Editing Blues (or, Learning to Love Manuscript Central)

by Ken Gibb

Academics have an ambivalent relationship with peer-reviewed academic journals. In the REF-dominated UK we are all under pressure to place papers in our discipline’s top ranked international journals. That means we have to learn how to play the game and know what works and what does not. We also feed the monster by acting as (hopefully) anonymous referees providing (hopefully) constructive but honest expert reports in an objective disinterested way. Third, some of us may in time go on to act as editors of journals.

In an era beset by technological change, multiple public access controversies, the changing industrial economics or business models of said journals and publishers, as well as the proliferation of new journals – one can forget the other side of the coin of delivering the journal itself.

For my sins I was for over ten years, an editor, managing editor and even latterly editor-in-chief of a big international journal. I stepped down at the end of 2011 but even so I have since found myself involved as co-guest editor of three special issues at other journals and I still sit on four editorial boards. I have also done a stint of editing handbooks and reference works – it is addictive but I am trying to wean myself off it.

I dread to think of the number of papers I read for the journal I edited. Thousands. Typically for each submission we would have two or three external reviews plus the input of two of the editorial team. From this we would seek a consensual decision. I started off very cautious and careful when coming to a decision on a paper. I was always amazed when my senior and very experienced editorial colleague would rapidly conclude whether or not there was a (potentially publishable) paper in what we had been sent. But, I must confess, as time has gone on, one does become more confident, in part because of the on the job experience you build up but also your sharper sense of what the journal is for and what ineffably constitutes a publishable paper – I know it when I see it but I am not sure I could define it.

My main other ‘editorial blues’ lessons to impart from this experience are:

  1. Over time an editor clearly reads a lot and can get really on top of a literature to by a form of osmosis. But I think they probably get better in most cases at seeing how effective is a given literature review section of a paper in terms of how it is written rather than somehow mastering that literature in a substantive sense.
  2. Never let people off with going over the word limit. Ultimately it damages someone else’s ability to be published given total journal word caps set by the publisher; it is also a good discipline for the author. You grow to hate long papers, yet we had a major battle with authors when we reduced our papers to 8,000 words!
  3. Disputation is mercifully rare but when it happens it has to be robustly addressed (as do author disputes re. right to reply, etc.). It is all about natural justice and being seen to be fair (as with all author dealings). A good publisher can be very helpful.
  4. Writing clearly is incredibly important (and something perhaps easier to sell in a multi-disciplinary journal where there is a wide ranging audience who have even less tolerance for jargon). There is no better source for good writing than the wonderful Strunk and White ‘Elements of Style’.
  5. Most editing work is undoubtedly about choosing referees at one end of the process and reworking those referees comments at the other. We always took the view that we had the right to do this, and that it was in everyone’s interests to, where necessary, tone down or in some cases civilize specific referee reports (academics are capable of saying some shocking things in anonymous reviews).
  6. We had excellent administrative staff both locally and at the publishers. It is obviously true that smaller journals can be run well hands-on by a small group of committed editors. However, when you reach the critical mass of large-scale industrialisation (latterly on my watch we had more than 1000 submission a year), you need significant administrative support and you need co-ordinated editing and strong relations between both parts of the system.
  7. I hated it at first but as an editor I learned to love manuscript central – the online editing/reviewing/ paper management/submission systems now ubiquitous. It can be customized (I guess if you have some clout with the publisher) and can be improved particularly in the critical area of linking to the flexibility of the reviewer database.
  8. I became (and remain) unhealthily obsessed by those authors who insisted on the imputation of meaning from non-significant statistical findings (and also weak significance i.e. to 10%). In the end I instituted arbitrary rules in the journal guide for prospective authors – but did not go far enough.
  9. Don’t believe special issues in the journal you edit will be easier to manage. Typically, they are not – though they are often relatively popular and more cited in the end than mainstream issues.
  10. And yes, there have been almighty howlers, terrible titles, bizarre papers and even odder covering letters – they can keep the team going but of course cannot be repeated.

It has been said many times before but the system, warts and all, hinges on the timely supply of thoughtful and constructive reviews by referees. This is a widespread problem across academic disciplines and we, like other larger journals, debated several possible approaches to increasing willingness to referee e.g. entering into an implicit contract with authors that if they want to submit a journal article with us they should expect to review other papers as part of the deal.

I am the first to admit that though it has become easier for me to make a decision on most papers, I have written shorter and shorter reports overall. The editor of course cries out for substantive comment from the referee. Editors as referees do have the excuse that they are looking at large bundles of papers each month (I tried to aim for half a dozen short key comments for each one I read – but did not always manage to provide as many). So, next time you find yourself reviewing a paper do try to help the editor with constructive comments. Encourage others to do so too because it might be your paper next in the pile and you’d want helpful comments that point you in a stronger direction.

The future of academic journals is uncertain and the system is under pressure to change to meet the requirements of academics, readership and research funders. And, despite its problems (and many of us at some point will have experienced them at first-hand), peer review is unlikely to go away any time soon. I greatly enjoyed editing a big journal and I am convinced it was a great learning experience for me. But is nice that it is now over and I can happily live with being just a reviewer and an occasional guest editor.