Challenges and Opportunities in Digital Publishing

The Publishing Cycle

Challenges and Opportunities in Digital Publishing

Digital technologies are providing a wider reach and lower cost publishing solutions that are making it possible for libraries and independent publishers to have an impact on scholarship. Without the need to generate a profit, scholarly publishers can focus on an ethical approach and supporting publications that serve the needs of students and emerging academics or focus on neglected subjects.

Digital publishing has its fair share of challenges: The web is a dynamic environment, which means that publishers are challenged to keep their publishing platforms stable and free from bugs and glitches. The internet is crowded! It is hard work to make your publication stand out and you might not have the resources to build exactly the project you want. There are many critiques that have been leveled at the publishing industry surrounding its ethics and practices that are just as valid in the digital publishing landscape.

Academic publishers and editors have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the work they produce is factual and follows appropriate codes of conduct. This means that we have to educate ourselves about standards that are relevant to our respective academic fields – whether we should guard against conflicts of interest, or ensure that research data was responsibly collected – and prevent plagiarism in an environment where it is increasingly easy to copy and reproduce texts.

Publishing programs and individual publications are interested in collecting data on their readership because it helps us to understand who is interested in our content and how we can better cater their interests and needs. Usage analytics (how many people are visiting our sites and what they’re looking at and downloading) can also help us to demonstrate the vitality and importance of our publications. But we need to be careful that in catering to our own self interest we are not violating the privacy of our readers and site visitors in our data collection or in allowing social media and analytics programs, like Google, to share reader information with advertisers and data industries. It’s a tricky line to walk!

Digital publishing presents exciting opportunities for increasing access for the visually impaired and other disabled populations. Historically, the process of acquiring textual resources in readable formats, such as having papers or books translated into braille, was a major barrier to conducting academic research. With screen readers and other assistive technologies, digital publishing is increasing access, but poorly constructed websites or texts that are not properly constructed so as to be machine readable can recreate the barriers of traditional print publications.

Diversity and Inclusion, or the lack of it, are hot-button issues, and real ones, in scholarly publishing. Both the publishing industry and academia at large are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. We know that these disparities are, in part, a response to systemic inequalities that affect access to education and publishing opportunities: A survey conducted by Digital Science in 2015 reported that although there were signs of “improvement” ethnic diversity in recent years 87% of  people working in scholarly publishing are white. (

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.

The Publishing Cycle

So what does that group of editors do to bring together to a publication that people can find, read, share, and learn from online? And how do we account for our areas of challenge and opportunity throughout the cycle. I roughly think about the publishing cycle – and it is a continual process for these “living publications” – as broken into 6 basic stages.


The first step for success in any publishing group is getting together and assigning tasks to the members of your editorial team. You’ve probably already got an editor in chief and maybe a technical editor, or a social media editor, but have you worked out who in your group 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?

It’s equally important to spend time reviewing and possibly revising the written information you post about your publication. Does the description of your journal need a refresh? Is the masthead up to date? Does your call for submissions reflect your upcoming issue’s? No matter what kind of digital publication you’re putting out, incorrect information, broken links, out of date policies and confusing information is going to put people off.

Issue Planning

Issue planning is tied to the assignment of editorial roles – in addition to making any choices about themed issues and writing or revising a call for submissions, you should take the time to make a schedule for your next issue: Set submission deadlines, knowing when you should source and contact peer reviewers, and prevent panic editing and typesetting in time to get your issue out before the end of the academic year.

Planning also means thinking about that community that lives in conversation with your publication – what are they talking about? Visit conferences or conventions, participate in message boards and listservs where people in your field share recent publications, exhibitions, ask questions, and have conversations. Read other publications. Those same listservs and forums are where you should be advertising for authors in addition to building your publication’s social networks.

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. A good press release or social media campaign highlights why your journal is a great place to publish.

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 appropriate for the publication, are academically rigorous, inventive, ones that meet the criteria the board has set out are selected for review and are sent to external scholars. These “peer reviewers” are recognized experts in their field and are able to comment on the strength and value of the articles. Peer review comments can help editors know that an expert thinks the article is strong, should be revised, or is not publishable and should be rejected. 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.

However, this process highlights that publishing is a subjective process – articles are chosen by the editorial board, who also select the peer reviewers that the articles are sent to. Editorial boards without diverse memberships and the peer reviewers they know and invite are likely to pick the same kinds of articles and have the same biases. Representation matters and inclusive in editorial boards and peer review pools is an incredibly important way that we can increase diversity in what we publish.


The production process is how we describe the work that goes into preparing an article’s text and display. 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 style guide for that publication, and that caption, citations, footnotes and bibliographies and formatted correctly.

Most online journals still typeset their content, so that it has the look and feel of a traditional publication. Typesetting is the process by which the text is formatted into a standard style that helps to define the look and feel of a journal. This process can usually be significantly simplified by using templates that control the styling (fonts, margins, columns, etc.) and ensure that issues have consistent branding, headers, and footers.

Preservation is an important step of the digital publishing process. Websites are taken down and file formats become obsolete, so taking steps like making sure that your articles are registered for DOIs (digital object identifiers) and that your content is stored in a stable repository ensures that your scholarship is findable and readable, even as the online landscape changes.


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 have appropriate metadata and use search engine optimization (SEO) in the construction of their website descriptions and in the abstracts of their content to help researchers search for their content 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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