotion–that is good research should find its own audience on its own merits– and/or faddish razzle-dazzle that has very little value added for researchers themselves. The first part of the objection seems to be a nostalgic yearning for a past that never was; good research has never solely spoken for itself. The best research, leading disciplines, and the most renowned academics have always been masters of harnessing whatever networking outlets were available at the time (e.g., conferences, media appearances, popular writing) to disseminate research and build reputations. Good research alone will only get you so far.

Similarly, while it is often very hard to get one’s head around new social media technologies and the ways that they can be used, they have an immense potential in terms of gathering an audience. A growing number of newspapers like the Guardian have discovered that new forms of revenue can be generated and a new readership can be cultivated by providing free content to an on-line audience. Bloggers, artists, musicians, writers, politicians, and celebrities have already caught on to the power of social networking as a way of gaining a following both on and off line. Academics need to shed some our conservatism and begin the think more strategically about how we can engage with each other and the general public while recognizing the utility of emerging tactics provided by social networking technologies.


Our research indicates that journals in the social sciences could enjoy an improvement in citation rates and associated impact factors by adopting an open access publishing model and taking advantage of new social media technologies. The direct positive effects of open access on readership and citation levels have already been proved by studies undertaken in the natural sciences and engineering.

Open access and social networking are essential to the promotion of a higher quality and quantity of academic engagement with the general public.They generate new measures of impact with respect to knowledge transfer and public engagement by tracking – in aggregate – site traffic, media inquiries, and other contacts provided through an open access website.

Indirectly, they can help to cement the reputation of leading academics through ongoing exposure while having the capacity to promote early career scholars as the next generation of public intellectuals. All of these practices bring scholarship to the attention of broader publics. Open access publishing and the harnessing of new social media can position journals as leading and exemplary public outlets in their respective disciplines.

The only question that remains is whether disciplinary associations and journal editors will be willing to pro-actively adopt these measures–in full or in part–from a position of strength to garner their full benefits? Or will the inclination be to wait until it becomes absolutely necessary as a means of staving off collapse? Time will only tell…

Photo credit: mykl roventine

* This post was written by Kyle Grayson from materials prepared in and though discussions between by Simon Philpott, Matt Davies, Martin Coward, David Campbell and William Maloney. It was originally posted at

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7 Responses to “The Future of Academic Journals in a Digital Age*”

  1. […] @d_mainwaring @cameronneylon Agree, saw need for shake up here:…. But ideology goes beyond shake up of […]

  2. […] now, and since becoming an editor of Politics, my interest has sharpened. Those of you have read earlier blogs will know I am very much in favour of OA, but quite worried by the current proposals for so-called […]

  3. […] The exchange prompted me to finally jot down some things that I have been meaning to note about open access publishing. In short, I think there are some bits missing from the present discussion. The debate seems to be polarised between the ‘knowledge wants to be free’ (both without cost and free-to-roam) camp on the one side and the increasingly beleaguered publishers on the other. The publishers are increasingly being cast as the academic equivalent of bankers. It all reminds me of the state vs transnational forces polarisation of International Relations in the heady days of globalisation theory. The problem with polarisation is that it forces either/or decisions and thus some nuances get missed.2 Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see all of my work out from behind paywalls. In fact, as a matter of principle, I think that work paid for by the taxpayer should be free to consume by the taxpayer.3 Even putting that principle aside, I would be a strong advocate for open access since it increases profile of research and facilitates wider, more informed readerships and the fortuitous engagements that might come out of that. Indeed, I’ve blogged about this before. […]

  4. Jurn says:

    A strong summary and some clear suggestions. To which I might add things like…

    * a collaborative subject-specific Custom Search Engine

    * simple “plain english” summaries of all articles (not the same thing as abstracts)

    * a parallel curated and themed “overlay” ejournal, linking to free repository content

    * Amazon pages for all monographs

    * a concerted campaign to get backlinks to your website

    * consider purchasing a good $50 template for the journal (it’s not just about the frequency of updating, but about how stylish it feels)

    * really good photography of the participants

    Backlinks are particularly important. For instance, the journal Quaderno which I found for JURN a few days ago. It’s six full issues of a free full-text academic journal from a reputable university, on interesting aspects of early American history, in a country that’s seemingly teeming with re-enactors and amateur historians. Yet, according to Google, it has not a single inbound link — not even from other academic sites. It’s been online since 2004.

  5. […] December 2009 in Spotted in the news Kyle Grayson summarises his thinking as… “part of an ad hoc working group with colleagues from Newcastle and Durham […]

  6. […] a detailed and masterful post that summarises our research and details its conclusions. Along with Martin Coward, we are using our blogs to make the arguments available so that people can consider them in full, […]

  7. Nate says:

    Hi Martin et al,

    It’s nice to see someone discussing the issue of accessibility and the relationship between academic and popular publishing. For my own part, I have concerns about how academic publishing tends to hide behind walls (both subscription and social) and what impact this has on the wider question of the role of intellectual (ie – not “expert”) thinking in society. In that vein, I support any effort to try and bring academic thinking back into the public sphere.

    This often resolves into a fight over whether or not academics should be “relevant”, which is usually assumed to mean that they must make specific policy recommendations and only talk about things powerful people want to know right now. That is, of course, not the kind of relevance I’m interested in. But it does trouble me that few academics seem interested in whether or not a general audience understands or even knows about their findings. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be much passion behind the work these days (an odd bit of colloquialism thrown in there, since I wouldn’t really know any other days), though there is plenty of petty positioning.

    Now to the question of open access and social media that you’ve raised here. I think that by linking them you’re taking a few risks. The first objection you raise refers to the fear that opening access will reduce the quality of the content, and you counter that by saying that open access doesn’t necessarily refer to opening up the rigor of the source. But the previous section listed five best practices from social media to encourage broader readership. By virtue of their demand for more frequent and less rigorous content, the first three (journals and reader interaction, recordings of events, and blogs) necessarily entail a change in the quality of the content (“quality’s” dual meaning as both good-ness and kind is apt).

    Now, I don’t think this is sufficient reason to abandon your suggestions. But I think an attempt will need to be made to find ways of either making clear distinctions between the character of the content provided or drawing on the social media elements precisely to discuss the kinds of questions that ought to be (but usually aren’t) addressed when dealing with content from less rigorous media.

    Regarding the latter, perhaps the review process could be opened up, with articles published alongside the reviewer’s comments. More far-reaching changes could see articles go through open access review processes (something akin to CTLab’s symposiums? as a pre-requisite to publishing.

    The central problem that I think will be faced is the tension between the SENSE OF egalitarianism in social media and elitism in academic publishing (the sense is not entirely accurate of course). I’m not suggesting egalitarianism is always good and elitism always bad. On the contrary, I think academic writing’s value often lies precisely in the gap between the two. But if publishers are going to move forward at all, they’ll have to assess how much control to give up and on what terms they want to give it up. Wikipedia is a good example of this (though not a model for academia). Far from being a place where anyone can put anything they want up (though technically true), it’s actually governed by a few simple rules about how content is arranged and on what basis it is accepted. If academic journals are going to move into the social media frontier, they’re going to have to grapple with what kind of rules they set up.

    Some places haven’t done this well. I was surprised to see Foreign Policy cited as a best practice model. I appreciate that it was more about the model than the content, but I think they’re a good example of how the two aren’t so easily separated. The kind of crap that FP puts out is ridiculous (their top 10s? and is clearly designed to be as hyperbolic and attention-grabbing as possible, often without much substance. I appreciate that they have some big-hitters blogging for them, but no one is that consistently interesting or insightful.

    But what is a site supposed to do if it must come up with content, day in and day out?

    The other issue that you guys haven’t addressed, but that I think perhaps ought to be addressed is that the accessibility of academic publishing is not just about the technical capacity for readers to access the writing. There’s also the accessibility barrier that arises from the isolation of academia itself. Labyrinthine prose and inward-looking old-boys clubs that develop around a set of analytical tools (biopolitics anyone?) make most academic writing downright hostile (some can be excused as just poor writing skills, but much is deliberately hostile or cliquey).

    If academic publishing is to reach a wider audience, it will need to do more than simply adopt the technical apparatuses of social media. It will need to aggressively assert the importance of long-form thinking and writing, of critical and considered discussion, of all the elitist values of academia that provide it with its bit of value. In this respect, it will be fighting the tide of web publishing.

    And what this means, I guess, is that academic publishing won’t be able to make much headway without the cooperation of evangelist academics who are pushing themselves to be relevant to a wider audience without dumbing- and shortening-down the engagement.

    Anyway, as we say here in the intarweb, sorry for the long post. Semi-colon right parenthesis. Ell Oh Ell.