An editor’s job is to make judicious decisions about what to publish and what to discard.
In the media, these decisions are rarely life-changing for the authors – although they can be, as recent events in Turkey have emphatically illustrated.
In Times Higher Education’s case, while it may not be pleasant to inform an enthusiastic contributor that their lovingly crafted essay on the iniquities of marketisation is neither original nor well argued, there are ways of turning down a pitch without anyone feeling worse off for the experience.
In any case, the piece often turns up 24 hours later elsewhere – not all commissioning editors are as discerning, and editorial judgements are inevitably subjective.
In academic publishing, however, the decisions made by journal editors are far more explicitly linked to the professional prospects, hopes and dreams of their would-be authors.
Publication in a top journal is career-defining for individuals, and editors also play a major role in determining the direction of scientific progress.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the credentials of the editors making these decisions are scrutinised, and this week we look at the question of whether journal editors who are active researchers best serve the interests of science, or whether it is better left to the professionals.
The argument from purists is that only leading academics in a field have the necessary knowledge to stand in judgement over the work of their peers. But there are flaws in this logic.
Academic expertise is highly specialised, and while a lifetime’s work may make a professor the most qualified person within their particular rabbit hole, they may have little detailed knowledge of other branches of the warren.
A professional editor, who typically will have a PhD and may have moved across to the role after completing some postdoctoral research, could be just as well placed to take a view about the merits of a paper in the majority of cases – and perhaps have a more objective overview of the wider field.
They will almost certainly have more time to do their job than active researchers who edit on the side.
A professional editor’s arguably broader but shallower expertise could be particularly relevant for the most prestigious science journals, where many submissions suffer desk rejection.
But even if a paper does go out for review, there are alternative perspectives on what an editor’s background might bring to the table.
Research is a cut-throat business, so a level of professional objectivity could be invaluable when it comes to making decisions about conflicting peer review reports, for example.
On the other hand, it might be argued that only someone steeped in the research would know who was playing an underhand game to protect their own research interests, and have the gravitas to disregard a particular reviewer’s advice.
So are researchers who view professional editors as “failed postdocs” who are too interested in sexy papers that will garner media attention and improve their journal’s impact factor simply embittered?
We surveyed THE readers on the subject, and the results are set out in our cover story.
The question of who should stand in judgement, ruling on the value of research, is also relevant at an earlier stage in the research process: the point that funding decisions are made.
This has been illustrated vividly in Australia in recent weeks, following a furore over a secret ministerial veto (first reported by THE) of a number of humanities research projects.
This was followed by a controversial proposal by the current education minister, Dan Tehan, for a national interest test to “improve the public’s confidence in taxpayer-funded university research”.
The response to the vetoing of research projects by politicians was met with a united response from Australian vice-chancellors, who wrote an open letter warning that “expert review is the cornerstone of merit-based research systems around the world”.
Of course, professional editors are much closer to being scientific experts than politicians are.
But perhaps some of the complaints about them stem from a similar premise: that, in the end, only active academics have the expertise to make appropriate judgements on academic matters.
Ultimately, the argument may be moot – professional editors are a necessity for journals that publish every week and receive hundreds of submissions between each edition.
Moreover, as many of our survey respondents observe, while it may be possible to generalise about the relative merits of professional and academic editors, in the end it comes down to the individual. A good editor is a precious commodity, whatever their background.