Editing a Special Issue

Research and innovation

Professor Timothy Devinney is the Pro-Dean for Research and Innovation at Leeds University Business School and has a Leadership Chair in International Business.

A close up of books on a shelf, spine upwards

“Journals have increasingly come to rely on special issues to fill in the gaps in their normal publication and submission process. Looking back 40 years ago it was rare that journals would bother with special issues, whereas today most journals have at least one special issue a year and in many cases more than one. Those not devoting whole issues now have one or more focused sections per year.

This change has arisen for three reasons. The first is that many journals found that having special issues increased the salience of the journal to its readership and led to more downloads of articles and higher citation rates. Second, many editors found that special issues allowed the journal to farm out issues to specialists who were able to create credible and effective collections of articles related to new and evolving areas of research. Third, as edited books became less ‘respected’ as a publication alternative, individuals turned to special issues as ways of gathering collections of work together with the added cache that the work was being published in a ‘peer reviewed’ journal rather than an edited book.

There has always been the question of whether or not special issues are equivalent to standard issues of the same journal. Having both edited journals and five special issues – in the Journal of Product Innovation Management; Journal of International Business StudiesCorporate Governance: An International ReviewLong Range Planning; and Global Strategy Journal – I would say that the question becomes one of timing and topic.  

For example, one special issue we edited had nearly 100 submissions and we published five papers; a higher rejection rate than for the journal. In another case, we received only 10 submissions and published only one paper (effectively killing the ‘special issue’ but also with a higher rejection rate than the journal). In the first case, the topic was very ‘hot’ so lots of people sent in submissions; in the second case, the topic was very emergent and the papers submitted were way too speculative.  

Generally, the issue of whether the process in a special issue is more onerous or not simply depends on the issue and the demand for journal space. Some journals expect special issues to have set minimum number of articles and some special issue editors shoot for this number (I was never one of those).

Different journals also have different processes for special issues. Some of those I edited were simply the result of numerous casual conversations. Some went through standard ‘calls’ for special issues. In all cases, the editors normally require that you outline your idea in some detail and this is generally vetted either formally or informally.  

The more demands the journal has for special issues, the more likely it will have a formal process. However, to be successful you normally have to have a number of bases covered. 

First, the topic of the special issue has to be clear and well demarcated. Vague language that implies that any article written in any way on any topic even remotely related to the topic of interest is likely to lead to rejection.  

Second, examples of the style of successful special issues (based on citations and downloads) should be used as guidelines. It is best to use a model of success and mimic it. 

Third, the special issue must be of interest to quality scholars wanting to submit their work to that issue. Like it or not, well known scholars draw readers to the journal, so you want to ensure that if you are publishing five articles that you can get enough submissions of quality to not dilute the quality demanded from the journal.  

Fourth, the topic must be interesting. This is simply the reality that the editors want people to read the articles and cite them, while the publisher wants them to download them. A boring topic of interest to a small number of scholars may be noble but it is not really a seller to a commercial publisher.  

Fifth, you need to have expertise in the editorial team. The best special issues have a newness to them that requires scholars with varied expertise – normally spanning theory, disciplinary background and methodological competence and orientation.  

Sixth, the team has to have a lot of editorial experience. As the editors hand over responsibility to the special issue editors you have to show that you have the expertise to do the job well – meaning fairly and in a timely fashion. The best teams normally have a mixture of senior scholars and junior scholars but a team of only junior scholars is likely to be too risky.  

Finally, you have to have a differentiated topic idea. Publishing the twentieth special issue on social responsibility is not going to be a winner. Editors and publishers want to claim a position, not drop another publication into a crowded space.”

Professor Catherine Cassell is Deputy Dean of Leeds University Business School and Professor of Organisational Psychology.

“I have spent most of my academic career on a mission to promote the use of qualitative methods in business, management and organisational research. This started as an early career researcher when together with Gillian Symon – now a professor at Royal Holloway - we were bemoaning the lack of use of qualitative methods in the work and organisational psychology field. We had (perhaps unusually at that time in work psychology), used these methods in our own research and believed they had much to contribute. The use of special issues is one way in which we have sought to promote the use of qualitative research more generally since then. 

Examples include a special issue of the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology on qualitative research published in 2000 (co-editors Gillian Symon and Rosie Dixon); one for the Journal of Organisational and Occupational Psychology in 2006 on alternative approaches to positivism (co-editor Gillian Symon); a special issue of the Baltic Journal of Management in 2015 (co-Editor Gillian Symon) designed to promote qualitative management research in the Baltic region; and an issue of the International Journal of Management Reviews in 2013 that focused more generally on research methods and research practice (co-editor Bill Lee). 

Perhaps the special issue that had the most unexpected impact was one for Management Decision in 2006 (co-edited with Gillian Symon, Phil Johnson and Anna Beuhring). We started by asking potential contributors to submit short abstracts for consideration for a special issue on qualitative research methods in management. The submission of over 100 abstracts led to an invitation by Emerald Publishing Group for Gillian and myself to create and edit a new journal in this area.

The publishers assumed that over 100 submissions was evidence of both considerable interest and a gap in the journals market. The result was Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: an International Journal. Ten years on we have just stood down as inaugural co-editors of the journal which is now recognised internationally as a leading advocate and publisher of excellent qualitative research. 

Hence in my experience if you want to seek to influence the academic agenda, or in our case the methodological agenda, special issues are a good place to start.”  

The below are examples of some of the special issues that our academics have recently had published or are currently working on.

Peter Buckley, Professor of International Business, recently co-edited a special issue of International Business Review with Tamer Cavusgil, Georgia State University. The issue (Volume 25, No.4, 2016) is entitled “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Middle Class Phenomenon in Emerging Markets.”

“The rise of the middle class in rapidly transforming economies of East Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East is one of the most remarkable megatrends of recent decades. Given the magnitude of the changes felt by vast numbers of households across the globe, as well as the importance the issue holds in the realms of society, politics, business, economics and culture, examining the middle classes in emerging markets has become a topic of investigation, and in multiple areas of academic inquiry.

Through this issue, we first wished to encourage scholars from business, economics, and other social science disciplines to submit their relevant work. Thus, one aim is to present alternative viewpoints on the middle class phenomenon, and work towards a more holistic understanding of middle class. 

Second, we wanted to disseminate alternative metrics and methodologies scholars have advanced for quantifying middle class households in emerging markets. 

Third, we wished to call attention to the varying experiences by different countries in building their middle classes, thus offering comparative perspectives. 

Finally, we hoped to publish empirical evidence on such presumed consequences of the rise of middle class as: entrepreneurial activity; income equality; political activism; transparency and democratic tendencies; and innovation.

The hardest thing about editing special issues is the work involved in getting reviewers, reviewing the submissions and keeping it all on schedule. It helps if you have a superb co-editor, as I did. The most enjoyable aspect, I find, is getting a collective contribution to an area that is important and policy-relevant.”

Drs Costas Leonidou and Magnus Hultman, both Associate Professors of Marketing, are currently editing a special issue on “Global Marketing in Business-to-Business Contexts: Challenges, Developments, and Research Opportunities” for Industrial Marketing Management.

“Notwithstanding the considerable proliferation of knowledge in business-to-business global marketing issues, there are still gaps in our knowledge of how and why some international marketing practices work and others fail in this context. 

There is also a general need in the business-to-business international marketing field to address theoretical shortcomings and criticisms, and add to theory development in a meaningful way. 

In addition, researchers need to focus on new and existing problems that are relevant to practitioners and/or researchers and continuously look for answers and better explanations of important international business-to-business phenomena. 

Enhancing research rigour with an emphasis on better research designs and procedures is also essential in the field. Addressing these challenges is critical in an effort to resolve current and future international marketing problems and issues in a business-to-business context and to move the frontiers of knowledge in this research area.

The purpose of this special issue is to bring together high quality contemporary research on global marketing in the business-to-business context with a view to addressing challenges and recent developments, and providing interesting managerial implications and opportunities for future researchers. 

We are currently reviewing submissions and anticipate the special issue will be published in August 2017. Some of the articles accepted for the special issue will be made available online in 2016.

The experience of editing a journal is interesting, challenging and rewarding. It’s interesting because you get to see the journal publishing process from a very different angle and understand how important the review process is in substantially improving the quality of the submitted manuscripts. It’s challenging however because you need to source and obtain quality reviews from experts in the field in a timely fashion. And it’s also rewarding because you get a chance to look at the latest research in the field and see the finished articles after many hours of work with the authors and reviewers.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.