The Springer/SIF journal collaboration over the last two decades – a Springer perspective

Christian Caron


As the collaboration between Springer and the Italian Physical Society (hereafter SIF) approaches its silver anniversary – it was in 1997 that the formal discussions on a joint journal proposal which was to become the EPJ series began – it is certainly a good moment to take stock and to review a cooperation that has evolved from the original “being-in-the-same-boat” starting point to become a vibrant endeavor, based on shaping and developing a remarkable physics journal portfolio.

Due to our shared vision of where publishing is heading and to the efficient distribution of tasks, this collaboration now consists of three pillars: the core has been and remains the co-publication of some of the most prominent EPJ journals, namely EPJ A – Hadrons and Nuclei, EPJ C – Particles and Fields, and the “mega-journal” EPJ Plus. Beyond editorial development, a central role is played by the journal editorial offices at SIF, which from the outset have been exemplary in terms of the fast, efficient and personalized handling of communications between authors, referees and editorial boards. As a result, Springer entrusted SIF with taking over the editorial offices of some of its own journals, including well-known titles such as Journal of Statistical Physics and Letters in Mathematical Physics. Last but not least, in 2020 Springer in turn took over the production and distribution of SIF’s flagship journal La Rivista del Nuovo Cimento.

Current developments are still dominated by the impressive growth of EPJ A, EPJ C and EPJ Plus. These well-known journals are part of the EPJ series of co-published, co-branded journals from three traditional publishers – which, together with SIF and Springer, include EDP Sciences. When all of Zeitschrift für Physik, most of Il Nuovo Cimento and most of Journal de Physique merged in the late 1990s, first a set of topical journals in the traditional physics disciplines were created: in addition to EPJ A and EPJ C these were EPJ B for condensed matter physics and EPJ D for atomic, molecular and optical physics. EPJ E for soft matter physics was added as a fifth journal on the initiative of de Gennes soon after, in 2000 – two years before I became a member of the EPJ Steering Committee and was warmly welcomed there, on the part of SIF, by Professors Renato Angelo Ricci and Andrea Taroni, as well as by Dr Angela Oleandri, soon to become the new Editorial Director of SIF.

The EPJ Steering Committee is the administrative body that jointly manages the EPJ journals on behalf of the three publishers, from the appointment of editorial boards and the launch of new titles or the restructuring of existing ones, to any duties pertaining to editorial offices, production, marketing and overall finances. One of the two extensive annual meetings is organized in close cooperation with the Scientific Advisory Committee, which was also founded in 2000 and includes representatives of 25 national societies.

After a period of consolidation, the next phases of expansion came in several waves: starting in 2007 with the merger of the Czechoslovak Journal of Physics into EPJ and the corresponding expansion of EPJ D’s scope to include plasma physics, the launch of EPJ Special Topics, the launch of EPJ H (Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Physics) in 2010 and the launch of EPJ Plus in 2011. By then open access had become a prominent topic and Springer had already made considerable progress, both by acquiring the open-access publisher BMC and by opening up the entire journal portfolio to become hybrid. As a result, a good strategy for EPJ seemed to be not to follow in the footsteps of other publishers, who had typically decided to launch a single, general open-access physics journal to protect their main physics journals as long as possible; but instead to concentrate on the launch of a series of open-access journals for emerging topics, given that sooner or later all existing subscription journals would have to follow Springer’s drive to become hybrid (by now transformative). Also and as anticipated back then, new communities have since formed around new fields such as functional materials, quantum science and technology, as well as network and data sciences. Not surprisingly, among the open-access journals launched during this last major phase of expansion, perhaps the most impactful ones are EPJ Data Science and EPJ Quantum Technology. A related and very noteworthy event followed in 2014, when EPJ C switched from hybrid to full open access under SCOAP3, a CERN-led initiative to make all leading high-energy physics journals fully open access under a CC BY license.

Coming back to the EPJs co-published with SIF, fig. 1 shows the combined increase in submissions over the past five years for EPJ A, EPJ C and EPJ Plus to give the reader an impression of the workload that needs to be constantly discussed and managed by both publishers. While EPJ A and EPJ C are well-known community journals in their respective fields, the role of EPJ Plus is somewhat different. Therefore, it is worth spending a few moments on its history and mission:

EPJ Plus was conceptually envisioned by the EPJ co-publishers in 2009. At the time, they realized that EPJ would benefit from a journal like PLOS ONE (launched in 2006) or Scientific Reports (launched by Nature in the same year as EPJ Plus (2011)), but limited to physics. At the same time, the idea was that the journal could cover the various topics that were not included in the other topical EPJ sections, such as geophysics, astrophysics, general relativity and cosmology, mathematical and general physics, classical and fluid mechanics, accelerator and medical physics, as well as physics techniques applied to many other relevant topics, including energy, the environment and cultural heritage. The final aims and scope included several aspects that have only recently gained the attention of the scientific community, such as relevant and independent support and validation of previously published results. Still, back then, the idea of a mega-journal in general and of an EPJ version in particular was not immediately popular with some of the academic representatives involved in the shaping and evaluation of the project. It took some time to realize that mega-journals, with their inclusive scope and focus on the soundness of the reported research rather than on its perceived importance, were destined to play an important and welcome role in the STM journal publishing landscape.

Eventually it was decided to go ahead, and SIF offered to consider taking Il Nuovo Cimento B as the basis for the new journal. Indeed, EPJ Plus simply followed in the tradition of all EPJ journals by not being launched from scratch, but instead being set up as a complete and coowned relaunch (including a title change) of an existing journal, or a merger of several existing titles from the publishers’ journal portfolios.

This retrospective on EPJ Plus wouldn’t be complete if I failed to recount two anecdotes that would otherwise be lost for posterity, which would truly be a shame! Both concern the final name under which the journal was eventually launched. Originally the title seemed likely to be EPJ Research Notes, for lack of a more original suggestion. Prof. Luisa Cifarelli, president of SIF at the time, was a bit more dissatisfied with the planned name than the rest of us. So, since we had to come to a decision, we had met in her office with Angela Oleandri, and were half-heartedly trying to convince ourselves that EPJ Research Notes wasn’t actually that bad. Suddenly Luisa Cifarelli blurted out “EPJ Plus” and we were all startled. That day, and in virtually the last minute, the name EPJ Plus was born.

Not long after, we learned at Springer that other colleagues were also working on the publisher’s first mega-journal (note that back then, Nature launching Scientific Reports was still a different publisher) meant to cover all of the physical and natural sciences, and they planned to call it ... Springer Plus! As soon as this was confirmed and officially announced, my “red phone” with SIF started ringing and I had to swear by all I held dear that we had nothing to do with it, and that our Springer colleagues had come up with the name on their own.

As it happens, when Springer merged with Nature in 2015, Springer Plus was discontinued and EPJ Plus remained the publisher’s only mega-journal for physics and related sciences, and is now heading for well over 1000 papers published per year, with an impact factor in the 3 to 4 range.

Last but not least, it’s a pleasure to acknowledge SIF’s artistic creativity in the context of the EPJ collaboration. Most, if not all design work concerning the journal covers and joint marketing material has been done under their enthusiastic guidance. This also includes the current logo design, created in 2009, while fig 2. provides a few examples of the draft logos that SIF proposed, before we jointly opted for the current one.

With the beautiful journal covers produced with the SIF templates, for many years we created an impressive EPJ calendar, with typically 10000 copies printed and mostly distributed at national physics meetings all across Europe. The calendar seems to have travelled far since, in 2012, we at Springer received a request from the Big Bang Theory TV show to use it. We happily agreed, but to the best of my knowledge no one ever spotted the calendar in any of the subsequent episodes!

Beyond EPJ, both partners continue to review and expand the list of Springer journals for which SIF provides its trusted journal editorial offices. Currently, five Springer journals have their editorial offices supervised by the SIF editorial team: Mathematical Physics, Analysis and Geometry; Letters in Mathematical Physics; Journal of Statistical Physics; Computing and Software for Big Science; and Archive for the History of Exact Sciences. Figure 3 shows this development in terms of the increase in total annual submissions since this began back in 2018. To remain as fast and efficient as possible, technical checks at submission and after acceptance are done by highly specialized Springer editorial services, while the all-important personalized handling of papers is entrusted to the SIF editorial office. It is important to bear in mind that EPJ, like most of Springer’s physics journals, operates essentially with a large editorial board of active researchers who personally handle all submissions, rather than a large editorial office that uses databasedriven refereeing procedures where external editorial board members, i.e., active and experienced researchers in the field, are only involved from time to time. Notwithstanding the pros and cons of the two approaches (e.g. overall scaling versus overall relevance of refereeing reports), most of our time is spent assisting and supervising the external editorial boards rather than engaging directly in some refereeing procedure. This approach also makes it necessary to establish and constantly update journal editorial guidelines. Though these guidelines have become increasingly complex (e.g. COPE compliancy), doing so ensures that these essential principles find their way into, and find acceptance among, the scientific community.

Last but not least, Springer is very pleased to have been offered to add the review journal La Rivista del Nuovo Cimento to its portfolio in 2020 and we are now actively supporting SIF’s explicit desire to make the journal a prime destination for review articles in physics and related sciences.

In the past, EPJ has always decided against the launch of an independent review journal and hence every EPJ journal has addressed the issue of publishing review-type articles very much on its own, a nice example being the colloquium papers. Yet, there is the recognized need for more (and more flexible) types of review-like articles in times characterized by both rapidly increasing topical specialization and interdisciplinary diversification. As an EPJ-associated journal, at last La Rivista offers EPJ the opportunity to add another significant and visible outlet for these types of publication.

Over the past two decades, Springer has had a booth at many of the SIF National Congresses; as a result, I had the privilege of touring many Italian cities and had the opportunity to give an introductory talk on scientific journals to an audience of students in L’Aquila in 2019. At these meetings we would typically display both a broad range of books and journals, and of course, above all the EPJs. Indeed, in addition to the journals, there have been some Springer/SIF co-publishing activities concerning books, among them the early and very popular “Enrico Fermi – His Work and Legacy” as well as the recent “Scientific Papers of Ettore Majorana”.

As the collaboration between Springer and SIF slowly, but all the more surely, approaches its silver anniversary, it’s a great time to salute this exceptional joint undertaking, which has not only withstood the tides of time but also offers an excellent example of long-standing, mutually beneficial co-developments between smaller society-based and larger global publishers.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Luisa Cifarelli for the invitation to write this article; Sabine Lehr, Angela Oleandri and Thomas Spicer for carefully reading the manuscript and for their many insightful suggestions; and all former and present staff at SIF for their highly valued collaboration.