How to start a journal and beat the academic publishing racket

Academic publishing is a multi-billion pound industry, with profit margins reportedly higher than those of Apple, Google and Amazon. It has always struck me as a racket: academics sign over their work to private businesses for free, and then their universities pay the same businesses hefty fees in order to read what they publish. Academics are also responsible for editing these journals and providing the peer-reviews, usually for free.

It hasn’t always been this way. In a remarkable brief history of the academic publishing industry, Stephen Buranyi highlights the key role of Robert Maxwell, a brash business tycoon whose greatest desire was to “be a millionaire”. Maxwell arrived on the scene just after the Second World War, which was a key turning point in academic history. The post-war years saw a huge growth in the number of people attending higher education and also in the academic publishing trade. In 1950, there were 10,000 journals published worldwide, but by 1980, this was had reached 62,000. Robert Maxwell and other businessmen capitalised on this growth and took the opportunity to privatise what had previously been a largely non-profit sector. There is now growing awareness that this industry is both ludicrous and detrimental, unwieldily costly and harmful to the progression of science. However, solutions are slow in coming. While open-access journals are growing, the majority of these charge fees for publication that far outstrip real costs. For these reasons, I have been intrigued and encouraged to see the development of peer-reviewed open access journals which do not charge authors to publish with them. These include Musicology Research Journal (MRJ), whose Chief Editor is Dr James Williams, Senior Lecturer at the University of Derby, and Psychreg Journal of Psychology (PJP), whose Chief Editor is Dennis Relojo-Howell, founder of leading psychology blog Psychreg. These journals offer a solution that previously would have been regarded as impossible: they are both free to the authors and free to readers. I spoke to Williams and Relojo-Howell to understand more about their journals.

Why start a peer-reviewed academic journal?

As both Williams and Relojo-Howell attested, self-publishing an academic journal is a significant amount of work. So why do it? Williams said his motivation arose from his experience as a PhD Student and early career researcher. “Acceptance of manuscripts in current musicology-based journals can sometimes feel a little elitist. Editors and traditional publishers prefer to go with already-known academics, and are less likely to take on manuscripts from early-career scholars”. Williams also described his dissatisfaction with the traditional academic publishing industry, and its money-oriented focus. MRJ meets this gap by focusing on publishing the work of early career researchers, and by managing all copy-editing and manuscript management in-house. Relojo-Howell’s motivation was different. As a psychology blog editor, he had begun to receive blog post submissions that were overly long and technical. These posts weren’t suitable for publication as blog posts, but he could see their importance and academic merit. He created the journal to provide an outlet for these articles, and to broaden the overall scope of Psychreg. 

Ten steps for starting a journal

Whatever the focus of your journal, the steps for setting one up are similar.

  1. Identify the gap. What is the need your journal will meet? How will it improve information sharing in your field? Once you’ve identified this gap, you need to set the scope of your journal. Decide which types of articles you will include, and those you won’t.journal website
  2. Build a website that will home your journal. A full description of this process is beyond the capacity of this article (and my expertise!) but the key parts of this are to buy a domain name, find a web hosting company and then prepare the content within this. Popular web-creation platforms are, and Relojo-Howell suggested that it’s also worth looking into the Public Knowledge Project: this provides Open Journal Systems (OJS), federally funded software designed to support the set up and management of open access journals.
  3. Set up an editorial board. Both Williams and Relojo-Howell highlighted the importance of this. First, this group can provide the strategic direction and support that can get your journal started and help it grow. Second, this group can provide credibility to the project. As Relojo-Howell said, “When I started, potential contributors were only interested in who was on the editorial board. I have never been asked about the journal’s impact factor”.
  4. Involve associate editors who can provide support. Williams described the importance of including a multi-skilled team. “We have editors with different areas of expertise and varying skillsets, including people who are familiar with copy-editing and academic publishing”.
  5. Call for papers. You can spread the word about your new journal via social media, personal networks and by contacting other relevant university departments. Neither Williams nor Relojo-Howell had found this aspect challenging. As Williams said, “We have only ever advertised the journal in the UK, but we have received submissions from Australia, Canada, the USA and Asia”.academic publishing
  6. Manage your submissions. Traditional journals use manuscript-management software, but this comes with a steep price tag. “I contacted Emerald about their systems”, Relojo-Howell said, “but they asked for £38k”. Open Journal Systems (OJS) provides an alternative, free-to-use alternative, but this isn’t necessary. “I use a spread-sheet to keep on top of submissions”, Williams said. “It works fine”.
  7. Copy-edit and type-set your articles. While this may feel like a challenge, both Williams and Relojo-Howell said it was possible to do using widely available software. Williams said that he uses Word and Adobe programs to provide a professional-looking finish to his articles. Relojo-Howell commented on the fonts he uses: “I use a combination of paid-for fonts and some free Google fonts”.
  8. Apply for an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN). For us in the UK, this involves submitting an application to the British Library. Williams suggested that the British Library will expect to see evidence of around 3-4 previous publications and a commitment to continue publishing on a regular basis.
  9. Plan how to give your articles a Digital Object Identifier (DOI). DOIs are a string of numbers, letters and symbols used to permanently identify an article of document and link it to the web. Relojo-Howell recommends using Zenodo for this purpose. Initially funded by EU project funding, Zenodo is now open to all research outputs and offers its services free of charge for open access publishers.
  10. Wider registration. There are a variety of international platforms with which to register journals, including Web of Science, PubMed and SCOPUS. This type of registration seems to be a longer term process, however. Relojo-Howell said he had contacted both the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and Thomson-Reuters, but they indicated that they would expect journals to be up and running for closer to five years before they would register them.

Other considerations

  • Finding peer-reviewers. My colleagues who edit traditional journals have described to me the challenges of finding peer-reviewers. While Williams and Relojo-Howell suggested this could also be challenging with new, open access journals, Williams suggested a personal touch could help support a positive response rate. “We approach academics who are working closely in the field of the article, and send personal requests. 60 or 70 per cent of the time, they agree”.
  • Clarify that you are a genuine academic ground-roots initiative. Unfortunately, at the same time that the genuine open-access field is growing, the number of predatory journals is proliferating at great speed. In a previous post, I clarify the warning signs of academic spam emails. However, if your potential contributors are concerned, let them know that the first clear distinction is that predatory journals ask for large sums of money and usually offer to rush through submissions at great speed. The second clear distinction is your academic board. You can signpost potential contributors to contact your board members for reassurances, if they are concerned.

Is it worth it?

Both Williams and Relojo-Howell admitted that their journals were time consuming and offered no financial benefits. However, what is clear is that starting these journals offers significant job satisfaction. As Williams said, “I saw it as a real problem – I wanted to help other graduating PhD music students… I don’t think I have reaped any rewards for myself, but I do know a lot of people now. It’s great for networking”. Similarly, for Relojo-Howell, the reward lies in contributing towards open science: “I wanted to demonstrate that dissemination of science can be reconstructed to become more democratic – a science that is shared for wider consumption”.


  1. Sakila Nongmeikapam
    May 7, 2020 / 6:25 pm

    Thank you for this article. It happens to be the right one to have answered some of my questions on starting a journal. Very useful.

    • judithnjohnson
      May 7, 2020 / 6:26 pm

      Really glad it was helpful Sakila!

  2. Balraj S
    May 13, 2020 / 6:07 pm

    Nice and genuine content. Great job….

  3. Dr. Arun Singh Chouhan
    May 25, 2020 / 5:43 am

    Very Good Information. Thanks.

  4. Anwarul Wadud
    May 29, 2020 / 12:54 pm

    Turely impressive information, well explained. All publisher’s need to promote early scholarly works and recognize the contributions of newcomers.

  5. Valentine Odili
    July 14, 2020 / 5:20 pm

    Thank you, This is very helpful.

    • judithnjohnson
      July 14, 2020 / 5:30 pm

      Thanks for your feedback Valentine!

  6. Kushal Grakh
    July 17, 2020 / 10:06 am

    Useful information. Thanks

  7. August 11, 2020 / 3:06 pm

    Useful information!
    Thank you

    Xavier Benedict

  8. Dr. Aniefiok Udo
    August 29, 2020 / 2:28 pm

    This is very usefull and informative. Thanks

  9. Kinyanjui
    September 11, 2020 / 6:42 pm

    Just the information I was looking for thanks

  10. Dr. N Paul
    September 24, 2020 / 8:21 pm

    Very useful article!!

  11. September 26, 2020 / 7:28 pm

    Hi Judith, DOAJ requires that an open access journal has published 5 original research articles, among other things, before we will consider it for indexing, not that a journal has been running for 5 years. We also require that the journal has an ISSN which has been registered *and* fully confirmed. Thank, Dom

    • judithnjohnson
      September 26, 2020 / 7:29 pm

      Thanks Dom, for this correction!

  12. Natarajan Ganesan
    October 20, 2020 / 12:57 am

    Many years I started one and learnt many of these by hard lessons. Thanks for documenting them all together in one piece

  13. November 6, 2020 / 8:06 pm

    Thank you for this! As a new PhD student working as a research assistant, I am astounded at how elitist and sometimes, ignorant those in charge of academic journals are when it comes to critical race theory submissions. I am seriously contemplating teaming up with fellow music colleagues, critical race theory scholars and professors to begin or our own academic journal. My motto: If they don’t accept you, create your own path and empower yourself! It is ON now!

    • Sana
      September 8, 2021 / 7:21 am

      M also on same route Kelly nice to see you with same thinking

  14. Milton Rajaratne
    November 26, 2020 / 1:44 am

    Thank you Judith. Your article is informative and guiding, and providing genuine thoughts. I most appreciate it. Great job. Good luck. – Milton

    December 14, 2020 / 10:23 pm

    Thank you Judith. Is it possible to start without a PhD yet? I have a huge gap, I want to fill.

  16. Abbo
    January 12, 2021 / 10:45 am

    Thanks for sharing

  17. Joycelyn Jumawan
    January 16, 2021 / 10:48 pm

    Thank you for this. Can you possibly share some insights on choosing journal longevity, Do’s and Don’ts on website aesthetics, and also on a young journal’s guide to indexing? Much thanks!

  18. Kirti gandhi
    February 8, 2021 / 12:04 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I am planning to start my own journal and would need more of your guidance.

  19. Joachim Kisanji
    February 9, 2021 / 6:57 am

    Thank you very much Judith, it is very important information.

  20. Sergey
    March 1, 2021 / 12:57 pm

    Very useful post. It made me realise not to start a journal 😀 Typical academic activity: a lot of work with no financial reward

    • judithnjohnson
      March 1, 2021 / 1:56 pm

      You will not find many academics who disagree with you!

  21. March 5, 2021 / 7:45 am

    I have been thinking of starting an academic journal since I graduated with my Doctorate in 2019. Your article has given me the impetus I needed.
    Thank you very much.

    What, in you opinion is a steep price for publishing an article? I have been asked for anything between $100 and $3000.
    Thank you for your initiative

  22. March 9, 2021 / 2:19 pm

    Ausom digital we help to start an academic journal with /open/closed/double blind review

  23. March 29, 2021 / 7:31 pm

    Excellent article and just in time! We are considering starting a journal mostly but not only for African scientists but others from resource limited countries – we created a small society and are about to have our 5th conference and workshops in Kenya ( ). Our goal now is to provide a high quality journal with about 20 top internationally recognized scientists on the board plus leading African scientists and make sure scientists have an opportunity at open access for free avoiding the predatory journals. It’s a big task, but we hope we can achieve it. Your article was perfect timeing for us.

  24. Harpreet Singh
    April 17, 2021 / 4:49 am

    This is an amazing write-up, I must say. Perhaps all like minded people, who are intending to start a new journal (including myself) are going through the similar phase.
    My best wishes to all researchers.

  25. June 30, 2021 / 5:57 pm

    I’m impressed with the level of information and simplicity of your presentation. Just begin the journey as a publisher. This piece has reassured me I’m in the right direction

  26. Anthony Okoh
    July 8, 2021 / 1:10 pm

    Excellent resource. I am hoping to start a journal outfit and this write-up came in just handy for me. Thanks for the useful information therein.

  27. September 16, 2021 / 10:06 am

    We are planning to launch an open access book for the conference papers that we receive. Any advice on this?
    So we will get an ISBN instead. Do we need to get DOI numbers for the book chapters? What are the indexes that we can get our book on?

  28. Dr P A Azeez
    September 18, 2021 / 8:38 am

    Great resource, highlighting the Science publication racket and how to start a really scientific and open research publication system in the form of a journal. Thank you for that

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