Journal incubator

The Lethbridge Journal Incubator is a pilot project hosted by the University of Lethbridge Library under the direction of Daniel Paul O’Donnell and supported by the University of Lethbridge School of Graduate Study.

The goal of the incubator is to address the issue of the sustainability of scholarly communication in an open access, digital age by aligning it with the educational and research missions of the University.In this way, the production of scholarly communication, which is often understood as a cost centre that draws resources away from a host university’s core missions, is itself transformed into a sustainable, high-impact resource that applies largely existing funding in ways that significantly increase the research and teaching capacity of the institution.

The basic premise of the incubator is that the skills and experiences involved in contemporary scholarly journal production are both generalisable across disciplines and of significant value to graduate students whether they pursue post-graduate careers within or without the academy.

Through their work in the incubator, students will acquire training, managerial
experience, and networking opportunities that are both of immediate use to them
in their research domains and easily transferred to other aspects of their
academic or professional careers. These skills are, moreover, highly
sought-after by public and private sector employers, especially when combined
with the higher-level analytic skills acquired in the course of their graduate
studies.

How it Works

The incubator works by training graduate students in technical and managerial
aspects of journal production. On the one hand, academic journals are highly
specialised publications that require high-level, research-domain-specific
skills and knowledge from their authors, editors, and readers. On the other
hand, however, the actual process by which journals are produced is relatively
standard and requires very little research-domain knowledge.

Figure 1: The incubator breaks down the publication process into high-
and low-specialisation tasks


The incubator breaks down the publication process into high- and low-specialisation tasks

Under the supervision of academics, professional librarians, and a professional
office manager, students are introduced to the core elements of the workflow
that underlies the production of all academic journals and trained in detail
both in one or more technical aspects of journal production (copy-editing,
preparation of proofs, document-encoding, the use of standard
journal-production software), and, more broadly, in the duties of an academic
journal managing editor (supervising the progress of articles through the
workflow from receipt to publication, corresponding with authors and referees,
keeping minutes of editorial meetings, and the like). Students then assume
managerial responsibility for one or two titles from their broad area of domain
expertise while also working as production assistants specialising in one or
more technical aspects of journal production across all titles, regardless of
discipline, in the incubator as a whole.

Benefits for students

This mix of duties allows students to acquire first hand experience with the
norms and practices involved in the production and dissemination of
contemporary research in their broad area of research expertise and
professional training in and supervised experience with cutting-edge digital
technology and processes that are both highly sought after and easily
generalisable.

Figure 2: Students acquire domain-specific experience (vertical axis) and generalisable management and technical skills (horizontal
axis)


Students acquire domain-specific experience (vertical axis) and generalisable management and technical skills (horizontal axis)

By acting as managing editor for one or two individual titles (vertical
axis), students meet and work closely with editors and research-active
faculty in their broad area of expertise: in addition to observing how
research is produced and adjudicated in their research domain, students are
also discovering important developing areas of enquiry in their fields and,
through their correspondence with editors, authors, and referees, meeting
research-active potential future supervisors and collaborators.

By acting as a production assistant specialising in one or more areas of
contemporary journal production across the journals in the incubator
(horizontal axis), on the other hand, students both learn skills that are in
high demand across the public and private sectors and, perhaps as
importantly, discover the extent to which their graduate training involves
the acquisition of skills and experiences that are generalisable outside
their research discipline.

Benefits for faculty and institution

The journal incubator does not only enrich the graduate student experience:
it also increases the research capacity of the University. The skills
graduate students acquire in the course of working in the incubator, for
example, are identical to or closely allied with those required for many new
forms of digitally-assisted research in the Humanities and Social Sciences:
students who go through the incubator programme will be well-equipped to
take on significant digitally assisted research tasks as part of their
thesis research or their work with faculty on faculty-directed research
projects.

Just as importantly, the incubator will materially assist faculty members
who assume editorial responsibility for academic journals in their
discipline. It removes most of the administrative burden currently
associated with editing an academic journal in the Humanities and Social
Sciences and provides new editors with training and support in running
journals according to best practice. This will free up faculty-editors to
concentrate on the areas of their journals that require specialist domain
knowledge: the selection of readers, adjudication of articles, and the
recruitment and support of authors. It also makes assuming editorial
responsibility for a journal much less of a career gamble for beginning or
mid-career academics, meaning more faculty may consider assuming editorial
duties at high profile existing journals or beginning new journals in
response to developments in their research domains.

Finally, the incubator will improve the research capacity of the University
by increasing the possibilities for acquiring outside funding. A core
principle behind the incubator is that the back-office operations of most
scholarly journals are or can be made to be very similar to each other,
regardless of subject domain. By developing specific expertise in each stage
of the journal publication process, including ensuring metrics favoured by
funding agencies are in place, the journal incubator will be able to ensure
that all journals in its portfolio are able to maximise their chances in
national funding competitions and improve the efficiency with which such
funding is used once it is acquired. Since the incubator will already have
the necessary technology, training protocols, and production staff in place,
moreover, the marginal cost of adding a new title to the roster is
relatively low. With the financial efficiencies gained by collecting the
back-offices of existing journals together in a single location, this will
allow the incubator to support new journals as they establish themselves and
prepare to seek external funding at far below the cost otherwise associated
with a start-up operation.

Business model

The key innovation introduced by the journal incubator is the way it aligns
questions of sustainability in journal publication with the educational and
research missions of the university. In financial terms, this means that a
large part of the funding for journal production within the incubator is
derived from existing university budget lines: the incubator in this sense does
not so much represent a new expense as a way of increasing the impact of funds
already budgeted to accomplish similar ends.

The most obvious example of this alignment involves the cost of the
incubator’s graduate student staff. The School of Graduate Studies already
guarantees all incoming graduate students a basic stipend tied to educationally
valuable research and teaching experience. As a provider of high-quality
graduate-level research training and experience, the incubator is able to fund
a large part of its day-to-day staffing needs through application to the
stipend programme. The School of Graduate Studies is eager to provide its
students with high quality work experience in exchange for their annual
stipends; the journal incubator is able to provide such high quality experience
for those students the School of Graduate Studies is able to fund.

Figure 3: Incubator allows support units to maximise the efficiency of resources.


Incubator allows support units to maximise the efficiency of resources.

Similar alignments exist with other units on campus (Figure 3). Currently, many
journals on campus receive small amounts of financial support for their
back-office operations from individual editors’ faculties. Because these
offices are almost entirely independent of each other, this means that there is
considerable duplication in how these funds are spent as each journal spends
its share of these central resources on its own back-office manager, training
regime, production and technology expenses, and the like. Similarly, support
units on campus, such as the office of research services, and the various
technological units, are asked to provide in-kind support to journals in
response to a piecemeal and uncoordinated demand: advice and assistance on
topics ranging from applying for grants to technical support is provided by
these units to editors on request, without any real requirement that editors
coordinate their requests or compile a common knowledge-base based on the
responses they receive.

By centralising and professionalising the back offices and providing a trained
staff to assist editors in the operation of their journals, the incubator will
considerably improve the efficiency and effectiveness with which this
already-assigned financial and in-kind support is used. The incubator, through
its training materials and focus on standardisation of workflow and technology,
will itself become a de facto knowledge-base. Requests for advice and
assistance will come from a single location and the answers received will be
applied across the journals on campus through their incorporation into the
incubator’s standardised protocols and systems. Likewise, funding from the
faculties will not end up being used to pay for duplicated services: by
supporting journals through a combined back office, faculties will be able to
reduce their expenditure on training, technology, and services while
considerably increasing the impact this support provides.

The incubator model also allow journals to significantly increase the impact
of their external funding (Figure 4). Many journals in the Humanities and
Social Sciences are funded in whole or in part by subscription revenues or
subvention from scholarly societies. In Canada, such journals are also often
funded to a certain extent by the federal government through the Social Science
and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Currently, journals that receive such
funding tend to end up using it for their day-to-day production expenses:
paying for secretarial and technical support, dissemination and capital costs,
training expenses, and the like. Because it is able to pay for many of these
day-to-day production costs through its alignment of journal management and
production with the institutional mission, however, the incubator is able to
use these external funds to support higher-value, strategic activities. Since
managerial and production activities are paid for largely through stipends
provided to students by the graduate school, the incubator can use this
external funding to develop top-quality training materials, invest in
top-quality production equipment, and pay for ancillary expertise, such as
professional office management and student supervision that will help further
improve the quality and impact of its publications. The broad expertise
acquired by running a collective back office of this nature, moreover, will
help maximise the amount of external funding available to all journals on
campus by ensuring that all potential sources are explored and that journal
production and dissemination is optimised to meet the demands of these
potential funders.

Figure 4: Incubator pools and leverages external funding to cover strategic costs


Incubator pools and leverages external funding to cover strategic costs

Participants

Internal partners

The incubator depends on on the participation of several units on
campus.

School of Graduate Studies. A fundamental concept
behind the incubator model is its recognition that journal production can be
understood as an educational opportunity that enriches the graduate student
experience rather than a cost centre that detracts from it by competing for
resources. For this reason, participation of the School of Graduate Studies
(SGS) is crucial. In addition to being a major source of funds for the
day-to-day staffing of the centre through its graduate stipends, the SGS can
also influence the success of the incubator as an educational experience by
promoting the opportunity to incoming graduate students and their
supervisors and working with the incubator to ensure students’ training and
work-experience in journal production integrates well with other aspects of
their graduate training.

One area in particular where close cooperation between the SGS and incubator
would be extremely beneficial would be in designing mechanisms for ensuring
that students working in the incubator are also able to access high quality
teaching experience. In its current, experimental form, ensuring this access
has been accomplished through negotiations among individual faculty members.
In a production model, it might make sense to prepare template contracts
explaining to students and supervisors how this mix of research and teaching
experience might be accomplished.

University Library. Libraries are playing an
increasingly important role in the production, dissemination, and
preservation of scholarly communication. Indeed, while no project we are
aware of focusses specifically on back-office operations in the way proposed
for this incubator, libraries and library-based projects around the world
are playing an increasingly central role in the dissemination of academic
research (e.g. the Office of Scholarly Publishing at the University of
Michigan; the Office of Scholarly Communication at the University of
Calgary; library participation in various dissemination and aggregation
platforms such as Synergies and revues.org).

For this reason, the incubator has a natural home in the University Library.
In addition to hosting its physical offices, the library can play an
important role in its day-to-day leadership, coordinating with archival and
repository services, and working with other library-based groups nationally
and internationally to ensure that its journals meet the highest
contemporary standards for discoverability, dissemination, and archiving. In
the initial funding period, we will be requesting funding for two
post-terminal degree positions in library and information science to help
establish the basic operations of the incubator and ensure that they conform
to best practices in the discipline. Once the incubator is established,
continuing leadership by professional librarians in the University Library
is necessary to ensure that the incubator continues to conform to the
highest international standards while operating efficiently.

Academic and Professional Faculties. Most academic
journals are produced by and for researchers in the academic and
professional faculties. All graduate students at the University are studying
with members of these faculties. Traditionally, individual journals have
received (generally small) amounts of funding from the faculties to help
support their individual back-office operations.

The incubator relies on the continued support of the faculties in all three
of these areas. Faculty attitudes towards editorial work is crucial in
determining their willingness to accept editorial positions and propose
journals for inclusion in the incubator and allow graduate students to
accept the training opportunities the journal incubator will provide. While
a long term goal of the incubator is to reduce or eliminate the need for
cash subsidies from the faculties for journal production, moreover,
small-scale faculty financial support has been and will continue to be of
great importance as the incubator gets established.

Office of Research Services. The Office of Research Services
is playing an important role in helping facilitate the initial setup of
the incubator. In the initial years, it will continue to play a crucial
role as the incubator seeks startup funding. Once the incubator is
established, the Office of Research Services will continue to play an
important role as the incubator seeks on-going operational funding for
its stable of titles. This assistance will include helping research
suitable funding opportunities and optimising journal metrics to match
funding agency criteria. The Office of Research Services may also be able
to play a role in leveraging the skills graduate students acquire in the
incubator by helping faculty incorporate them as Highly Qualified
Personnel or similar capacities in preparing applications for their own
research to external funding agencies.

Other support units. Other support units will be called upon
by the incubator as necessary to support its operations. As this support
is no different from that currently supplied to existing, independently
operated, journals on campus, little if any increase in load is expected
once the incubator is up and running. Because a primary goal of the
incubator is to find efficiencies by centralising and professionalising
back-office production, such units should indeed discover a decrease in
individual calls for support.

External partners

The following external partners have expressed their support for the project
and are working with the incubator to find ways of collaborating:

  • MPublishing at the University of Michigan
  • Synergies
  • Revues.org
  • Mulberry Technologies
  • Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde
  • University of Alberta, Humanities Computing programme
  • Elsevier

The nature of this cooperation will vary depending on the institution. In
the case of Synergies, revues.org, and MPublishing, the cooperation will to
a certain extent involve ensuring that the incubator works well with
distribution and workflow elements of these systems. In the case of the
University of Alberta and the KANTL, the envisioned cooperation is primarily
in the area of exchange of best practice and expertise. In the case of
Mulberry Technologies, the area for cooperation involves exchange of
experience and expertise, but also, potentially, opportunities for
internships and other forms of cooperation with their client base
(publishers of commercially funded academic journals primarily in medicine
and technology).

Steps ahead

The incubator has been operating on an experimental basis for the last year.
Initially, the work involved developing common workflows and protocols
for handling the production of two distinct titles within a single subject
domain (Digital Medievalist and Digital Studies/Le champ
numérique
). This year, the incubator has accepted its first SGS-funded
student for training and begun the process of adding a third title, this time
from a different subject domain (The Canadian Journal of Netherlandic
Studies
). The incubator has also been given space in the library for
its operations.

The next step is to seek external funding to develop the incubator protocols
and practices in advance of the next SSHRC Aid to Scholarly Journals funding
round (anticipated for fall 2014), by which point the incubator should be well
on its way to self-sustainability. This external funding will be used to cover
the expense of the post doctoral positions required for technical,
business-model, and training material development as well as (where allowed by
the programme guidelines) expenses like training and renovation costs, student
stipend supplements, and release time.

Beyond seeking large-scale start-up funding, the next steps also include
opening the incubator up to the larger graduate student population. With three
titles from two different domains, the incubator could already make use of a
second graduate student assistant. With some publicity and assurance of
relatively small scale internal bridge funding while external funds are sought,
it should be possible already to expand the incubator by an additional two or
three titles and one or two graduate students.


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