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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Managing Academic E-Journals

You are thinking of publishing an electronic journal. The advantages seem obvious: no backlog, quicker editing and production cycles, minimal initial capital (volunteer labor and access to the Web), and you can publish new types of material. But e-publishing also involves risks, hidden costs, and trade-offs. Here, we present a framework for implementing and managing academic e-journals.

The seven factors introduced in [3] influence publishing in the information age. We've adapted this framework to academic e-publishing, adding an eighth factor—Mannerism (see the figure here). The four technology-related factors are driven by the Medium, or the tools used to store and display the Material, or the published content, which can vary depending on the Medium being used. The Mode includes the symbols and language used to present text, as well as visual or audio material. The Means of distribution describes how publications are delivered: physically (CD-ROM); electronically (Internet); periodically (synchronized); or as soon as it's ready (asynchronous).

In academic publishing, the Market is generally limited to the scholars within a particular discipline. The number of subscribers is thus limited and shrinking, except in a few growing fields. Journals that market to both academia and practitioners retain a larger subscriber base. For example, the circulation of MIS Quarterly is approximately 3,000, compared to Communications, with approximately 85,000. Money refers to both the costs of and the revenues from publishing. Universities and research institutions absorb the costs of creating, submitting, and refereeing articles, regardless of the Medium used to distribute them. The main cost reduction for e-journals is in editing, production, and distribution. Some costs, including storage and bandwidth, are transferred to the reader. Studies of the economics of e-journals [7] emphasize the benefits to the publisher and ignore the increased costs to the consumer. The management of academic journals extends beyond the preparation and distribution of material. Publishers and editors must ensure that e-journals are sustainable, accessible, timely, reputable, and of high quality.

Mannerism refers to the social characteristics of academic publishing. For example, though perceived quality is difficult to measure and control, it determines a journal's success [9] and the level of participation by reputable authors [2]. Other social factors include promotion and tenure, handicap access, and international access.

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E-journals involve new opportunities and challenges. Some issues are journal-dependent and addressed by individual editors; others are universal and affect the overall academic milieu.

Technology factors (such as Medium) increase available space at minimal additional cost. Material (such as computer programs and algorithms) can be added; content can be expanded beyond traditional research; and richer Modes (such as audio and video) can be included. The editor decides how to balance the benefits of technology and the risk of information overload. E-journals are designed to work with current technologies. When the technology becomes obsolete, and unless backward integration is maintained, journal content becomes unreadable. What makes this problem universal in scope is the complexity and cost of conversion and the required infrastructure.

In applied fields, including information systems, academic journals try to expand their Market to practitioners who seek relevant, accurate, and timely information, rather than rigorous theoretical development. E-journals offer ways to increase circulation. Lower production costs allow publishers to create dual outlets, each targeting a particular market; examples are Communications of AIS and the Journal of AIS. The dynamic structure of e-journals provides an individual journal with multiple entry points and levels of theoretical rigor; an example is the Journal of Information Law and Technology. Reference [5] is an example of a multi-level article from which readers can select desired levels of detail for each section, depending on their interest and orientation.

The three Money characteristics [7] unique to academic publishing are:

  • Conflicting stakeholder incentives. Author incentives, which are based on journal ratings, differ from library incentives, which are based on cost and constrained by budgets;
  • Little price competition. Prices and revenue are unrelated to journal ranking. The revenue to the publisher from a 20-page article in a computer science journal can range from $1,000 to $8,000 notwithstanding the journal's prestige; and
  • No pay for scholars, unlike for commercial authors. Moreover, article refereeing and much of the editing is often free to the publisher.

The cost of producing an e-journal is lower than for producing a print journal (p-journal) because it requires no printing, binding, shipping, or storage. E-journals, however, introduce the issue of copyright payment structures. Payment structures are evolving toward a collective licensing system whereby subscribers access everything published in a particular system (such as the ACM Digital Library.) Whereas in 1999, 70% percent of e-journals were free [6], in 2003, only 25% were free, supporting our assertion that free e-journals are not viable in the long term.1 Publishers offer a variety of fee structures for e-journals, including combined (paper and electronic) subscription, pay-per-view, and bundled with association membership dues. However, distributed articles with hyperlinks to external Web resources lose the hyperlinking advantage with any charging scheme.

It is unclear to what extent introducing advanced technologies supports the ultimate objective of research—creating knowledge.

Each Management task introduces new challenges. For example, long-term sustainability helps maintain collective knowledge. However, the infrastructure does not exist for maintaining archives, as with, say, the Library of Congress. Individual publishers can archive their own e-journals. Each e-journal's sustainability thus depends on its publisher's survival. If a particular manuscript resides on a single server, archiving it is easier than archiving distributed articles [1].

Marketing a new e-journal is especially difficult. Established publishers might use a brand name (such as ACM), combining their e-journal marketing efforts with that of more traditional publications. Independently published e-journals can use announcement services, listservs, and Internet-based search agents to market their e-journals. Researchers traditionally find articles via secondary indexes, such as abstract services. Few e-journals are indexed today, causing some scholars to overlook relevant e-articles, thus reducing the benefits of potential anytime-anywhere e-journal access.2

E-journals also reduce publication cycle time. The time needed for researching, writing, refereeing, and editing remains the same. But production time is shortened by eliminating printing, binding, and shipping and by publishing articles when they're ready, thus eliminating backlogs of accepted articles. Publishers must balance quicker publication cycles with irregular article flow and the reader's potential information overload.

Citation records are often used to measure publication quality, influencing author reputations, promotion, and compensation. E-journals that allow "published" articles to be modified over time must publish each version to ensure a proper chain of citation is maintained.3

To maintain quality and ensure space limitations are not exceeded, gatekeepers tend to accept studies on topics within a discipline's established paradigms. Unorthodox work is difficult to publish and often rejected by reviewers [9], fostering a philosophy maintaining that most manuscripts should be rejected. The relatively low cost of establishing an e-journal allows scholars other than gatekeepers to start publications (such as Philosophical Foundations of IS) that accept new ideas and values and work with authors to improve promising papers to high-quality publishable work. This philosophy requires a shift in academic principles, the approval of the gatekeepers, and modification of promotion guidelines, and are beyond the capabilities of individual e-journals [10].

The academic social environment is the main hurdle for academic e-journals. While p-journals are perceived as elitist products (as journal costs increase, they become available only to well-endowed universities), the acceptance of e-journals is a relatively slow process. Like p-journals, e-journals need to maintain standards for quality and accuracy. E-journals offer a relatively high acceptance rate and minimal backlog, conflicting with the notion that quality requires a low acceptance rate and large backlog. E-journal editors contend with technical instability, lack of control, and few definitive standards on the Internet [4].4 In 1999, only a third of e-journals were peer-reviewed [6], decreasing acceptance for all e-journals.

Perhaps the most challenging task ahead for e-journals is the management of academic social acceptance and perceptions.

Acceptance for promotion5 is a major success factor [2] and instrumental in distributing rewards to researchers. Scholars with greater awareness of e-publishing perceive e-journals as superior [8]. Public relations efforts can increase awareness. An e-article that can be reviewed by promotion committee members in traditional paper format is more likely to be accepted than a distributed e-article that uses various modes and that is not printable. Therefore, some publishers provide a conventional printable version of their e-articles, and others format their e-journals as PDF files to look like p-journals.

Unlike print, e-journals offer only limited support for visually and aurally impaired users, though they can do so if properly designed. E-journals do, however, provide greater access to universities in poor countries by eliminating distribution delays and reducing distribution costs. Technological limits can be overcome by providing multiple formats, putting multimedia into appendices, and providing text descriptions of complex images.

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Our eight-factor model provides a systematic framework for thinking about managing academic e-journals. Some changes, such as reduced cycle time and publication costs, are clearly beneficial. Others, such as the need for backward integration and universal sustainability, must still be resolved.

It is unclear to what extent introducing advanced technologies supports the ultimate objective of research—creating knowledge. Properly designed e-journals increase visual appeal without causing information overload, support living scholarship while retaining traceability, and create products perceived as high quality.

Perhaps the most challenging task ahead for e-journals is the management of academic social acceptance and perceptions. Academic p-journals are established and reliable institutions. They may be less efficient in terms of cost or time, but they are entrenched. In the interim, some publishers use electronic media only as a delivery mechanism for paper-like articles.

We expect e-journals to become an integral part of academic publishing. However, they represent a systemic change and will, like the automobile at the turn of the 20th century, require a fundamental change in both publishing infrastructure and academic culture.

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1. Baudoin, P. Uppity bits: Coming to terms with archiving dynamic electronic journals. Serials Librarian 43, 4 (June 2003), 63–72.

2. Berge, Z. and Collins, M. IPCT journal readership survey. J. Amer. Soc. Inform. Sci. 47, 9 (Sept. 1996), 701–710.

3. Eisenhart, D. Publishing in the Information Age: A New Management Framework for the Digital Era. Quorum Books, Westport, CT, 1994.

4. Harnad, S. Implementing peer review on the Net: Scientific quality control in scholarly electronic journals. In Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier, R. Peek and G. Newby, Eds. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996, 103–118.

5. Hars, A. Web-based knowledge infrastructures for the sciences: An adaptive document. Commun. Assoc. Inform. Syst. 4, 1 (July 2000), 1–34.

6. Mogge, D. Seven years of tracking electronic publishing: The ARL directory of electronic journals, newsletters, and academic discussion lists. Library Hi Tech 17, 1 (1999), 17–25.

7. Odlyzko, A. The economics of electronic journals. First Monday 2, 8 (Aug. 1997).

8. Palmer, J., Speier, C., Wren, D., and Hahn, S. Electronic journals in business schools: Legitimacy, acceptance, and use. J. Assoc. Inform. Syst. 1, 2 (Mar. 2000), 1–29.

9. Schauder, D. Electronic publishing of professional articles: Attitudes of academics and implications for the scholarly communication industry. J. Amer. Soc. Inform. Sci. 45, 2 (Mar. 1994), 73–100.

10. Weber, R. The journal review process: A manifesto for change. Commun. Assoc. Information Syst. 2, 12 (Aug. 1999), 1–22.

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Anat Hovav ( is an assistant professor in the Management Information Systems Department at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Paul Gray ( is a professor emeritus in the School of Information Science at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.

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1Calculated based on the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries index, including both pure e-journals and combined (paper and electronic) journals.

2Primarily true for independent, pure e-journals. Electronic versions of existing p-journals are indexed with their paper counterparts.

3If article B cites article A and article A is subsequently changed, the citation may no longer be valid.

4Occasional downtime can hurt the reputation of an otherwise well-run e-journal.

5Unlike the gatekeepers, tenure-and-promotion committee members evaluate articles outside their own disciplines and are thus less familiar with intradisciplinary nuance.

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UF1Figure. Academic e-journal publishing framework.

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