From time to time I am asked to specify my profession, for example on passport or visa applications. I might put down consultant, or university teacher but over the past few years I have realized that I am first and foremost an 'editor.' It is what I spend most of my time doing and increasingly it defines me.
Editing can be a very solitary activity and it is immensely helpful to share ideas and problems with others who know and understand. There are two kinds of editors: those who are editing a journal as an adjunct to their main role of teaching or research, and those (like me) for whom editing is their major activity. Which kind of editor you are colors your approach to the task.
Many learned societies appoint the editors of their journals for a fixed term, often three or four years, perhaps with the possibility of an extension. In some cases the post is perceived as a necessary chore: someone has to be the editor and it will look impressive on their curriculum vitae, but the demands of the post should be kept to a minimum so that it will not interfere too much with teaching or research, and crucially, will not be perceived by the university as taking too much time. There was a time when universities welcomed the kudos of having one of their faculty as editor of a major journal. Now it can be seen as a distraction from the institution's core business.
So what does an editor do? The most obvious task is to decide on which papers are published and which are rejected. Some editors act as gate-keepers using established criteria (for example, the journal's scope, maximum article length, etc) to reject unsuitable articles before arranging for peer review. Those that gain the reviewers' approval are published and the others are rejected. In contrast, other editors act more as coaches. Rather than taking a binary approach (accept/reject) they look carefully at those papers which might be revised and improved to a standard which permits acceptance. This may involve extra work for the editor - and the reviewers - but it raises the overall standard of scholarly writing and is greatly appreciated by the authors.
There is a need too, to help reviewers to develop their skills to evaluate papers and write constructive reports, while being aware of cultural differences in research and writing styles, and in the way that feedback is given and received. Like authors, all reviewers have to start somewhere; they do not spring fully grown from the academic tree. I suggest that journals, and journal editors, have a responsibility to develop reviewers and authors.
The second key task is to develop the journal itself, devising and implementing a strategy that will help the journal to realize its vision and its aims. In this, the editor can call upon the combined wisdom and ideas of the editorial board. In the case of journals that that are owned by a learned society the society may have aspirations for the journal. These might include maximizing the revenue generated by the journal, driving up its quality, providing publishing opportunities for the society's members, or enhancing the reputation of the society.
Here, the tendency of learned societies to limit the time that an editor can remain in post works against the successful development of the journal. It takes time to understand the journal, formulate strategy and tactics, and put these into place. I suggest (from personal experience and from talking to other editors) that this cannot be achieved in less than five years. Where societies limit the term of appointment to three years, they may be minimizing the perceived chore of editorship, but they are condemning the journal to a succession of caretaker editors who can do little more than preserve the status quo. There is however, one potential benefit to the society expressed by one of my fellow editors that "it reduces the risk that the editor starts to believe that they own the journal!"
Editing a journal gives the incumbent a great deal of academic power. Directly, the editor can determine who is to be published and who is to be rejected. Indirectly, the editorial policy of major journals can influence the direction of research at a national and international level. This can take place through conference presentations, representation on committees and advice to funding agencies. Editors have a unique, international overview of research in their field. This power and influence has to be balanced by responsible and impeccable ethical behavior. It is a difficult but rewarding balancing act.
Nick Rushby’s Editorial: On being an editor appears in the July 2015 issue of British Journal of Educational Technology.
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