Journal editors are like gods – but I would rather be a mere mortal

The nectar of power and prestige is sweet, but modern editors have to swallow an embittering volume of hard graft, too, says Adrian Furnham

December 6, 2023
Montage of statue of Poseidon sitting on heaps of paper
Source: Istock montage

We are all painfully aware of the centrality of publication to the academic enterprise. We take heavy blows to our self-esteem every time we receive one of those infuriatingly perfunctory rejection letters. I once received an even more infuriatingly long letter – longer than the rejected paper – from a meticulous, possibly obsessional, editor trashing my argument in excruciating detail.

But we soon learn that editors are gods, whom we must avoid making angry by accusing them or their reviewers of being incompetent (even if they are).

So how does it feel to be divine? I don’t have direct experience. I have been on various editorial boards, but that does not count. However, I know a number of editors in different disciplines, so I do have some insight into life on academia’s Mount Olympus.

It certainly has its pleasures. Some editors enjoy real power to shape their fields, accepting papers that favour their particular ideological and methodological preferences and rejecting those that don’t. We have no doubt all experienced the dramatic changes in preference that can follow a change in editor. I have friends who started their own journals – mainly, a cynic might say, to publish their own (unpublishable) papers.

Editors can also build powerful patronage networks via their influence on who is invited to join editorial and society boards. A friend likens it to a Ponzi scheme. Have you noticed the way people sidle up to top editors at conferences? All so political.

Over late-night drinks at such events, editors have also spilled the beans about the darker pleasures of editing: the ability to neutralise or take revenge on enemies – of whom most academics have many. One has a reviewer who is viciously dismissive of all papers and always recommends rejection: he is assigned topics and approaches that the editor doesn’t like. Another editor I know simply desk-rejects all papers from an opposing school of thought.

Editing can sometimes deliver a nice salary top-up, too. For an early-retired don I know, a single editorship is worth half his pension, and friends go to “exotic destination” conferences, all expenses paid, on their journals. And the general kudos of editorships also counts in promotion and selection: academics know what an achievement it can be to lead a major journal.

However, a friend who has been an editor on four prestigious journals suggests that the kudos struggles to compensate for the burden of responsibility in this social media age, replete with predatory and fake journals that give the whole publishing enterprise a bad name.

The job is remorseless. With the increased pressure to publish, many journals have experienced a massive increase in submissions; during a very dreary keynote a few years ago, an editor friend sitting next to me illustrated this by enabling a muffled ping from his computer every time he received a paper. I was truly shocked. No wonder it is not difficult to detect the “cut-and-paste” in editorial responses.

Moreover, articles often go through several rounds of review, rendering the editorial task akin to coaching or advising. And if the journal is not prestigious or well endowed, all this voluntary work – which unavoidably eats into time for other tasks, such as your own research – is undertaken primarily to support a discipline or a society.

Then there is handling the complaints. One editor friend notes that authors quite often have a higher opinion of their papers than the reviewers do and create a lot of noise when rejected. It doesn’t help that getting reviewers who even minimally fulfil the concept of “peer reviewer” is so tricky now. My friends often have to approach 10 or more, but I know from my own experience that academics are overwhelmed with requests: I get about 40 a month and have had two papers returned to me because editors could not find enough reviewers.

Hence, editors have to be grateful for anyone prepared to do the task, however junior, incompetent or biased. This only increases the chances that the reviewers disagree. Studies suggest that the level of overall agreement is (unacceptably) low, and, as my psychometrics lecturer said, what is unreliable can’t be valid. Editors then have to play the difficult role of referee, potentially incurring the wrath of both authors and (disregarded) reviewer.

Many academics often forget the commercial pressure that editors are under, particularly in the pay-to-publish open-access era. Rejecting too many papers reduces revenues, a clear sign of madness to the entrepreneur. I have also heard of publishers obliging editors to accept more papers from certain countries or expressing certain ideologies. The message seems to be: keep up standards, but make more money and be politically correct.

From my perspective, the editing game is not worth the candle. As for whether I admire or pity those who do take on the role: it depends. I spend a lot of time cussing, arguing with and occasionally being obsequious to them when it might help my case, but I’ve also come across quite a few editors I deeply admire and respect.

Apart from being sharp-witted and broad-minded, the key criterion is to take on the job for the right reasons. Dictators, misanthropes and crooks should content themselves with making their immediate colleagues miserable, rather than their entire field.

Adrian Furnham is professor in the department of leadership and organisational behaviour at the Norwegian Business School in Oslo. He is grateful to a number of past and present editors, as well as others, for comments on this piece.

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