Texas Tech University

Politics and the Life Sciences Journal Now Published by Cambridge University Press

George Watson

March 2, 2016

Erik Bucy, a professor in the College of Media & Communication, serves as editor-in-chief.

Erik Bucy

In the grand scheme of things, the intersection of politics and biology is still a relatively new discipline, having been studied for a little more than four decades.

Now, however, the journal promoting studies and articles regarding those two disciplines is supported by one of the oldest publishing companies in the world.

Politics and the Life Sciences, a journal of political behavior, ethics and policy edited here at Texas Tech University, recently entered into a publishing agreement with Cambridge University Press, the nonprofit publishing arm of the historic British university that has been in existence for more than five centuries.

Editor-in-chief Erik Bucy, the Marshall and Sharleen Formby Regents Professor of Strategic Communication in the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech, said the journal's acquisition by Cambridge was an ideal move, filling a mutual need.

“We filled a niche they did not have, not only in terms of political behavior or political ethics but political behavior and ethics relating to the life sciences and their connection to biology,” said Bucy, who studies nonverbal communication in political news and cognitive and emotional processing of televised leader displays.

“We never thought we would be picked up by a publisher of this stature but Cambridge recognized our contribution. We got their attention due to the unique position we occupy in the literature. Cambridge has 350 journals in their list already but didn't have a title covering the niche that we fulfilled. It was kind of a perfect match when they realized we were out there.”

Politics and the life sciences

The journal, now in its 35th year of publication, launched in 1982 under the Association for Politics and Life Sciences, which started as a section of the American Political Science Association. Bucy said the group felt the need to examine the deeper roots and causes of political behavior, and answers weren't coming from traditional methods of data gathering through surveys or institutional analysis.

Researchers began by examining animal behavior models and comparing them with such aspects of human politics as competition and aggression. By the early 1980s, researchers felt there was enough original research and interest to form the association and publish the journal.

“It really took off as kind of a niche within political science that has since spread to public policy, public opinion about life science issues like global warming or genetically modified foods, and even neuroscientific studies of political decision making,” Bucy said. “There's even relevance to communication research when talking about visual framing of life sciences issues in the media, or some of the work I do on nonverbal behavior in politics. All that falls under a general biopolitics umbrella.”

The journal published independently for 33 years with a contracted printer (most recently, Allen Press of Lawrence, Kansas) while the association retained ownership of the journal. But with changing times the association's executive council realized it needed to expand the journal's reach not only nationally but globally, and there was a desire to increase publication frequency to a quarterly instead of twice a year as it is now.

So, in early 2014, council president Rob Sprinkle of the University of Maryland sought advice from a publishing consultant on the best way to proceed. The decision was made to align with an academic publisher, of which there are several, including Cambridge, Oxford, Sage, Elsevier, Taylor and Francis and others. Cambridge and Oxford are two of the oldest, both having existed for centuries, but the journal decided to go with Cambridge in the end.

Journal staff then put together a proposal and reached out to various publishers. Sage expressed interest but wanted to buy the journal outright and convert the format to all open access, meaning authors submitting their manuscripts would be charged a fee. Springer also expressed some initial interest but did not follow through with an offer.

“Cambridge gave us everything we were looking for – the recognition, the deep history, deep pockets, and commitment to market our journal and support us through the conversion from twice a year to four times a year,” Bucy said. “Now that we have some initial visibility under the Cambridge University Press imprint, it's much easier to reach out to people who haven't heard of us before.”

Downloading a revenue stream

Subscriptions had been a minor part of PLS's revenue stream in recent years but joining the Cambridge list has placed the journal in over 2,000 library catalogs worldwide. Unlike earlier eras, most journal revenue these days comes from royalties received through database downloads. By retaining ownership and copyright of the journal, the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences (APLS) has benefitted from this new revenue flow.

Under the 10-year deal signed with Cambridge, APLS remains owner of the journal but copyright (and royalties) are now assigned to Cambridge. The journal receives an annual payment from Cambridge, mostly tied to article downloads. Part of the journal's attractiveness, Bucy said, was its cash reserves – the journal has accumulated substantial financial resources for an operation of its size, which helps fund the annual APLS meeting.

“It's interesting to look at the financial part of it,” Bucy said. “Nobody thinks there's any money associated with academic journals but if you think about the fees institutional libraries have to pay for subscriptions, some journals, particularly in the sciences, are really expensive. In our case, the acquisition by Cambridge is not a money-making proposition because they are a nonprofit – but our financial position certainly made us more attractive.”

Expanding the journal's reach

Not only does the association with Cambridge expand the journal's reach, it also allows the journal to make some key changes that will grow it even more.

The big push is to go from being published twice a year to four times a year. The first step in that process is developing an online ScholarOne submissions platform to handle the increased flow of manuscripts that are expected as the journal becomes more visible.

As it stands now, researchers just email their manuscripts to the journal for consideration, which isn't scalable for an increased volume of submissions.

“Once we get on board with a new submission platform, we'll be able to ramp it up quite a bit,” Bucy said.

Bucy said going quarterly will allow the journal to more easily measure its impact and reach using the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) impact factor. At present, journal articles are tracked with “altmetrics,” such as views, downloads, and tweets. The ISI ranking, developed by Thompson Reuters, is preferred, particularly by professors and researchers seeking tenure, because it allows for computer-compiled statistical reports that not only measure the output of journals but also the frequency in which they are cited, thus measuring the journal's impact in the field.

The second big change will come in the editorial structure of the journal. The editor-in-chief serves a three-year term, and Bucy, who took over the editorship in 2008 while at Indiana University, had already completed two terms in 2014 when he indicated he would like to step down to write a book. But the executive council of the association asked him to stay on through the transition, which he has. The process of finding a new editorial team has now begun, but Bucy said he may continue with the journal in some capacity, possibly as a consulting editor.

The current editorial structure has Bucy working with several contributing editors. But the new structure would have the editor-in-chief aided by multiple associate editors, with coverage in North America and possibly Europe to help distribute the workload and broaden the journal's reach. Moving to a multiple-editor structure would ease manuscript processing and prevent any single editor from being buried with submissions. Authors could also expect to hear back about editorial decisions on an accelerated timeline.

“Another part of academic publishing that is changing is authors expect a pretty quick turnaround,” Bucy said. “The old standard was journals would get back to you in three or four months. The new standard is that authors would really like to hear back from a journal within four to six weeks. That really puts pressure on the editorial team. The other important thing to realize is how this is basically unpaid work and is really a service to the field. It's rewarding to help shape a discipline and be a part of the discussion, but at the end of the day you're doing your editorial work on top of everything else.”

A fortuitous partnership

To date, the journal has seen two issues published by Cambridge and a third is in production. So far, the association has been everything the journal had hoped for.

An important consideration in the journal's decision to publish under the Cambridge imprimatur was that it still operates on a nonprofit model. This means that editorial decisions are not driven by market imperatives but rather are made on the basis of intellectual merit or academic value.

Bucy also noted Cambridge's turnaround time in producing an issue of the journal has been nothing short of amazing compared to working with a smaller printer.

“When you work with an independent printer there's not quite the capacity to turn things around when you need them,” Bucy said. “You might receive good customer service on the front end but when you've got to quickly produce an issue, a lot of times you are put at the end of the queue depending on the needs of other clients with deeper pockets who want their job to be the priority. So, we were often behind schedule.

“All of a sudden, with Cambridge, we're on time. The turnaround times are really fast. That, combined with other support like detailed copy editing and production assistance, has been a breath of fresh air. We've really experienced a jump in professionalism on the production and marketing side of things. As a result, we're getting into a good position already to embrace the quarterly model and eventually make a play for an impact rating.

As for the future, Bucy said the journal would like to expand its scope, which would include featuring more international contributors and showcasing a wider range of work. Among other areas, like life sciences policy and evolutionary theory, he would also like to see more submissions regarding what the body can tell us about politics and how researchers are using psychophysiology, brain imaging or endocrinology to explain political behavior.

“We're a natural home for this kind of work,” Bucy said. “And I think as our association with new work in these areas builds, we will be recognized more and more. Five or 10 years down the road we could be big time.”