The Perils and Pitfalls of Special Issues and How to Avoid Them

By:

Jason Roberts, PhD

Senior Partner, Origin Editorial

ORCID: 0000-0001-9054-4180

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/jasonrobertsorigin

Take Home Points:

  • Journals should prepare publicly available guidelines on the handling of special issues. Such documentation will spell out how a journal will control for ethicality and protect the validity of the peer review process.
  • Journals must insist the editor-in-chief should sign off on all content to be published.
  • Deadlines and minimum papers may compromise the peer review process for special issues.
  • Indexers are increasingly monitoring the proportion of special issue content compared to regular content and are prepared to question journals with an inappropriate balance.

Special issues have been in the news a lot lately;  and, due to recent high-profile cases of unethical conduct, the concept of special issues has been challenged and its supporters asked to prove the value of curated content in these issues. But, before the onset of the trend of nascent open access (OA) journals rushing to secure papers by furiously launching special issues , the concept was considered a popular device to provide highly convenient content collections. This was particularly useful in pre-search engine days when content discovery was more challenging and decidedly analogue. The prevailing perception was, and probably still is, that special issues boost readership and citations. If special issues are curated well, they also represent an opportunity to recruit top authors who may not typically publish with your journal. Special issues, especially if content is commissioned, can boost geographic diversity. As the publisher Sage notes, “a good special issue can enhance the profile of the journal…” So, why has the reputation of special issues been so tarnished recently? Have special issues always carried an ethical vulnerability? What is being done to impose standards and what can you do to ensure you protect the integrity of your journal?

 

The Recent Rise of Special Issues

First, what is a special issue? Typically, they consist of a discrete collection of content that has either been commissioned or, particularly with OA journals, solicited. Often conceptualized to focus on a single topic, they may highlight emerging research or “hot” issues. They may also represent the outcome of a conference or symposium proceeding. Second, many special issues are curated by a guest editor who is normally invited by the editorial office. Guest editors are often brought in to assemble special issues because their expertise matches the subject content, which enhances the likelihood of attracting authors and reviewers to contribute. In theory, they can remain focused on the assembly of the issue and remove some burdens from the regular editorial team.

Why are special issues as a publication model so popular? Most obviously, special issues can be successfully marketed on social media, especially if prominent guest editors or contributing authors, in turn, amplify messaging to potential readers (these editors and authors often have a “built-in” social network of readers, thereby increasing the reach of the special issue’s content). Soliciting authors also represents a form of low-cost engagement, typically through a mass email campaign. Special issues can even be leveraged to secure one-time advertising sales. In clinical medicine, such sales, if not a direct product advertisement, might instead feature a corporate advert from a company clearly operating in the field.

 

OA publishers in particular have relied on the concept to grow market share. MDPI and Frontiers published 500,000 open access papers annually at their peak by  relying heavily on the lure of special issues. Increasingly, once again, traditional journals have re-embraced this concept as an avenue to recruit content. Now, as authors have more choices regarding where they publish and perhaps, fueled by funds to cover article processing charges (APCs), we can expect special issues to continue to flourish.

 

Concerns Surrounding Special Issues

Specific concerns have been raised about the authenticity of special-issue peer review processes and, more generally, the entire enterprise of gestating special issues. So much so that the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has released guidance on the topic. COPE summarizes the problems thusly: The increase in guest-edited article collections has raised concerns about the quality of content in these issues, the peer review processes undertaken, the sometimes-indiscriminate marketing to academics, and the susceptibility of these initiatives to organised fraud (e.g. peer review manipulation, falsification of review, lack of oversight regarding ethical matters, financial conflicts, greater instances of endogeny, citation cartels, and paper mills).

 

As with any publication ethics matter, each issue exists on a sliding scale of ethicalness. Little needs to be said on the obvious unethicalness of organized fraud with fake authors/reviewers and complicit guest editors simply recruiting material from within a group intent on over-inflating the scientific worth of their research. Also, it beggars belief that many OA journals offering rapid peer review and publication of special issues are really performing scientific and ethical oversight at a level even remotely close to the average well-run journal.

 

However, we can also assume that long-standing editorial offices with stellar reputations have also witnessed their own standards slip when compiling special issues. Most obviously, problems start when a guest editor does not meet expectations or follow protocols and, consequently, fails to meet the normal standards that shape the regular pages of a journal. Again, on the sliding scale of ethicality, this could be, at the problematic end of the scale, due to duplicity. Equally, it could also just be down to an inability to follow instructions or a lack of preparedness due to inadequate training. A further, rarely discussed, issue might simply be due to expediency trumping oversight: a deadline to ensure a special issue publishes on time is challenged by the late arrival of one final paper. With no time left for peer review, corners are cut to rush the tardy submission straight into production with minimal peer review. Mandatory minimums for the number of papers required to form a special issue have also likely led to the inclusion of content that may otherwise have failed to meet acceptance thresholds.

 

Consequences for Not Getting it Right

The most obvious fates that can befall a journal that messes up the handling of special issues is the need to subsequently retract content as well as the strong possibility of rapid reputational damage. Concerns over compromised peer review will then almost certainly arise and, thus, undermine reader confidence of the peer review management practices of a journal. There is also a potential threat of removal from various indexes. The Web of Science clearly took a dim view of the special issue management practices of MDPI’s International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that delisted the publication with a resultant drop in monthly submissions from 1,800 to under 200. Clarivate argued the delisting was on the grounds of failing to satisfy their content relevance criteria.

 

How to Ethically Manage Special Issues

Proper planning, clear thinking, and a transparent process all represent elements of good management practice. Contributing authors and guest editors alike need to be fully aware of peer review and ethical standards that must be met. Therefore, this blog post concludes by considering the following: questions to ask before agreeing to publish a special issue; pragmatic advice on best practices, and evaluating the importance of recent guidance from COPE and the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).

 

Questions Journals Should Ask Before Agreeing to Special Issues

A proposal to publish a special issue may be received from a variety of sources such as a group of potential authors, an individual putting themselves forward as a prospective guest editor, or even participants from a conference/symposium/roundtable. Equally, the special issue concept may originate from within the journal itself, with the editorial office appointing a guest editor to coordinate compiling the issue. Some special issues even originate from commercial sources, such as pharmaceutical companies (a future post will address the unique considerations of a commercially conceived and supported special issue). Regardless of origin, there are a variety of questions that should be posed before launching a special issue. These are presented here to potentially help inform a special issue validation checklist (for a version of this checklist that you can download, interact with, and adapt, click HERE):

 

  • Who will handle peer review operations? Will it be the regular office?
    • Though it probably feels like it should go without saying that a journal willing to have the papers handed to them already peer reviewed and ready for publishing is a crazy idea, such propositions do happen, and journals would be wise to reject such enticements and insist that they conduct their own peer review. To reinforce the point, journals should state their policy on the delivery of ready-reviewed manuscripts in their publicly available guidelines. In an age where authors go to great lengths to create fake reviewers, it seems journals can truly only trust their own, directly handled, processes.
  • Does your journal have the appropriate time and resources to support a special issue?
    • Can the editorial office handle processing extra papers? What is the financial cost of that extra effort and is there any way to recover those costs? For those journals with print editions, will special issue pages be included in the regular editorial page budget? Could funds be raised through advertising or sponsorship to cover the cost of extra pages?
    • For commissioned content, how will reminders to authors be handled? Invited content requires an extra level of sensitivity and “white glove” service, all of which require skill and ample processing time.
    • For unsolicited content, how will the editorial office authenticate contributors and their work? How will the journal verify authorship and guard against papermills? Can author contributorship statements or the adoption of CRediT taxonomy afford some form of protection?
    • How much work will be required to ensure manuscripts meet formatting demands? In particular, for commissioned articles, authors may reasonably expect that the editorial office will handle some formatting requirements as they were asked to contribute the content. Alternatively, authors responding to a call for papers may not be familiar with the journal to which they are submitting and, thus, may require personalized guidance, again requiring time and effort.
    • How will permissions and copyrights be handled? Will this be the responsibility of the author or the editorial office?
    • Will extra copyediting support be necessary and who will do that? (Again, this point is particularly important for both commissioned and solicited content, as authors may feel they are doing the journal a favor just by contributing. Or, for those authors contributing papers based on meeting presentations, who believe that their effort should really have ended at the presentation itself, not in the subsequent delivery of a write-up).
  • What training will be required to ensure the guest editor completes peer review thoroughly; is aware of their ethical responsibilities; delivers a positive author experience that does not undermine a journal’s reputation and, can actively and appropriately promote the special issue when it publishes?
  • Who will perform the peer review of the special issue manuscripts?
    • How many reviews will be required?
    • Who will select/invite the reviewers? Will it be the regular editorial office or the guest editor?
    • If the guest editor contributes a paper, who will peer review that work?
    • Should the regular editor-in-chief (EIC) ultimately make a final decision on every paper or only papers written by a guest editor?
  • Should there be a limit on how much material a guest editor or editors contribute? The real concern here is the very real threat of endogeny occurring.
  • Should there be a mandatory minimum number of papers that must be accepted for publication by a given deadline? Alternatively, will the special issue only be compiled once a target number of papers has been reached, unencumbered by adherence to a specified schedule? Should there be no mandatory minimum at all?
  • Are the proposed topic, potential authors, and submitted content balanced and free of bias? For special issues soliciting content, how can the journal ensure a broad array of perspectives is received? In the interest of providing scientific balance, how can a journal guard against a flood of submissions promoting a particular viewpoint?
  • If the journal is OA, how will APCs be handled? Will waivers be offered? Will discounts be offered to ensure a sizeable number of submissions and equal global representation?
  • More broadly speaking, how many special issues should you feasibly consider? Beyond the obvious logistical questions, does a high number of special issues possibly imply a journal is desperate for content? Will a large number of special issues overshadow regular issue content?
  • How will you monitor guest editor and author behavior throughout the assembly of the special issue? Again, this question suggests no one other than the regular editorial office should manage the submission and peer review process.
  • How will you ensure guest editors understand their role and responsibilities bothtowards content validation and ethicality? It is strongly recommended journals provide guest editors with documentation that clearly delineates roles and responsibilities and ask them to sign an attestation statement that they have read and understood such document. That does not absolve the journal, however, of any blame in the event of an ethical violation that later comes to light as the EIC and editorial office ultimately assume full responsibility for content published within the journal.

 

There are additional questions that should be asked of the proposed guest editor, especially if they approach the journal with the offer to collate and curate papers.

 

  • Who is the guest editor proposing the special issue? What are their conflicts? Do they have a publishing track record? If they are proposing authors and papers, what is their relationship to these authors?
  • What are the motivations or objectives of the guest editor? Why do they want to produce a special issue? Why now? Why are they approaching your journal?
  • What is the prior editorial experience of the guest editor? What training might they require with regards to peer reviewing manuscripts? Do they need editorial management system training? (side note: do you want “strangers” inside your submission system, and should you consider handling papers via another method that protects the integrity of your user data?)
  • Is the guest editor the right fit for your journal based on their research interests? Do they possess enough visibility or reputation to attract high quality submissions?

 

Pragmatic Advice on Publishing Special Issues

Being prepared and being consistent in your management practice is, quite simply, the best advice. Tying together numerous issues, themes, and questions raised in this blog, what follows is a checklist that strives to ensure your journal delivers a transparent process that is ethically sound, primed to ensure content and contributor validation, and ultimately provides a respectable product. Creating a transparent checklist considering the following concepts will assist you to consistently assess and manage your special issues. (For a version of this checklist that you can download, interact with, and adapt, click HERE.)

 

  • Develop an outward-facing policy outlining the process.
    • Guest editor will be responsible for the veracity and quality of content, but the EIC will have the final say.
    • Content outline and proposed authors must be approved (if content is commissioned).
    • Peer reviewers ideally should be drawn from the regular reviewer pool. Reviewers new to the journal must be checked and approved by the editorial office.
    • Insist that all submissions receive a minimum of two peer reviews
    • Outline how papers authored or co-authored by the guest editor are allowed and how those manuscripts will be handled and peer reviewed.
    • Consider imposing a limit (perhaps just one submission) on the number of papers a guest editor can submit and, again, enforce that the regular journal editor-in-chief has final say on whether a manuscript is accepted for publication.
  • Ensure all policies are also publicly available.
  • Develop an ethics and roles/responsibility document that guest editors must read and then sign.
  • Insist that all authors, editors, and reviewers use institutional email addresses.
  • Have protocols in place to gather conflict of interest statements from all participants.
  • Consider utilizing author contributor statements or employing CRediT.
  • Determine how payment or waiving of APCs is to be covered and disclosed.

 

Standards from COPE and the DOAJ

In 2023 COPE took action due to a fear that the long-standing publication model that is special issues was being tarnished by recent behaviors. It felt compelled to provide guidance on standards. The standards will seem rather self-evident and lacking in specificity for some, but are useful, nonetheless, especially for less experienced editors and editorial offices. For assessing a potential special issue, COPE’s advice can be summarized thusly:

 

  • Scope – ensure the proposed topic is clearly within scope and efforts will be in place to ensure published articles do adhere to that demand
  • Competing Interests – should be disclosed for the guest editor, such as patent applications, any payment of publication fees
  • Conflicts of Interest – should be disclosed for all participants. If APCs are covered or waived, this should be disclosed
  • Promotion – determine if the special issue could potentially be a vehicle to promote a product or agenda or even self-promotion for the individuals involved
  • Broader commissioning of content – is the special issue really just a closed group or are the editors looking to find a diverse array of voices?
  • Identification – journals must authenticate the editors and authors
  • Workload – determine if the workload and timeframes are feasible

 

For the ongoing management of a special issue once it has been approved, COPE, additionally advised:

 

  • Reviewer selection and conflicts of interest – reviewers should ideally disclose their conflicts. If the reviewers are also authors of other papers in the special issue, conflicts of interest should still be disclosed (COPE does not mention whether or not to make that transparent to the reader)
  • Self-citation – monitor if the guest editors or special issue authors are inappropriately citing their own work
  • Citation cartels – monitor for whether the special issue is really a citation cartel with authors simply citing each other’s work to elevate its importance
  • Peer reviewer fraud – are authors actually reviewing their own manuscripts? Are reviewers friendly with the authors?
  • Identity theft – is everyone truly who they claim to be
  • Papermills – special issues are vulnerable either due to corrupt behavior by guest editors or their poor editing skills (no concrete advice was provided for how editorial offices can detect the involvement of special issues)

 

The DOAJ, following COPE’s guidelines, also responded to mounting criticism of the legitimacy of many special issues by amending its acceptance criteria for inclusion in their database.

 

The DOAJ criteria include:

 

  • The regular journal EIC must ultimately sign off on all accepted manuscripts
  • Special issue articles must be vetted in the same way as regular submissions
  • Journals must develop a procedure to assess the credentials of all guest editors. These guest editors must report in to the EIC directly.
  • The guest editor(s) should author no more than 25% of all papers. Any paper written by a guest editor must have an independent peer review process
  • Additionally, the DOAJ will no longer accept for inclusion any journal that has published only special issues in the preceding 12 months.

 

Conclusion

Special issues are particularly vulnerable to unethical practices. Therefore, journals must continually check on the behavior of all participants. Thus, it is prudent practice for journals to prepare policies and protocols for the handling of special issues. The regular editorial office should manage operations, and final decisions should be made by the EIC, as per recent COPE and DOAJ guidance. To ensure everyone is clear on the expectations placed on them, guest editors should be compelled to read an ethics and roles/responsibilities document that outlines best practice. Finally, it is strongly advised that journals must not force guest editors into situations where they are pressured to compromise their peer review process, such as a need to meet specific deadlines or a minimum number of papers for inclusion in the special issue.

Conflicts of Interest:

None to report

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