Imperishable Publishing Part II

In my last blog I talked about the trials and tribulations of “publish or perish” from the authors’ point of view. However, that is not the only vantage point.

Early in my career, I was talking to Grant Kowalenko from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, who discussed with me how one area of scholarship that he had enjoyed taking part in was editorial work. I had dabbled in editing by that point, but it has since grown to be a major area of my work. It has been fascinating to watch the intricate and multi-faceted world of science publishing from that viewpoint.

I have edited several different stand-alone volumes, I was editor for the Canadian Journal of Plant Science for six years and continue to edit for Weed Research and Pacific Science. The Pacific Science editing is an especially creative editing process, as I edit a continuous series of articles on invasive species in the Pacific Islands - a series that I created in conjunction with the journal editor, Curt Daehler.

Essentially what you see from the editorial angle parallels the new perspective you gain when moving from student to teacher. I can remember a particular student who was always badgering us professors about the way his tests and assignments were marked. Then in his fourth year when he became a teaching assistant he confessed to us that the responsibility of being a teacher was much different than he had thought – a balancing act between academic standards and the interests of the student.

Such is the case with editing papers submitted to scientific journals. On one hand, an editor is obligated to give the author’s manuscript a fair reading, looking at all the work that has gone into the research. On the other hand, hard work does not always make good science, and scientific journals have a high standard to maintain, and editors must maintain those standards, or they risk the reputation of the scientific enterprise. So editorial work can be quite painful at times – just as writing and submitting papers to journals as an author can be quite painful when your paper is rejected or almost rejected.

One piece of the puzzle I have not mentioned yet is the reviewer. Peer-review means that an expert in the field of study has reviewed the work and found it befits the standards. So what the editor does is send the submitted manuscript out for review – to two or more reviewers in the field – and then uses the reviews to inform his or her assessment. As an editor, I really, really, really like a good review – a review that goes into enough detail and assesses the science in ways that I often cannot, especially if the paper is slightly to the left or right of my knowledge-base.

I do quite a few reviews myself. It is a form of scientific chivalry – no one gets paid to do a review, and it does not show up in any concrete way in the performance reviews of a scholar. It is basically “paying it forward” – you are helping your field of study by being willing to spend the hours it takes to go through and dissect a paper line by line and provide a report to an editor. Of course, not all scientists are altruistic all the time, and many times my invitations as an editor to review a paper are refused, inevitably delaying the review process. Sometimes when I am asked to do a review myself I think to myself “I should really say no” but then say “yes” because the paper looks so interesting. So in that way, the underground economy of science continues.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one more piece of the editorial review puzzle: the “editor-in-chief” of a journal. My work as an editor has always been to report to the editor-in-chief who makes the final decisions. So I recommend a paper be revised/rejected/accepted with reasons, but the editor-in-chief communicates his or her decision to the author. As in the case of a reviewer or two, it is so nice to have another person to help work through decisions, in this delicate game of deciding which papers make it or not.

It takes a special kind of person to be an editor-in-chief. The demands in terms of time alone are extensive, and editors-in-chief generally have other scientific work to attend to besides their editing job. He or she has to be a real renaissance person, able to evaluate many different scientific fields and work with many different people and navigate so many challenging issues. So for me, part of the joy of being an editor has been the opportunity to work with these remarkable people, like Curt Daehler with Pacific Science and Jon Marshall with Weed Research who do an amazing job despite the tremendous challenges that beset them.

Last updated Jun. 15th, 2012 at 9:16am by David Clements