More than 5 years ago, we started as editors-in-chief of Voluntas. This was a great
honour and responsibility. It also led to an intensive learning curve. With on average
three e-mails per day, it meant more than 5000 e-mails between the two of us. Between
2016 and 2020, we received 2200 manuscripts, over one per day (weekends and holidays
included). Occasionally, it felt like a hopeless battle against a never-ending stream
of texts. But it has also given us a unique opportunity to watch the development of
the field, of shifting centres of gravity, surges of interest and downward curves.
In this short editorial, we would like to reflect on the development of the journal
and third sector/non-profit research in general.
The Development of the Journal
From the mid-2010s, there were years of steep growth, spurred by the growth of international
academic publishing. Now submissions seem to have stabilized at around 400 a year.
The rejection rate has risen slightly in this time, dampened by an expansion of the
number of issues per year. Altogether (including transfer to other journals), it is
quite stable now at around two-thirds of manuscripts. The steep growth and high-quality
standards forced us towards a greater number of desk rejects (i.e. rejects without
reviews, based solely on the assessment of the editors). On the one hand, desk rejects
are essentially against our mission of providing quality feedback to authors; on the
other hand, we have to guard the scarce time of our reviewers, by protecting them
from having to assess too many hopeless manuscripts. Essentially, more is being written
than the academic system of peer review can digest. This is driven by forces beyond
journals’ control (in particular, academic performance measurement systems). Perhaps
the tide is now turning.
We are very proud that the impact factor has risen in these years from 1.09 to 1.538
(2019). This reflects not only the greater visibility of the journal itself, but also
how specialized research communities within third sector research have matured, with
shared concepts, debates and academic heroes to cite.
In line with the mission of ISTR to be a truly international society, we have pursued
the goal of increasing the regional spread of papers (more specifically, a spread
of authors less prejudiced towards Europe and North America). Although the number
of countries we receive manuscripts from has been continuously rising, we have not
been particularly successful in this respect, when it comes to published papers. Generally,
contributions from the USA/Canada/Europe/Australia/New Zealand add up to about 80%
of published papers. This number has declined slightly, mainly due to more published
papers from China and Israel. Asia (excepting China), Africa and Latin America remain
Regarding rejections, an analysis shows the following:
Predictably, the rejection rate for certain countries (Germany, the UK, the USA and
some smaller European countries) is lower than the average (which is about two out
China’s rejection rate is almost average. However, the new Chinese policy towards
academic institutions, moving away from international publishing, may affect submissions
from that country drastically.
Then there are countries that do send in submissions regularly, but which are mostly
rejected. These are Brazil, Eastern European countries, Pakistan, Russia and Spain.
Some countries rarely ever send in submissions.
Desk rejects and rejects after review follow a similar pattern. In other words, desk
rejects do not appear to introduce a significant bias.
Progress towards greater geographical spread has been very slow. The underrepresentation
of certain regions is mostly caused by structural inequalities that cannot be resolved
by an academic journal in itself. It reflects the establishment of third sector research
in different countries, but also the amount of support and training for scholars.
Language services, for example, which are financed by most European universities for
non-native English speakers, often make the difference between to be and not to be
on the academic floor.
The Development of the Field of Third Sector Research
Submissions to Voluntas, one of the leading journals in the field, also reflect the
more general development of research on the third sector. Here, we can note some interesting
trends. For a long time, research on volunteering and classical non-profit management
dominated the field. However, in recent years, a diverse range of other topics has
conquered the stage or gained greater importance.
As a result of cutbacks in public finance and the drive towards New Public Management,
one can see certain topics strongly on the rise. The topic of social enterprise in
all its facets has become more popular, reflecting both the hybridization of (parts
of) the third sector and the search for alternative types of organization. Likewise,
the growing number of manuscripts on philanthropy may be the result of reductions
in welfare expenditure in many countries.
Grassroots activities and social movements have featured more often in the journal,
while formerly publications on these topics were mainly to be found in specific journals
on social movements. Be it research on right-to-the-city activities, uprisings fighting
for democratic rights or against the consequences of economic crises, academic research
seems to have followed the wider mobilization occurring in the real world—as it should.
Other, classical topics discussed in Voluntas have changed. The topic of volunteering
is still very timely and important, yet there has been a greater focus on non-conventional,
flexible forms of volunteering. Research in this area appears to have changed with
the subject, with more emphasis on unstable, diverse, short-term and spontaneous types.
The relative decline of classical management research on non-profit organizations
in the journal might have been caused by the shift of such contributions to other
journals, but it may also indicate that the novelty of the topic has worn off. Whereas
in the 1990s, managers of non-profit organizations were still developing an understanding
of their organization as something distinct, with specific challenges, by now professionalization
of such organizations is well advanced, and academic research and training programmes
are well established in most regions. Another cause may be that big funders have lost
interest in the field of non-profit management. For instance, European research funding
calls have recently tended to focused instead on social enterprise and entrepreneurship
(even if, in practice, it concerns the same organizations).
What still remains relatively rare is country comparisons. Most studies focus on a
specific national or local context. We would welcome seeing more comparisons in the
The Covid-19 crisis has severe consequences from the sector, which should be reflected
in publications soon (though for now, it seems too early to present firm data). Research
on this topic is interesting in itself, but it may also generate more general insights
on the crisis management and policies of different governments, the responses of NPOs
and civil society, and the effects of shrinking civic spaces. Unfortunately, the crisis
might also widen the gender gap1 amongst scholars. Again, it is too early for reliable
numbers, but there seems to be a trend towards falling submission rates from female
Over the past years, many people have made a substantial effort to help non-profit
research and our journal. We want to express our deep gratitude to everybody who has
contributed to the success of the journal and its community, not least the reviewers,
whose hidden work is essential.
In general, our field is a lively and comparatively friendly one. The pandemic threatens
to weaken its coherence, by making it difficult to meet at conferences. If anything,
the crisis has shown that digital tools can only partially substitute for classical
meetings. Yet we hope and expect that, even in these turbulent times, creativity and
intrinsic motivation will help maintain the social capital within our community of