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Lay of Land

Description of a Scholarly Journal

First of all, what is a scholarly journal? Generally, this term refers to a journal that is refereed or peer reviewed (an exception is the legal field, where scholarly journals are generally student-edited publications published by law schools). "Peer review" is a quality control process whereby editors and other experts (peers) evaluate a manuscript for publication.
How can you determine if a particular title is a reputable scholarly journal? Look at a paper copy of a journal or visit its website. Does the journal

  • List an editorial board?
  • Contain instructions to authors that refer to a peer review process?
  • Publish articles that offer new theories, report primary results of research in an academic field, or summarize previous research?
  • Publish over a reasonably long period of time, or articulate a good reason for existing if it is new?
  • Get indexed in DOAJ or a disciplinary database?

If you answer "Yes" to these questions, the chances are good that it is a reasonably reputable scholarly journal. Chat with colleagues or senior faculty to confirm your impression.

An Overview of the Scholarly Publishing Process

Here is the (typical) linear flow of the scholarly publishing process:

  1. Author submits manuscript to academic journal editor
  2. Editor determines whether manuscript has sufficient merit to be reviewed by editorial board or selected external reviewers
  3. Manuscript sent back to the author with a rejection letter or sent on to reviewers
  4. Reviewers return the manuscript to the editor with comments and recommendations (depending on peer review model)
  5. Editor sends manuscript back to the author with either a rejection letter or a request for revisions
  6. Author revises manuscript and resubmits to editor
  7. Editor (sometimes) sends revised manuscript back to external reviewers
  8. Editor accepts or rejects manuscript
  9. Author provides editing or proofing of final copy before publication
  10. Paper is eventually published in journal

This model relies on many individuals playing distinct roles within the overall process of publishing scholarly journals.

Roles in Scholarly Publishing

Four main parties participate in publishing scholarly journals: scholars, editors and peer reviewers, publishers, and subscribers. Each of them has a different set of concerns and perspectives (Miller & Harris, 2004).


  • Scholars create the work that is published. What is most important to scholars is the prestige of the journal, the efficiency and fairness of the review process, the timeliness of publication, and their out-of-pocket publication costs.

Editors and Peer Reviewers

  • Editors and peer reviewers provide quality control for the content, including screening submissions, reviewing manuscripts, suggesting revisions, corresponding with authors, and overseeing the final copy. Their main concern is advancing knowledge in their field, creating a prestigious journal, increasing the potential impact of the journal, and obtaining the support of the publisher.


  • Publishers (usually commercial publishers or professional societies) are responsible for getting the journal into the marketplace. What drives publishers is making a profit (or for professional societies, at least breaking even) on the publication. They are concerned about holding costs down and raising subscription rates to create a healthy profit margin.


  • Subscribers, mostly institutions and libraries, purchase the journals and provide access to the scholars in their community. They are concerned about their budgets and are deeply affected by increases in the price of journal subscriptions. They also want to provide access to the most prestigious journals for their faculty and students.

Conflicts Among the Players

In recent decades tensions have increased among the different groups involved in scholarly publishing owing to several factors:

  • Increasing Volume of Scientific Research.  It has been estimated that knowledge doubles every 15 years, and the volume of new research produced and submitted for publication, especially in technical, scientific and medical fields, has increased substantially (Miller & Harris, 2004). This has led to an increase in the number of pages per journal, more new scholarly journal titles, and increased pressure on the existing peer review system.
  • Publishing Monopolies. Since the mid-1980s, commercial publishers have grown larger through mergers and acquisitions, leading to virtual monopolies in some disciplinary fields.
  • Rising Journal Subscription Costs. Subscription costs for journals have risen dramatically. Association of Research Libraries (ARL) data shows that during the period from 1990 to 2000, the average subscription price increased by more than 10% a year, and average profit margins for commercial publishers grew by 20 to 40 percent per year (Yiotis, 2005). Serial unit costs have risen 3.5 times faster than increases in the consumer price index (Miller & Harris, 2004).
  • Strained Library Subscription Budgets. The subscription budgets for libraries have been strained to the breaking point by spiraling publisher price increases, forcing libraries to cancel journal subscriptions and reduce spending on other materials. In addition, libraries must often pay a surcharge for accessing publishers’ content online, increasing the burden on already tight budgets.
  • Migration to Online Publishing. The advent of electronic communication has put pressure on publishers to explore new methods of providing access to their content online and new pricing models that tie print subscriptions to online access.
  • Push for Open-Access Publishing. The Internet has offered opportunities for libraries and the scientific community to develop "open access" publication models that provide free access to scholarly literature.

In general scholarly publishing is in a state of flux (Kaufman-Wills Group, 2005). This may all seem academic to you, but these changes will affect how you as a scholar publish your work now and in the future. Let’s address a couple of more points on this issue.