In the wake of a couple of recent and particularly high-profile defections of editorial boards from important journals in their fields, I’ve been left wondering: what is a journal? Or, maybe more precisely: what is the essence of a journal – and is it portable?
Of course, if you’re one of those who feel that journals don’t actually exist in reality, this question will seem laughably inapt, nothing more than a silly category mistake. But for those of us who do believe that journals are real, and maybe even that they matter, this is a question that seems to be becoming more urgent.
For context: many Scholarly Kitchen readers will have heard within the past few weeks about the wholesale defection of an editorial board at the Elsevier journal NeuroImage, and the departed board members’ stated intention to create a new, competing journal at MIT Press called Imaging NeuroScience. According to one news report, they plan “for the new journal to eclipse NeuroImage in standing, saying the fact that the entire editorial staff is making the shift will ensure the new journal’s quality.”
More recently comes the announcement that Wiley fired the editor of The Journal of Political Philosophy, prompting a wave of resignations from that journal’s editorial board and leading one board member to characterize Wiley’s move as “a catastrophic mistake” and to predict that “it will be virtually impossible to resstablish JPP as the immensely distinguished journal it has become once [the fired editor] has left the helm.” It is perhaps worth noting that editorial board defections are not a new phenomenon, as noted in this 2013 post, its 2015 follow-up, and another similar situation from 2019.
Setting aside for a moment the substantive disagreements that led to the defection of one journal’s editorial board and the firing of another’s editor (and the subsequent wave of board resignations), what intrigue me are the arguments being made in each case about what makes a journal the journal that it is.
The NeuroImage rebels believe that by leaving the journal, they have left it without the qualities and characteristics that made it NeuroImage – and that those qualities and characteristics are portable to the new journal they are now establishing as a competitor. My question in this case may sound philosophical, but it really isn’t (I’m not trying to establish the Platonic essence of NeuroImage). My question is a more practical one: when an author has a manuscript ready to submit to NeuroImage, will she now be less likely to do so than she was before the editorial board defected, and will she be more likely to submit it to Imaging Neuroscience? To what degree are authors aware of the makeup of a journal’s editorial board, and to what degree does that awareness drive a given author’s submission behavior? Commenters, please note: I’m not asserting that authors don’t know anything or care at all about the editorial boards of the journals to which they submit. What I’m wondering is how important those boards are to authors in their real-life submission decisions. Will this hypothetical author see Imaging Neuroscience as the new “real” NeuroImage, and therefore the more desirable outlet for her work?
To what degree is authors’ submission behavior driven by the specific makeup of a journal’s editorial board?
Of course, even if authors really don’t think about editorial boards at all, it’s still possible that those boards contribute so significantly to the overall quality and desirability of the journal as a publishing location that authors’ behavior really is driven to a real degree by that board, whether the author thinks about it that way or not. In such a case, the wholesale defection of that board from Journal A to Journal B really will affect the standing of the former relative to the latter – unless, of course, the publisher of Journal A replaces the board with another just as good.
But it also seems possible – hear me out, now – that in the case of NeuroImage, neither authors nor subscribers will pay much attention to the departure of the board, either in the short or in the long run. Maybe for most authors, the brand name of NeuroImage depends primarily on things other than the makeup of the editorial board (*cough* Impact Factor *cough*), and as long as they feel reasonably confident that the board remains competent, they will still feel very much that they’re submitting to the same NeuroImage they always have. Maybe authors and subscribers alike will simply proceed with business as usual, assuming that Elsevier is fully capable of replacing the old editorial board with another very good one and is very likely to do so. The question here isn’t whether having an editorial board matters; the question is how much the particular individuals who make up a particular editorial board matter – both to the actual quality of the journal and to its desirability as a publication outlet in the minds of authors.
Again, to be clear: I’m not arguing that this is what authors will do, or that authors don’t care about editorial boards. But the confidence with which NeuroImage’s board seems to be asserting its importance to the journal’s brand left me wondering, genuinely, how accurate that assessment is. The departing board members believe they are taking the essence of NeuroImage away with them and giving that essence a new name – and that authors who once wanted to submit to NeuroImage will now want, for all the same reasons, to submit instead to Imaging Neuroscience. But is the essence of a journal portable?
It’s the actual, real-world behavior of authors and subscribers that determines whether a journal stays in business.
In the case of Journal of Political Philosophy, the assertion made by one departing board member was even stronger: his position was that with the loss of its editor, JPP was going to experience a “catastrophic” degradation of its prestige and reputation. If the question arising from the NeuroImage contretemps is “Does the board make the journal?,” then the question suggested by the one at JPP is “Does the editor make the journal?”. Are authors with top-notch papers going to be less likely to submit to JPP once its editor is someone else?
Of course, in the case of JPP the departure of the editor and the selectivity of the journal are connected: reportedly, one major (if not the only) source of friction between Wiley and the fired editor was the former’s desire to increase the number of articles published. But if the editor had been fired for some completely different reason and the journal were going to remain the same going forward except for the installation of a new editor, how much (if at all) would this change the esteem in which authors and readers hold it?
I don’t know – and certainly am not offering – answers to these questions. Ultimately, though, I think the philosophical question (“What is the essence of a journal?”) matters less to the future of a given journal than the more practical, market-based question: what do authors and (to a decreasingly important degree) subscribers believe the essence of a journal to be? It’s the actual, real-world behavior of authors and subscribers, not the answer to deeper philosophical questions, that determines whether a journal stays in business.
On 9 May 2023 I received the following message from Justin Weinberg, editor of Daily Nous and associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina:
I read your piece at Scholarly Kitchen in which you discuss the editorial board resignations at NeuroImage and the Journal of Political Philosophy.
One piece of information that’s relevant to the JPP situation, which you might have missed, is that, prompted by the resignation of the editorial board, a resolution of non-cooperation with the journal was drafted and has been signed by nearly 1000 philosophers from around the world working in political philosophy, political theory, and related areas. You can view that statement here.
(It might be worth updating your post at Scholarly Kitchen to note this.)
So in the case of the JPP, it appears that the resignation of the editorial board could make a rather significant difference to author behavior (as well as potential referee behavior–something you left out of your discussion), and to the viability of the journal.
This is certainly interesting and relevant information and I appreciate Justin bringing it to my attention. This particular intervention, though, seems less like an organic response to the changes in editorial board membership and more like a response to Wiley’s action issued in solidarity with the board members’ departure. In other words, this petition represents a statement of support for the defectors, rather than a change in publishing behavior based on a changed perception of the journal’s rigor and standards due to the change in editorial board makeup itself.