Journal Editing – Why do it? Masochism, machisimo or just plain nosiness?

I have been involved in scientific journal editing since the mid-1980s when I took on the role of Editor of an in-house newsletter run by the UK Forestry Commission’s Forest Research arm, EntoPath News. This basically involved writing short articles about what was going on in Forest Research and persuading colleagues to write about their research, mainly for a lay audience. This was pretty much a home-made effort, typed up and then photocopied by members of the Typing Pool (now those were the days!). Then in 1991 I was asked if I would like to edit Antenna, the in-house journal of the Royal Entomological Society. This was a step-up – we actually had a printer, although this was in the days of cut and paste when cut and paste meant exactly that. I was sent the proofs in what were termed galleys, long sheets of printed pages, together with template pages, marked out with blue lines to indicate margins etc. I then grabbed a pair of scissors and a pot of glue and literally cut the proofs to fit the pages and then glued them on to the templates. These were then returned to the printer who in due course produced a set of page proofs which I had to check and approve and these were then returned to the printer and then finally the finished version would appear.

Antenna 1993

Nowadays of course all this has long departed and Antenna is a much glossier and electronically produced affair.

Antenna 2012

I was next asked if I would like to edit Ecological Entomology a much grander job all together and one that I did from 1996-2003.

Ecological Entomology 2001

 

When I first started editing Ecological Entomology, all manuscripts were submitted as hard copy paper versions (usually three copies) but with an accompanying floppy disc. The review process involved posting out the hard copy to possible reviewers, usually without any preliminary enquiry as to the willingness of the referee to undertake the task, although as time passed we did start to ask referees beforehand by email. The use of paper copies enabled referees to write directly on to manuscripts and also allowed me as an Editor to mark required changes. My Editorial Assistant also imposed stylistic and language change to manuscripts. Accepted manuscripts were always returned with a huge amount of mark-up for authors to attend to and incorporate into their finished version which was returned on disc together with a paper copy. It was quite interesting to see how many authors were so enamoured of their original version that they tried to pull the wool over my editorial eye by returning an appropriately edited paper version but their original manuscript on the disc! These were most severely edited by my Editorial Assistant ;-)

I then had a couple of years off as a full editor but remained on the boards of Ecological Entomology, Journal of Animal Ecology and Agricultural & Forest Entomology, all of which I still do despite becoming one of the Senior Editors of the Annals of Applied Biology in 2005 and in a moment of weakness not only agreeing to become the Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity in 2006, but to launch it from scratch!

One of my conditions for agreeing to edit Insect Conservation & Diversity was that we would be on-line submission from Day One. Interestingly enough we were the only journal of the Royal Entomological Society’s large stable that were. This year the last of the journals finally gave in and became on-line submissions only.

One of the things that I have noticed with most of the journals that were originally paper-based submissions is that the instructions for authors still refer back to the paper submission days – why for example do we need to upload tables and figures separately – why don’t we just incorporate them in the text in the way they would appear in print and submit one file? Old habits die hard I guess.

So why do I edit journals? The simplest answer is because I enjoy it, I find it interesting, albeit sometimes frustrating, especially when authors send you papers that are completely out of the scope of the journal, or formatted in the style of the journal they have just been rejected by! You also find out that some papers come with a referee repellent attached to them. Some papers you get the right number of referees agreeing immediately, others that look perfectly acceptable often take ten or eleven referee requests before you get your two referees.   I have written about the search for referees before so will not dwell on this part of the editing process. On the plus side you get the chance to read things that you might not do normally and, by judicious choice of your editorial board can influence the papers that are submitted to your journal.

How hard is it to be a journal editor? Not as hard as you might think. We certainly don’t do the same job that we used to; the red pen is a thing of the past. To a certain extent we act as filters, deciding which papers we are going to send on to our Associate Editor, so we do have to read everything that is submitted, although some are very easy to ‘instant reject’ and need little more than a cursory skim. The harder ones are those that are perfectly sound but don’t have the right feel for the journal, the ones that you know are going to be rejected but which are perfectly publishable, just not in your journal. In some of these cases you might have to pass it on to an Associate Editor, as with the best will in the world you can’t be an expert in everything.   The Associate Editors choose the referees and make a recommendation to you as the Editor; you then have to read the paper again and see if you agree with his/her recommendation. As an Editor you have to be tougher than your Associate Editors because of space requirements and the fear of a fall in your Impact Factor or submission rate. When I first started editing, Impact Factor was not a consideration; now we are, despite our belief that it is an imperfect metric, all aiming to be the best. We also have pressures from the publishers to increase the speed of our decision-making processes which is why the decision ‘reject and resubmit’ is now becoming increasingly common and ‘major revision’ less common.

Rejections can sometimes result in not only angry emails from rejected authors but also, but not that often, disgruntled Associate Editors. When I first started editing I was more prone to backing down when contacted by an author demanding a recount, especially if it was someone who I knew quite well. I soon learnt though that if you stood your ground firmly it was better for you and the authors, as they were all too often rejected after another round of reviewing. Your friends generally understand this quite soon and as professionals realise that you have to be impartial. That said, I did find it very hard when I found myself rejecting a paper submitted by my old PhD supervisor. He appears to have forgiven me ;-)

Do we get paid as editors? It depends on the journal; some pay a fairly generous stipend, but remember most of your editing takes place at home and at weekends, so some compensation is appropriate. The Royal Entomological Society journals don’t pay their editors but do treat them very well and pay for travel to some conferences and meet their registration and accommodation costs at most of their own conferences.

So what qualities are needed to be a journal editor? A thick skin, the ability to make a decision and not to keep asking for yet another opinion; you’re the final arbiter, make that decision and stick with it; the detachment to be impartial and go with the science not with your own personal prejudices or friendships. You also need to be aware of what other journals are doing and be constantly thinking of ways to improve your journal; it is very tempting to think that everything is fine so why change things. Personally I feel that an Editor should step down after about seven years or so as there is a tendency to get very parochial and stuck in a rut. You can definitely get very possessive about ‘your’ journal if you are not careful. [Note to self, I have edited Insect Conservation & Diversity for almost eight years now and I have had an approach from another journal, but I would really miss those Royal Entomological Society Publication Committee meetings ;-)]

Do I regret being an Editor?  Not one little bit. It is actually a great job and one that I can thoroughly recommend to anyone who is offered the chance.

Post script

Apropos of my mention of submitting paper copies to journals, I do feel that authors do not get the same amount of feedback from referees as they used to. Referees who take the time to download a pdf version and annotate and comment directly are definitely in the minority. This means that most referees only comment on the scientific details and all those helpful hints about punctuation and style are omitted. As a referee I do sometimes make suggestions for rewording and overall grammatical suggestions, but line by line editing which I used to do is now a thing of the past.

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6 Comments

Filed under Roundabouts and more, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Journal Editing – Why do it? Masochism, machisimo or just plain nosiness?

  1. Pingback: Recommended reads #25 | Small Pond Science

  2. BioDataSci

    Interesting summary. But I’m curious about one side point. Why do you care what format the manuscript is in when it is submitted?

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    • Saves time and trouble at copy-editing stage and also indicates that author may actually have read the specfic journal guidelines which also inform about statistical approaches and presentation and very importantly the remit of the journal.

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  3. Emma B

    “… why for example do we need to upload tables and figures separately …”

    Because there is still a significant proportion of the population who are uncomfortable with combining different elements / file formats into a single document. And, believe me, if you had to deal with their attempts at doing so, you’d rapidly revert to separate uploads. You’d probably even find that some authors would avoid submitting to your journal in favour of sticking with those that still permitted separate uploads.

    It also, I suspect, makes it easier to adjust submissions to fit the different journal styles.

    “Referees who take the time to download a pdf version and annotate and comment directly are definitely in the minority.”

    A pity. Maybe there’s a case for investing in website design that allows annotation online?

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    • Manuscript annotations feel to me like a thing of the long lost past. On-line refereeing doesnt encourage this and academics are under a lot of pressure to turn round reviews quickly and to referee papers and grants etc. Quite frankly, if I were expected to annotate manuscripts I wouldnt act as a referee!

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  4. Pingback: Sitting in judgment – Calling the shots – Peer review – A personal view | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

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