Past, Present, and Future Considerations for Scholarly Journals: Leadership in Context


Leadership is a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal that is dedicated to disseminating research-based and practical information of relevance to the discipline of higher education leadership. The year 2015 marks the beginning of a new decade for Leadership—an opportune time to reflect on the past and consider emergent issues of the present with a view to identifying areas for strategic improvement to ensure the journal’s continued success into the future.

Indeed, staying abreast of changing environmental factors that are likely to impact higher education is central to the mission of the Chair Academy (hereinafter referred to as the Academy) and, by extension, Leadership. Ensuring the ongoing success of Leadership in meeting the needs of college and university leaders is not only the responsibility of the journal editors and Editorial Board; but a shared responsibility of all members of the Academy. Thus, this article has been written with two purposes in mind: first, to raise awareness among our readership community of the historic foundations, trends, and issues underlying the evolution of scholarly journal publications to date; and second, to lay the foundation for future considered discussion within the Academy on potential reforms to enhance the quality, relevance, reputation, and value of Leadership as a primary professional resource.

Accordingly, this article is organized into three sections. The first section presents key findings from a review of recent literature on the historic foundations of scholarly journals, including their importance, primary purposes, and defining elements. The second section presents a high-level portrait of the kaleidoscope of emerging issues at the forefront of debate among industry experts. The third and final section provides a brief portrayal of the Academy’s Leadership journal in context, and concludes with a call to action for you, our readership community, to contribute pertinent information to inform future discussion within the Academy by completing a brief online survey. The findings derived from the survey will be presented in the winter edition of Leadership.

I. Scholarly Journals: Past and Present

Overview of Historic Foundations

The year 2015 is a landmark year for Leadership, and coincidentally marks the 350th anniversary since the publication of the first formal scholarly journal in 1665—the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. This publication has been lauded as the first and longest-running English language scientific journal, and for pioneering the fundamental concepts that continue to underlie the model for almost 30,000 scientific journals in the present day (Royal Society website, 2015, Publishing 350).

Prior to 1665, scientists communicated largely by passing letters between each other. By 1665, there were too many scientists for this method of communication to remain practical. Leveraging the growth of the printing industry, the first-ever journals were introduced to serve essentially the same function as that of the current day journal—to provide a venue for scientists and other interested readers to communicate the latest scientific discoveries, as well as to establish the rights over any intellectual advances of individual scientists (Royal Society website, 2015, Publishing 350).

The establishment and success of scholarly journals as we know them was largely the product of the 19th century, when science publishing grew as a result of increased global participation in scholarly and scientific research, as did the proliferation of discipline-specific journal publications. With increased competition for the best scientific papers, more rigorous and systematic peer-review processes were introduced to address issues of author recognition and to ensure quality control (Royal Society website, 2015, Publishing 350). During this same period, new enabling technologies of the industrial revolution–steam-powered rotary printing presses and efficient rail-based mail service—empowered the distribution of journal publications (Eisen, 2013). As a consequence of the escalating costs for printing and shipping articles around the world, two key features of modern journals were made common practice: (1) journal publishers restricted what was printed to only those works deemed to be of the greatest interest to their target audience; and (2) publishers adopted a subscriptions-based business model, whereby journal copies were sent only to those who paid for a subscription (Almeida, 2013).

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, commercial publishers began to selectively acquire journals that were previously published by nonprofit academic societies (Smart, 2014). During this period, substantial increases in journal subscription charges were introduced due, at least in part, to the compounding costs associated with processing more content, implementing new technologies made possible with the advent of the World Wide Web, as well as commercial opportunism (Smart, 2014). However, the budgets available to libraries for the purchase of journal publications did not increase accordingly. The cumulative effect led to what has become known as “the serials crisis” of the late 1990s to early 2000s—the period of runaway journal cost increases and associated challenges for many libraries in maintaining subscriptions (Smart, 2014).

The search for an alternative business model ensued in response to the serials crisis and gave rise to the movement for more unrestricted “open access” to peer-reviewed scientific research and greater involvement of the academic community in the publishing process (Smart, 2014). Active debate over the economics and reliability of various ways of providing open access continues to the present day (Eisen, 2013; Almeida, 2013; Smart, 2014; Ware, 2006).

Present-Day Features of Scholarly Journals

Since their inception, scholarly journals have consistently been a primary form of formal scholarly communication. According to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), scholarly communication is defined as “the system through which research and other scholarly writings are created, evaluated for quality, disseminated to the scholarly community, and preserved for future use” (ARL website, 2015). Of the 30,000 active scholarly journals available in 2014, the vast majority (95%) published only articles stemming from original research, with the balance (5%) consisting of hybrids—academic journals that meld journalistic and research content (Ware and Mabe, 2015, p. 27).

Throughout the literature, the term “scholarly journals” has been used synonymously, and often interchangeably, with “academic journals”, “scientific journals”, “peer-reviewed journals”, and “refereed journals”—an apparent reflection of their defining elements. By most authoritarian accounts (UK House of Commons, 2004; Ware and Mabe, 2015), the core defining elements of scholarly journals include:

  • It is a formal written form of scholarly communication;

  • It is published on a periodic basis by an institution, corporation, or a professional or scholarly society;

  • Its content is written by experts for experts in a specific academic discipline or field;

  • It includes original research or intellectual inquiry along with citations for all sources used; and

  • It usually involves a peer-review process prior to publication.

According to the aforementioned authorities, the fundamental purposes (or functions) of scholarly journals have stayed the course of time to the present day and include:

  • Registration: establishing an author’s primacy as the originator of their scholarly work,

  • Dissemination: communicating the findings to its intended audience,

  • Certification: ensuring quality control through peer review and rewarding authors, and

  • Archival record: preserving a fixed version of the paper for future reference and citation.

Given the proliferation of scholarly journals in recent years, some industry experts have suggested that other related purposes should be added to the list, such as (a) services to assist in navigating or filtering the massive volumes of published material (e.g., key word search tools), (b) building a collective knowledge base on new ideas generated, and (c) fostering knowledge communities on topics of common interest (Schaffner, 2009; Ware and Mabe, 2015).

Since the early 1960s, publication of articles in scholarly journals has become and continues to be used as a prime indicator of professional recognition and standing for the scientific community, as well as a factor in award decisions of research funding organizations (Ware and Mabe, 2015).

II. Emerging Issues

With the explosion of technological advances, particularly since the introduction of the Internet in the early 1990s, a plethora of potential innovations to the scholarly publishing system have been proposed and, in some cases, piloted; yet the pace of widespread change has been reportedly more incremental than revolutionary (Moxham, 2015; Clarke, 2010). Indeed, some industry experts have observed with considerable amazement that disruptive change (described as a “sustaining innovation” by Clay Christensen in his seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, 2003) has not occurred as in other communications industries, such as in the newspaper industry (Clarke, 2010).

Findings from a survey commissioned by Canadian Science Publishing titled, Canadian Researchers’ Publishing Attitudes and Behaviours: A Phase 5 Report (March 7, 2014), confirmed the findings from other international surveys of researchers—“that there is a disconnect between researchers’ apparent agreement with the principle of open access (i.e., that research should be freely available to everyone) and their