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.

Ship of Theseus at Roman pool at Hearst Castle. Image by Catherine Soehner, used under CC BY license.

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.

This points up a distinction I didn’t explore in my piece: that between those who avoid a journal for what amount to political reasons (as in this case) and those who avoid it because they’re not confident in the journal’s intrinsic editorial quality.
Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


19 Thoughts on "Is the Essence of a Journal Portable?"

If your question is not a philosophical one, then it is a cynical one because it should not be a question of whether it matters (in the long run) that they have resigned, but why the full editorial board of Neuroimage thought it was necessary to resign. There is a principal issue at the heart of this which should matter to the whole academic community. I surely hope their decision will lead to many others following their rebellious example.

You’re mistaken. There’s nothing cynical about discussing the long-term ramifications of the Neuroimage board’s resignation. The question of why they resigned is also an issue worth discussing, but that’s not what this particular essay is about. You can find plenty of good discussion of that issue elsewhere — for example, if you follow the links I provided in my piece.

Many editors and editorial board members enjoy personal relationships with authors, not to be ignored in the world of highly specialized journals. My impression has often been that personal trust and respect is the key to how many authors follow – or not – the migration of an editorial board.

After a good number of years of observing journals, on both sides of the fence, I am absolutely convinced that journals are mainly personal. It is common to hear about a journal being referred to as ‘so and so’s journal’ now; more so than in the old days when we occasionally heard about ‘the blue journal’ or ‘the red journal’. If you look at the history (the real history: go back to 1840 and up) of journal publishing, there are some great examples of editors and publishers killing titles by steering them the wrong way or just sitting back and assuming they’ll develop nicely on their own. The current move towards the mega journal is going to be a big problem too because the personal steer will go unless journals are published in very distinct sections with their own boards.

Thank you for this. I think it’s also important to think about the incentivess at play from all sides. Academics will go to whichever journal most benefits their own chances of getting hired/promoted/tenured. That’s why something like the Impact Factor has such an outsized influence, because hiring and tenure committees use it as a shorthand for quality of articles. Until these inequitable practices are completely abolished, things like IF will continue to hold excessive weight.

The IF is really not such a big deal as it was say, 5 yrs ago. Our university signed the DORA Declaration, which has put paid to some of the worst careerism over journal choices.

Most journals, certainly society owned journals, rotate Editors and Associate Editors, typically after 1 or 2 4 or 5 year terms. Editorial Board members also have tenure determined by a number of factors — balance of EBMs in terms of diversity and inclusion, contribution/performance (speed and frequency of turning in reviews), and topic balance of submissions to the journal. So while certainly not as sudden as the NeuroImage and JPP situations (that grab the headlines), flux in journal editorial leadership is constant and normal — and journals typically suffer little during such transitions. In my view, a journal has a reality to authors and readers beyond who occupies the editorial chair.

Over nearly 40 years in journals I observed a number of board resignations. There were a number of different outcomes of course, but in a number of cases the resignations prompted a restructuring of the journal and often an increase in the number of quality submissions and acceptances.

In my mind it is not so much of the board as it is of the role and scope of the journal. If the new board does not rewrite the role and scope it seems to me that the journal has the same mission.

The scholarly community really needs to wake up. The examples given here are, in my view, mainly a function of commercial over-reach by publishers. Essentially, publishers are pushing editors and editorial boards to go beyond their comfort zones on quantity and quality, and then sacking them when they baulk, or obtaining their resignations by other means.

One of the issues we have is that since the campaign against impact factors we have not developed sufficient metrics to help us sort the sheep from the goats (to use a standard figure of speech!). A recent example is an author examining the suspect commercial practices of another publishers using a number of criteria for defining a “predatory” publisher, and then that publisher turning round and getting the article amended on grounds that the same publisher would probably fail and never adhere to anyway.

We are in trouble. There are metrics out there, and we should use them, along with qualitative judgements, to help us sort the wheat from the chaff (to use another figure of speech!).

I agree with this assessment; scholarly publishing has been compromised by publisher profit-seeking, exploiting the value placed on quantity of publications over quality for recognition and academic promotion. Any follower of Retraction Watch gets daily examples, deeply troubling, of the consequences of this incentive framework.

Exactly. And journal choice is increasingly driven by author’s ethical choices, too, as the Elsevier resignations showed. I doubt the resigning Board will choose the same publisher in future.

FWIW, when we went through a similar situation with the Journal of Informetrics editorial group resigning in 2019 and then starting Quantitative Science Studies with MIT Press, we were uncertain whether the community would follow. It turns out they did in very significant numbers; the journal’s paper flow has been solid and there’s been no shortage of highly-cited work thanks to the excellent job done by Ludo Waltman, Vincent Lariviere, and the rest of the editorial team in getting the community to embrace the journal. A recent study published in Scientometrics indicated that QSS has already had a notable impact despite its youth:

“Our results show that Scientometrics is the journal that bears the most influence on current production when not corrected for journal size and that Quantitative Science Studies—a small, relatively new journal not yet assigned a Journal Impact Factor nor present on any list of core LIS journals—is the journal that has shown the most significant recent influence when controlling for size.”

We may not get the same outcome here but the positive experience with QSS let’s us know it’s possible and certainly worth the effort to find out.

The portability of a journal’s editors is reflected in its transparency.

How many editors on the Editorial Board of MIT Press’ Quantitative Science Studies overlap with Editors on the Editorial Board of Springer Nature’s Scientometrics?

Could the success of one be used to feed the success of the other…?

That is why, in my opinion, “competing” editorial positions should always be declared by Editors:

Teixeira da Silva, J.A. (2021) Conflicts of interest arising from simultaneous service by editors of competing journals or publishers. Publications 9(1): 6. DOI: 10.3390/publications9010006

Teixeira da Silva, J.A. (2021) Personal conflicts of interest in the publishing enterprise: focus on journal editors. Central Asian Journal of Medical Hypotheses and Ethics 2(4): 215-221. DOI: 10.47316/cajmhe.2021.2.4.05

I think you will not ever get an answer to your question, because it is convoluted with authors’ opinion about the issue causing the board to resign/move. And no “single variable experiment” is possible.

As such this remains of philosophical nature…

It seems to me, Rick, that your question is best answered from a business perspective rather than a research merit perspective. The old journal is going to continue to thrive because of basic consumer behavior motivations like security, FOMO, identity and belonging, price, peer recommendations, obligation, fear, price, and happiness (see, for example, for more detail). The “only” thing the new journal has going for it at the moment is expertise, and it takes a long time for consumers to recognize and reward this attribute in the marketplace (if this regonition and reward happen at all). Consumers will stick with the old journal because they are familiar with the brand (and their peers are also familiar with it), the brand has good benefit for their careers (impact factor), they have trust that the brand is managed by an expert and influential player (Elsevier), most researchers in the field probably won’t be aware of or particularly care about the editorial board swap, and so on. Ultimately, sticking with the old journal will be the safer and more rewarding bet for researchers (which isn’t to say that the new journal might eventually do well, too). In the end, their decision won’t be influenced by a lot of thinking about what’s right and what’s best for research, but by the same predictable, self-centered decision process that governs all other consumer behavior.

You underestimate the passion and ethical positions taken by researchers/authors, and their growing dislike of commercial publishers. We don’t all go with safety or make an economic, selfish calculation on journal choice.

The question of portability is an excellent and compelling question. Thank you. I am inclined to think that answers to the question, however knowable, must vary across disciplines, methodologies, and scholarly communities. I do think that with the two cases reflected in this post, it is challenging to extricate the question of portability, on its own, from the intertwined landscape of government and/or funder policy + business model. In other words, it is likely too early to say right now whether we might see editorial board defections that have a connection to the APC “market” (and, by extension, OSTP/Nelson) differently than we saw editorial board defections in the pre-OSTP/Nelson world. If we continue to transfer substantial costs and administrative burdens to our research communities, the members of which we think would be otherwise focused on science, in order to sustain commercial publishing, it stands to reason that we will need to adjust the lenses through which we see headline-making actions like editorial board defections… Watch this space?

I agree with Rick’s bottom line about authors: A journal is nothing without its authors, and so why its authors choose it really determines its essence. I’ve worked for several society publishers, and author surveys frequently indicate that authors choose a journal for its scope, its decision-making timeframe, and its audience. Of course, those aspects are determined by other factors: Scope is determined by the publisher, perhaps with input from editorial leadership. Audience may be determined by scope, by business model (who pays or doesn’t have to pay), and by publisher (eg. benefit of society membership; eg. marketing effectiveness). And decision-making timeframe is determined by editors and their ability to get the needed reviews. So the editorial leadership will be key to attracting authors, if only to get their submissions reviewed in a timely fashion.

But editorial leadership also is used to signal to authors. The societies I’ve worked for have frequently recruited more diverse editorial board members both demographically (to signal to authors openness in that area) and topically (to signal to authors a new emphasis in a certain area of inquiry). When the editorial leadership changes incrementally over time, there will likely be a consistency in constituent authors and in their allegiance to the journal. But when there’s a wholesale change in editorial leadership, at a minimum the ability to recruit reviewers and thus make timely decisions will be impacted, and as noted above the circumstances surrounding the change will probably affect author submissions, too. Editorial leadership isn’t the only thing that matters to a journal’s essence, but it’s significant in its effects on submitting authors.

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