Image Credit: Thomas Rousing

When you think of the term “brand name” you likely associate it with various consumer companies. Many of us have go-to brands we prefer for clothes, electronics, food, and so forth. “Brand-name” scholarly journals likely aren’t the first thing that comes to mind. But, if you take a moment to consider whether there are any journals that are better known in your field than their competitor titles, your thought process may change. You can likely come up with at least three “brand-name” publications off the top of your head.

In a recent LSE Impact Blog post titled “Addicted to the brand: The hypocrisy of a publishing academic,” Philip Moriarty, Professor of Physics at University of Nottingham, states “In academia, journal brand is everything.” Moriarty recounts his experience participating in committee discussions related to scholarly career advancement, during which candidates were compared based on the perceived quality of the names of the journals in which they were published rather than the quality of their research or their efforts to advance access to it. Moriarty laments this reality.

What makes some journals “brand names”? Often these publications hold greater clout in the minds of scholars because they are established and have high Impact Factors (IF). These are the traditional markers of a quality publication “brand” and journals with these markers tend to get the most competitive submissions thereby validating their brand-name status.

As with mainstream brand-name products, based on the needs of consumers, industries change — and when they do, so do industry leaders. With the shift towards digital publishing and open access, factors like the amount of time a journal has been around and who it’s publisher is are becoming less important. Rather, scholars like Moriarty, as well as universities, research foundations, and government organizations, are encouraging journals to take steps to make their content more accessible and engaging. As a result, the notion of brand-name journals is changing.

Journal accessibility is becoming more important than age

Age - a sign that a journal is established in its field, or that its publication model could be becoming outdated? Today, it can go either way based on how the journal is making its research available to readers. Most “brand-name” journals tend to be publications owned by older publishing houses that have followed the traditional subscription model, requiring libraries and scholars to pay often hefty fees for access to research. In our increasingly open access world, this practice is being spun around. Scholars are seeking ways to make their often publicly-funded research available more freely to those in and outside of academia, and research institutions and funding bodies are backing them up. Among them, the Research Councils UK (RCUK) has been making waves in recent years by requiring all researchers funded by any of the seven UK research councils to make their articles green or gold OA.

Publishers and journals that make it difficult for scholars to make their research open access are becoming more susceptible to criticism that could tarnish their “brand name” status. Case in point Elsevier, which announced a new article sharing policy in April 2015 and sparked outrage from the scholarly community. Organizations like the Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR) called out flaws in the new model, such as the fact that Elsevier’s new policy imposed embargo periods of up to 48 months for some journals.

Consequently, it’s become crucial for journals to make their OA policies highly transparent and to find ways to advance scholars’ ability to share their research outputs, not hinder them. Scholars are looking for journals with:

  • Green and/or Gold OA options in their author instructions
  • Transparent author-side publishing fees
  • Clear agreements and timelines for making embargoed articles green OA
  • Markers of OA quality, such as inclusion in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) index or membership is relevant groups like the Open Access Scholarly Publisher’s Association (OASPA)
  • Open policies towards addendums to publication agreements that protects author rights, such as the SPARC Author Addendum

Research impact is being more widely interpreted

The open access movement and the rise in digital publishing that is fueling it has also resulted in shifts in opinion about which metrics are indicative of publication quality. Since Eugene Garfield, American linguist and one of the founders of bibliometrics and scientometrics, proposed the concept of the journal Impact Factor (IF) in 1955 it has been the gold standard of measuring research impact. As a result, journals with high Impact Factors have been deemed more reputable publications. The Impact Factor, which reflects the average number of citations a journal receives for its recent articles, typically calculated at two and five year intervals, isn’t without its flaws, though. Researchers, scholarly organizations, and publishers have come forward to challenge the seemingly untouchable status of the IF as the seal of the quality of journals and the scholars publishing in them. Efforts like The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) have brought more attention to the flaws in relying on IF as the leading indicator of research quality. Among challenges inherent in the IF are that:

  • IF takes a long time to accrue, putting young journals, such as newly launched OA publications, at a disadvantage because some articles take months or even years to begin getting citations
  • Article citations aren’t synonymous with quality - some articles are widely cited for their mistakes, ironically helping the IFs of the journals that published them
  • IF is a journal-level metric, rather than article level metric, so a quality article may garner many citations but if it is published in a less established journal, relying on the journal’s IF will make it impossible to see the full picture of that article’s individual influence

In light of concerns raised by scholars, publishers, and organizations alternative impact indicators are coming to the foreground including altmetrics, metrics collated from mentions of research in nontraditional online outlets such as news media, public policy, post publication peer review forums, or social media. Though still an imperfect measure of research impact, when used alongside the IF altmertrics offer scholars a broader and more holistic picture of how their research is being found, referenced, and built upon. For scholarly journals, the rise of alternative metrics means one of two things:

  1. For journals with historically high IF, relying on a legacy IF as proof of publication reputation and reach may not be enough anymore
  2. For journals with low or no IF, there are now new opportunities to display their content’s reach and impact

Some scholars are beginning to favor journals that display altmetrics impact for their articles above those journals that only display a high IF, such as Melissa Terras, Director of University College London’s (UCL) Centre for Digital Humanities. In an interview Terras said, “I couldn’t care less about an Impact Factor, I am only interested in my research reaching an audience.” For Terras, seeing proof of altmetrics impact or article level metrics instead of or in addition to IF is most important when choosing a journal to publish with.

Scholars are seeking journals with an active digital presence

The rise of online publishing has a lot to do with how scholars are starting to rethink the markers of a quality journal, by focusing more on accessibility than age and seeking publications that display alternative metrics in addition to high IF. The internet has made open access publishing possible, by reducing the cost of producing journals, and it’s given rise to new metrics such as tracking altmetrics like an article’s social share counts and article-level metrics like pageviews. As these aspects of online publishing continue to come to the forefront of how scholars and organizations assess journals, having a quality online presence is becoming more important than ever for journals.

Journals must take steps to make more of their articles openly available online and to encourage sharing and engagement with articles to foster alternative impact in addition to traditional bibliometric impacts. Journals can do this by:

  • Taking steps to resurface or share and republish old articles to make more readers aware of them
  • Establishing a presence on social media outlets like Twitter and using them as platforms to engage with readers and share published research
  • Revamping their website designs to showcase more content as well as the different kinds of impact their published research is having

Who will be the new “brand-name” journals?

All of this talk of “brand names” and changing expectations for journals raises the question - will there soon be a new group of “brand-name” journals? Will the journals with the most coherent and viable open access policies, a new mix of impact metrics, and more digitally-focused content rise to become the next leaders in their respective disciplines? It’s hard to say. What’s clear, though, is that scholars seem to be shifting from solely focusing on journals with historical prestige to looking for high-quality journals that are also promoting the advancement of research and education worldwide via more open and engaging publishing practices.

The Journal Editor's Definitive Guide to Digital Publishing