Over the past couple of years, the scientific publishing landscape has been saturated by special issues. Special issues are typically collections of papers published by a journal on a specific topic and, up until now, they were relatively uncommon (hence the adjective ‘special’). However, with the growth of open access publishers, we are seeing more and more of these issues being published every year.
At the Royal Society, we have been publishing collections of articles since the 1990s. Currently, we have three journals specifically dedicated to publishing theme issues; Philosophical Transactions A, Philosophical Transactions B and Interface Focus. Since these journals exclusively publish collections of papers on different topics, we call these ‘theme’ issues instead of ‘special’ issues. The journals publish 50-60 issues collectively per year, and each of these is edited by a team of Guest Editors who are leading researchers in their field.
Since the advent of the world wide web, scientific publishing is almost unrecognisable compared to just 30 years ago. Now in the online environment, the scientific community still value our theme issues. With the special issue model being commoditised and tarnished, we continue to strive to maintain the high integrity of our content. How do we do this?
1. Potential theme issues are first assessed by an independent Board and sent out for external peer review before receiving the go ahead.
Apart from in a few specific scenarios, researchers wishing to edit a theme issue must prepare a full proposal for assessment.
There are two routes by which a Royal Society theme issue can come about. The first is following a Royal Society meeting which has been approved by the Royal Society’s Hooke Committee and by external peer reviewers. Once a meeting has occurred, the speakers are asked to submit their associated work to the relevant theme issue journal and the organisers of the meeting act as the Guest Editors of the resulting issue. You can find out about proposing a Royal Society meeting here.
The second route is via the submission of a theme issue proposal by a team of researchers who are interested in guest editing for the journal in question. Via this route, the proposers are asked to provide information about the topic of their potential theme issue (i.e., it’s timeliness, novelty, and interest to the readers of the journal), and to provide details of their chosen contributors. This proposal is then sent to the journal’s Editorial Board where it is assessed for suitability and then sent out for external peer review. The journal makes careful checks that the Guest Editors are suitable experts in the field. Following assessment, a proposal might be rejected, accepted or revisions might be requested.
2. The peer review process is carefully managed by experts
If a theme issue proposal is accepted, the new Guest Editors will inform their pre-selected contributors that the issue is going ahead. Authors will be provided with their submission instructions and given a submission deadline. For the Philosophical Transactions journals, once the papers start arriving, each article is assigned to one member of the Guest Editor team. They handle the peer review process themselves (i.e., selecting reviewers and sending out the invitations) but are welcome to discuss the articles with their co-editors if they would like to. Once a minimum of two reviewers have been secured and their feedback submitted, a decision is then made by the Guest Editor. For Interface Focus the peer review process is handled by the Editorial Office in partnership with the Guest Editors. Guest Editors are provided with guidance on how to conduct a rigorous review process, are briefed on emerging ethical issues, and receive support from the Editorial Office where required. Throughout the process, the Editorial Office has oversight over the whole issue, and ensures that the papers meet the submission requirements of the journal. However, it is the Guest Editors who have creative and editorial control over their issue and who are responsible for ensuring that the scientific content is of a high standard.
To learn more about the experience of guest editing an issue, read this blog by Dr Kate Hendry.
3. Guest Editors are required to use independent peer reviewers.
Although we do allow papers to be reviewed by other contributors to the theme issue when appropriate, we ask Guest Editors to ensure that at least one other secured reviewer is external to the issue. Additionally, Guest Editors are encouraged to only use one author-recommended reviewer, and to exercise caution and due diligence when using these reviewers. The journal submission system is integrated with a reviewer recommendation tool which is based on author profiles in Web of Science, but again, Guest Editors are encouraged to use this tool with caution. The Editorial Office keeps an oversight to ensure that appropriate reviewers are being used, and that no conflicts of interest are present.
4. Each journal is managed by an Editorial Board made up of eminent scientists, who can provide advice when problems arise.
Like most journals, the Royal Society theme issue journals are managed by external Editorial Boards, which are made up of leading academics. These Board Members, in addition to the journal’s Editor-in-Chief (an experienced, high-profile researcher), are at the Guest Editors’ disposal and can be available to provide expert advice on any difficult decisions, ethical problems, or unforeseen challenges that might arise.
5. There is no guarantee that all the papers will be accepted.
Although contributions are invited to an issue, there is no guarantee that they will be accepted, and Guest Editors are encouraged to reject any paper that does not fit the standard of the journal. Once all of the suitable papers in a theme issue have been accepted, they are typeset together to allow the theme issue to be published at once, in its entirety.
6. All papers are screened by plagiarism software upon submission.
All contributions to a theme issue are screened for plagiarism (and self-plagiarism) upon submission. The Royal Society has a strict plagiarism policy, and any papers that display a significant level of overlap with already published work will be brought to the attention of the Guest Editor by the Editorial Office. Papers that demonstrate high plagiarism levels will either be revised or rejected, depending on the level of overlap and at the editor’s discretion. All Royal Society journals also benefit from the expertise of an image integrity specialist, who can be consulted if concerns are raised about submitted figures or images.
Although the academic publishing industry is evolving at an incredibly fast pace, we must maintain the integrity and transparency of our publishing processes. Therefore, if you have any questions about how our theme issues are managed, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
If you’re interested in guest editing for a Royal Society theme issue journal, you can learn about the benefits of being a Guest Editor on our website, as well as how to submit your own theme issue proposal.