Side-gigging as an editor taught me why academics are despised

Many academics exhibit an appalling degree of exceptionalism and entitlement – and an inability to complete even basic tasks, says Kate Eichhorn

June 24, 2021
Vintage newsroom with academic in the centre symbolising conflict between editors and academics
Source: Getty/iStock montage

For most of my career, I’ve maintained at least one side gig. Recently, I have been working as a developmental editor for a global publishing company specialising in reference books.

Editing thousands of encyclopedia entries on topics ranging from fuzzy set theory to multi-species research has made me a more well-rounded scholar and a better trivia quiz competitor. Being on the other side of the desk, so to speak, has also helped me to appreciate why most people despise academics.

I’ve always enjoyed my work as an editor. I also like my editing colleagues, all intelligent, good-humoured, hard-working and considerate individuals. Unfortunately, most of my contact isn’t with them but with the contributing academics – who know me only as an editor and are often all too eager to let me know that, in their eyes, I’m much further down the food chain than they are.

Consider, for example, the following exchange. I returned an entry to an established social scientist and asked him to add first names for first references to all proper names. His reply read as follows: “You must be a complete idiot! Otherwise, you’d know that no one ever does this in a publication.” In fact, he had been given a style guide upon signing the contract.

Distasteful encounters aren’t limited to academics with seniority. Over the years, I have also had my fair share of unpleasant exchanges with graduate students and junior-level scholars – although in their case, procrastination and neglect, rather than outright arrogance, seem to be the most common problems.

Before working as an editor, I was offended by at least some of the stereotypes about academics (“those who can’t, teach”, etc). I now realise that most of them are grounded in fact. Many academics do exhibit an appalling degree of exceptionalism and entitlement. They also exhibit a surprising inability to complete even basic tasks. It is common for scholars to take weeks and even months to respond to short email queries (such as a request to verify the spelling of a proper name). When they do answer, their messages are often ridiculously inconsiderate.

On dozens of occasions, scholars have told me in earnest that they can’t attend to a few minor edits for the next three months because they are currently teaching two courses or, in the case of graduate students, taking two courses. I’m tempted to write back and let them know that if teaching or taking two courses consumes all their time, they probably need a new career! But, of course, I don’t. As an editor, it’s not my place to offer sage advice to junior colleagues.

What is most surprising is how readily academics unleash this bad behaviour on the professionals upon whom they are most dependent. After all, editors are a vital part of the academic ecosystem. This is why they are regularly invited to academic conferences: to share essential advice on how to get published.

The problem, in my view, is that there are few consequences for academics who behave badly during the editorial process. But this doesn’t mean we can’t choose to change. Here’s my advice to academic colleagues across fields who want to turn over a new leaf.

First, assume that the person editing your work is just as smart as or smarter than you. They nearly always have subject expertise on top of specialised publishing knowledge, and they generally hold at least one graduate degree. More importantly, treat them as your equals. Remember, actions speak louder than words.

Second, understand that style guides aren’t random lists of rules that editors compile to make your life miserable. They ensure consistency and are developed in consultation with subject experts. So when you disregard them, you’re riding roughshod over the collective expertise of both professional editors and your own colleagues.

Third, realise that your procrastination and neglect impacts others. When you fail to respond to emails or you submit materials or revisions months late, it has a ripple effect. You may hold back the publication of a journal or collectively authored book or create a gap in a publisher’s seasonal catalogue. Worse, since developmental editing and proofreading are often done by freelancers who may be able to invoice only for finalised work, your failure to sign off on an edit may prevent them from being paid for work they have already completed.

Fourth, start taking responsibility for the slow academic publishing process. You don’t have to look far to find articles by academics complaining about the glacial pace of academic publishing. Working as an editor, I’ve concluded that academics – both authors and peer reviewers – are largely to blame.

Finally, and most importantly, take a moment to imagine a world without publishing professionals. Who would help us produce and distribute our research – usually of no interest to a general readership and holding little market value – if all these professionals went on strike?

Academics who treat publishing professionals poorly are a bit like teenagers who complain to parents about their free lodgings and food: immature and appallingly ungrateful. You know what the parents say next.

Kate Eichhorn is an associate professor and chair of culture and media studies at The New School in New York City.


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Reader's comments (11)

Although I recognise the traits portrayed in some of my colleagues, I have to say that they are a minority in my (UK) experience. There are many of us who abide by the rules and deliver on time so this article does not help us at all. In my university, one can appear to "get away" with many things but they will rear their ugly heads in promotions. You may not get fired for everyday bad behaviour but you certainly will not progess.
There's no excuse for talking down to people in other trades. However, the audacity of complaining that academics aren't quick enough to respond to demands from profit-making publishers that they provide extra free labour. Especially, when that labour brings no benefits to the academics whatsoever! We work for free, you reap the benefits, don't expect us to prioritise this work at the expense of our students or research.
I would like to echo the comments of Steve C posted on June 24th - we do peer review for free, receive requests to turnaround revised manuscripts in a ridiculously short time span, and are inundated with requests for peer review. Our institutions do not recognise this activity towards progression and promotion - I do it because I feel it is my professional duty, and also because it forces me to stay up to date with the literature as I double check things. Finally, I will say that judging from some editor's comments, they don't always know the current state of the field or understand the research being presented - and can be quite rude. Are there prima donnas in the academic world? Of course there are, as there are in the editorial world. Let's save despising for truly despicable traits.
Just some of the reasons they are despised.
As an editor (unpaid) for several journals I have experienced the difficulties described by Kate Eichhorn, but actually very rarely. Of the difficulties, the most common is unpredictable delay. However it is useful to remember that there was a time BC (Before Computers) when routine departmental and institutional bureaucracy was dealt with speedily and effectively by departmental secretaries. The advent of desk top documenting 40 years ago meant that departmental secretaries were phased out as unnecessary expenditure and academics increasingly did their own administration associated with their research and teaching. My estimate is that this gradually increased their workload by, say, 15-25%. Curiously, over the years as the intra-departmental administrative assistance was reduced, the institutional administrative bureaucracy ballooned, and the tasks they created became more complex and more onerous. My guess is this, frog in the cauldron style, increased administrative demands on academics nby an additional 15-25%. So I have some sympathy for their delays in responses to my missives! But, concerning these problems raised by Kate Eichhorn, has anyone recently dealt with government offices? Or utility companies? Or tradespersons?
One thing that would help authors follow the style of a journal would be consistent author guides that are simple and easy to follow. Many guides are clearly made of copy-pasted patches that not always fit and are very cumbersome.
Some authors are annoyed by (usually very small) mistakes introduced by the editors during the publishing process. Such mistakes appear often, since we cannot expect editors to be experts in whatever special subfields that each author is working in. Of course there is no excuse for rude behaviour with editors (or anyone else really), and academics should behave like adults. However, I would like to point out that from the point of view of an academic, all the actual hard work is provided for free to the publishers. Peer review is voluntary, research is supported by government grants and universities, and so on. For an academic, publishers are just a printing press to get your work out there, to get a stamp of approval from a respected publication that you can then put on your CV. This is especially true in fields such as mathematics and physics, where people don't read journals for the latest work, they read arXiv. This is not to say that there is not a lot of hard work involved in publishing (there is), it is just a fact that most academics don't have any reason to care. "Finally, and most importantly, take a moment to imagine a world without publishing professionals. Who would help us produce and distribute our research – usually of no interest to a general readership and holding little market value – if all these professionals went on strike?" Probably by academics employed by universities, and there are some publications which work like this. Reminds me of that scene from the Simpsons, "Can you image a world without lawyers?". Also if you look at the insane amount of money that Elsevier, Springer, etc. are making from work that is provided to them for free, I think the "market value" is pretty high!
I'm going to echo many of the other comments on here... it's pretty rich to have someone working at a press complain that the unpaid intellectual laborers whose work sustains that business model are not sufficiently grateful or working fast enough. And 'despise'... such a word. There is a peculiar strain of academic self-hatred running through Western academia at this point, one which I struggle to understand. Does the author actually think that academics are generally despised - and if so, does this generate any self-reflection about membership in a profession so despicable?
Reference books and encyclopaedia entries? I would have thought most academics in the UK would, because of the REF, be being actively discouraged from contributing to such things.
"Many academics exhibit an appalling degree of exceptionalism and entitlement – and an inability to complete even basic tasks", says Kate Eichhorn. And the higher they climb the greasy pole the worse SOME get, but by no means all do, by far the worst habit is their propensity to talk down at lower/non-academics, especially on subjects not in their professional remit.
Click bait ("despise"!) from someone paid to deal with precisely the problems outlined, doubtless created by every type of author under the sun. Don't like creative and overworked people? Work somewhere else.