10 October 2014

The editor’s influence

A Salon article about the importance of editors in literature surprised me when it took a turn in discussing scientific publishing.

But surely the most endangered editorial role is, not coincidentally, also the most ineffable. In a recent post, Kent Anderson of the Scholarly Kitchen, a blog about academic publishing, reports that scientific and scholarly journals are now spoken of as if peer-reviewing were the only significant part of their editorial process: “one of the most important roles — that of the editor-in-chief or senior editor — seems to have been lost.” Of late, some journals have even been launched without any main editor at all; editorial and advisory boards, combined with peer review, have been deemed sufficient. There is no leader to be held personally accountable for the journal’s choices, and the publication loses something else, as well: vision, character, a personality all its own.
Anderson argues that in scholarly publishing — although the same goes for journalism and book publishing — a good editor-in-chief provides much that is crucial if also intangible.

Annoyingly, there is no link to the “recent post” mentioned in the paragraph above. I’m guessing it’s this one.

In neither post is there a specific example of a journal “without a main editor.” I’d guess that that Anderson had in mind one of his favourite punching bags, PLOS ONE, as an example. Taking that as an example, let’s see what editors are supposed to be providing.

Vision. Yes, an editor can articulate this, but editors are not the only ones who can. There has never been any doubt in my mind what the vision of PLOS ONE was: to provide a venue where science is judged on competence rather than perceived importance, and to publish open access. PLOS ONE has had advocates who have been as effective in articulating that vision as any editor.

Character and personality: This can be provided by a clear mission statement about what a journal will consider publishing. Yes, someone needs to write that statement, but I don’t think it has to be a single editor in chief. Besides, I don’t care all that much about the “character” of a journal, because journals are not the major way I find relevant articles any more.

In his post, Anderson writes:

First and foremost, the senior editor provides a strong signal to the market about who stands behind the journal, what level of scrutiny works will receive, and what disciplinary emphasis the journal is pursuing.

(Tangent: It’s interesting that that Anderson refers to the “market” instead of “researchers.”)

Who stands behind the journal: I think Anderson is saying it’s important for there to be a person who says, “The buck stops here.” I have not seen many editors who are willing to take that position. The recent STAP cell problem was a great example. Nature’s editors claimed there was no way they could have identified the problems from the reviews they received. The reviews that they actually received paint a rather different story, with one commenter calling the reviews to Nature “blistering.” There is a real debate to be had about just how accountable editors should be in these situations.

What level of scrutiny works will receive: I cannot figure this out from knowing how the editor is. The level of scrutiny is dependent on the reviewers, who vary. It’s dependent on how many reviews the article gets. It’s dependent on whether the review process is single blind, double blind, and so on.

Disciplinary emphasis: See my comments on “Character and personality,” above.

Anderson goes on:
The personality, reputation, and work habits of the lead editor play major roles in setting the editorial tone.

This can definitely be true, but it’s debatable whether than is always a good thing. There is also such a thing as institutional culture. We create institutions, like journals, to ensure that there is continuity that is not dependent on single indidviduals.

To be clear, I actually do think good editors are very useful. But I am less convinced that a single individual need be the one performing those jobs.

External links

The incredible vanishing editor: What we can learn from Martin Scorsese’s new documentary
The Editor — A Vital Role We Barely Talk About Anymore

Hat tip to Rebecca Skloot.

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