Skip to Main Content

Science & Technology

November 6, 2006
Volume 84, Number 45
pp. 24-27

Making The Cover

Scientific art on journal covers raises visibility, but does it still serve a purpose in the Internet age?

Stephen K. Ritter

Once upon a time, journal covers were a dry landscape that simply gave boilerplate information and served as a wrapper for the important science reported inside. Technology advances in both graphic design and printing have gone a long way in changing that landscape in the past decade, as nearly every chemistry journal now includes full-color graphical elements on the cover.

Courtesy of Angewandte Chemie

Having a paper featured on a journal cover offers such increased visibility for the work that some researchers may try to influence the selection process by creating a special graphic or using the art of self-promotion. But chemistry journal editors, as well as the editors of premier general science journals such as Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, are accustomed to the ploys and pleas of researchers seeking to win a coveted cover and instead let the peer review process be their guide.

In addition, just as cover art seemingly has reached a golden age, the Internet has become the primary access point for journal articles. What is to become of the journal cover, when more often than not the cover will not be carefully looked at, or even seen, by much of a publication's readership?

C&EN recently discussed these issues with chemistry researchers and posed a number of questions on these topics to journal editors and publishers.

"Cover art is a multidimensional issue," notes Peter J. Stang, editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) and an organic chemistry professor at the University of Utah. "One has to look at it from the perspective of the author, but also from the perspective of the reader and the broader chemistry community, as well as the perspective of the journal editor and the journal production process," he says.

Stang knows firsthand how cover art impacts a journal. He was editor of the American Chemical Society's Journal of Organic Chemistry (JOC) when the decision was made to start using cover graphics in 2001. But as editor of JACS since 2002, he has decided to keep graphics off the cover. JACS is the only major chemistry journal that does not feature graphics on its cover, and it's the only one of ACS's 34 journals that doesn't include a cover graphic. ACS also publishes C&EN.

For 14 ACS journals, each issue features a graphic tied to a research paper found inside, whereas eight journals use cover art from research papers but don't change it with every issue. Eleven of the journals have a standard designed graphic that doesn't change. For example, Organic Letters has featured the same set of methane molecules on the cover since the journal debuted in 1999.

During Stang's tenure, JACS started requiring authors to submit a structure or other graphic for the table of contents, as most chemistry journals now do. The graphical table of contents appears on the journal's website and is also used in print, in both cases to help draw attention to each paper.

"With the increasing use of the Internet to access journal papers, cover art is going to become less and less important," Stang believes. "Readers are not always going to be looking at the journal cover when they go to a website."

Stang allows that cover art has a useful purpose in highlighting research for specialist communities, such as organic chemists served by JOC or review-type journals such as Accounts of Chemical Research. But it's tougher to select cover art for a broad-based weekly journal like JACS, Stang says, where the goal is to capture the best research available in all areas of chemistry.

"Ideally, one would want to showcase the very best paper of an issue of JACS on the cover, a paper that in 20 years' time might win a Nobel Prize," Stang observes. "There are challenges in how to select that paper; sometimes it takes the perspective of a few years of hindsight to realize the importance of a paper. This is just one of our dilemmas."

The issue of fairness also comes into play, he says. One doesn't always want to select papers for the cover simply because they have great art. For example, the biochemistry community often has "sexy" graphics in its papers. He asks: What if you want to select a theory paper that only has equations and graphs?

One also has to be careful not to select only young researchers or the established "in people" of a particular field, he continues. Likewise, for ACS publications, one wouldn't want to select only U.S. authors but include international authors as well. Each issue of JACS features approximately 60 papers. If the editors select one paper to feature on the cover, "you have potentially offended the other 59 authors you didn't select," Stang says.

There's also the technical issue of producing a cover, which takes time and can cost several thousand dollars, he adds. Featuring a paper on the cover automatically delays its publication while the cover art is being prepared. Several researchers told C&EN that they submit papers to JACS over other premier chemistry journals because of the faster publication process. In addition, a whole new process and a full-time staff member would be required just to coordinate the cover for JACS, Stang points out.

"Given the ability to access journals on the Web, and weighing the pluses and the minuses, on balance I am not so sure putting cover art on a journal like JACS is worth the effort and cost," Stang concludes. "We tell authors that a good table of contents graphic and a good title will go a long way toward attracting attention and is now much more important than any cover art."

Angewandte Chemie and its all-English international edition, both published by Wiley-VCH for the German Chemical Society, are a pair of weekly journals that face the same set of dilemmas as JACS. But Angewandte Chemie has featured art on its cover since 1979.

"These cover issues go to the heart of scientific publishing, which has to serve readers in the first place," comments Peter Gölitz, editor-in-chief of Angewandte Chemie since 1982.

"As an editor, you have the obligation to first sift the wheat from the chaff, with the help of referees, and then present the accepted manuscripts to the readers in a way that allows them a speedy information uptake but also stimulating browsing," Gölitz says. "With cover art, you want to achieve just that: Attract readers, pull them into the journal, and let them read."

On the other hand, once a paper is accepted, "I feel obliged to ensure that it gets the highest possible attention for the benefit of the author, whether it is featured on the cover or not," he points out. So when the sheer volume of published material in chemistry and in other disciplines started to get out of hand for readers, journals had to think of ways to help them, Gölitz says. One way to do so was the advent of the graphical table of contents.

"Angewandte Chemie was the first journal, as far as I know, to implement these graphical abstracts in the mid-1970s to allow readers to grasp the gist of a manuscript quickly," Gölitz explains. "Graphical abstracts, in our case, mean a well-crafted text accompanied by a didactically well-chosen picture."

Another way Angewandte Chemie tries to guide readers is to flag papers as "very important papers" (VIPs) or as "hot papers." For VIPs, two referees must have qualified the results as "very important," Gölitz notes. Hot papers are "very good papers in busy areas" in which one referee usually has qualified the manuscript as very important. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) also uses a hot papers designation for many of its journals. JACS doesn't highlight hot papers, in part for the reasons of fairness Stang mentions, but about half of ACS journals feature a hot papers section on their websites.

As far as the influence a nice graphic or an author may have on the cover selection process, the reading of a manuscript by an editor, the refereeing, and the decision based on this review are "done without looking at the dressing," Gölitz says. "Enhancing the visibility for manuscripts comes after acceptance."

Cover art also is important for RSC, which includes graphics on the cover of each of its 29 journal titles, with 19 of the journals having a different graphic for each issue. At RSC, the cover is considered so vital that even the online-only journal CrystEngComm has a cover that changes each month.

"The cover is used both to promote exciting work and to provide an eye-catching design for the journal," according to Emma Wilson, publisher of several RSC journals, including the society's flagship publication, Chemical Communications.

Courtesy of RSC

The research featured on a cover typically is drawn from the hot papers selection, Wilson notes. "Our hot papers are identified during the manuscript refereeing process by our in-house editorial teams working with the referees to highlight the most interesting research," she says. "We prepare press releases for hot papers, and these articles often get picked up both in the specialist and mainstream press."

RSC's in-house art team works with the authors' images to produce cover artwork for a selected paper, she explains. A write-up on the cover article is published on the journal's home page, and an interview with the author is included for some journals. RSC's marketing department also incorporates cover images into promotional materials, such as flyers and advertisements. "We also send the electronic cover image and hard copies of the cover to the author, giving them an opportunity to promote their work by disseminating it to colleagues and peers," Wilson notes.

"Putting art on the cover serves the wider community, the author, and RSC," she continues. "From an author's perspective, having the cover article means the impact of the paper potentially is greater. For RSC, the changing covers form an important part of a journal's character and aids marketing. It also encourages people to browse the publication both online and in print, which aids dissemination of the science to the wider community."

Courtesy of RSC

For publications like Chemical Communications, all of the papers are extremely high quality, Wilson notes, so in selecting a cover "we need to make a judgment call. But it's not fair just to highlight the paper on the cover, which is why RSC promotes other papers as well."

None of the chemistry journal publishers currently have statistics to indicate whether a paper featured on the cover receives a higher number of citations than other papers in the same issue. ACS and RSC do provide lists of the most accessed papers for each journal on their websites, however.

ACS Publications assumes the full cost of producing journal covers, but Angewandte Chemie asks authors if they can pay for "color costs," and RSC "invites" authors who can to make a contribution to offset production costs. That an author could potentially bias the cover selection process by showing a willingness to pay these costs is a nonissue, Stang, Gölitz, and Wilson note.

Beyond its one-time use as a cover, cover art can literally be used as art. Many researchers and their departments or institutions frame covers to adorn offices, hallways, and lobbies. In addition, ACS online catalogs of past journal covers receive a lot of hits. ACS Publications' marketing team also uses the cover images to produce posters, ads, and other materials, including popular calendars featuring past covers of JOC and Inorganic Chemistry. These items have become popular keepsakes, according to marketing staff. Gölitz also notes that Angewandte Chemie has featured works of art on the cover related to a research paper several times, including a painting to illustrate a review by Richard A. Lerner of Scripps Research Institute in an upcoming December issue.

Although some authors admit they strive to be selected for a cover, others say they don't actively pursue a cover opportunity—but they are all thrilled when it happens. The benefits of making a cover are manifold.

"Students who do the work love it, plain and simple," according to François P. Gabbaï, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Texas A&M University. One of Gabbaï's papers, on a new porous material to trap simple alkanes, was featured on the cover of the Oct. 27 issue of Angewandte Chemie. It was the second cover of his career.

"For a student or postdoc, having your work published on the cover of a good international journal is extremely gratifying-sometimes as much as doing good science," he says. "Having material featured on the cover can be a very effective recruiting tool for the principal investigator, especially these days when competition for top students is steep and any tool is useful."

Most professors relish the publicity as well, he notes. "Getting a cover is like getting a research award. It generates feelings of satisfaction and attracts admiration from peers," Gabbaï says.

Funding agencies, such as the ACS Petroleum Research Fund and the National Science Foundation, are increasingly asking for graphical material to advertise the productivity of their operations, he adds. "They typically react favorably if the material has been displayed on the cover pages of international journals. This recognition conveys the scientific quality and significance of the work these funding agencies support. For researchers, pleasing funding agencies is a matter of survival," Gabbaï says.

On the downside, preparing a cover is extremely time-consuming, and ethically, it's "questionable," Gabbaï notes. "Good science should not require this type of flashy presentation in order to be fully appreciated. But we are all weak to some degree and a little vain."

"Nice cover art is aesthetically pleasing and adds another component to chemistry," comments organic chemistry professor François Diederich of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. Diederich, who has garnered a "substantial number" of journal covers in his career, serves as chairman of Angewandte Chemie's editorial board.

Diederich finds the cover selection process to be fair, but he is concerned about charging authors for cover art as a matter of finance. The cost of producing a cover makes an author think about whether it's beneficial to accept an invitation, he says, especially now that journals are mostly read electronically. "Nevertheless, I have always accepted and paid the costs," Diederich notes.

Preparing cover art also has brought out some surprises, he adds. "I have discovered some fine artist's skills in some of my graduate and postdoctoral coworkers—or their spouses!" These coworkers believe that cover art is a reward for their work, he points out. "It clearly is more important for them than for me, but I readily admit I feel honored by being invited to submit cover art for a prestigious journal."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society