Introducing and expanding the concept of regularly updated journal articles
What is it?
Living Reviews is a family of five journals, covering physics, environmental and political science. Each journal features review articles that are regularly updated by experts to incorporate the latest developments in the field.
Founded in 1998, Living Reviews in Relativity was the first journal of this kind, followed by Living Reviews in Solar Physics, Living Reviews in European Governance, Living Reviews in Landscape Research and Living Reviews in Democracy.
How is it a success?
The defining feature of Living Reviews is the concept of a living article. Authors revise articles when important new research developments occur and these updates are either treated as new publications, subjected to peer review and published with a new publication number (a major update) or, in the case of errata or small but important additions, are added directly to the original review and marked throughout the article (a fast-track revision).
The review articles offer surveys of recent work, summaries and evaluations of the importance and interconnectedness of results, entry points into the essential literature, assessments of where progress is needed, and links to websites and databases.
“The founders set out with the goal for the journal to become one of the first places a scientist looks for information about work in the field of gravitational physics. And we are delighted to have reached the goal of providing this service,” Bernard Schutz, director of the Albert Einstein Institute and the journal’s editor-in-chief, summed up the first 10 years of Living Reviews in Relativity in 2008. He added, “the successful adaptation of the concept in other scientific fields is an additional confirmation of our idea.”
Living Reviews in Relativity hit the benchmark of 100 review articles in March 2011. It may not sound like a huge number, but the articles tend to be long – some are more than 130 pages – and the field is relatively small. According to Frank Schulz, managing editor of Living Reviews, “After nearly 15 years, we have covered many of the big topics. Now the share of article updates is increasing, of course depending on how the field evolves. The dynamics of scientific research puts different emphasis on various theories over time – for example, gravitational wave detection is a current hot topic – and new developments occur.”
For Schulz, the success of Living Reviews lies in three areas: the concept, the numbers, and the authority.
“A good third of articles have been updated now. Originally, we expected an update every two years, but we learnt by doing that authors do not want to edit their articles constantly. So, while some we get updates for and others not, we can say in principle that the concept of updating articles, of living reviews, has been successful.”
As far as the numbers are concerned, Living Reviews in Relativity has around 2500 PDF downloads a month and more than 7,000 citations in peer reviewed journals (2011). In June 2012, the journal led the category Physics, Particles and Fields in the Thomson Reuters 2011 Journal Citation Reports. With an impact factor of 17.462 it rose to number 54 in JCR’s complete list of about 8000 indexed journals. In the same rankings, Living Reviews in Solar Physics received its very first impact factor (12.500) and ranks among the top three in the category Astronomy and Astrophysics.
In terms of reach, Living Reviews in Relativity has a readership that is fairly evenly balanced between Europe and the United States but it also has an extensive audience in India. Users come from the entire physics community, from graduate students and researchers to lecturers.
“We know from our institute and our contact with other institutes that PhD students use the journal and the website really heavily,” says Schulz. “They read our articles and they look up references. It’s obviously very useful for them and it is likely that every student who writes a dissertation in our field uses our journal. We are one of the sources that everyone in the field knows and uses.”
“If we invite authors to write for us we don’t need to negotiate a lot – they know it is a very good journal and they really want to write for us. There is no author charge but also no money in it for the authors,” Schulz adds.
Schulz is also proud of the fact that Living Reviews is a name to be reckoned with in the open access movement. “If you go to conferences and talk to people a lot of people will have heard of the concept because we have been there from the beginning,” he comments. “Of course, we are helped by the fact that our editor-in-chief, Bernard Schutz, is also one of the people who set up the Berlin Declaration on Open Access so we are well-known and people benefit from using the name and the platform.”
Living Reviews uses its own processing software and content management system because there was little on the market at the time it started, and, as a public institution – the physics journals are funded by the Max Planck Society – having open source software was a priority.
One area where, perhaps surprisingly, the journals see less activity is article comments and questions. The feature is built into the software, but rarely used. “This could be partly due to the fact that review articles are very balanced already, or that only a few people have the interest to use these kinds of commenting services to communicate,” speculates Schulz.
Looking to the future, Schulz is hoping to expand by adding new journals to the family, with a new astrophysics journal likely in the coming year.