Spreading the editorial love


This is a post that complements my earlier ones about building your journal karma and being professionally judgemental.

Those were from the perspectives of someone who was submitting a paper to a journal or edited book collection, and an article reviewer, respectively.

This one is from the editor’s perspective. It won’t be as long as the other ones because, generally, there are fewer things an editor can get wrong.

In fact, some parts of this post are going to sound like an apologia for editors, and so be it. Being an editor can be prestigious, but it most often entails a LOT OF WORK, and a passion for seeing intellectual work (that is not your own!) travel and prosper.

With the pressure to publish and emphasis on getting your paper count up (as well as on the quality, of course…), it is becoming more difficult to find people willing to undertake the task of being an editor. An editorial role is not recognised in any significant way in Australia’s research quality measures (which is a major hypocrisy), or in many academic workloads. The quality of journals is heavily dependent on editorial oversight and engagement, yet these time-consuming and essential positions are given little recognition.

If you are one of these dedicated few who take up the mantle – whether it’s for an ongoing role with a serial publication, an edited book, or a journal special issue – here are some great ways to ensure there’s plenty of editorial love:

1. Meet deadlines and have decent response times

Interestingly enough, the first and most prominent point in this listing is the same as for “Build your journal karma”.

Usually, the editor will have a timeline that shuffles back from the publisher’s manuscript deadline. It should account for the:

  • Call for submissions and/or strategic solicitation.
  • Submission of essays.
  • Refereeing/reviewing turn-around time.
  • Author’s revision and final submission.
  • Combing through the text by editor and copyeditor/proofreader before sending to the press/publisher.
  • Proofs coming back from the press/publisher for the author (and sometimes editor) to give final okay.

This production schedule should be made clear to authors from the get-go so they know what they’re in for.

A sensible, responsible editor will leave decent times for these stages, and not harangue authors for their revisions a week after returning several sets of comments (especially at the beginning of a university semester, or just after the holidays).

Editors should also be understanding if a project appears to have stalled and authors choose to take their work elsewhere. I say this with a heavy heart because the delays are often not the fault of the editor, and having holes in the line-up causes editorial insomnia, BUT it’s understandable if people need to get their work out there. This is especially true for early career researchers who are trying to build their CVs.

That said, the editor is often at the mercy of the contributors and their attention to submission times. Particularly after the reviewers’ reports are back and comments are sent off to the authors, chances are the timeline is advanced enough that it starts getting difficult to find substitute material for a particular issue or project if someone lags or pulls out. At these times, editors are more prone than ever to bouts of foul language and the occasional popped vein.

2. Have clear instructions about style and format

Don’t (as I’ve done) tout a set of instructions about style that are out of date and require much chasing up of page numbers by put-upon copy-editors later on…ahem. This is a bad thing.

The clearer you make the instructions (and the more stellar your contributors are with following these instructions), the less work everyone has to do in the mad final stages of preparing a manuscript. This is a very good thing.

3. Give considerate and constructive criticism

When handing back critical comments to authors from the reviewers (and editor[s]), try to:

  • Be encouraging but honest.
    Don’t tell an author the essay is great but just ‘not suitable’ for the publication if, in truth, it’s because the essay is crap and you don’t want it. This might be a personal thing, but I’d much rather say to someone that the work they’ve handed in is not up to scratch and list why/how they can improve, rather than have them tout their stuff (wasting theirs and other people’s time) without anyone being straight with them.
  • Use your discretion when forwarding reviewers’ comments.
    Most reviewers know to separate comments that they don’t intend authors to see. I think it’s also up to the editors to make sure they take out extraneous, unconstructive stuff from the reports. For example, there’s no point having an anonymous person abuse an author for liking a particular critic’s ideas when the editor is aware that that reviewer has an axe to grind with that critic and the objection doesn’t have an intellectual basis. Not that this ever happens in academia, right?
  • If the essay isn’t all that crash hot but the potential is there for better, then make sure you give the author (particularly if it is early in their career) as much detail as possible to help them make it better. This is important because it also gives you grounds not to accept the piece if the author hasn’t stepped up to the crease and improved it significantly after revision.
  • If the reports were really bad and the recommendation is to reject, then this should be done with as much compassion as possible. Gandhi moment: I deal with people the way I’d like to be treated. It seems to have worked well so far.

4. Keep contributors informed about the publication

Editors should contact contributors as soon as decently possible:

  • on receipt of submissions (not hard to do, really).
  • if there are problems holding up their contribution in particular (e.g. difficulty finding a reviewer, delay in receiving a report).
  • about (un)expected delays to the production of the publication (one of the collections I was involved with had a change-over of three publishing editors in the time our manuscript was going through the submission and review stages, which blew out the timeline considerably).

Once you establish a good working relationship with authors through one project, they’re much more likely to contribute to your future projects.

Chances are, they will also be more amenable to reviewing essays/articles for you later on. As anyone who’s worked on journals or refereed edited books will tell you, good reviewers are worth cultivating (or hoarding, as the case may be).

That’s about it, really.

As with “Build your journal karma“, the take-home message is:

Be professional and considerate.

You can’t go wrong with that.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

5 Responses to Spreading the editorial love

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    A BIG yes on #4. Really, how hard it is for editors to drop me a line saying “thanks for your submission” on receipt and another letting me know when it’s gone out to review? Not hard. But it’s almost unheard of.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I often saved time by acknowledging receipt and letting the contributor know that, if they DON’T hear from me, all is well. If I get in touch, it’ll be because there’s been a problem with finding reviewers or the article is facing a desk reject, etc!

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Not good enough! Silence can mean anything — that your email has stopped working, that you’ve left the editorial post, that my manuscript has been lost from the system. Come on, how long does it take to send a one-liner saying “Your manuscript has now been sent to two reviewers”? Thirty seconds? Take the time. Do the job right.

      • Tseen Khoo says:

        I’ll have to beg to differ on this one. Sending one email to one person notifying them of this is fine, but when you multiply that to the workload of a quarterly or six-issue journal + normal workload that’s not editorial + life, this level of notification may not be feasible. Many online submission portals/systems now allow you to track where your article is at (e.g. at review, waiting on one more report, etc) – even so, things fall through the cracks.

        For most editors (who are not primarily editors, but academics who volunteer to be editors), it’s never a perfect system. If you fear that your work’s been lost in the mix, though, I always think it’s ok to drop the journal a note requesting an update.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Well, you’re presumably spending an hour or more on selecting and contacting the reviewers for each article. So thirty more seconds to contact the author is a 0.833% increment on that. Hardly seems like a heavy burden to me.

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