What Huffy Editors Can Forget

Storming off believing starting a new journal only requires the same editors may not be a strong flex

The recent very public editorial defections from journals — Wiley’s Journal of Political Philosophy and Elsevier’s NeuroImage and its companion case journal, NeuroImage: Reports — have started a discussion about whether editors hold the key relationships with the authors and readers, or if the publisher does.

First, as I’ve written before, these little dust-ups are one of many ways new journals get formed — it’s showy because we’re in an age of performative media, but it happens. Major and minor journals of all kinds have been founded in such a manner, and a host of medical societies were founded when the AMA failed to address their needs in the early 20th century, leading to far more defections of far greater social and financial impact. When it’s a single journal, most fields are large enough to sustain both, and the journal the editors leave does just fine in 99% of cases. (The only exception I can find occurred when an editor also managed to take the journal’s title with him — a major hint at the power of the brand.)

Despite working for publishers, editors can have a fairly blinkered view of what it takes to run a journal. Those leaving Elsevier have struck a deal with MIT Press for its new title, triggering quotes from MIT Press leadership about their limited capacity is to launch new titles — they know it’s a lot of work, and they’re careful to adopt the workload. This underscores the point, as those leaving Wiley haven’t made any public plans known for how they plan to start anew, but they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

Here are a few things these editors might not have encountered before, having been essentially contractors of a larger publisher:

  1. Conceptualizing and running an effective brand marketing effort for the new title. This includes securing any trademarks for the title they may need in various territories, as well as checking that their trademark is not in conflict with any existing marks.
  2. Purchasing and managing software and systems for manuscript management, plagiarism checks, DOI generation, analytics, and web publishing.
  3. Dealing with legal aspects of the new journal (trademark, copyright, liability, HR).
  4. Contracts.
  5. Payroll, AP, and AR, along with general accounting and financial management.

If you care, there are 102 things I was able to identify over the years which publishers do. The list is probably longer now, because nothing has gotten simpler.

More importantly is the culture and cross-subsidization effects a well-established publisher brings. For those editors moving to MIT Press, they are moving to a publisher with some compatible neurology titles, a positive sign, but a very different culture. Will it prove effective for their title? Will their desires all be fulfilled in this new venue?

The others may or may not understand the importance of their next move in this regard.

In any event, a culture — whether it’s staid or aggressive, sales-capable or sales-inhibited, worldwide or limited to certain territories, linked to a suite of complementary titles or related only to a few or none — matters a great deal when it comes to the level of attention the journal gets in-house and on the market. Sales are critical to success, and sales support is vital. If there is a flagship journal or dominant suite of titles, a new entrant may get short shrift after some initial excitement. If the new culture is not geared to worldwide sales — like those of Wiley and Elsevier are more likely to be — then the chances of matching prior success is limited. Authors need to know about a journal, there are fallow years when a new journal establishes itself, and market awareness may lag if the publisher’s culture is stunted on the sales and marketing side.

Fine editorial work is not the sole predictor of journal success — not by a long shot. The journals market has particular challenges — the time needed to be indexed and receive an IF, and the need to compete for authors and institutional budgets, for instance.

Editorial hubris is one thing. Making a good journal in a competitive marketplace is another. MIT Press is a good home for the one set of huffy editors, who may find that some publishing factors don’t change, while the others may struggle or fail. Either way, both are in for a rude awakening about what their publisher was doing for them, and how well. It’s only a matter of time.