Editors have become so wayward that academic authors need a bill of rights

Time-honoured standards of professionalism appear to be unravelling. Authors should be entitled to demand better, says Harvey Graff

August 18, 2022
A woman  signs a giant banner to illustrate Editors have become so wayward that authors need a bill of rights
Source: Getty (edited)

I began to publish in scholarly journals in 1971. For almost 50 years, I thought I understood what journal editors did. My certainty, along with my confidence in professional roles and processes, has evaporated.

I described some of my recent  unprofessional experiences in a Times Higher Education article in June. Since then, I have had two more. The first began when a journal’s co-editors told me that the short argumentative essay I had submitted did not fit their journal but recommended that I forward it to their blog.

I did that, but more than a month later, they rejected it for a roster of contradictory reasons. I asked a series of clear questions three times over several weeks before they replied that the blog editors were (apparently unsupervised) graduate students, who were in the process of rotating. Rather than answering my questions, the editors offered to revise my essay themselves, for blog publication. Surprised, I accepted.

However, after two stated deadlines passed, they suddenly announced that “the unanimous feeling of the Advisory Board members who responded...is that the submitted piece is not appropriate for the journal [note: not the blog] and that it does not warrant the additional effort of revision [that they themselves offered]”.

To complete their breathtaking unprofessionalism, they added that although they would read any reply, they would “not respond in kind”. I requested that they respond, not “in kind” but professionally and honestly. I have heard nothing.

The next experience began when I enquired about the suitability of submitting four short, thematically linked essays to a European humanities journal. The editor immediately expressed an interest but asked me to revise them into one essay. I did so.

After more than six weeks, an assistant editor sent two “reviews” with a brief statement saying that “based on the review reports, the manuscript is not suitable for publication…Significant revisions or new data are required.” No further details.

Of the reviews, only one stands as a scholarly review. It offered constructive suggestions for stylistic and rhetorical improvements and recommended publication without qualifications. The second was scathing but gave no examples to document its wholesale condemnation. It criticised my treatment of a recent “book” that is actually an opinion essay, and it accused me of excessive “self-referencing” and being “self-congratulatory”.

Given the assistant editor’s request for resubmittal, I promptly revised in accord with the constructive advice. Based on my experience, I asked for an in-house editorial review to replace the unprofessional one. But the confirmation of receipt fallaciously stated that they had received two “negative reports”, and then the assistant editor went silent.

When I contacted the editor I was told the assistant was “on holiday” and that the editorial board had rejected my “submission” (actually, a revised manuscript). I requested a full explanation immediately. I am still waiting.

There was no Golden Age for academic periodicals. Time and support for editors were always limited; excellence in reviewing was never the norm. However, among the many editors at every variety of journals I have encountered, the greatest number have sought to influence positively and advance both scholarship and career development. It is only recently that I – and many colleagues I have spoken to – have begun to witness such unscholarly conduct.

Is it too much to declare that we need a Scholarly Authors’ Bill of Rights? For discussion, I propose the following – to be endorsed and enforced by disciplinary organisations, academic associations and university and publishers’ groups.

  1. Journals should provide clear information about their scope, mission and any specific or current interests.
  2. Journals should provide submission sites that are accessible and consistent – and workarounds when they are non-functional.
  3. Journals should have established policies for the roles and qualifications of editorial and advisory board members. Editors must meet stated criteria for selection and undergo training and/or internship.
  4. All submissions must be promptly acknowledged, with an outline of steps to follow and reasonable time frames. Any out-of-the-ordinary delays that arise should be communicated openly.
  5. Editors and editorial boards must solicit the contributions only of reviewers who conduct themselves professionally and constructively and meet the minimum requirement of scholarly qualifications. Reviewers who breach standards may be entered on to a blacklist.
  6. Editors must discard unprofessional reviews and commission replacements – unless the editor or a member of the editorial board has the background to judge the submission personally.
  7. Editors should be open to collegial discussions with authors about reviews and publication decisions.
  8. Editors should respond professionally to legitimate questions and consider asking authors to revise and resubmit, rather than rejecting outright.
  9. Reviewers should never accept an invitation outside their areas of expertise.
  10. Reviewing must be accorded the status of professional service and receive appropriate acknowledgement in performance reviews.

Let the debate begin.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. His Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is just published. He thanks Elizabeth Dillenburg for excellent comments and collegiality.


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Reader's comments (2)

I greatly appreciate Professor Harvey J. Graff's comments on journal editing. I have been an editor of major research journals for more than 37 years and during that time have edited more than 15,000 manuscripts. For 70% of that time I have been Editor-in-Chief. Hence, I have experienced the seismic shifts in academic publishing very much in the first person. In addition, for more than 40 years I have kept up a steady output of my own research work in journals in my field. Currently, I edit a journal that has a submission rate of about 2,650 manuscripts a year. I founded it in 2011 with the largest academic publishing house. I manage a staff of nine associate editors. I work on the journal every day, weekends and holidays included. I understand fully the frustrations of poorly managed journals and negligent or incompetent editors. Indeed, I have my horror stories about mistreatment of my own written work. All I can say to mitigate this is that, from an editor's point of view, one can keep some of the people happy some of the time, but not everyone always. Nevertheless, when I make editorial mistakes I try to apply corrections and learn from the experience. Evidently, not all editors do likewise. Lack of commitment to the editorial job is probably at the root of the problem: they want the title but not the workload. There is another side to this story. Over the last few years there appears to have been a huge increase in malpractice among authors. This includes plagiarism, duplicate submission and negligence in the submission process. Some of this is unintentional. There are authors who do not understand the academic publishing process (but they also fail to read the rules), and there are a few who make genuine mistakes. It is also possible that the increase is partly an illusion as the detection software has become much more powerful recently. On the other hand, this begs the question of what is going undetected. The list of would-be authors is, sadly, replete with chancers and simulators. About a third of the manuscripts I receive are out of scope or otherwise inappropriate to the journal and should never have been submitted to it in the first place. One in five submissions shows verifiable signs of plagiarism, which is fuelled by the ease with which a manuscript can be compiled by cutting and pasting pieces lifted out of other works. The bane of all of this is the shift from quality to speed of publication. I have had words with the publisher about this - for example, on the failure to catch basic errors as a result of the abolition of copy-editing. However, all that seems to matter is time-to-publication (which is always dogged by the shortage of article reviewers). At times I have wondered whether it is possible to found a 'slow journal'. We have slow food, slow cities, slow this and that - why not slow academic publishing? Perhaps it would fail on the grounds that scholars these days really do want everything to be speeded up, but surely some of us are dedicated to quality? One piece of copy-and-paste I don't feel guilty about is that I have saved for myself a copy of Professor Graff's author's bill of rights. David Alexander (UCL)
Thank you, David. This is a very astute and thoughtful response. May I add the following observation: A growing number of "career-minded" academics are happy to submit and publish their work in a journal but the same people then refuse to support the journal as reviewers or otherwise. Also, there is a dwindling pool of expert reviewers that multiple journals compete for. The “top-brass” tends to only support the “top journals” and aspiring academics focus their efforts there too. The administrative and procedural support from publishers for academic editors is rudimentary at best, the IT systems clunky, slow and difficult to use, and there is usually a high turnover of editorial and administrative/technical staff (not to mention the out-sourcing). Especially, the middle-ranking journals and more specialist journals that still uphold scholarly integrity increasingly struggle to maintain quality and standards for these additional reasons too. The peer-review-system – rightly or wrongly – relies on much good-will and decent academic citizenship. That is in short supply these days it seems (for understandable and obvious reasons).