Some Notes on Editing a Scholarly Journal

Cartoon by Amy Kurzweil

I haven’t posted anything here in a while. The pandemic, changes in the social media ecosystem and a heavy workload have kept me away from this blog. I had forgotten I had handwritten these notes in one of my notebooks and I thought I’d type them up and share them here. They are based on my personal learning as a journal editor for over a decade. As personal notes lifted from a paper notebook they are unedited*, biased, imperfect and incomplete- they are not meant to be a manifesto nor a ‘hot take’. The repetitions are intentional. Implementing any learning is hard, and it’s been interesting to revisit these notes. We are all in a process of becoming and continous learning. I have many more handwritten notes on my notebooks from previous years that I may, or not, also share here eventually.

  1. Editing is hard. It is a specialised skillset. Online/’electronic’ publishing, including editing, require constant reskilling. Editing is not rewarded in the same way authorship is rewarded. Without editors, there would be no publications. Editors are, most of the times, authors themselves. There are more authors than editors because most authors are too busy being authors to dedicate their time to work on other authors’ work.
  2. Openness is hard. It requires both a specialised skillset and dedicated infrastructures and workflows. Openness poses challenges. Professional scholarly publishing cannot be done over Word and email alone.
  3. Workflows, policies and guidelines are important. Publishers and journals are not neutral ‘platforms’- they represent, embody and enact values. Explaining why workflows, policies and guidelines matter ensures fairness and robustness.
  4. Getting workflows, policies and guidelines right is hard. Processes need to be streamlined to reflect increasingly heavy academic workloads and the structural inequalities of global academia. Most current processes assume privileged circumstances. Streamlining processes and, where necessary, allowing more relaxed timeframes should contribute to improving equality and diversity. Quality assurance, however, must be mantained. Streamlining processes is not about taking shortcuts. “Quality” is not an objective measure but guidelines seek to standardise content according to collective knowledge and agreed conventions. This knowledge and these conventions are expressions of specific epistemologies and cultural paradigms- geopolitics play a role. These can and must be interrogated but that takes good will, time and collaborative work. Guidelines cannot be changed ad hoc midway through a process.
  5. Reviewing is hard. It is a specialised skillset. Being a researcher or having a PhD does not guarantee we will know how to review or assess the work of our peers. Being a researcher or having a PhD does not mean we will know how to react to peer review. There is not always training available, or else it is not well distributed. The same applies to giving feedback. Emotional intelligence is a skill that must be developed.
  6. Communication skills are not a given. Technology adds manifold challenges to the complexities of written and verbal communication, including but not limited to how to read tone; how to be kind without being patronising; who to keep informed and when, and how.
  7. Collaboration is hard. Teams need to develop trust. Empathy cannot be taken for granted. Individual contexts (time zones, career stages, gender, culture, language, personal circumstances) need to be factored in. There needs to be clarity of purpose, shared values, respect, as well as a shared understanding of their definitions. Academia, in practice, privileges expertise in a domain knowledge sometimes at the expense of other important so-called “soft” skills. Practicing strategies learned from areas such as relationship systems intelligence and organisational development would benefit us all. Successful collaboration requires the will and the skill to create intelligent teams. See point 6.
  8. Academic culture is competitive and increasingly hostile. A scarcity mindset prevails. Good will between everyone involved is required. The motivation must be to help each other to “make contributions to the field”, not to gatekeep for gatekeeping’s sake. Whatever your role, it’s not just about you. Scholarly publishing should not be a competition, but in practice it is, and it’s up to each and everyone of us to tackle that. How to do that is not straight forward.
  9. You need at least two to tango. Publishers and journals get a bad rap and are blamed from most of scholarly publishing’s ills (for example, how long it takes to get published), but every stakeholder plays a role. Authors and editors (and reviewers) need to develop empathy for each other (see point 7). We are all on this together, not against each other. We need each other.
  10. There is considerable emotional labour in scholarly publishing. This kind of labour can be reduced if the stakeholders play by the rules/follow guidelines. To avoid bias, the personal and the professional must be distinguished even when we agree both are always-already interconnected. This is also why we need policies.

*I usually find typos in subsequent readings once a post is published, so I reserve the right to lightly edit this post several times after its original publication to fix minor issues.