Be picky

Let's do away with journals' special issues

Goudstaven, foto Pixabay
Foto Pixabay

We all know the nuisance: our inboxes filled with emails inviting us to submit ‘our best work’ to a special issue of a journal. Most of these invitations are from predatory journals and can easily be deleted. But sometimes these emails come from esteemed colleagues and seem like a good opportunity to get our work in a relevant special issue.

Nevertheless, I categorically refuse to accept these invitations. Special issues are an anachronism, are ineffective, and can even harm the academic publishing culture. We should stop with the practice of publishing in special issues.

Before the internet and social media, when journals were still paper magazines, the readership of our scientific articles depended critically on which journal we published in. In the early 2000s when I did my PhD, our institute coffee room table was covered with journal magazines. During breaks, we would browse through them for the latest research in our field. So, it mattered in which journal we published, because most institutes had only a few subscriptions. Special issues, in which a dozen or so articles on a same topic were collated, were even more impactful, as the paper versions of these magazines were kept for a long time. The first stack of reading my supervisor gave me when I started my PhD was a special issue on Inter-ocean exchanges around southern Africa, and that kept me busy for a while.

But nowadays almost no academic journal is printed,  nor are special issues. The way to get our results read by our colleagues is by advertising it on (social) media and at conferences. We are our own work’s advertisers. It’s far less important in which journal we publish than it was 20 years ago, as long as the editorial quality is sufficient. 

But worse, special issues are not only a relic of the past, they are also harmful. They set meaningless deadlines, that can lead to pointless stress with authors – often young PhD candidates. And they reduce the quality of the peer-review process, because all experts on a field are tied up in reviewing a wave of submissions on a topic, often overwhelming them. The peer-review process of the special issues that I submitted to has been among the worst I’ve experienced. 

So, let’s stop the ineffective, harmful practice of special issues, and instead submit our work to gold (or better, diamond!) open access journals. 

PS: while we’re at it, another simple way to improve publishing culture is to be more stringent about which articles we review. For almost five years now, I categorically refuse to review for non-gold-open-access journals. I always send this reply to the editor: “Thank you for the invitation to review. However, I choose to focus my reviewing efforts on Gold Open Access articles, to support the advance of Open Science.”