Challenges and Opportunities in Digital Publishing

The Publishing Cycle

Challenges and Opportunities in Digital Publishing

For a long time, the cost and expertise that was necessary to print and distribute books and journals made it difficult for small and independent publishers to make a significant impact on academic scholarship. Today, digital technologies are providing wide-reaching and affordable solutions for libraries and other independent publishers. Without the need to generate a profit, scholarly publishers can focus on enacting an ethical approach to their editorial and production practices and may choose to support publications that serve the needs of emerging and underrepresented academic communities.

Digital publishing presents challenges and opportunities in equal measure. The web is a dynamic environment, which means that it is ripe for innovation and disruption but that publishers must continually adapt to changing technologies. It is a great deal of work to make your publication discoverable and impactful amid a crowded information landscape. While open source softwares and communities that support them are growing, a small publisher may lack the resources to build or customize their project to match their needs or vision. 

One of the ways in which many library and independent publishers are helping to influence academic publishing for the good is in choosing to forefront ethical practice. All academic publishers and editors have a responsibility to ensure that the work they produce is factual, well-constructed, appropriately attributed. However, by taking responsibility for a smaller number of publications, new publishers have the opportunity to scrutinize their policies and question whether the practices that are embedded in in traditional publishing procedures ought to be replicated. Every action from peer review to the collection of analytics and data on our publications and readers can be scrutinized and adapted.

Digital publishing presents exciting opportunities for increasing access to information for all. For the visually impaired and other disabled populations, digital formats coupled with assistive devices can make academic research more readily available. We must remember to carefully construct our websites and published materials so that they are compatible with screen readers and other assistive tools. Providing access to information free of charge promotes knowledge equity by easing financial barriers. Yet a lack of diversity affects the breadth and diversity of scholarship; people who study and write outside of the ‘western canon’ are less likely to have the same advantages and opportunities to publish, thus the subjects of scholarly publications remain concentrated in traditional areas of inquiry, focus on the same figures and cultural moments, and center issues that affect white, western populations. Although we’re reaching ever-wider audiences, we’re not moving the needle fast enough on the diversity of content we publish, the people who we involve in our programs, or what we read and cite as part of our own research from publications outside the global west. For every opportunity introduced by digital tools and the open web, publishers are challenged to think and act critically to advance inclusivity and openness. 

The Publishing Cycle

For all publications, and especially serial publications like journals, editors and project owners follow cycles of work to ensure that they methodically tackle the challenges of digital publishing within the process of producing quality scholarship. We often refer to journals and digital projects as “living publications;” not only is content regularly updated, but the people at work behind the screen are continually monitoring their output and practice. 

Taking the journal publishing experience as an example, let’s examine this this ongoing process through the stages of the issue production cycle.


Organization is a key first step for any publishing project. It is important to make you have enough staff and have filled leadership roles so that journal functions can run smoothly. In addition to an Editor in Chief, consider who will be checking regularly for submissions to your site, who will be soliciting peer reviewers and assigning articles to them. Who will work with authors to respond to reviewer comments and help them to shape their revised drafts? The Editorial Role Assignments worksheet helps to enumerate the critical roles for any academic journal staff, and the functions of these different positions are explained in this list of Journal Roles.

It is equally important to spend time reviewing and possibly revising the written information you post about your publication on your journal website. Especially for student journals, whose leadership changes regularly, the mission and focus of the journal is apt to occasionally shift. Refreshing your journal’s mission statement, submission guidelines, and other policies on a regular basis will mean that you are attracting and producing content that meet the needs of your current community. And whether or not you plan to make changes to your policies or messaging, your website will generally be due for updates to your masthead, deadlines for submissions, and contact info. .

Issue Planning

For each new issue of your journal, your editorial team will decide on a schedule and any unique aspects of the upcoming selection process. Setting deadlines for each stage of the submissions, editing, and production processes will help you understand if your proposed publication date is realistic. The Annual Publishing Schedule worksheet contains a list of deadlines that ought to be considered. By planning your journal’s schedule with some precision, you can also give your staff a good idea of when they will work most heavily on the journal. This can help staff to be prepared or to choose alternative roles based on their commitments and availability.

Whether you are planning a special edition or not, planning a call for submissions means thinking about that community that lives in conversation with your publication at this moment. A call for submissions should use the words and ideas that are preoccupying scholars in your field to show your publication’s relevancy to the field. Visit conferences or conventions and participate in message boards and listservs where people in your field share recent publications, exhibitions, ask questions, and have conversations. Not only can these spaces provide insight into the concerns of the moment, they are great places to advertise your forthcoming issues and calls for submissions.

Selection and Review

Once articles have been submitted, how do you pick which ones to publish? How do you get them polished and ready?

Article submissions are evaluated by one or more members of the editorial board. They can be read in their entirety, or a cover letter or abstract may be all that is considered, especially if there is a very high volume of materials to consider. Articles that are deemed to be within the scope of the journal are selected for formal review and editing. For most journals, articles are then sent to external scholars for their opinions about the quality of the content. These individuals – called “peer reviewers” – are recognized experts in their field and are able to comment on the value of the articles within the existing scholarly record. Peer reviewer recommendations can help editors feel confident accepting or declining articles for publication and their comments provide guidance to authors as they revise and strengthen their articles. It is an important way that we can work to assure academic integrity and research standards and can even collaborate with one another as scholars to challenge ideas and improve research.

It is important to note that peer review and editing are highly subjective processes. As articles are chosen by the editorial board (who also select the peer reviewers) the selection process may bias subjects, opinions, and authors who mirror the editorial leadership’s ideas and identities. Thus, representation inclusivity in editorial boards and peer review pools is an incredibly important way that we can increase the diversity of our publications.


Production is a series of processes that prepare an article for final publication and presentation. Copyediting is the process of closely reading and correcting errors in the text itself. A copyeditor looks for spelling and grammatical mistakes but also makes sure that the text adheres to the specific stylistic conventions of a given publication. They will also ensure that captions, citations, footnotes and bibliographies are formatted correctly.

Most journals will typeset their content in one or more formats, so that it has a professional and consistent look and feel. A typeset specifies particular fonts and text sizes, margins, and other visual elements that organize and standardize the appearance of all articles. This process can usually be significantly simplified by using templates that control the styling (fonts, margins, columns, etc.) and automate standard elements like  logos and headers, and footers.

For digital publications, preservation is an important aspect of the publishing process that should be considered as soon as the moment of publication. Digital objects and information can be fragile, since the technologies that we use to publish information online are frequently changing and the websites and file formats we use can quickly become obsolete. One of the best ways we can make sure our scholarship is findable and citable long term is to place our journal issues and articles into a digital archive or repository. The repository you select may register for DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers), unique codes that will point users to the location of your content over time.


Marketing your publication can be about sharing your content on social media, through a newsletter, or spreading the word in person at conferences and events in your academic field. For digital publications, marketing is also about making your content discoverable and citable online. To help people find the articles you publish, a thoughtful publisher will make sure that journal website has appropriate metadata and utilizes search engine optimization (SEO) to make sure that journal websites and content are searchable online. The indexing of content in relevant databases and assignment of DOIs (digital object identifiers) to make work citable and even more visible to scholars within a particular field are also ways that editors can promote their authors’ work.


After your publication is live, an editorial board should gather to discuss any problems that arose during the publishing process, what was done well, and what could be improved upon in the future. Notes from this meeting and any actions planned as a result should be should be documented. These notes can be shared with a new board will take over the publication or produce the subsequent issue.

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