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Many journals sometimes publish Festschriften, i.e. special issues in honor of a distinguished (but still alive) researcher in their field. Articles for such issues are typically invited articles by other groups in the same field, and current and former collaborators of the researcher honored.

A colleague told me that such articles are peer-reviewed, much in the same way regular papers are. I somewhat suspect that this might not be entirely true, and that the standards used by the editor (and even reviewers, if they are aware of the context) are lower for these special issue invited papers.

A quote on Wikipedia (from one Endel Tulving) seems to agree with me:

a Festschrift frequently enough also serves as a convenient place in which those who are invited to contribute find a permanent resting place for their otherwise unpublishable or at least difficult-to-publish papers

So, my questions are: in your experience, are reviewers given a hint by the editor that the paper they review is intended for a special issue? and is the review process and editorial decisions typically as strict as they would be for a regular paper?

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My understanding is that a Festschrift is usually not a special issue of a journal, but a monograph (AKA book), although the contents are, for all practical purposes, journal articles. However, this may vary by discipline. –  Stephan Kolassa Feb 3 '13 at 10:04
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up vote 4 down vote accepted

I think the difference is whether the Festschrift is its own book (then the quality solely depends on the editors) or in a renowned peer-reviewed journal (who'd have a reputation to loose with a bad special issue). And I'd have a look what is the title and what the subtitle - the impression of "Festschrift for Big Guy" is entirely different from "Scientific Subject" subtitle "dedicated to Big Guy" or "collected in honor of Big Guy's scientific work".

In my field, special issues of peer-reviewed journals about conferences or concentrating on a certain subject are common. The idea behind the conference issues is to ensure the normal peer-review process because conference proceedings have a bad reputation of no or no real review after the contribution is accepted (by abstract only). To the point that many people do not submit conference proceedings because they see them as a complete waste of time.
The indications I have are that the peer review process is up to the usual standard of the journal.

If you look at this table of contents of a special issue dedicated to Prof. Mantsch, you'll see that the special issue consists of original research, there isn't even a review article in about the historical development of the field in that issue (there is an editorial, though). Also, it is primarily a conference special issue, and this conference (of a regular series) also had the dedication (which came out most at the conference dinner speech, not at the scientific sessions).
Our paper had a two-line dedication before the abstract, and besides that it is a normal original research paper that underwent peer-review. I have not seen in my field a special issue that was primarily dedicated to someone and not primarily thematic with a dedication.

(thematic special issues):

  • I don't know whether the reviewers know that the paper is intended for the special issue, I never had a review to do that indicated anything of the sort.

  • In my experience not only the normal quality but also the normal subject criteria apply.

  • Sometimes, the invitation takes place only after the peer-review process is over: after the acceptance of a paper we were asked whether we'd like it to be published in a special issue that was upcoming and where it thematically fit in.

  • Sometimes, special issues are not filled by invitations, but the fact that a thematic special issue is planned, is circulated.

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In my experience in mathematics, papers submitted to a Festschrift are held to the same standard as any other papers as far as correctness and novelty go, but there is definitely some flexibility regarding importance. The Festschrift is often considered a good place for articles that would be of particular interest to the person being honored, because they build on this person's work or involve topics close to their heart, even if the papers are not particularly important in absolute terms. Referees know the paper is submitted to the Festschrift, and I think this vision of which papers are appropriate is broadly shared among authors, editors, and referees. An embarrassing or inappropriate paper would be rejected, but for example a minor observation related to the honoree's work could be accepted.

It's hard to say how this compares with typical journals, since there's a range from low-end journals that will publish anything arguably new and correct to high-end journals that regularly reject excellent papers because they aren't quite wonderful enough. A Festschrift will never match the very most prestigious journals (there simply aren't enough thematically-appropriate papers at that level to fill it up), but it can be comparable to a middle-of-the-road journal or occasionally better.

As in Stephan Kolassa's comment, a large majority of the Festschrifts I've seen are monographs, rather than journal issues. When they are special issues of a journal, it's generally not a particularly prestigious journal. (However, it can happen: the Duke Mathematical Journal published a Festschrift for Nash.) My interpretation is that prestigious journals generally don't want to publish Festschrifts because they know the papers won't all meet the highest standards of importance.

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My experience in theoretical computer science is similar. –  JeffE Feb 3 '13 at 20:42
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In two such instances that I have been involved since November (invited papers for special issues but not Festschrifts) no indications were given to the reviewers and strict double blind procedures were followed. I would go as far as we had even stricter procedures because of the notion that special issues are not of the same quality to the point that I found it frustrating.

I suspect this is entirely dependent on the editor and the practices vary significantly depending on the journals editor, the special issue editor, and the relation between the two.

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I think there is a difference in the peer-review process, but not so much on the reviewer end. In general, when I review a manuscript, I do not consider the target journal. I attempt to point out the good and the bad and leave it to the editor to decide what to do with my reviews. The difference then arises with what the editor does. While the topic of a manuscript might not fit in with the journal in general, hence making it difficult to publish, it might be a perfect fit for a special issue. Similarly, the manuscript might not have as much data as typically required for the journal making its scope narrower, but it still might fit fine with the special issue (especially give the time constraints).

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I have reviewed a few articles for special issues. At some journals, you know that there's a difference, because you're recruited as a reviewer by the "special editor" for that issue.

With respect to the standards used, I would say that there should be no difference between the two. However, I think it's fair to say that some allowances might be made for special issues that would not apply under normal circumstances. At the same time, I think that the awareness of this is fairly widely known in academic circles, and therefore some allowances are made for this. These tend not to be the "super groundbreaking" papers, but often tend to be "current progress" or "latest but perhaps not greatest" work out of the labs submitting them.

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I would argue that this may differ quite a lot between individual journals and, I venture to guess, may also differ between journals with different status. A basic "rule" for a journal (upheld by its editors) is to make the journal as good as possible, to attract good and high impact papers. To have an issue that is sub-par is therefore not favourable. Hence each editorial board will impose restrictions on such "festschrift"s. In the journal where I am Editor-in-Chief, we have had a tradition of such "schrift"s but we decided to not accept such themes. We do run thematic issues with guest editors but in all cases the papers and their reviewing is transparent to the Editors-in-Chief which means we can intervene and ensure a fair review process and uphold the quality we strive to ensure. In my opinion the "festschrift" is something which is generally not looked upon favourably since it signals that there may be dodgy reviewing or just buddy-reviewig involved. Most journals probably stay clear of such issues for this reason. In the end the local traditions will determine whether such "schrift"s will be produced. So the bottom line is that certainly editors would be cautious about such journal issues. This means that the review process may not be any different, in fact sometimes more strict, while in some cases anything could go through and it is this uncertainty which on the whole makes the "festschrift" concept unattractive to any journal which tries to uphold a good reputation.

So my (probably unsatisfactory) answer is: yes and no, it will vary quite substantially between journals. Such differences should not exist but they do and it is difficult to know or judge in each individual case.

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