Your Academic Journal Website Sucks

As part of maintaining the Political Science and International Relations Journal Listing, I’ve looked at a lot (almost all!) of the websites for academic journals in political science and international relations. Some are very good. Many or most have the information I’ve needed to answer basic questions about them. Some have been confusing or ludicrously out of date. Very few have been what I’d describe as “easy to use”, and the vast majority have been designed with little thought for what their purpose or user is.

I get it: running a journal is difficult. By the time someone is an editor, they’re shouldering big burdens in teaching, research, and service; they’re also likely a decade or more into a career. They aren’t newbies and they don’t have a lot of time. Some people view this as a no-nonsense job; others have dreams of transforming the field, or at least the journal. But few people shoulder the burden because they really want to spend time on the nuts and bolts of communicating with potential authors. After all, doesn’t everyone in the field know what the Ruritanian Journal of Informatical Politics look for in a submission?

As a user and (still!) early-career researcher, however, let me tell you that it’s possible to be pretty well versed in the discipline and savvy about the profession but still find many to most journal websites to be–at best–cumbersome. At worst, they can be confusing or wrong. That matters a lot, and not just because we should always try to do a good job in our endeavors. Rather, poor website communication by journals wastes the time of editors, reviewers, and authors. If authors don’t know if their piece is a good fit; if reviewers can’t easily find guidelines for their review; and if editors have to manage the frictions and damage that result, then it seems like everyone is shouldering an even larger burden than they really have to. Journal webpages need to be written to be read, and read by people who have the least time to waste on a mistake: early-career researchers and others for whom publication is a career necessity.

Photograph of young woman looking frustrated with laptop
Don’t worry: your journal is wonderful, it’s all the other websites I’m complaining about! Photo by energepic.com: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-sitting-in-front-of-macbook-313690/

Here’s the biggest ways to fix problems I see in journal webpages:

  • State the mission up front and briefly. Great journal webpages have a succinct, easy-to-read synopsis of their mission and editorial fit. How brief? Well, if editors think that journal articles can be summarized in 150 to 200 words, it’s not out of place to suggest that a journal mission–which is broader–can be done in the same length or shorter. Specifically, this paragraph should indicate the disciplinary, methodological, and substantive scope of the journal, while being clear about whether it errs on inclusion or exclusion. It can link to a more detailed description (ideally including keywords), but 90 percent of potential authors should be able to know whether they’re in or out within one paragraph.
  • Describe article types fully and briefly. Most journals run at most three types of peer-reviewed publications: research articles, review essays, and research/theory notes. (They may run rebuttals, capsule book reviews, invited essays, and the like, but that’s not in scope for this discussion.) Journals should state the requirements for these fully but briefly. A website that describes the ideal review essay is far more useful than one that just lists “review essay” as a type of submission.
  • Non-standard is fine–as long as it’s clear. I’ve been doing this job, off and on, since 2008, and I had not ever heard of a “state of the art” essay until two weeks ago. More frustrating: the journal I first encountered it (I then found another the same day!) did not describe what it is. Nor could I find anything helpful online. I assume it’s a review essay, but I don’t know. Similarly, from time to time, journals list other non-obvious forms like “country notes” or “election reports”, again with no additional clarity. Editors may think that the answer is to refer people to earlier issues of the journal, but that’s the opposite of helpful: it’s putting barriers in front of researchers rather than removing them. We need more nonstandard output types! But we also need to define them and explain them in a standardized format.
  • Be specific bluntly. Requirements are not the time to be cute or to hedge. Some journals suggest page lengths in forms of word counts; others, in forms of pages; others, in word count or page lengths but prefaced with the deadly ambivalence of “about”. Crisp guidelines should be preferred for initial submission, and word lengths should be preferred over page counts. If page counts are used, typeface, font size, and margin size should be stated directly. (It’s always preferable to supply Word and TeX templates.) Arbitrary guidelines are annoying but ambivalent guidelines are invitations to frustration.
  • Write a human-readable summary that fits on one page. By”one page” I don’t mean “one webpage that scrolls infinitely”, I mean that one 8.5″ x 11″ or A4 page of standard 12-point, Times New Roman with 1-inch margins should be able to fit everything you think authors need to know about submission type, formatting, editorial fit, and the editorial board. You can always expound on these summaries using hyperlinks; you can always have several pages throughout your website that explains all the finer points for final submission. Fine. But I’m aware of one political science journal that has editorial instructions that run nearly 3,500 words: this is just inviting authors to trip up at submission. Be a good regulator, not a red-tape enthusiast: write the rules that you need and that users can understand.
  • Keep your website up-to-date. Blessings upon those who maintain accurate webpages; plagues upon those whose website bears no correlation to the actual process of submitting to journals. (Have I personally encountered journals where I’ve diligently followed the rules laid out on the website only to have a submission kicked back? Yep.) This also includes keeping up-to-date your editorial board and editors’ information, including affiliations.
  • Mean what you say. If you list research/theory notes on your website, but you don’t direct reviewers to specific reviewer instructions for research/theory notes, then you don’t really accept research/theory notes. Failure of editors to communicate and/or failure of reviewers to understand the notes format is universal among the ECRs I’ve spoken to regarding this issue. This is a journal problem, but it’s a harm that falls disproportionately on people who believe your website reflects editorial policies (which it should).
  • Make it shorter. Your journal is special. Your journal website isn’t. Resist the urge to embroider the website by loading everything with more text. Use hierarchical organization to ruthlessly shove nice-to-knows (or nice-to-says) into subordinate pages, while keeping the top pages open only for need-to-knows.

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