Changes Ahead for AAS Journals

12 January 2015

The American Astronomical Society is unusual in owning its journals, and as a nonprofit organization the AAS seeks to maximize the value of these crucial components of our scientific communication system. Guided by our forward-thinking past and present Executive Officers and journal editors, the AAS journals — the Astronomical Journal, Astrophysical Journal, Astrophysical Journal Letters, and Astrophysical Journal Supplement — have consistently been in the vanguard of scholarly publishing. Our journals were among the first to go online (in the mid-1990s), to adopt green open access (consistent with the subsequent requirements of the US government), to add data behind figures and other publication enhancements, and to be fully electronic (as of January 2015).

Not all aspects of the journals have kept up with advances in publishing technology, however, such as adding a new dimension with embedded metadata and enhanced links. Moreover, the identities of our two journal “brands” — the AJ and the ApJ — have become less distinct with time, such that there are now no clear guidelines about when to submit to one or the other. Scaling up the refereeing process as our published pages have grown has also led to nonoptimal staffing. For these reasons (and more), the Society leadership initiated a Journals Future Task Force that would take a fresh look at our scientific publications.

The task force began intensive discussions about a year ago. Members included AAS Publications Board members and AAS Councilors, as well as several thought leaders in scientific publication both from within and outside the Society.

The chair of the Publications Board, Anne Cowley, delivered the task force report and its unanimous recommendations to the AAS Council in January, and the Council approved the recommendations (summarized at, along with a complete list of task force members, and a comment box where you can share your reactions and other thoughts with us). The recommendations lay out a broad plan for simplifying the submission process and enhancing the publication content.

The task force found that our two titles are valuable brands but that their identities need to be clearly defined. Their identity as AAS publications also needs to be made evident. Some broad changes are already approved and will be effected by the end of the 2-year transition period, including the following:

  • A single point of entry will be established for publishing in AAS journals, greatly simplifying the submission process for authors.
  • A single office will manage all processing functions to increase the reliability and speed with which manuscripts are handled.
  • All submitted manuscripts will be sorted into broad topical areas — “corridors” — and assigned to the journals based on their new content-based definitions.

The editorial hierarchy will be revamped to better match the submitted content. A single Editor in Chief for AAS publications will supervise Lead Editors for the content corridors (e.g., exoplanets, cosmology, etc.); these Lead Editors will supervise the current system of Scientific/Associate Editors.

Many details remain to be decided. In particular, it is not yet clear which of the new “corridors” will lead to publication in the ApJ or the AJ, but the goal will be to have a better balance between the two in terms of scope (content would no longer overlap), number of papers published, and impact. ApJ Letters, renamed Letters of the AAS, will target high-impact results, while brevity and the need for rapid publication will become secondary criteria given our generally rapid publication timelines. Taking advantage of the capabilities afforded by fully electronic publishing, the ApJ Supplement will cease to be a separate publication, and the creation of special issues will be done electronically.

The AAS Journals Transition Team, which is currently being assembled, will formulate a detailed plan, taking into account input from the community. This team will include journal editors, members of the Publications Board and Executive Office staff as well as our publishing partner IOP, and a few additional astronomers to represent community views.

The new system will enable enhanced content and new presentation tools in our publications. Innovations will likely include linking articles directly to data archives, providing for video abstracts, improving figure presentation, making figures interactive, introducing the ability to produce 3-D presentations, and more. Authors will be provided support to implement these enhanced graphic capabilities.

While many details remain to be addressed, it is our expectation that these changes will allow us to continue the trend of recent years and further lower publication charges for authors. Some of the decisions yet to be made:

  • Names for the new journals. Should we continue the valuable AJ and ApJ brands, consolidate under one new title, or add titles?
  • Content. How can content best be channeled, such that the impact factor of the journals and visibility for authors increases?

The AAS leadership, Publications Board, and editors are excited about these changes, which are critical to the Society’s mission to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe. We look forward to engaging with AAS members and other authors as we work to ensure that the AAS journals continue to thrive and that they remain the leading publications in our discipline.

— Fred Rasio, Meg Urry, David Helfand, & Kevin Marvel

Fred Rasio is the editor of Astrophysical Journal Letters. He is a theoretical astrophysicist at Northwestern University. Meg Urry is President of the American Astronomical Society and an astrophysicist at Yale University. David Helfand is Past President of the American Astronomical Society, president of Quest University Canada, and an astronomer at Columbia University. Kevin Marvel is the Executive Officer of the American Astronomical Society.