An academic journal is a regularly-published, peer-reviewed publication that publishes scholarship relating to an academic discipline. The purpose of such a journal is to provide a place for the introduction and scrutiny of new research, and often a forum for the critique of existing research, whether as journal articles or as books. These purposes are most often manifested in the publication of original research articles, review articles, and book reviews.
The term "academic journal" applies to scholarly publications in all fields, and this article covers the aspects common to all academic fields. Scientific journals and journals in the quantitative social sciences vary somewhat in form and function from journals in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, and the specific aspects are discussed separately. The very similar American and British systems are being primarily discussed here--other regions are somewhat different.
In academia, submissions are generally unsolicited. Professional scholars generally submit an article to a journal. The editor (or co-editors) then determines whether or not to reject the submission outright, often on grounds of not being appropriate to the subject of the journal. If the editor chooses to consider the article for publication, it is then subject to anonymous peer-review by other scholars of the editor's choosing. There are usually two reviewers; a third is sometimes asked if the two disagree. The opinions of these outside reviewers are used in the determination to publish the article, to return it to the author for revision, or to reject the article. (There are many variations on this process, discussed in the article on peer review). Even accepted articles are subject to further (and sometimes considerable) editing by the journal before publication. Because of this lengthy process, an accepted article will typically not appear in print until several months at the very least after its initial submission--several years is not unknown.
The process of peer review is generally considered critical to establishing a reliable body of research and knowledge. Scholars can only be expert in a limited area ; they rely upon peer-reviewed journals to provide reliable and credible research which they can build upon for subsequent or related research. As a result, significant scandal ensues when an author is found to have falsified the research included in a published article, as many other scholars, and more generally the field of study itself, have relied upon that research.
Review articles, often called "reviews of progress," serve as a check on the research published in the journals. Some journals are entirely devoted to review articles, others contain a few each issue, but most do not publish review articles at all. Such reviews often cover the research for the preceding year, some for longer or shorter periods; some are devoted to very specific topics, some to general surveys. Some are enumerative, with intent to list all significant articles in a subject. Others are selective, including what they think is worth including. Yet others are evaluative, aiming to give a judgment of the state of progress in the field. Some are published in series, covering each year a complete subject field, or covering a number of specific fields over a period of several years. Unlike original research articles, book reviews tend to be solicited, and are sometimes planned for years in advance. Authors are often paid a few hundred dollars for such reviews. Because of this, the standard definitions of open access do not require review articles to be open access, though many of them are. They are typically relied on by students beginning a study in a field, or for current awareness for those already in the field.
Book reviews of scholarly books serve as a check on the research published by scholars in book form. Unlike articles, book reviews tend to be solicited. Journals typically have a separate book review editor who determines which new books should be reviewed and by whom. If an outside scholar accepts the book review editor's request to review a book, he or she generally receives a free copy of that book from the journal in exchange for a timely review. Publishers send books to book review editors in the hope that their books will be reviewed. The length and depth of reviews vary considerably from journal to journal. The extent to which textbooks and other non-scholarly books are covered also varies from journal to journal.
The prestige of an academic journal is established over time. It can reflect many factors, some but not all expressible quantitatively. There are dominant journals in each academic discipline that receive the largest number of submissions and therefore can be most selective in choosing their content. Among academic historians in the United States, for example, the two dominant journals are the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History, but there are dozens of other American peer-reviewed journals of history that specialize in specific time-periods, themes, or regions, and these may be considered of equally high quality in their specialty.
In the natural sciences and the "hard" social sciences, impact factor is a convenient numerical measure, reflecting the number of later articles citing those articles already published in the journal. There are other possible quantitative factors, such as the overall number of citations, how quickly articles are cited, and the average "half-life" of articles (before they are no longer cited). There is also a question of whether any quantitative factor can reflect true prestige. Journals in the natural sciences are categorized and ranked in the Science Citation Index; journals in the social sciences are categorized and ranked in the Social Science Citation Index.
In the Anglo-American humanities, there has not yet been a tradition (as currently exists in the sciences) of giving impact factors that could potentially be used --however incorrectly--to establish prestige values to journals. Perhaps a key reason for this is the relative unimportance of academic journals in these fields, as contrasted with the importance of academic monographs. Very recently, there have been some preliminary work towards determining the validity of such measurement. (refs to be inserted)
A categorization of the prestige of journals in some subjects has been attempted, using letters to show their importance in the academic world. The full ranking of these journals is being held by the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. 
Academic journals in the humanities and social sciences are usually subsidized by universities or professional organizations, and do not exist to make a profit. However, they often accept advertisements as a way of off-setting production costs. It is standard practice for academic journals to charge libraries much higher subscription rates than individual subscribers pay. Editors of journals tend to have other professional responsibilities, most often as teaching professors. In the case of the very largest journals, there is sometime paid staff to assist in the editing. The production of the journals are almost always done by paid staff from the publisher. Publishers in the subjects are often university presses; some of them specialize in such journals, such as the Oxford University Press..
In recent years, the Internet has revolutionized the production of, and access to, academic journals. Journal content is often available online via services subscribed to by academic libraries. Individual articles are indexed in databases by subject, and can be increasingly found in such databases as Google Scholar. Some of the smallest and most specialized journals are prepared in-house by an academic department and published only on the internet--recently such publication has sometimes taken the form of a blog.
There is currently a movement in higher education encouraging open access, either by means of self archiving, whereby the author places his paper in a repository where it can be searched for and read, or by means of publishing in an open access journal, which does not charge for subscriptions, being either subsidized or financed through author page charges. However, to date open access has had a much more significant effect on science journals than on those in the humanities.
- Academic databases and search engines
- List of journals available free online
- List of academic journals
- Scientific journals
- JournalSeek - A Searchable Database of Online Scholarly Journals
- Links to the world's electronic journals
- Electronic journals available onsite at the British Library
- IngentaConnect - the largest online collection of scholarly journals
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