Why Journal Special Issues are Popular?

In this blog post, I will talk about journal special issues. I will talk about how special issues of journals are organized and why it can be good to submit to or organize academic journal special issues.

What is a special issue of a journal?

First, I will explain some basic concepts about journals. An academic journal publishes papers written by researchers. These papers are generally published as part of an issue and a volume. An issue is a collection of multiple papers that may not be on the same topic, while a volume is a collection of one or more issues.

For example, a journal may publish an issue every month and four volumes per year. Thus, the first volume would contains the issues of January, February, March and April. Then, the second volume would contain the issues of May, June, July and August, and so on.

Volumes and issues are generally numbered as 1,2,3…. But it is to be noted that some journals do not follow this. For example, some journal will name volumes according to years such as volume 2021 for the year 2021. Moreover, some journals only group papers by volumes and don’t have issue numbers.

Having explained that, what is a special issue? A special issue is a group of papers that are generally on the same topic. For example, a journal may publish a special issue on pattern mining where all the papers are about this topic.  There are also some conferences that will organize special issues in a journal that will contain the best papers of the conference. In that case, the paper of the special issue may not be on the same topic but are grouped based on another criterion.

Each journal has one or more editors that take care of managing the review process of papers by doing some tasks such as inviting reviewers, reading the recommendations of reviewers and deciding to accept, revise or reject papers. For special issues, the papers are generally handled by some guest editors rather than the regular editor(s) of the journal. This means that some researchers are responsible of the special issue, and those researchers are called “guest” because they do not usually work for the journal.

How are the special issues organized?

Generally, the special issues are organized by researchers that talk with the main editor of the journal and ask to organize a special issue in that journal on a specific topic. Then, if the editor accepts, the special issue will be created and there will be some advertisement to invite authors to submit papers to the special issue. A special issue may be open for several months, which means that authors may have several months to write a paper and submit it to a given special issue. When a paper is received for a special issue, it is the guest editors of the special issue that will organize its review.

To propose a special issue, several journals will require to submit a special issue proposal explaining the topic of the special issue, the reasons why the topic is timely, the background of the guest editors, etc. Some journals will receive many such proposals and will only organize a few special issues.

Why organizing special issues?

Journals typically organize special issues to attract papers on emerging or trending topics, as this is what will bring more papers and also citations. For example, a journal may organize a special issue about machine learning for analyzing the COVID19 genome as COVID is now a popular topic. Generally, journals do not like to organize special issues on old topics.

For a journal, special issues can help to bring more papers. This is the reason why some young journals will organize many special issues, while some top journals will rarely organize special issues. Thus a young journal is more likely to accept a proposal for making a special issue than a popular journal, who may just ignore them.

Why researchers want to organize special issues?

There are several reasons. First, it shows that a researcher is able to organize things and it gives editorial experience to a researcher about how to manage papers in a journal. This may latter help a researcher when applying to organize other things such as a workshop, a book or a position in a journal. Second, it gives visibility to a researcher and may help build connections with other researchers.

There are also some researchers that will try to abuse the concept of special issue by organizing many special issues and accepting the papers of their friends in exchange for their papers being in turn accepted in other special issues. This is something unethical that some people do. I have noticed this on websites like DBLP. I will not give any names but I found that some researchers always publish in some special issues of their friends. This does not look good and should be avoided. A researcher should always avoid conflicts of interest and be honest.

Why researchers publish in special issues?

A main reason for a researcher to publish in a special issue is to be part of an issue where all papers are on the same main topic. This will thus give visibility to the paper. For example, a special issue on periodic pattern mining may publish numerous papers on that topic.

Another reason why a researcher may choose to publish in a special issue is that often the review process is faster and sometimes there is a higher chance for a paper to be accepted than if the paper was submitted as a regular paper to the journal. This is for example often the case for special issues about the best papers of a conference. In that case, maybe 14 papers may be invited and 10 or more will be accepted.

Conclusion

In this blog post, I talked about the concept of special issue for academic journals. I gave an overview about why publish in and organize special issues can be interesting for researchers. Hope it has been interesting. Feel free to leave some comments below!

Philippe Fournier-Viger is a full professor working in China and founder of the SPMF open source data mining software.

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