Not too long ago, checkout clerks at food stores inquired, "Paper or plastic?" A similar question is now being asked about much published scholarship, except that the choice is now paper or electrons. By electrons, I mean a digital medium, in which the information is developed, produced, and stored entirely on computers--in stark contrast to the volumes of paper journals that now line the shelves of libraries and many professors' offices. To be fair, most journals that I read are now published in both paper and in electronic formats. This shift marks more than a change of format, however. It is a sea-change--the kind of transformation that the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter said were caused by "gales of creative destruction." In his model, systems change when new ideas, products, and technologies bring about the destruction of the old. The emergence of digital scholarship appears to follow this model: the freely accessible electronic media is replacing the more expensive paper one.
Ecology and Society was one of the first entirely digital journals. Many journals that began in print now produce both paper and electronic versions, but Ecology and Society has always lived exclusively in a virtual world. It was developed following a challenge to a handful of graduate students at Carleton University in the mid 1990s. After four years of hard work gathering funds and writing software, the first issue was published ( "posted" might be a better word) in 1997. At the time of this writing, the fifteenth issue is underway. For the past seven years, I've been co-editor-in-chief of the journal. Over the past decade, it has grown into an internationally recognized, highly rated publication.
An interdisciplinary journal, Ecology and Society focuses on the interactions between people and their environment. Specifically, we publish articles that deal with "the management, stewardship and sustainable use of ecological systems, resources and biological diversity at all levels, and the role natural systems play in social and political systems and conversely, the effect of social, economic and political institutions on ecological systems and services."
The journal is Open Access, which means that all of its content is available on the Internet. We believe that making such work freely and readily available will contribute to a greater global exchange of knowledge and information. The journal has over 13,000 subscribers in over a hundred countries, with most of the subscribers located in North America and Europe. Subscribers pay nothing, but they do register with the journal to receive information such as notices when a new issue is published. The journal publishes about 120 articles per year in two issues. Funding for the journal comes from a combination of sources, including grants, institutional dues, and page charges.
Lessons from the journal
Focus on quality. Early in the planning stages of the journal, the founders set a goal of development of a high quality product. The threshold for Internet publishing is very low; once a few technical obstacles (such as learning how to develop and create a website) are overcome, then anyone can publish anything. Ecology and Society set out to become a credible scientific outlet by selecting a high profile editor-in-chief, asking respected scientists to be members of the editorial board, and implementing a double-blind review process for each manuscript. As a result, more than half of the submitted manuscripts are declined. In the past few years, the journal has ranked among the top half-dozen environmental science and environmental studies journals. Indeed, one of our editors, Elinor Ostrom, won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.
Encourage creativity. The journal fosters publications that explore novel ideas and the application of those ideas by awarding annual prizes. A prize of 500 Euro is awarded to the author(s) of the most novel paper that integrates different streams of science to assess fundamental questions in the ecological, political, and social foundations for sustainable social-ecological systems. Another award (1000 Euro) is given annually to the individual or organization that is the most effective in bringing transdisciplinary science into practice. Both of these prizes are donated by a private European foundation.
Stay small and efficient. The journal has become successful because of the hard work of a small group of people. An executive director handles all of the financial and managerial work. A managing editor efficiently handles the flow of manuscript submissions, reviews, editing, and final publication. Custom-designed software was developed for the journal in order to manage the entire production process. The editors-in-chief evaluate each manuscript and oversee the review process that is handled by a network of subject editors and reviewers. The executive director, managing editor, and editors-in-chief coordinate the large task of manuscript review using the custom software.
Develop an open network of scholars. A pleasant surprise that has emerged from the journal has been the creation of a network of thinkers that has formed around it. That is, the scholars who contribute to the journal, the subscribers who use the information, and the small group that facilitates publication all form a network. The first editor suggested that the journal has created a virtual institute--one without walls and with a minimal support infrastructure. This network has helped with the funding of major research centers in Sweden, Australia, England, Canada, and the United States, as well as with the production of dozens of scholarly books and hundreds of publications.
The journal has succeeded in part because it has adhered to traditional notions of a scholarly journal by publishing rigorously vetted and novel articles. Its success can also be attributed to content that addresses both the natural (ecological) science and social science dimensions of an environmental issue. That is, Ecology and Society fills an interdisciplinary niche. The web-based platform of the publication has allowed both for modest expansions in the ways ideas are communicated and for a wide dissemination of those ideas.
While Ecology and Society has become a globally recognized outlet for scholarship, it will change in the future. Following Schumpeter's model, something new will replace it. It should be interesting to see what the next round of creative destruction brings to scholarship.