Special issues in academic publishing: how to manage them and what impact do they have?

Subject:  Multidisciplinary
Author: Sandra Pérez (foto:

The 11th Scientific Publishing Seminar focused on special issues, an increasingly widespread publishing practice.

Speakers Victoria Tur and Linda Castañeda gave their personal perspective on special issues as editor and guest editor, respectively.

Some of the topics discussed included what special issues are usually like, how they are produced and whether they increase the impact of journals. 

The editorial teams of the journals published or co-published by the UOC (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) came together once again on 31 March at the 11th Scientific Publishing Seminar as part of their continuous process of reflection on academic publishing. "Our open access journals make a major contribution to the overall strategy of the University," said Marta Aymerich, vice president for Strategic Planning and Research, at the opening of the session. This year's seminar focused on special issues.

The two guest speakers shared different approaches to this editorial practice: Victoria Tur presented the results of a study on special issues along with her knowledge as an editor, and Linda Castañeda shared her experience as coordinator (guest editor) for thematic issues of various scientific journals.

The contributions of the two experts allowed a more in-depth analysis of the characteristics of special issues, which bring together articles with different approaches to the same topic. The ideas they put forward were also useful for the attendees to discuss what special issues should be like, what their main advantages and disadvantages are, and what practices editorial teams should encourage and avoid.

From theory to practice

Victoria Tur, professor at the University of Alicante's Department of Social Psychology & Communication, presented the results of the study The prevalence and impact of special issues in communications journals 2015-2019, which she co-authored with Rafael Repiso, Tatiana Hidalgo-Marí and Jesús Segarra-Saavedra. The study analysed a sample of nearly 21,500 articles and reviews published in 94 communications journals between 2015 and 2019. Its purpose was to analyse what had been written about special issues and to study both the distribution and the quantity of publications in this category and the impact they received.

As she explained, in 76% of the journals studied, the articles published in special issues obtained a higher average number of citations than those in the regular sections. In these cases, "publishing an article included in a special issue would imply a higher impact".

Los monográficos en las revistas académicas


Even though this is common practice in journals, in their initial documentary search the authors of the study found no previous literature beyond the information provided by the publishing groups and the manual Journal Publishing (Cambridge University Press), one of the publications that deals with the topic in greater depth. "I can confidently say that special issues are a topic that hasn't been studied very much," noted the speaker.

Tur explained that, broadly speaking, special issues are usually the result of a call for papers and can be the initiative of the journal's editorial board or of external academics who submit a proposal to publish a special issue. They may also be part of the journal's regular production or be presented independently, and most commonly have one or more editors specializing in the subject, who support or replace the general editor. The incentives for publishing these issues are highly varied, ranging from improving the journal's positioning in a specific subject matter to paying tribute to a prominent figure, compiling a retrospective collection of articles, or increasing the number of manuscripts received if the journal is not yet well positioned.

During the presentation, the guest speaker alternated between the theory of special issues and practical examples from the journal Mediterranean Journal of Communication, where she is the editor. After increasing their frequency of publication, the special issues allowed external guest editors to be brought in as "one-off and short-term support" for the permanent editorial team. Thirteen years later, the journal has maintained this practice, as it has allowed it to improve its positioning and to work with experts who, in turn, have positioned themselves as leading specialists in the topics covered by the special issues, a clear win-win situation.

Victoria Tur also opened the debate on whether it is advisable to publish full conference proceedings as a special issue or whether the level of demand of the peer review process decreases in special issues.

Guest editing a special issue

Linda Castañeda, an educationalist with a PhD in Educational Technology, spoke about her experience as a guest editor of special issues. In 2018 she participated, together with Neil Selwyn, in the coordination of the special issue More than tools? Critical perspectives and alternative visions of technology in higher education, published by the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education.

In the introductory editorial for the special issue, dedicated to digital technology in higher education from a critical perspective, the guest editors went far beyond explaining the articles and reflected on the topics covered in the issue.

"As such, we have decided not to waste our 'editorial' space simply by summarizing the contents of each article in turn. If you want an overview of what each author argues then feel free to browse the abstracts. Instead, we want to use this opportunity to reflect upon some of the broader conversations that these articles speak to."

The speaker explained that the special issue brings together contributions from authors who were at different points in their academic careers, and also that it prioritized geographical balance. After four years, the editorial of the issue has received more than 18,000 visits and 68 citations; the articles, meanwhile, have received a total of 60,000 visits and 183 citations. The papers were later translated into Spanish for publication in the form of the book Reiniciando la universidad. Buscando un modelo de universidad en tiempos digitales ("Restarting universities. Searching for a university model in times of crisis", Editorial UOC), allowing them to reach a wider audience.

El valor de editar un monográfico


Castañeda also spoke about her experience as editor of the issue Alternative paths in educational technology research: Innovative concepts and methods in the Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research (NAER), together with Ben Willamson, one of the authors participating in the ETHE special issue.

The speaker gave her presentation the title "The value of editing a special issue" to underline the importance of issues that deal with new or ground-breaking topics and the editors' good sense of how to identify them: "the most interesting special issues are those that haven't been covered by special issues before," as they represent "spaces for conversation" to "consider new paths that have not yet been travelled" and are the starting point for "innovation in research".

A forum for exchanging ideas

Tur mentioned the 1990s controversy concerning some pharmaceutical-funded supplements that did not follow the same evaluation processes as regular issues, a stigma that still clings to special issues today. During the last part of the seminar, attendees discussed this issue and concluded that, prior to review, it is essential that the permanent editors guide the team of guest editors so that they have a clear understanding of their duties and ensure that the reviews are of the standard required by the journal, as well as being impartial and transparent.

Participants exchanged their thoughts on the role of special issues in promoting the internationalization of journals. An issue can focus on the analysis of a topic from the point of view of a specific region in order to promote the topic in that geographical area. However, it is always advisable that the team of coordinators be diverse in terms of nationality, gender and institution.

The seminar ended by considering issues such as the number of articles that should be published in a thematic issue, the appropriate time frame for calls for papers or the option of publishing open article collections to incorporate interesting articles beyond the deadline of the calls for papers.

Victoria Tur

Victoria Tur holds a bachelor's degree in Psychology, a PhD in Sociology and is a professor in the University of Alicante's Department of Social Psychology & Communication, where she teaches on the bachelor's degree in Advertising & Public Relations, specializing in Advertising Creativity, and she directs the Specific Audiences and Communication research group. She has been editor of the Mediterranean Journal of Communication since it was created in 2011 and is the founder of Plataforma de Revistas de Comunicación.

Linda Castañeda

Linda Castañeda holds a bachelor's degree in Education from the University of Murcia and a PhD in Educational Technology from the University of the Balearic Islands. She is an associate professor in Educational Technology at the University of Murcia's Department of Pedagogy and School Organization and currently leads this institution's teams in two European projects focused on the implementation of digital skills in teaching and data literacy. She mainly conducts research on topics related to critical perspectives, educational technology, competencies for the digital age, emerging teaching methods and personal learning environments.