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Running on empty? How to deal with an article shortage

26 June 2023

By Christopher Tancock

Image - Running on empty? How to deal with an article shortage


Strategies and tactics for dealing with a low-copy situation

Articles, naturally, are the lifeblood of journals. Most of the time, problems with article inflow are down to a superfluity of copy, but occasionally the reverse is true. Going through a dry spell can happen to any journal and is not necessarily uncommon, but it’s certainly not an insignificant issue and one which can cause various headaches.

The impact of low copy

There are many reasons why you wouldn’t want to see your journal struggling for copy. Apart from presenting a poor face to the outside world (a journal having problems in publishing full/regular issues doesn’t look good, after all), there can be serious negative impact e.g., from metrics. Some systems such as the Journal Citation Reports and PubMed Central can penalize or refuse to index journals for inconsistent publishing. Other abstracting and Indexing services might also take a similarly dim view of irregular publication flow. The good news is that, whilst you might not be able to entirely avoid copy flow problems, there are many strategies for how you can overcome a drought.

The importance of a good early warning system

The first thing to say is that prevention is better than cure. Your publishing contact should keep you closely posted as to the journal’s performance on various fronts including copy flow. If you’ve been an editor for more than a year or two, you’ll likely also have your own sense of whether the article inflow is up or down. If you do spot a consistent downward trend, act fast. Start putting tactics into play to correct or reverse the fall asap.

We’ll now take a look at different mechanisms that you can use to respond to a shortage of articles. What works (best) for you will depend on the individual circumstances of your journal, the size of the shortage, and various other elements. In any case, do work closely with your Publisher, who’ll likely have a wealth of experience to share. Perhaps you’ve already been in this situation before? If so, feel free to suggest your own coping mechanisms in the comments section below.

Check the small print and activate your network

Journals benefit from several networks and you’ll have your own which you can leverage, moreover. Use these networks (the Editorial Board, journal reviewers, past authors) to solicit ideas, manuscripts and issues. Maybe you need to expand the Board, especially if you’re entertaining a widening of the aims and scope.

On that note, is the aims and scope of the journal accurate? Perhaps there are topics that you could include which aren’t specifically mentioned in the description? You could work with your publishing contact to use e.g., Scopus to analyze the coverage of the journal and identify topic areas (or authors) which you could cover with articles or even (special) issues.

Make something special

Talking about special issues, they can be a great way of both staking a claim on new topic ground but also acquiring a nice, often high impact, group of articles on a “hot” subject area. They also help further expand the network and reach of the journal and since guest editors handle the bulk of the peer review process, they also free you up to focus on other things. You can even collaborate with other journals to maximize visibility (and there are new ways to make your calls for papers stand out). Your Publisher will be able to help advise on how to identify both special issue topics and potential guest editors.

Are there any journal or subject anniversaries that you could exploit – either to publish a reflective piece, or even a whole article collection? Again, maybe the Editorial Board can help think of opportunities in this regard. If you do end up publishing an anniversary issue or “special” collection for whatever reason, your Marketing Communications Manager can help to promote it and get the journal even more visibility…

Variety is the spice of life

It might be that the journal could do with embracing some novelty in its output. New article types and more open access options (if not already present) are one way to freshen up the journal. You could experiment with letters, review articles, research elements, short communications, video articles, case studies/reports – there are so many possibilities. Another way of making a splash is to write or commission a thought-provoking polemic to kickstart a discussion about a particular topic (just make sure to keep it polite, academic and not too controversial!).

Use the power of ATS

Elsevier provides you with various tools and services, one of which can be a real help when it comes to increasing article inflow. The Article Transfer Service is a nifty means of using expert editorial teams or matching technology to help authors find the best destination for their papers. If you’re not already participating in an ATS workflow, your Publisher can help you set one up; if you are, they might be able to look at ways of expanding the service to help the journal benefit from a greater number and range of “feeder” journals.

Commissioning content

Journals can issue direct pleas to their community for papers – a general call for papers, so to speak. This can look a little desperate, however, so it’s not a recommended tactic unless in extremis. A less alarmist approach could be to commission content yourself directly – either by identifying authors using tools like Scopus as suggested above, or by keeping alert for good presenters or topics at conferences and other gatherings.

Summing up

Considering the importance of healthy, regular article inflow, it’s a good idea to have some strategies up your sleeve for responding to a situation where the numbers start to dip. We hope that the above will prove useful and help you to extricate yourself from a drought if one should occur. Something missing from the toolkit? Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below. Otherwise, thanks for reading and stay tuned for more help and advice from Editors’ Update.