An academic journal is a peer-reviewed periodical in which scholarship relating to a particular academic discipline is published. Academic journals serve as forums for the introduction and presentation for scrutiny of new research, and the critique of existing research. Content typically takes the form of articles presenting original research, review articles, and book reviews.
The term academic journal applies to scholarly publications in all fields; this article discusses the aspects common to all academic field journals. Scientific journals and journals of the quantitative social sciences vary in form and function from journals of the humanities and qualitative social sciences; their specific aspects are separately discussed.
There are two kinds of article or paper submissions in academia: solicited, where an individual has been invited to submit work either through direct contact or through a general submissions call, and unsolicited, where an individual submits a work for potential publication without directly being asked to do so. Upon receipt of a submitted article, editors at the journal determine whether to reject the submission outright or begin the process of peer review. In the latter case, the submission becomes subject to review by outside scholars of the editor's choosing who typically remain anonymous. The number of these peer reviewers (or "referees") varies according to each journal's editorial practice — typically, no fewer than two, though sometimes three or more, experts in the subject matter of the article produce reports upon the content, style, and other factors, which inform the editors' publication decisions. Though these reports are generally confidential, some journals and publishers also practice public peer review. The editors either choose to reject the article, ask for a revision and resubmission, or accept the article for publication. Even accepted articles are often subjected to further (sometimes considerable) editing by journal editorial staff before they appear in print. The peer review can take from several weeks to several months.
Review articles, also called "reviews of progress," are checks on the research published in journals. Some journals are devoted entirely to review articles, some contain a few in each issue, and others do not publish review articles. Such reviews often cover the research from the preceding year, some for longer or shorter terms; some are devoted to specific topics, some to general surveys. Some journals are enumerative, listing all significant articles in a given subject, others are selective, including only what they think worthwhile. Yet others are evaluative, judging the state of progress in the subject field. Some journals are published in series, each covering a complete subject field year, or covering specific fields through several years. Unlike original research articles, review articles tend to be solicited submissions, sometimes planned years in advance. They are typically relied upon by students beginning a study in a given field, or for current awareness of those already in the field.
Book reviews of scholarly books are checks upon the research books published by scholars; unlike articles, book reviews tend to be solicited. Journals typically have a separate book review editor determining which new books to review and by whom. If an outside scholar accepts the book review editor's request for a book review, he or she generally receives a free copy of the book from the journal in exchange for a timely review. Publishers send books to book review editors in the hope that their books will be reviewed. The length and depth of research book reviews varies much from journal to journal, as does the extent of textbook and trade book review.
An academic journal's prestige is established over time, and can reflect many factors, some but not all of which are expressible quantitatively. In each academic discipline there are dominant journals that receive the largest number of submissions, and therefore can be selective in choosing their content. Yet, not only the largest journals are of excellent quality.
In the natural sciences and in the "hard" social sciences, the impact factor is a convenient proxy, measuring the number of later articles citing articles already published in the journal. There are other, possible quantitative factors, such as the overall number of citations, how quickly articles are cited, and the average "half-life" of articles. There also is the question of whether or not any quantitative factor can reflect true prestige; natural science journals are categorized and ranked in the Science Citation Index, social science journals in the Social Sciences Citation Index.
In the Anglo-American humanities, there is no tradition (as there is in the sciences) of giving impact-factors that could be used in establishing a journal's prestige. Recent moves have been made by the European Science Foundation (ESF) to change the situation, resulting in the publication of preliminary lists for the ranking of academic journals in the Humanities. These rankings have been severely criticized, notably by history and sociology of science British journals that have published a common editorial entitled "Journals under Threat." Though it did not prevent ESF and some national organizations from proposing journal rankings, it largely prevented their use as evaluation tools.
In some disciplines such as knowledge management/intellectual capital, the lack of a well-established journal ranking system is perceived by academics as "a major obstacle on the way to tenure, promotion and achievement recognition". Conversely a significant number of scientists and organizations consider the pursuit of impact factor calculations as inimical to the goals of science, and have signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment to limit its use.
The categorization of journal prestige in some subjects has been attempted, typically using letters to rank their academic world importance.
Three categories of techniques have developed to assess journal quality and create journal rankings:
- stated preference;
- revealed preference; and
- publication power approaches
Many academic journals are subsidized by universities or professional organizations, and do not exist to make a profit; however they often accept advertising, page and image charges from authors to pay for production costs. On the other hand, some journals are produced by commercial publishers who do make a profit by charging subscriptions to individuals and libraries. They may also sell all of their journals in discipline-specific collections or a variety of other packages.
Journal editors tend to have other professional responsibilities, most often as teaching professors. In the case of the largest journals, there are paid staff assisting in the editing. The production of the journals is almost always done by publisher-paid staff. Humanities and social science academic journals are usually subsidized by universities or professional organization.
The Internet has revolutionized the production of, and access to, academic journals, with their contents available online via services subscribed to by academic libraries. Individual articles are subject-indexed in databases such as Google Scholar. Some of the smallest, most specialized journals are prepared in-house, by an academic department, and published only online—such form of publication has sometimes been in the blog format. Currently, there is a movement in higher education encouraging open access, either via self archiving, whereby the author deposits a paper in a disciplinary or institutional repository where it can be searched for and read, or via publishing it in a free open access journal, which does not charge for subscriptions, being either subsidized or financed by a publication fee. Given the goal of sharing scientific research to speed advances, open access has affected science journals more than humanities journals. Commercial publishers are experimenting with open access models, but are trying to protect their subscription revenues.
The open access movement has also raised concern that there may be an increase in publication of "junk" journals with lower publishing standards. These journals, often with names chosen as similar to well-established publications, solicit articles via e-mail and then charge the author to publish an article. A research librarian at the University of Colorado has compiled a list of what he considers to be "predatory" journals; the list numbered over 300 journals as of April 2013, but he estimates that there may be thousands. The OMICS Publishing Group, which publishes a number of the journals on this list, has threatened to sue the librarian who developed the list.
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