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How to publish a Special Feature

Updated: May 27

My last blog post was about how to survive as a postdoc. In this blog post, I want to explain how I became the lead guest editor of a special feature in Sustainability Science. I am providing this information as if you have never done this before or do not know anyone who has, it is hard to find out how to organize a special feature (special issue), how much and what kind of work it requires, or how long the process takes. To shed some light on these questions, I will share my experience. I must underscore that this is my experience and that conditions will vary.

Being a postdoc, I was thinking about how to gain more experience. One of the ideas I had was organizing a special issue. However, I had no idea how to even start. I checked the descriptions that some journals provided, and it became clear that some preparation was needed: 1) you need an idea (call for papers text), 2) some potential target journals, 3) co-editors, and 4) a list of potential contributions to the special issue. Points one and two are rather easy to fulfill. The other ones not so much as you need a network of people who have the time and interest to contribute to the special issue in one way or the other (3 or 4 or both). I thought that I might get co-editors, but the list of potential contributions was out of reach. So, I parked the idea of the special issue in the back of my head.

Another idea to gain experience was hosting a conference session. I always wanted to know how the experience is on the other side. Thus, I submitted a session proposal to the 2022 STS conference in Graz. The session was accepted and luckily the topic received great interest. So much interest that I hosted more than one session and still had to reject some contributions. Admittedly, when I realized that there was quite some interest the special issue idea came back up. I started with the preparations for the special issue, already before the conference took place.

I reached out to journals inquiring what the exact conditions are and whether they are open for a special issue on this topic. I learned that some journals do not issue special features but only topical collections. This interaction helped me to create a short list of potential journals and a detailed list of what needs to be provided along the call text. For example, some journals ask the team of editors to not be from one institute only. You also usually need to have a minimum of three editors involved. Furthermore, you may also have to provide a list of potential contributions including abstracts and author names. Of course, you also need to have a timeline in mind. That is also necessary for the communication with authors, as you need to let them know when you need the final paper.

At the time I was working at the Energy Transition Lab (ETL) of Delft University of Technology, and I thought that a special feature would be a stellar outreach activity. I was glad that both managers of the ETL were willing to be co-editors. However, to fulfill the criteria of some journals I had to find additional editors from other universities. So, I reached out to my network asking if they knew someone who fits the special issue topic. Additionally, I was brave and reached out to researchers I knew had a profile that fit the topic of the special feature. In the end, this was the successful strategy. However, I remember writing quite some e-mails and checking the profiles of many researchers.

In the course of hosting the sessions, I inquired with the researchers who were presenting whether they would be interested in publishing their work as part of a special issue. After the conference I followed up with these researchers, sending them the draft call for papers, the list of potential co-editors as well as the first target journal. I explained that the call first needs to be submitted to the journals and that most of them require not only a call text but also a list of potential contributions including abstracts.

Through the conference contributions, I realized that several authors were connected to EU research projects. Thus, I searched for projects that fit the topic of the special feature as I thought that researchers in these projects might be looking for a publishing opportunity. I identified the project leads and contacted them inquiring if they could circulate the draft call within the project consortium.

To organize all of this I made some Excel lists helping me to track my efforts in finding potential co-editors and sharing the call with potential authors. After some time, I had the needed amount of potential contributions and co-editors who were willing to go on that journey together.

I was very happy to get five co-editors on board and collect a list of potential contributions to the special issue. Five sounds like a lot, but in retrospect, I know that it is good to have sufficient people involved. Once the call is out you do not know how many submissions you get. It might be ten, it might be 50. You have to screen all abstracts and dedicate some time to those abstracts that are accepted and eventually submit a full paper. It makes a difference whether you are the managing editor of two or five papers. You need to consider that everyone involved is very busy and thus, it is good to reduce the workload by spreading it over more people. Depending on the topic, it also makes sense to have a team that covers several fields. The topic of our special feature was broad covering technology, political, and social aspects of the energy transition. To evaluate the abstracts as well as the feedback of reviewers you need to have expertise in the field. Thus, when setting up a team keep their expertise in mind.  

The journal we first submitted the call to, did not accept it. However, the second attempt worked out. And so, on the 3rd of September 2022, the call was out in Sustainability Science. I have to say it was very exciting to see how the submission system of a journal works. So far, I have only experienced it as an author or reviewer but not as an editor. Maybe I am easy to entertain, but I enjoyed seeing how things work on the other side. There is much I just did not know. Luckily my contact person at Sustainability Science was very helpful and she was never too tired to answer my questions. My experience of publishing a special feature with Sustainability Science was great!

In the process of preparing the final call text, I also had to provide a timeline for the special issue. If you have a look at the table in the call text, you will see 1) that publishing a special issue takes a long time, 2) that the review period is very long, and 3) that publishing the editorial was delayed by a couple of months. You might think eight months for the review? That for sure would not take that long! But it does. It even took longer, which is why we got a delay. Some papers go through rather quickly. It was easy to find reviewers and the review was done in a timely fashion. However, in some cases, the review takes a long time. The review period is not only influenced by the reviewers, but also by the authors, who might ask for an extension. Thus, you have to plan for about 1,5 years for the special issue to be published. From start (submitting the session proposal to the STS conference) to finish (acceptance of the editorial) it took two years and one month.

We received 42 abstracts. The abstract revision was split up, to make the work process more efficient. Each abstract was reviewed by three editors. I provided the co-editors with criteria to evaluate the abstracts. Thus, the process of screening the abstracts was systematic. Of course, all was documented and summarized through Excel lists. I want to emphasize that the review was double-blind. I also made sure that there were no institutional ties between the respective editor and a submission they had to evaluate.

We aimed for ten to 15 papers in the special issue. However, we accepted 20 as we thought that some might drop out in the process. That has proven to be right. Thus, I recommend accepting more abstracts than you ultimately need. Most papers dropped out in the beginning as the authors did not provide a manuscript. In the end nine manuscripts were accepted for publication. I think that this is an important lesson. You need a substantial number of promising abstracts to achieve the envisaged number of contributions.

As a lead guest editor, I had to oversee the processes. This was a really interesting experience.  You have to assign the handling editor, make sure that timelines are met (which does not always work), discuss decisions (if necessary), write responses to the authors, communicate with co-editors, etc. It is nice if you can provide authors with positive feedback. The nicest for sure is when you can let them know that their paper was accepted. It is not so nice when you have to let them know that the paper got rejected. That already applied to the notice about accepted abstracts. As a researcher, I know how crushing it can be to receive a rejection. Especially if the paper has been under review for some time. I tried my best to provide a positive rejection message.

Finally, you have to write an editorial. I have never done that before, so I had no idea what it should look like. I had a look at several editorials within the journal as well as of other journals. There are two main categories of editorials, 1) short and sweet, 2) elaborate. We went for the elaborate option. I wanted to provide not only summaries of each paper in the special feature, but also a good introduction to the topic overall. I think we managed to provide a wonderful editorial for the special feature. Being a team of diverse experts proved to be an advantage. The editorial sheds light on the topic from different angles to which each co-editor could contribute with their expertise.

You can find the Editorial here and the articles of the Special Feature here.

Let me summarize with some tips.

  1. Know the research gap: You have to be aware of some bigger research gaps. You also need to know whether there is actually an interest in filling this gap. You can have the best idea, if it is currently not researched you will not get enough submissions. The special issue should not be too specific, as this will also make it harder to receive sufficient contributions.

  2. Build a basis: A way to get a feel of the research interest within the community is to host a conference session. I suppose other events could be used as well. For example, you could organize a workshop connected to a short paper drafting and writing camp. If you are part of a project, you could connect to other similar projects and join forces in publishing work across the projects. Be creative in thinking about how you could connect to researchers working on a similar topic. Such activities help to a) get a feel of the research interest and b) build the basis for the call for abstracts.

  3. Get an overview of potential journals and their requirements.

  4. Dissemination: While the call for papers is published by the journal you have to disseminate the call in your network. Therefore, search for relevant research groups and networks as well as projects that work on the topic. Also, think of the multiplicators in your network. You may know people who have a big network and are willing to share the call for you. Obviously, make a list and track your activities.

  5. Workload: I recommend building a team of at least four editors to reduce the workload for everyone involved. Mind that everyone involved is already very busy and editors will have to balance the special feature with all their other responsibilities. If you are the lead guest editor, you of course will have to do more.

  6. Have some buffer: Accept more abstracts than you need as potentially several contributions will drop out. You might have been there too. You wanted to go to a conference where you have to provide a full paper, but in the end, you did not manage to deliver. Life does not always pan out as expected.

  7. Long-term planning: As a postdoc, I have short-term contracts. Taking on a project that takes more than one year and which is not tied to my contract is risky. When I got the special issue started, I did not even know if I would get another job in academia. And if I did, I knew that there would be changes that could influence the workflow. The most obvious is my e-mail account. For that reason, I used an account that I had full control over. Think about precautionary measures you have to take to keep the project going while you have job changes. I think for a postdoc this is one of the trickiest things. You have to work on your career as if it was a long-term project while you do not have job security.

  8. Be organized: You have to treat this like a project. Have Excel lists, note down deadlines, responsibilities, etc. If you are the lead guest editor, you have to make sure that you keep an overview at all times.

I'm wishing you all the best with your special feature!

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