The Lethbridge Journal Incubator: Leveraging the Educational Potential of the Scholarly Communication Process

The Lethbridge Journal incubator is an experiment in the sustainability of academic publishing. The incubator attempts to ensure this sustainability by aligning the publishing processes with the research, teaching, and service missions of the University. Instead of drawing resources away from these central missions, academic communication under this model become a resource that materially improves the University’s ability to carry out these core functions.


Goals and Premises

The goal of this 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).

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

The incubator breaks down the publication process into high-<br /><br /><br />
                     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).

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

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

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<br /><br /><br />

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<br /><br /><br />


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

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
  • 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,, 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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