|Eight special issues and one book I have helped to edit.
The main reasons I edit special issues are two-fold. First, I am usually asked to do so by a journal editor, a friend, or a colleague (sometimes all three being the same) – and I am a sucker for a personal invitation to help with something. Second, special issues have all the fun parts and none of the painful parts of editing: you get to structure the special issue the way you want, you get to invite the people you want to invite, acceptance rates are high, the papers tend to well cited, and it is generally a low-pressure exercise. However, to what extent can these personal assertions be supported by hard data?
From the perspective of a journal with its eyes on prestige, the most pressing question might be: How do the above numbers compare to papers in our journal in the same year that were not published in the special issue? Extracting these numbers from Web of Science, we see that the top ten papers from the same journals/years have citation rates of 111-264, typically higher than the top ten papers from the stickleback issues. We then considered the most-cited paper inside versus outside the special issue for each journal/year (Fig. 2). The two numbers are very similar for the three most recent issues, which are those with the fewest total citations. For older special issues that have accrued more citations, the most cited paper is typically outside the special issue. Overall, however, results aren’t dramatically different for papers inside versus outside special issues, and they are likely biased against special issues because fewer papers are published there (145) than outside the special issue in the same journals/years (702 total).
Finally, we consider the “longevity” of influence for papers from special issues relative to other papers in the same journals/years. This analysis asks: Does the relative influence of papers inside versus outside special issues change with the age of the special issue? Figure 3 [here 2 of 4 panels are shown] shows the proportion of the total citations to papers published in each journal/year that were to papers in the special issue (normalized to proportion of papers published in the issue). Considerable variation occurs through time for each issue, presumably reflecting stochasticity; but the overall trend seems to be rather flat. That is, papers published in special issues have approximately the same longevity as papers published outside the special issue in the same journal/year.
We conclude that papers inside special issues are doing nearly as well, and sometimes better, than papers outside special issues in a given journal/year. More importantly, conference special issues mean that journals are supporting a collective scientific endeavor that brings researchers together in a shared arena to exchange ideas, which benefits the field even if it doesn’t directly benefit the journal. Surely this service to the scientific community is something that all journals should promote.
What about the longevity of a paper you publish in a special issue versus the literature as a whole? Here we calculated the total number of citations per year to the papers in each special issue relative to stickleback papers in general (i.e., in the special issue and elsewhere), excluding papers published in the five journals as noted above. For the older special issues (1985 and 1995), the relative importance of papers in the special issue started high and then stabilized to remain – ignoring some year-to-year fluctuations – relatively constant through time (Fig. 5 [2 of 4 panels are shown here]). For the subsequent special issues (2000 onward), the relative importance of stickleback papers increased through time, suggesting that papers published in special issues could have more staying power than papers published elsewhere.
We suggest that – if only from the perspective of citation rates – authors will probably want to target their very best empirical work to journals with a higher impact than those typically publishing conference special issues. However, it could be a better decision to target other solid work for special issues, where exposure to people in the same field will be higher, where citation rates can be as high as elsewhere, and where acceptance is more likely.