A journal is as a journal does: Four emergent properties of journals in scholarly communication

For 350 years, the scholarly journal has played a role in the communication of research. More recently, with millions of articles readily searchable and with preprints servers extending across many topics, some aspects of this communications role are being met by other products. Discovery often takes place on or through aggregators, and distribution of research can precede publication in a journal. Nonetheless, the journal occupies a unique level of organization between the articles and platforms of articles, and most of the important properties of journals exist solely at the level of the journal as an organic whole: not just a collection of papers, but a system of content and collaborations.


In 1999, the economist Jeffrey Goldstein described emergence as “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns, and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.”[1] Journals are self-organizing systems in that they arise not as the sole creation of an individual author or individual editor, but as the result of dynamic, independent actions of many stakeholders and groups of stakeholders. Authors, reviewers, editorial boards, editors, publishers, and readers all participate in the development of a journal as a whole. Journals are created and maintained by a set of collaborative processes through which content is submitted, evaluated, improved, selected, produced, distributed, discovered, and consumed. Journals have properties that are not present or predictable within the individual articles and that are not easily replicated in more generalized structures such as platforms or databases.

Particular features that arise solely at the journal level and underlie their contribution to the scholarly communications system are described below, both as features of the journal and in terms of how they arise from the work of participating stakeholders.



“The Red Journal” is a familiar entity to researchers in gastroenterology, though the title on the spine is American Journal of Gastroenterology. The sans serif font of the Cell Press journals was iconic through the journal’s early years, making even isolated copies of articles immediately identifiable. Medical professionals and researchers know where to find a Case Record of Massachusetts General Hospital (New England Journal of Medicine) and, if they know that, they are likely to know that is different from a Clinical Challenge (JAMA-Journal of the American Medical Association) and a Clinical Picture (The Lancet).

Scope, type of materials published, the idiosyncratic names of sections, the familiar layout for the table of contents, the design and navigation of the journal’s website, the title, and logo are all non-quality features of a journal’s being recognizable, of its “character.” Increasingly, the business and publication model (OA or subscription, continuous publication or regularized issues), author and editor diversity, and other features of a journal’s operations, such as peer review model and time to publication, also contribute to the perceived character of a publication.

Character both defines and is defined by the communications goals of the journal. Society-managed journals may include non-research, non-scholarly materials that support the organization’s mission or vision like community engagement, public policy in support of research, continuing education, the broader benefit of society, and development of the professional network of its members. Journals targeted to practitioners (as opposed to academic researchers) may include more descriptive or educational works. Even journals that publish mostly or exclusively research content have character through their reputation, brand, and perspective on the topic of study.

Character arises collaboratively through the interactions between the publisher, editor, and editorial board. They determine the vision for the journal and anticipate its contribution to the topic or fulfillment of a community’s needs. They set the guidelines for sections and the goals for the publication and the market. They determine the tone of communications within and around the operation of the journal. An influential, recognizable editor may play an outsized role in defining the journal’s character; nevertheless, many journals replace or rotate editorial responsibility regularly and successfully. A robust and well-managed journal benefits from its editorial team and also survives changes in leadership.  Some features of how character is created are primarily influenced by the publisher,[2] but this is seldom entirely independent of the academic editorial board.



At the journal level, content is defined by the process of curation and the effects of this curation on the materials published.

Content does not begin and end with the articles published. Rather, the content of a journal begins with the articles submitted, since these are necessarily the raw materials from which the journal selects. While content can be requested or even commissioned, it is a struggle for new journals to establish a pipeline of appropriate submissions. Every journal must work with what independent authors decide to submit for consideration.

Content as a property at the journal level, also includes the steps by which submitted articles are developed through peer and editorial review. Surveys have consistently shown that authors believe their work has been improved in quality through the process of peer review[3]. Further, a recent study showed that the more rounds of review an article has completed, the higher its later citation profile[4]. While these reports cannot be taken as a de facto demonstration of increased article quality, they do indicate that peer review represents an active engagement around content among several parties; author(s), reviewer(s), editor(s), and often the publisher manage and administer the system.

Finally, editorial selection sets an overall direction for the journal. In addition to the evaluation of quality of an individual item, content decisions reflect what the decision maker values in the field – the topics and types of research that are important.

An operational definition of content has two additional features when considered at the journal level: intellectual synergy and reputational effect. Attracting articles on a topic, subjecting them to review and curation, and co-presenting them allows related articles to contribute to each other’s discoverability and interest. A slightly different manifestation of that phenomenon is demonstrated in the fact that identical articles published in two different journals will show citation rates that correlate to the citation performance of the journal.[5]. Whether this effect is attributable to reputation (see “Character,” above), distribution (see “Community,” below), it means that the article operates differently when presented in the context of a different journal. A journal adds a layer of meaning to the content it has brought together.

Content expands the contributors to a journal beyond those who are committed to the success of the journal itself. From publisher-editor-editorial board, content extends the system of a journal to authors who submit to the journal and to other journals and to reviewers who participate in article development, selection, and rejection for the journal and for other journals.



As a property of journals, community can be defined as how a journal creates a nexus for a scholarly dialog, not only among the authors, reviewers, and editors, but also the topic’s scholarly community of specialists or general-interest readers.

Like character, community is anchored in the journal’s scholarly communication goals. The journal’s successful creation of its intended community is not entirely determined by its management, but also by the self-organization of an interested group of participants who read and use the journal. Journals affiliated with scholarly societies may have some advantage in their access to a membership community. Journals affiliated with large publishers may have the advantage of expansive and experienced marketing and distribution networks. However, independent journals in a specialized topic also have a community dynamic based on the network of existing scholarly interactions on and around the subject itself. This, in fact, is the most basic type of community as a property of journals.

A more subtle aspect of the community around and within a journal include the developed sense of trust that readers have in the type, quality, and editorial direction of the materials they expect to find in a journal—the trust of the authors that their article is reaching its intended audience.



A final property of journals that emerges systemically is continuity.  Journals are not static entities, but are constantly evolving. Like a “Ship of Theseus,”[6] a journal possesses an ongoing identity despite the continual replacement of its components. A journal is not one article, or one issue, or one volume, therefore it is possible to consider a journal across time in a way that makes less sense for the more stable properties of an individual article. A journal’s continuity, across years, allows it to develop properties of character, content, and community as an entity in its own right.

To disarticulate a journal into a tabulation of articles destroys something essential and meaningful about the journal as a complex system comprising the work and the vision of an editor and publisher; the contribution and collaboration of reviewers and authors; the participation of readers who cite the journal; and the interest of readers whose use is reflected in practice, knowledge, or insight. Articles, curated and collected into a journal, absorb some of the properties of the journal. A journal known for outstanding editorial oversight, commitment to developmental review, and an engaged community of authors and readers will benefit from the reputation of the journal. Similarly, the journal is dependent on the continued excellence of both editorial activities and article quality to maintain this reputation.

The system of articles in journals has been a critical part of how knowledge has been advanced and shared in all fields of study. While the value of an article cannot be fully implied by the journal that publishes it; neither can the value of a journal be fully implied by any one article it published. Each exists as a specific level of organization in the complex system of scholarly communication, and has an important role to play.


[1] Jeffrey Goldstein (1999) Emergence as a Construct: History and Issues, Emergence, 1:1, 49-72, DOI: 10.1207/s15327000em0101_4

[2] See items 3, 6, 39, and 40, in a recent Scholarly Kitchen post: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/02/06/focusing-value-102-things-journal-publishers-2018-update/ )

[3] https://authorservices.taylorandfrancis.com/peer-review-global-view/

[4] Rigby, J., Cox, D. & Julian, K. Scientometrics (2018) 114: 1087. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-017-2630-5

[5] Tobias Opthof (1997). Sense and nonsense about the Journal Impact Factor. Cardiovascular Research, 33 (1):1–7, DOI: 10.1016/S0008-6363(96)00215-5

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus