Many scientific journals publish special issues, sometimes published regularly but often occurring irregularly. There are certain points to understand and consider when writing for and submitting to special issues.
The Special Issue
A special issue, frequently called a “supplement”, provides an academic journal an opportunity to publish material in addition to its regular issues. Supplements vary in size, with some taking only a few dozen pages, while others are several hundred pages in length. Articles in them often have the same “look and feel” as articles in a regular journal issue. On the other hand, many special issues contain unusual articles, such as literature/topic reviews, history, or papers focusing on medical/research techniques.
The genesis of special issues varies: some stem from a perceived need to discuss an emerging topic or issue in a highly focused, concentrated manner. Others receive impetus to celebrate an anniversary, event, or person seminal to the academic field (such as a Festschrift). Medical journals often publish special issues which focus on anatomy or surgical techniques. Still others arise because the journal has sufficient financial resources to publish material over and above its regular page budget. On rare occasions, two or more journals in the same or related fields may join forces and publish a joint supplement.
The frequency of special issues depends upon the parent journal, field of study, available budget, and availability of content. Many journals publish frequent, regularly scheduled special issues, while others may offer them infrequently, if at all.
Considerations for Submitting to a Special Issue
In general, if you are writing for a special issue (either by invitation of the journal or as an unsolicited submission), write your article with the same intellectual intensity, academic rigour, attention to detail, and precision in research you would use in writing an article for submission to the regular journal. Even if invited to submit an article, know that your submission will be held to the journal’s usual high standards and will be peer-reviewed. Acceptance of your paper to a special issue is rarely guaranteed, so be sure to contribute the best paper possible.
Time Deadlines, Guest Editors, Expectations
Special issues can take up to 18 months to produce, from the time of soliciting articles to final publication. They are very deliberate products! Typically, a journal’s editorial office will appoint a special Guest Editor, someone with particular expertise related to the topic of the special issue. That Guest Editor will coordinate closely with the journal’s Editor in Chief and office staff, determining topics, guest authors, and deadlines. The editorial office will invite authors, assigning not only topics but also word (and image) counts, submission deadlines, and other information. If you receive an invitation to contribute to a special issue, be sure to accept (or decline) the invitation quickly; if you delay in communicating your intentions, the editorial office may need to move on to an alternate author.
Authors typically have many months to complete and submit their manuscripts for review. Know that such deadlines need to be kept; authors who don’t deliver on time may lose their place in the special issue, which could jeopardise the overall comprehensive design and scope of the special issue.
Many authors tend to deliver sub-standard, hastily written, re-hashed, or second-tier research when writing for special issues. This is a mistake. It is an honour to be invited to contribute to a supplement; be sure to live up to that honour by delivering an excellent article. Assume that your submission will be rigorously reviewed. Also assume that even though invited to contribute, acceptance of your submission is not guaranteed.
Special issues will give you opportunities to submit articles which will receive highlighted attention outside a journal’s regular issues.