The invisible hands that help shape intellectual inquiry deserve credit

Marquard Smith believes the editors of academic journals have played a key - if underappreciated - role in improving research quality

March 19, 2009

The research assessment exercise results are in, and some reports have raised concerns about "grade inflation". They suggest that RAE panel members have been too generous in awarding research the top grades. I disagree. I believe the high volume of world-leading research identified by reviewers can be attributed in part to a hitherto unacknowledged factor: the invisible labour of journal editors.

Think about it: if every article and book published travels, as it should, through a rigorous multi-step refereeing process - blind refereeing by peers, thorough referees' reports returned to authors, authors willing to heed good advice - then the quality of the material should be high.

Yet there is a strange reticence to acknowledge journal editors' labour in this process, as if doing so would break the spell, admitting as it would that academic research, writing and publishing does not appear fully formed, as if by magic, in a journal for dissemination.

This is why it is worth remembering that editors don't just "prepare the ... work of another", as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it.

Rather, they are committed to fostering an intellectual community, shaping disciplines and new fields of inquiry, by making choices about what should and should not appear in the public domain, what is and is not worth the public's attention.

Academics, scholars, upper management, funding councils and research councils should care about what journal editors do. After all, they are a linchpin in the future of academic research and publishing across all disciplines.

This is because journal articles will remain the gold stars of research, especially in the STEM (science including medicine, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. With the projected arrival of metrics and citation indices, this will become even more obvious.

Journal editors are aware of this, and that the fruits of our labour benefit others. Being published is a factor in hiring and promotion; it bestows esteem on individuals as they contribute to their departments' research culture; it adds prestige to institutions; and it is clearly tied to securing research funds.

Ultimately, our labour plays a key role in shaping the future of research, knowledge and understanding in the academic community and beyond. All of this points to the existing and increasing burden of responsibility placed on journals and, by extension, their editors.

Despite this, our labour is largely invisible. Most of us have full-time jobs as academics in universities, and we work on journals "in our spare time". It is unlikely that an institution will acknowledge our efforts with any kind of remission. It is not as if the recent RAE recognised editing as a significant activity in itself. And there's rarely any pay.

So are there ways to make this labour more visible? Intellectually, it is worth remembering that we also care passionately about advancing the collective body of knowledge. We are committed to discussions about how and why research is conducted, supported and given a certain legitimacy as it is disseminated in the public realm via the journals we edit.

On a more operational level, we are well placed to contribute productively to ongoing debates about the forthcoming research excellence framework, peer reviews, metrics, citationality, the European Reference Index for the Humanities and their implications.

Conceptually, it is also worth proffering the idea of the editor as cultural producer, as the "author of their authors". This view is put forward by Roger Conover, editorial director of the MIT Press, the commissioning editor of more than 1,000 titles in art, architecture and visual culture, and responsible for commissioning and managing numerous prestigious journals.

Conover writes: "I think of publishing as a fundamentally curatorial practice, that is to say, it is about the selection and placement of texts and ideas in relation to other texts and ideas. Someone once said that the best editors are the authors of their authors - framing, shaping, conceiving, commissioning and creating lines and encounters between books (and we might add articles), rather than merely processing manuscripts. The curatorial, authorial role of the editor as a cultural producer is underarticulated in our society."

It is for these and other reasons that I have brought together a group of editors of interdisciplinary journals in the arts and humanities, and why we have set up a Network for Editors of Interdisciplinary Journals.

Any takers? If we do not do it ourselves, we will be leaving it up to the managers and the bureaucrats. And we would not want that, would we?

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