In whose name are all these articles printed?

September 15, 2000

Editors of academic journals should work for their readers, not their contributors, says Catherine Jones Finer

Do academic journal editors matter? Or should they merely be seen as administrators of paper-selection processes already laid down? Or should both concepts of editorship be encouraged to coexist? These are urgent questions that need answering.

There used to be as many styles of editorship as forms of academic journal, to the extent that the latter were free to differ in the ways they sought and responded to potential readers and would-be contributors. This variety is now under threat from the pressures on the independent sector to follow ever more closely the norms of practice of a "sponsored publication".

A journal sponsored by a discipline-based academic association is expected to serve primarily as a prestige, peer-reviewed publications outlet geared to meeting the needs of the association's members. A journal without such sponsorship used to be presumed freer to respond to the interests of its subscribers by striving to produce issues each worth reading in its own right. In reality, the so-called independent sector has come to include journals anything but independent editorially.

Many recent creations are little more than products of a fruitful agreement between groups of enterprising academics and compliant publishers (or vice versa) to fill in ever more precisely defined gaps in the contributors' market by offering more peer-reviewed outlets for publication. Hence the multiplication of sub-specialisms, wherein successful contributors can be sure of addressing readers if not of a like mind, then at least of a comparable mindset. It is hardly a recipe for readability in any generalised sense.

What price the article addressed to a relevantly educated, but relatively broad-based, international audience? There ought to be a future for publications of wide-ranging appeal in this age of globalisation, but it is scarcely one the British academic establishment seems geared to encourage.

Should "boring" or "incomprehensible to non-experts" constitute legitimate grounds for rejecting an otherwise peer-approved article? What should count as "peer" for purposes of assessment? The mere fact that an editor can ask such questions, however rhetorically, is indicative of the state of uncertainty affecting the academic journals industry and its editorial profession.

The emphasis has for some time been tilting away from the interests of readers to those of contributors. Any journal operating according to the conventions of peer review - an intrinsically conservative process - can expect to be pressured by would-be contributors, especially in the period leading up to whatever may be the next equivalent of the research assessment exercise. Editors who assert their right to disagree occasionally with referees' verdicts, or to add to these comments of their own, or to decide publication priorities in the interests of their journal, are liable to find themselves in a tight corner.

The balance has also been tilting away from the interests of journal editorship per se, to demands for publication by rule, if not decision-making by committee. This is not to underrate the traditional role of editorial advisory boards in appointing and/or replacing editors, and in offering advice, suggestions and necessary points of criticism regarding the conduct and content of a journal. But pressures towards a more rule-driven style of editorship are at odds with the notion of allowing an editor actually to edit.

Hitherto, there has been a relatively clear distinction to be drawn between academic editors operating because they wanted to be editors and those who had volunteered or been elected for a spell at the job as part of a normal career process. The latter tended, understandably, to have rather more "procedure-based" views of the editorial process and of the demands it should be allowed to make on their time.

It is the class of "dedicated" editors that now seems most at risk. Their status as editors is, from the point of view of the RAE, uncertain. Their burdens of correspondence can be expected to grow, at the same time as hard-pressed university teaching departments evince less and less enthusiasm for funding such a questionably worthwhile activity to the extent of freeing up a member of staff to serve as sole editor of a journal.

Editorial job-share is one way to address these problems, but it carries the risk of team editorship by formula. Social Policy and Administration, which I edit, is trying to get round this problem not by sharing but by dividing its editorship between two categories of issue: "regular" (in response to papers spontaneously submitted) and "special" (commissioned by subject and/or region).

As one journal's response to pressures on editorial independence, this may work. There can, however, be no wider-ranging solution without a fundamental reappraisal of the role of academic editors and how they are financed.

Catherine Jones Finer is editor of Social Policy and Administration. Details: http://www.blackwell publishers.co.uk/journals/spol/

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