Why Would Anyone Want to Be a Journal Editor?

Wayne Journell explains why, despite the opportunity costs, there are some real rewards for taking on this type of work and describes some of the qualities of successful editors.

January 10, 2023
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R. Preston McAfee, former editor of The American Economist, once wrote, “I’ve spent a considerable amount of time as an editor. I’ve rejected about 2,500 papers, and accepted 200 … Fortunately, there is some duplication across authors, so I have only made around 1,800 enemies.”

He said it in jest, but as an editor myself, I’ve found some truth behind it. Editors wind up delivering more bad news than good, which can certainly strain relationships and create awkward moments at conferences.

Being a journal editor is also a lot of work. Even when done poorly, it can take up a considerable amount of time that could otherwise be spent on one’s other professional responsibilities or trying to achieve that work-life balance everyone dreams about. Also, while some editors may receive a stipend for their work, it usually is not much, and there are certainly easier ways to earn extra spending money.

Thus, it’s often not immediately clear why anyone would voluntarily agree to take on this type of work. But despite the opportunity costs, there are some real rewards for doing so.

The Benefits of Editing

First, editing is powerful. The real true power in editing comes in the ability to shape the scholarly direction of your field. Editors are gatekeepers. For authors, that gatekeeping role is inherently personal, which is why editors often get characterized in a negative light—they often fail to understand that the true responsibility of an editor lies in how the scholarship published in a journal moves a field forward in new or significant directions. But the fact is that when research of poor quality or middling interest to the field makes it into the pages of a journal, it is, at best, a waste of precious page space that could be given to stronger, more dynamic research and, at worst, damaging to a field of study. This gatekeeping function is of particular importance for the top journals in any given field, where the research published has the potential to influence policy and significantly shift the orientation of the scholarship within those specific disciplines.

Indeed, journal editing is a form of professional citizenship, and in most cases, an editor’s influence on the field via editing will exceed that of their personal scholarship. As of this writing, my journal has published over 120 articles during my editorship, many of which have become highly cited pieces in the field of social studies education. More important, all of them look substantially different from when they were initially submitted. The editing process is what leads to the final, published articles that influence policy makers and get cited by other scholars. The quality of research in any given field is beholden to this behind-the-scenes work of editors.

There are other intrinsic motivations for becoming an editor. Editing provides an opportunity for you to work with authors and engage in scholarly mentoring. Although negative interactions with authors do happen, they are rare. Most of the time, authors are usually grateful for feedback on their work, even if their manuscript is rejected.

This mentorship aspect of editing is especially important when dealing with novice scholars. It does not take much time editing a journal to realize that many doctoral students are not being adequately taught how to write scholarly research articles. In those cases, editors can be pivotal to a scholar’s professional development. Few aspects of editing are more rewarding than taking a chance on a rough initial submission from a junior scholar and helping them mold it into a solid manuscript that’s ultimately accepted for publication.

Moreover, for good or bad, editors are noticed, and there is inherent professional value in being a recognizable figure within your field. Being a journal editor, particularly of a top-tier research journal, is prestigious, and it likely leads to more publication opportunities, as well as invited talks and panel sessions at conferences. And for those academics still navigating the tenure track, it often is a compelling argument for promotion.

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It’s also arguably the best scholarly professional development you can receive. Helping others remedy deficiencies in their manuscripts inevitably makes you more aware of weaknesses in your own work. Also, few people are going to be as knowledgeable of their field as the editors of a top-tier journal. You will be privy to new trends in the field before anyone else, which can also stimulate ideas for your own research.

Opportunity Costs of Journal Editing

At the same time, there are some professional opportunity costs of journal editing, including those I’ve already mentioned, such as the potential for strained relationships with colleagues and less time for researching and publishing your own work. Becoming a journal editor can also narrow your options in terms of publication outlets, since publishing in the journal that you edit is a morally questionable practice. In larger fields with multiple top-tier journals, the loss of one journal as a potential publication outlet may not be a concern. But in smaller, more specialized disciplines, removing a prominent journal from consideration for your own work may be restrictive.

You should also be up front about your publishing limitations before engaging in collaborative projects. You don’t want to prevent junior faculty members or graduate students from publishing their work in your journal.

In addition, committing to serve a term as a journal editor may keep you from taking advantage of other professional opportunities. While it is theoretically possible to hold an administrative position like department chair or dean while editing a journal, it is not advisable. Although journal editing requires many of the same skills as university administrative work and could be considered good preparation, editors often have to choose one or the other.

Qualities of Successful Journal Editors

Before accepting a position as a journal editor, you should also recognize that it requires a person who has certain dispositions. Besides having scholarly expertise, a successful journal editor must be:

Organized. Journal editing is ideal for type-A personalities who adhere to deadlines, are responsive to emails and can manage time effectively. As long as you stay on top of the workload, journal editing is manageable. But if you fall behind, it can become almost impossible to dig out of that hole, because the submissions never stop.

Staying on top of the workload requires understanding that journal editing is not something that can be regulated to once or twice a week. Chances are you will need to spend at least some part of every working day doing editorial work. On some days, that work may only take 20 to 30 minutes (e.g., checking for tardy reviewers and sending reminders); other days, it may take an hour or two (e.g., reading submissions, assigning reviewers, writing desk rejects, promoting articles on social media). And occasionally it may take an entire morning or afternoon (e.g., writing extensive decision letters).

Being able to plan ahead is also essential to being a successful editor. Submissions tend to come in waves—the end of summer and winter breaks, the end of semesters, and immediately following conferences—which means that your editorial work also comes in waves. Doing an initial read and selecting reviewers when a manuscript is initially submitted does not take that much time. The time-consuming work begins weeks later when all the reviews come in. Therefore, you must plan ahead—both for your work on the journal and your teaching, research, service and personal obligations.

Ideologically open. Editors are scholars who come to the position with a well-established research profile and certain expectations for what constitutes quality scholarship. It is impossible to completely divorce yourself from those beliefs, but at the same time, you must understand that the journal is not yours. For the health of the field, you must remain ideologically open to frameworks, methodologies and concepts that deviate from those with which you’re comfortable or believe to be correct.

Visionary. Editors also need to approach the position with a vision of what the journal could become. That vision could pertain to the types of manuscripts that the journal publishes or ways in which the journal could make a greater impact on policy. Thus, you must be willing and eager to accept change. Taking an editorial position to maintain the status quo does little to push a field in new or significant directions.

Empathetic. As an editor, you should never forget the feeling of having your own manuscript rejected and try to maintain an empathetic tone with authors. Getting rejected is a reality of academe, but it should not leave authors feeling demoralized. Especially for doctoral students and tenure-seeking faculty members, a rejection letter that also highlights the strengths of the manuscript can go a long way toward maintaining their confidence as a scholar.

You should always remember that authors are heavily invested in each of their submissions; in the publish-or-perish atmosphere of academe, one publication may make the difference when it comes to promotion and tenure. As such, emails asking, “Can you give me a status update on my manuscript?” or “How long is the typical review time for this journal?” can get annoying, but they are understandable. While it may be tempting to respond with a snarky comment like, “You will get a decision once the reviewers actually submit their responses,” a kinder response will help assuage authors’ fears and increase the likelihood that they submit future manuscripts.

That empathetic tone should also transfer to interactions with potential authors. Some will ask you to look over abstracts, or even full papers, to see if their work might be a good fit for the journal. While no editor has time to give all potential manuscripts an initial read, if an author emails politely and sincerely, it is usually worth giving the abstract or manuscript a cursory read to at least see if it is within the journal’s scope—albeit with the caveat that you cannot guarantee acceptance without the manuscript undergoing peer review.

Good mentors. As I noted earlier, editing has the potential to improve the scholarship within a field, but only if an editor wants to engage in that type of mentoring model. Writing decision letters that not only evaluate the merits and limitations of a manuscript but also offer suggestions for how authors can improve their craft takes considerable time and energy. You should be willing to embrace the educative potential of your position and, in many cases, serve as the scholarly mentor that many faculty members did not have in their doctoral programs.

Strong writer. One lesson that editors quickly learn is that just because someone has received a doctorate and written a dissertation does not mean that they use proper grammar or sentence structure. Moreover, if you are editing an international journal that receives submissions from authors whose mother tongue is different than the language used by the journal, many of those international submissions need quite a bit of work in terms of language conventions. So you’ll need to be a good writer yourself.

You’ll also need to have strong copyediting skills. Editors are the first copyeditors of accepted manuscripts, and that responsibility often requires rewriting portions of a manuscript in order to make it grammatically correct.

Thick-skinned. Just as authors need to learn to not take criticism personally, so should editors. It is a popular practice for scholars to complain about their publishing experiences on social media, and often those experiences are exaggerated or misinformed. Authors may, for example, gripe publicly that an editor rejected their manuscript because the journal is not accepting of a particular methodology, framework or ontological perspective when, in reality, the reviewers told the editor privately that the manuscript was simply not very good.

Similarly, it can be frustrating for an editor to hear that a journal refuses to publish certain topics or is not welcoming of diverse perspectives when they know that the journal has simply not received many submissions in those areas. In such cases, you will have to stay silent and just absorb the criticism. Unfortunately, that type of restraint comes with the job. Trying to contradict such criticism is often a pointless endeavor, as much of the evidence that editors have at their disposal is confidential.

To sum it all up, editing a journal is clearly not for everyone. But given all the benefits I’ve also described, it can be a very rewarding experience for those scholars who have the right dispositions.

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Wayne Journell is professor of social studies education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and current editor of Theory & Research in Social Education. This article is adapted from his just-published book, Becoming a Scholarly Journal Editor: Practical Advice for Editors and Tips for Authors (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).
 

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