Are academic or professional editors the best for journals?

Which is the better option when it comes to running academic journals – the professional editor or the academic one? Rachael Pells analyses the pros and cons of each

November 8, 2018
Editors having a discussion around a table
Source: Getty

If you’re emotionally needy, you should probably avoid journal editing. While would-be authors make a show of chummying up to editors at conferences, they are quick to badmouth them behind their backs when that editor rejects their manuscript or asks them for multiple revisions.

And resentments can linger. In a straw poll conducted for this feature, nearly half of the 162 self-selecting respondents (48 per cent) said that they have been put off from making submissions to a particular journal as a result of negative relations with an editor.

For centuries, academic journals were all run by scholarly societies and edited by the independently wealthy gentlemen amateurs who made up the vast proportion of scholars and scientists. But although research has long since gone professional, most journals are still edited part-time by practising academics on what is in effect an amateur basis, since their salaries are paid not by the publishers but by universities and research organisations.

Hence, academic editors’ first priority is likely to be the success of their own research programmes. And this leads some authors to question their motives, biases and attention levels. To their harshest critics, such editors are too busy and bound up with their own research to acknowledge much value in papers that adopt very different approaches or reach contrasting conclusions to their own – and are not averse to delaying or rejecting manuscripts either because they want to publish the ideas they contain before a competitor does, or because they want to damage a critic.

So are full-time, professional editors a better solution? According to Aileen Fyfe, professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews and an expert in scientific publishing, these were pioneered in 1919, when Nature began paying its second editor-in-chief, Richard Gregory, a salary in return for concentrating most of his time on the title. And they are now common in the more prestigious scientific titles, such as the Nature, Science and Cell stables.

But many academics resent the power of such figures over their careers. Professional editors typically have PhDs and perhaps some postdoctoral or industrial experience, but are unlikely to have run their own labs. Critics claim that they therefore lack both scientific judgement and gravitas, and are only interested in “sexy” papers likely to boost their journal’s public profile and impact factor.

Are any of these criticisms justified? And, if they are, which of these two editorial evils is the lesser? As the open access movement and the reproducibility crisis threaten to impose big changes on academic publishing, now could be a good time to reassess that question.

One gripe about academic editors revolves around the question of economic justice, which is one that also animates the open access movement. If research is paid for largely by public and charitable sources, and if publication is largely overseen by academics on university time, why should research organisations also have to buy access to the resulting papers? Or, given that they do pay for that access, why should journals not pay their editors?

“The academic publishing system has long been like the bumblebee – it should be incapable of flying, but somehow it manages,” says Stuart Macdonald, editor of the journal Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation. “Not only do [academic] editors work for nothing, but so do authors and referees. This makes sense only as long as they can all feel that they are contributing to some common good: the ‘invisible college’ that academics used to talk about.”

It appears that many academic editors do feel that they are making such a contribution. Several of the contributors to a recent Times Higher Education feature on academic editors (“Ringmaster, juggler and tightrope walker”, 14 December 2017) speak of their pride in making a difference to their fields.

Moreover, of the 72 people who answered the question in THE’s straw poll, 56 per cent believe academia is, on balance, best served by academic editors, against 22 per cent who prefer professional editors.

Academic editors, for instance, are deemed marginally more likely than professional editors to resist unreasonable demands from reviewers for extra work on a manuscript (46 per cent took this view, against 42 per cent who opted for professional editors) and marginally less likely to be unduly swayed by a big-name author or reviewer (43 versus 40 per cent).

One UK head of department explains that “someone still actively engaged in research is likely to have a better grasp of what the reviewer’s request will actually entail”. However, she believes that both kinds of editors can be swayed by big names: “An academic editor needs to measure that big name’s potential impact on their career. A professional editor working for a commercial publisher needs to measure the potential for sales of/clicks on/citations of papers by a big name.”

Respondents also believe that academic editors are much better at coming to sensible decisions when reviewers strongly disagree on a paper’s merits (61 versus 26 per cent), recognising scientific importance (76 versus 13 per cent) and, most of all, recognising scientific rigour (80 versus 16 per cent).

For Adrian Kavanagh, deputy head of geography at Maynooth University in the Republic of Ireland, academic editors “have the subject knowledge, which a non-academic will not have, and an academic editor – or editorial board – can inject a publication with a certain degree of prestige, which can be crucial for the smaller or less-read journals”.

A professor of biology in Australia adds that academic editors are better at judging scientific rigour because “although professional editors were once postdocs, the field of research usually moves very rapidly and it would be difficult to appreciate what may be required when not researching actively in the area”. He adds that “professional editors lean more towards topical research and do not always see the scientific importance of a piece of work”.

Meanwhile, a biology professor in Nigeria believes that academic editors better understand “the difficulties involved” in carrying out rigorous research, and are “more sympathetic to any shortcomings”.

But Christopher Marrows, professor of condensed matter physics at the University of Leeds in the UK, believes that while academic editors might be better at recognising scientific rigour, “this is really a job for peer reviewers, not editors”. And, on recognising scientific importance, he thinks that professional editors have the edge because they “see more papers and are more aware of the topics at the forefront, and are less likely to have pet topics or bugbears”.

Professional editors are also favoured when it comes to managing conflicts of interest. Nearly a quarter of respondents (23 per cent) answered yes to the question: “Have you ever suspected that a paper had been held or rejected due to a conflict of interest from the editor?” And more than half feel that professional editors are better at managing conflicts of interest among reviewers, against 34 per cent who think academics are.

The UK head of department points out that an academic editor may have to collaborate with the people whose work they are considering in future, “so may have a conflict of interest themselves in terms of how the matter is resolved”.

Moreover, 78 per cent of respondents think that professional editors are likely to be the least personally conflicted when making editorial decisions, compared with just 14 per cent who think academic editors are.

“The professional editor sees better what works and is likely to be less biased than the academic one, who thinks that knowledge begins with him and ends with him,” says Ram Krishna Singh, a retired professor of English at the Indian Institute of Technology Dhanbad. “As it is, most of academia – at least in India – lacks objectivity, broadness of mind and openness of ideas. [It lacks] character and integrity as well.”

A senior lecturer in social sciences in Australia describes academics as “jealous and bitter” – although she adds that such characteristics have a silver lining since they make academic editors “good at picking out problems”, so increasing the rigour of published papers.

The supposed failings of professional editors were one of the main stated reasons that the journal eLife was launched in 2012 by research funders the Wellcome Trust, the Max Planck Society and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (more recently, backing has also been provided by Sweden’s Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation).

When the journal was announced in 2011, as a rival in biology to the likes of Cell , Nature and Science , Sir Mark Walport, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, who was then the Wellcome Trust’s director, said that “the process of science peer review needs to be owned by professional scientists” in order to curtail the “endless iterations of nit-picking” typical in review processes overseen by professional editors. Robert Tijan, then Howard Hughes president, added that these publishing delays were the result of professional editors’ lack of “scientific wherewithal” to overrule peer reviewers’ requests for further data and experiments.

He added that professional editors’ obsession with boosting their journal’s impact factor and media profile led them to favour potentially paradigm-shifting discoveries. “But very often what happens in complex biological systems is that the first few papers are wrong,” he noted. “Interest wanes…when, in fact, the best science is done two years down the line.”

Unsurprisingly, eLife’s editor-in-chief, Randy Schekman, agrees with this analysis. “Though I have respect for individual professional editors, I think, in general, that they are ill-equipped to make the critical decisions that result in what gets published,” the professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley tells THE.

“These people are…in the business of selling magazines,” he says. “As a result, they are fundamentally conflicted in judging which papers should be published because they are always looking for buzz. They are looking for things that are going to generate citations and they are less willing to gamble on what may result in long-term scholarship.”

A former editor-in-chief of the multidisciplinary journal PNAS, Schekman has “been approached by academic referees who are offended at the way [professionally edited] journals operate, in overruling decisions simply because they think something is going to be popular and generate [media] interest. I think this is a very serious and negative trend.”

He believes that professional editors are “judged and promoted” on their ability to increase their journal’s impact factor: a measure of the average number of citations garnered by its recent papers, which was originally devised as a way for libraries to judge the importance of subscribing to journals. “And, of course, they succeed in increasing that phoney number…which has become a measure of scholarship when it was never intended to be,” Schekman says.

In light of what some are calling the reproducibility crisis in science, the issue of which kinds of editors are better at spotting mistakes is particularly apposite.

Of the respondents to THE’s straw poll, 47 per cent think that professional editors are better at this, compared with 38 per cent who believe academic editors are better.

Many respondents attribute the difference to the fact that professional editors – in theory, at least – have more time to devote to close checking. According to the UK head of department: “While a full-time academic should be better placed, a professional editor – where this is their only role, not a role performed on top of research, teaching and admin duties – may have more time and so more leisure to fully engage with a manuscript.”

That said, concerns about reproducibility typically focus on the top, professionally edited journals. A recent investigation undertaken by the Center for Open Science and published in Nature Human Behaviour, sought to test the replicability of some of the most significant social science findings published since 2010 in Science and Nature. The researchers reported a reproducibility rate of less than two-thirds (62 per cent).

The efforts follow mixed success in the centre’s previous attempts to reproduce prominent findings in psychology and cancer research. However, if top journals do have a particularly pronounced problem with reproducibility, that is unlikely to be because they are professionally edited, according to Brian Nosek, director of the centre and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

“The main difference between professional and academic editors is that the former tend to operate journals with a very broad reach,” he says. But “that in itself doesn’t change the incentives for editors” – which are always “to select the most important and highest impact work for the community of researchers that they serve”.

However, “Getting a paper into Science, Nature, or Cell can be a career-defining event,” Nosek adds. “As a consequence, I think it is more plausible that authors’ behaviour is affected by the difference between journals run by professionals versus academics” than by inherent differences between their editors.

That is, authors are more likely, for instance, to over-interpret results or to cut experimental corners in pursuit of the kind of landmark results that will attract the attention of the top journals.

When eLife was first announced, Philip Campbell, who was then editor-in-chief of Nature, insisted that his journal’s selection decisions were informed purely by scientific excellence. Nature editors all “think and act like scientists”, given their scientific backgrounds. But a “fast, efficient publishing operation” required professional editors, he said.

That view is seconded by Magdalena Skipper, who replaced Campbell in July (Campbell is now editor-in-chief of Nature ’s parent company, Springer Nature). For her, the biggest advantage of professional editors is that “they don’t have another job. They don’t have other demands on their time.”

And in contrast to the common criticism that professional editors are disconnected from the scientific community, their relative leisure actually gives them more time to read papers, attend conferences and visit research organisations, she insists. This arguably gives professional editors a greater ability to “situate a paper within a broader perspective”.

Skipper argues that the professional editors hired by large journals also do a service to the rest of the sector by developing ethical policies that are then adopted by smaller journals “once they are developed and honed” – although she acknowledges that the process could be improved if such journals “came together more often and collectively shared the benefits of what we’ve developed”.

She also subscribes to the view that not having any skin in the scientific game makes professional editors less conflicted: “Whether a paper is published or not is not going to affect our own [career] progression…Fairness is something that we all strive for continuously. It’s what everyone wants. I think that makes us less biased as professional editors – although I don’t imply that all academic editors are biased.”

As for the claim that professional editors are conflicted by their professional obligation to maximise impact factors, she dismisses that as “completely 100 per cent untrue”.

Editors on typewriters


In the humanities, professional editors remain virtually non-existent in Europe, and increasingly rare in the US, according to a spokeswoman for the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. And Ann Hughes, professor of early modern history emerita at Keele University, suggests that humanities scholars would not embrace professionally edited journals since “academic editors with professional support are…better able to judge what may be highly divergent expert reviews”. However, she is “beginning to wonder whether this is a conservative view” since, she admits, “sometimes [academically edited] journals favour entrenched views and established scholars over new and controversial ideas. So a more detached arbiter of the reviews might have advantages.”

On the other hand, academic editors’ relative independence from publishers allows them potentially to sail a little closer to the wind regarding the publication of contentious papers. Macdonald’s Prometheus, an interdisciplinary journal known for its controversial topics, recently got into a wrangle with its publisher, Taylor and Francis, over the publisher’s concerns about the legal risks associated with publishing a series of papers on shaken baby syndrome. Had Macdonald been a professional editor, he believes, the edition would have been dropped and he could have been sacked. As an academic editor, he had extra protections because the publisher had learned from previous experiences that such a move could have prompted the entire editorial board to walk out.

But the limited power even of academic editors was underlined when, instead, Taylor and Francis simply dropped the journal, obliging it to look for another publisher. Macdonald also admits that the extra autonomy that may come with working with a university press instead could be a double-edged sword given his lack of commercial acumen: “The business side of running a journal is beyond me and I am having to take advice,” he admits. “I can edit; I cannot manage.”

Even academic editors who confine their activities to core editing roles could eventually find themselves overwhelmed, some observers believe, given universities’ rising demands regarding teaching and research performance. And this situation is exacerbated by the rise of online journals, with unlimited space available at no extra cost.

In such a world, “people’s imagination runs wild as to what we can publish”, notes Martin Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, and co-founder of the online, academically edited humanities journal Open Library of Humanities. “The labour of editorship seems to increase exponentially”, and professional managing editors will therefore play an ever more “crucial” role in the future even of humanities journals, Eve predicts.

“It remains the case that, often, academic expertise is required to balance conflicting views in referees’ reports and so on,” he says. But “keeping on top of review deadlines, chasing reviewers and authors, and ensuring production works” is “a lot more work than most academics realise”.

St Andrews’ Fyfe has noticed that several academically edited journals in her field have recently appointed co-editors, which, she thinks, “marks a realisation that one person will have trouble doing all the work. There is also a trend towards paid help, but it’s often only one editorial assistant, often on a part-time basis – which is probably all that a small learned society can afford.”

Many respondents to THE ’s survey note that it is hard to give a definitive answer on whether academic or professional editors are preferable. For instance, a UK medical professor notes that professional editors’ efficacy depends a great deal on their terms of employment. “Good professional editors with an academic background and proper resources are the best for academia. Underpaid underskilled professional editors with an eye on metrics are the best for journals – and not academia,” he notes.

And many respondents express the view that good editors are distinguished more by their personal abilities than by their contractual status. In both categories, a UK professor claims, “good editors are rare”.

Skipper, for her part, has asked academics, in conversation, whether they prefer professional or academic editors. “And it varies,” she says. “Some people say: ‘At least I know that a professional editor will read my paper.’ Others say: ‘I’d much rather have an academic editor because I know the first person who will read my manuscript is a specialist in my field.’”

Her conclusion is also that there is no definite answer as to which kind of editor best serves scholarship.

“To me, a healthy ecosystem is one in which there is diversity: where you have some choice,” she says.

But Schekman remains convinced that the commercial imperatives to which professional editors are subject make academic editors clearly preferable.

“I know it costs money to run a journal and we at eLife have had an advantage because we have had powerful organisations to back us,” he concedes. “But, going forward, we will inevitably become self-sustaining. It’s not necessary to go to the commercial models to flourish.

“That said, I am a capitalist. I believe in free enterprise. If Elsevier or Springer Nature make a better product, then power to them.”

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Reader's comments (3)

.... which option ? no matter which , the face of the art ( the publication ) in the end will be in the image of those who breath the last words into the art. ... academic or professional editors . Simplistic thing to say perhaps but in my opinion not far from the truth. What about professional editors at the apex of a pyramid that peaks through academic ones ? Basil Jide fadipe.
This article assumes a binary choice - either academics or 'professionals', by which is meant 'employees of the journal' . But what of a third option: an editor and/or an editorial board representing the stakeholders, the users of research - that is to say the people in the world outside, who are the ones in need of usable knowledge? Having been myself for some years the editor of an academic journal on housing, health and social care, by far the best judges of the quality of a paper were the board members who worked in housing, health and social care. As did I. Not in every subject, to be sure. Pure science, maths, literary criticism even, there must be many walks of life where there is no such identifiable ''user group'. But where there is?
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