Born-digital journals built on top of scholarly powerhouses: 10+ 1 things you wanted to know about overlay journals

One of the biggest promises Open Access publishing holds for scholarly communities is to better align our digital research workflows with publication practices by rethinking or even by breaking up with established, long-standing processes and units of publications originating from print culture

One of the biggest challenges of Open Access publishing, on the other hand, is to carefully adapt these innovations to the complex social needs of authors and readers both within and beyond academia. That said, although innovations in scholarly writing usually stem from responses to community needs (such as giving more equitable access to knowledge, speeding up the publication process or accommodating a wider range of content type to scholarly publication than just plain text and images), more often than not they involve tweaking existing practices or disciplinary traditions, which might bring us out of our comfort zones. 

In this post, we are going to take a look at a significant Open Access innovation: overlay journal publishing. We will see what is the value in them and how the two observations above shape their uptake in the arts and humanities disciplines. For easier readability, the post is, somewhat arbitrarily, structured along the frequently asked questions that I collected from the DARIAH Open Science helpdesk, workshops and conversations on the topic. 

1. What is an overlay journal and what’s the big deal in it?

2. How does it work?

3. Does it mean publishing grey literature? Or does it count as a real publication?

4. Won’t readers get lost in versioning?

5. What kinds of content types can be accommodated in a paper published in an overlay journal?

6. Why is the decentralized nature important? How do overlay journals allow scholarly communities to take back control over their work?

7. Why isn’t everyone doing it already?

8. What are the special flavors of overlay journals in the arts and humanities disciplines?

9. Where can I find examples of overlay journals in arts and humanities disciplines?

10. How about the costs?

+1. How can you get started?

1. What is an overlay journal and what’s the big deal in it? 

An overlay journal is a distributed publication system which decouples publication from evaluation. Overlay journals leverage on the idea that our dissemination capacities are not dependent from printing (or its digital surrogate) any more and research can be filtered, assessed and just as thoroughly evaluated by peers as in traditional journals, without the paper in question spending long months or even years invisibly hidden in the rabbit hole of journal publishing workflows. 

The idea is that scholars first publish their papers as preprints (ref; or sometimes other kinds of digital scholarly objects, such as datasets or software) in a repository, preferably a publicly maintained one. Then, they submit the link to this publication to the editorial team of the overlay journal for peer review. During the submission and evaluation phases, there is already a time stamp on the paper in question that allows early attribution of its content to the authors so the fear of plagiarism or of losing novelty in the meantime is eliminated. The persistent identifiers  associated with the deposit allow stable citability and citation tracking from the beginning  – it’s up to the authors to what extent  they wish to spread the word about the preprint. 

The term overlay comes from the fact that these born-digital journals do not host or take over ownership of scholarly works, only ‘lay over’ repositories of different kinds and links to final article versions hosted on a repository together with information about  its review and versioning. This leaves scholarly works in the hands of researchers in publicly maintained, safe homes for scholarship with guarantees for long-term availability and possibilities to add new versions when necessary. Another important function/entailment of this is decentralization: an overlay journal can flexibly bring together works in a thematic collection from diverse places across the globe, for instance from different national, institutional, thematic or generic repositories from across Europe – with neither disciplinary, nor geographical silos on the way. Last but not least, successive steps from the submission through the evaluation and revision(s) are transparently indicated, eliminating the sense of the ‘black box of scholarly publishing’. 

Overlays journals in operation – the example of Episcience. Source: Raphaël Tournoy. Diffuser, évaluer et publier les recherches en libre accès à partir d’“overlay services”. ANF “La science ouverte : vers les connaissances partagées”, CNRS, Oct 2021, Meudon, France. ⟨hal-03408375⟩

2. How does it work? 

  1. The author(s) deposit their work as a preprint in an institutional, thematic or generic repository and send the link to the overlay journal (see examples below) for consideration and evaluation. 
  1. The journal organizes peer review of the preprint. In many cases, the peer review process also shows transparency and openness in one way or another (like here) but not necessarily. Importantly, the concept of overlay journals excludes the possibility of double blind peer review since the identity of the authors are known from the preprints. The identity of reviewers can still remain closed, this is a decision made by the editorial board or the reviews themselves. 
  1. Corrections are made by the author and a new version of the preprint is deposited in the repository.
  1. Once the required corrections have been made, the publication is linked, or mirrored, to the website of the overlay journal as part of a thematic collection, together with information on versioning and peer review. 

3. Does it mean publishing grey literature? Or does it count as a real publication? 

Yes and no for the first question, definite yes for the second one. That said, although the publication process indeed starts with bringing the step of publication in front of/prior to evaluation, at the end your paper goes through peer review. This means that a publication in an overlay journal counts just as much as a first class citizen in scholarly communication as a paper published in any other, more traditional venue. 

This way, you can imagine overlay journals as a publication model that brings together the best from both worlds: it keeps the elements of the traditional academic journal that remained important in scholar’s life, such as peer review, filtering, editorial curatorship and the established communication units of the journal and the article that can be seamlessly channeled into library catalogues, research discovery and research assessment systems. Other elements of academic journals that had been strongly tied to the print culture, such as physical hosting of the materials or the concept of volume, have been dropped. 

4. Won’t readers get lost in versioning? 

No. Trustworthy repositories have versioning systems in place  that prevent confusion. They always display the latest version on top  and keep the different versions together also in terms of citation tracking. These are mirrored on the journal website. 

5. What kinds of content types can be accommodated in a paper published in an overlay journal?

Typically papers, shared as preprints in repositories. However, overlay publishing is also suitable to accommodate any kind of digital scholarly objects a preprint or data repository can host, such as code, data, teaching materials etc. These can be published alone or linked together in one paper. Data journals (see examples below) are basically data flavoured overlay journals.

6. Why is the decentralized nature important? How overlay journals allow scholarly communities to take back control over their work? 

In this respect, the most important entailment of overlay publishing is that papers (or digital scholarly objects in general) usually (or, in optimal cases) remain hosted in a publicly funded, open environment of the national, institutional, thematic or generic repositories. This way they are not dependent on the closed infrastructure of commercial publishing that determines where their work is published, stored, disseminated and preserved. Importantly, this way scholars can keep the full intellectual property rights over their works instead of transferring them to publishers which is still the default case in closed publication workflows

7. Why isn’t everyone doing it already?

In short, because it tweaks well-established traditions of scholarly publishing. Although the term overlay journal is more than 25 years old, originally it started as a new practice that concerned only those STEM disciplines, most notably High-Energy Physics, where publishing preprints had been an established community practice already. It took decades to see this publishing model gaining momentum in other disciplines too. The growth of Open Access and open data mandates, the wider use of preprint and data repositories and also scholars’ increasing frustration around the slow pace of academic publishing all play an important role in seeing the value in overlay journals and feeling them less of a foreign practice and more of a response to our digital publication needs. 

Still, somewhat naturally, the topical coverage and prestige of overlay journals remain strongly lagging behind that of traditional scholarly journals and this also impacts the uptake of this innovative publication method. 

As Martin Paul Eve, founder of the Open Library of Humanities, author of the Open Access and the Humanities, and Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London touches upon:

The idea of overlay journals remains very appealing to us at OLH. However, there are numerous technical and social hurdles that we still have yet to overcome fully before we would be confident of this working at scale. For instance, the very notion of double-blind peer review, used in many humanities titles, is cast into doubt when papers are openly identifiable and traceable on the web.

As a response to this, this year, the French Episciences platform launched an open call specifically to SSH journals to join the Episciences family of journals and adopt an overlay publication model. The application concerns the creation of a new journal or a change in the publication model of an existing journal intending to switch to a Green Open Access Policy (no publication costs for editors and authors). Here, you can find all information on the call and the application procedure. 

Now you may wonder, what are the special flavours of and challenges in running overlay journals in arts and humanities fields.

8. What are the special flavors of overlay journals in the arts and humanities disciplines? 

Just like many elements/aspects of the Open Science paradigm, overlay publishing also comes from STEM fields where the culture of sharing preprints has been traditionally stronger than in arts and humanities (if you wonder why this is the case, here are some possible explanations). But this is changing: for instance, today History is the top disciplinary category of the preprints deposited in the French HAL national preprint repository

Another peculiarity of arts and humanities disciplines is that knowledge creation takes place in a range of small epistemic, linguistic or geographical contexts and therefore megajournals, such as PlosOne or F1000, will not fit scholarly communication needs of this rich inventory of small disciplines without further contextualizing. 

A handful of overlay journals in arts and humanities fields show good practices of translating the idea to arts and humanities  with sensibility to epistemic cultures. 

9. Where can I find examples of overlay journals in arts and humanities disciplines? 

Here you can find a couple of examples from arts and humanities disciplines: 

Overlay journals on the French overlay journal platform  Episciences

The Episciences platform nurtures a community of scholars from the Social Sciences and Humanities. Currently, you can find 3 overlay journals from the humanities that are hosted by Episciences: 

JDMDH Journal of Data Mining and Digital Humanities


Sociétés plurielles

All these journals have the possibility to generate a print volume alongside the digital editions.

To strengthen the culture of overlay publication in SSH fields, in September, they launched an open call to invite journals to join the Episciences family of journals and adopt an overlay publication model. You can read more details about the call above under question 7.

Dr. Anne Baillot, Professor in German Studies at Le Mans Université, member of the SSH Episciences scientific board said:

It will not come as a surprise that the overlay journal platform épisciences is developed by a French infrastructure: in France, Open Science is more than just a buzzword, it is a research policy in which national funds have been invested to provide – among others – the repository and infrastructure backbone that is necessary for Green Open Access to become a reality for all scholars. Overlay journals are the next logical step in empowering scholars with the dissemination, curation and valorization of their research output. But the platform is open for non-French journals as well, of course!

As a contributor to the OpenAIRE Nexus project, Episciences is building interoperability with the key European infrastructure standards, including also EOSC integration.

Journals on top of  institutional repositories

As subscription costs keep increasing and transformative agreements do not always fully satisfy all library needs and budgets,  many research and higher education institutions are seeking opportunities to set up their own publication mechanisms. Adding thematic overlay journals on top of their institutional repositories is one of them. Here is an example from one of the earlier adopters of this model, The University of California, who hosts a series of overlay journals in all disciplines, based on the UC eScholarship Repository; including the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies; the The Indigenous Peoples’ Journal of Law, Culture & Resistance or Territories: A Trans-Cultural Journal of Regional Studies

Data journals

Data journals can be considered as a special form of overlay journals in the sense that their primary content, the reviewed datasets are ghosted in trusted data repositories. Examples are: 

Research Data Journal for the Humanities and Social Sciences (on top of the DANS data repository)

Journal of Open Humanities Data Dataverse (on top of the Harvard Dataverse repository) 

Journal of Cultural Analytics

Journal of Open Archaeology Data

Journal of the Text Encoding Initiative

(Video) Journal of Embodied Research

Research articles that belong to the Arts and Humanities disciplinary classification of F1000.

Founded in 2000, F1000 have been a pioneer in building a transparent publication environment that successfully puts into practice many components of openness (open publishing workflows, open peer review, overlay platform, versioning, rich metadata, transparency in contributor roles, interlinking publications with other digital scholarly objects, going beyond the PDF and publishing in XML etc.). In January  2020, the platform was acquired by the Taylor and Francis Group and included F1000 in its commercial portfolio. Recently, F1000 opened its publishing services to arts and humanities too. Here you can find a selection from f000 papers that are classified to the arts and humanities domain:

10. How about the costs? 

The idea of building on publicly funded infrastructure to keep costs of publication at the minimum and thus to enable free to read, free to publish models of scholarly publication/communication is at the heart of the overlay concept. Accordingly, the majority of the overlay journals listed above have no charge to access articles and no charge to publish articles.

Larger, commercial players, journals that are usually associated with higher prestige do charge Article Processing Charges. 

Building a journal on top of distributed, decentralized infrastructure component is also environmentally friendly as infrastructure resources are pooled and shared.

+1: How can you get started? 

As an author: 

Finding overlay journals in your field is not easy. Not only because of their limited number but also because the overlay character is usually not indicated in discovery and information management systems such as DOAJ. As first steps, you can browse the Episciences portal linked above and this list compiled by Ross Mounce: 

As a journal editor: 

Thanks to the Episciences call from above, you have now the opportunity to launch or transition your journal to the overlay model. 

Dr. Laurent Romary, Senior Researcher at INRIA, France and former initiator and President of the Board of Directors in DARIAH, Co-editor-in-chief of the overlay journal JDMDH Journal of Data Mining and Digital Humanities, shares the following advice:

Overlay journals offer a complete new perspective on the notions of publication and certification that we took for granted for years. By decoupling the two, it combines the benefits of early dissemination and peer-review. Our journal is still young but it is really great to see how scholarly communities interested in data mining, NLP and Digital Humanities are growing around it and strengthening a constructive evaluation  culture around  this digitally and computationally heavy scholarship. I am hopeful that in the near future, publishing in overlay journals will become a solid Open Access option for humanists too. Our example showcases that this route is feasible and easy once key infrastructural components are in place for scholars to explore and embrace. You can go for it too! 

Below you can find reflections on overlay journals from a humanities perspectives: 

Martin Paul Eve’s 2015 blog post about overlay journals and peer review on the blog of Open Library of Humanities: 

TEI Models for the Publication of Social Sciences and Humanities Journals: Opportunities, Challenges, and First Steps Toward a Standardized Workflow were Anne Baillot and Julie Giovacchinialso mentions overlay journals:

A slide deck by Raphaël Tournoy that summarizes how the Episciences platform works:

Cite this article as: Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra,Anne Baillot, Laurent Romary: "Born-digital journals built on top of scholarly powerhouses: 10+ 1 things you wanted to know about overlay journals," in DARIAH Open, 09/11/2021,

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