An academic journal is a peer-reviewed periodical in which scholarship relating to a particular academic discipline is published. Academic journals serve as forums for the introduction and presentation for scrutiny of new research, and the critique of existing research. Content typically takes the form of articles presenting original research, review articles, and book reviews. Academic or professional publications that are not peer-reviewed are usually called professional magazines.
The term "academic journal" applies to scholarly publications in all fields; this article discusses the aspects common to all academic field journals. Scientific journals and journals of the quantitative social sciences vary in form and function from journals of the humanities and qualitative social sciences; their specific aspects are separately discussed. The similar American and British journal publication systems are primarily discussed here; practices differ in other regions of the world.
In academia, professional scholars typically make unsolicited submissions of their articles to academic journals. Upon receipt of a submitted article manuscript, the journal editor (or editors) determines whether to reject the submission outright or begin the process of peer review. In the latter case, the submission becomes subject to anonymous peer-review by outside scholars of the editor's choosing. The number of these peer reviewers (or "referees") varies according to each journal's editorial practice — typically, no fewer than two, and usually at least three outside peers review the article. The editor(s) uses the reviewers' opinions in determining whether to publish the article, return it to the author(s) for revision, or to reject it. (This process is discussed in the peer review article). Even accepted articles are subjected to further (sometimes considerable) editing by journal editorial staff before they appear in print. Typically, because the process is lengthy, an accepted article will not be published until months after its initial submission, while publication after a period of several years is not unknown.
The peer-review process is considered critical to establishing a reliable body of research and knowledge. Scholars can be expert only in a limited area of their fields; they rely upon peer-reviewed journals to provide reliable, credible research upon which they can build subsequent, related research.
Review articles, also called "reviews of progress," are checks on the research published in journals. Some journals are devoted entirely to review articles, others contain a few in each issue, but most do not publish review articles. Such reviews often cover the research from the preceding year, some for longer or shorter terms; some are devoted to specific topics, some to general surveys. Some journals are enumerative, listing all significant articles in a given subject, others are selective, including only what they think worthwhile. Yet others are evaluative, judging the state of progress in the subject field. Some journals are published in series, each covering a complete subject field year, or covering specific fields through several years.
Unlike original research articles, book reviews tend to be solicited submissions, sometimes planned years in advance. Book review authors are paid a few hundred dollars for reviews, because of this, the standard definitions of open access do not require review articles to be open access, though many are so. They are typically relied upon by students beginning a study in a given field, or for current awareness of those already in the field.
Book reviews of scholarly books are checks upon the research books published by scholars; unlike articles, book reviews tend to be solicited. Journals typically have a separate book review editor determining which new books to review and by whom. If an outside scholar accepts the book review editor's request for a book review, he or she generally receives a free copy of the 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 research book reviews varies much from journal to journal, as does the extent of textbook and trade book review.
An academic journal's prestige is established over time, and can reflect many factors, some but not all of which are expressible quantitatively. In each academic discipline there are dominant journals that receive the largest number of submissions, and therefore can be selective in choosing their content. Yet, not only the largest journals are of excellent quality. For example, among United States academic historians, the two dominant journals are the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History, but there are dozens of other American peer-reviewed history journals specializing in specific historical periods, themes, or regions, and these may be considered of equally high quality in their specialties. This also may be the case with interdisciplinary journals, whose focus is on the intersection of two or more disciplines or specialties.
In the natural sciences and in the "hard" social sciences, impact factor is a convenient proxy, measuring the number of later articles citing 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, i.e. when they are no longer cited. There also is the question of whether or not any quantitative factor can reflect true prestige; natural science journals are categorized and ranked in the Science Citation Index, and social science journals in the Social Science Citation Index.
In the Anglo-American humanities, there is no tradition (as there is in the sciences) of giving impact-factors that could be used — however incorrectly — in establishing a journal's prestige. Recent moves have been made by the European Science Foundation to rectify the situation, resulting in the publication of preliminary lists for the ranking of academic journals in the Humanities.
In some disciplines such as KM/IC the lack of a well-established journal ranking system is perceived as "a major obstacle on the way to tenure, promotion and achievement recognition" (Bontis & Serenko 2009, pp. 17).
The categorization of journal prestige in some subjects has been attempted, typically using letters to rank their academic world importance.
We can distinguish two categories of techniques to assess journal quality and develop journal rankings (Lowry et al. 2007):
Many academic journals are subsidized by universities or professional organizations, and do not exist to make a profit, however, they often accept advertising, page and image charges from authors to pay for production costs. On the other hand, some journals are produced by commercial publishers who do make a profit by charging subscriptions to individuals and libraries. They may also sell all of their journals in discipline-specific collections or a variety of other packages.
Journal editors tend to have other professional responsibilities, most often as teaching professors. In the case of the very largest journals, there are paid staff assisting in the editing. The production of the journals is most always done by publisher-paid staff. Humanities and social science academic journals are usually subsidized by universities or professional organization
The Internet has revolutionized the production of, and access to, academic journals (Hendler 2007), with their contents available online via services subscribed to by academic libraries. Individual articles are subject-indexed in databases such as Google Scholar. Some of the smallest, most specialized journals are prepared in-house, by an academic department, and published only online — such form of publication has sometimes been in the blog format.
Currently, there is a movement in higher education encouraging open access, either via self archiving, whereby the author deposits his paper in a repository where it can be searched for and read, or via publishing it in a free open access journal, which does not charge for subscriptions, being either subsidized or financed with author page charges. However, to date, open access has affected science journals more than humanities journals. Commercial publishers are now experimenting with open access models, but are trying to protect their subscription revenues.