Fostering scholarly journals in the digital world: opening the overlay platform Episciences to Social Sciences and Humanities

Written by CCSD

There exist several publication models for Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) journals to embrace the reality of digital dissemination, starting from retro digitization of print journals up to natively digital formats like OpenEdition Journals. With the 2016 Loi pour une République Numérique  empowering authors to keep control over their publications (see this post in French on the Scinfolex blog as well as the Rights Retention Recommendations by Coalition S), the French publication landscape has developed a variety of Open Access options that make it possible to read and cite articles relatively shortly after their publication.

Still, for most journals, the choice of a technical solution for the reviewing, copyediting and publication process remains a key issue, and the time lapse between submission and publication does generally not keep up with the reality of information flows in the digital era. For authors too, the situation is frustrating: a two-year wait between the submission of a paper to an SSH journal and its publication is rather common, and most of the time, it means that the publication has lost at least some of its topicality.

The option to host preprints of scholarly articles on a public archive has dramatically improved this situation. In France, the HAL repository has gained traction over the past couple of years ever since all major funding and research institutions made it compulsory for scholars to present all of their publications on the repository (see the survey results of the Couperin Consortium on publication practices – in French – here and  in English Schmidt & Kuchma 2012: Implementing Open Access mandates in Europe). While some scholars see it as an opportunity to make their preprints available ahead of the review process, many are still skeptical about this practice and see preprint publications as a contradiction, even a devaluation of the actual journal publication. In other words, there remains a conceptual and practical gap between the practice of open archives – where scholars largely tend to upload their papers after the maximum embargo time has elapsed – and the idea that the preprint publication is truly embedded in the evaluation and editorial valuing of the article.

This is precisely where the Episciences platform comes in, bridging between open archives and journal publications. As a platform for overlay journals, Episciences provides the technical environment that makes it possible to set the review process of a journal directly on top of a preprint repository. For authors, submission requires to have the preprint online before the submission and review process. Alongside the reviewing and copyediting process, authors then have to update their preprint files according to the journal’s requirements if they want their article to be embedded in one of the journal’s issues. Authors keep all the rights connected to their work. For journals, Episciences can be configured according to the reviewing and copyediting guidelines that they define. Single-blind or open peer review are then possible on the preprints made available by their authors. Nothing is fundamentally different from a normal review and copyediting process. The platform offers a wide range of tools for editorial managers, authors and reviewers; it is easy to configure, manage and use, be it only because it is offered as an online service rather than a software that one would have to install and maintain.

Informatics and mathematics research communities have had an early start at leveraging the potentialities of the platform with several major titles hosted on Episciences (see the list of the journals hosted by Episciences here). In 2020, a journal managing committee was installed for the SSH community (see the committee’s composition here). Their task: monitoring SSH journals wanting to use the Episciences services, but mostly, in the first place, making the Episciences platform more widely known within the SSH community. The committee is currently composed of half a dozen scholars, some in their early career, some more advanced, coming from a variety of disciplines, all with a strong record of commitment to Open Science. While Digital Humanities are particularly well represented among the disciplinary profiles, the committee is also strongly rooted in Literary Studies, History, Anthropology, and Sociology.

The first year of activity was marked by the development of the validation process for SSH journals applying to the platform (5 applications were reached in between the fall of 2020 and the fall of 2021, one is already validated and in preproduction, and the other four still in the validation process) and the preparation of information material aiming at potential journals: a short presentation of epijournals and their specific publishing processes, a selective bibliography on overlay journals, and a wiki hosting a permanent call for journals, guidelines for submitting a journal project, and a list of Human Sciences epijournals. All this information is available both in French and in English and will be updated over time.

Anne Baillot for the EpiSHS committee