Among the more thankless tasks in god’s creation is that of the editor. Authors of scholarly materials rarely acknowledge their debt to their editors and may even resent their perfidious scrutiny of their texts. Readers don’t understand the editor’s role — understandably, perhaps, as it is largely invisible to the reader, who imagines him or herself in direct communion with the living spirit of the author. Our current cultural aversion to anything that smacks of authority or authority structures (this too shall pass — or we will) puts editors into the crosshairs, as they have come to represent the gatekeeper and, hence, the oppressor: It’s as though there were a coherent conspiracy to set self-reinforcing standards for the ruling class. Where once we had Maxwell Perkins, now we have a pigeon-flecked statue of Columbus torn from its pedestal.

temple of zeus

The current war against scholarly editors takes many forms, but the most deadly are (a) conflating editorial work with peer review and (b) starving organizations for the money they need to maintain significant editorial operations. I say “maintain” advisedly: there is to my knowledge no effort underway to initiate an editorial operation of the kind we see at, say, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) or Science. Editorial operations of that kind could only have come into being in the past and those that persevere today owe their existence to their early origins. Indeed, even the work at NEJM and Science, to cite just two of the truly prestigious brands in STM publishing, is regularly derided by opponents of “bench” or “desk” editing as “subjective.” Peer review is sufficient; no need to bring in the gratuitous comments of editors who are not working scientists (even if they were trained as scientists). It would take a dramatic change in the climate for people to understand the word “subjective” not as “not true” or “not based on empirical evidence” but as “point of view.” The subjectivity of an editor is a hypothesis; the experiment is the act of publication; the results are measured in the marketplace. Viewed in this way, Nature and The Lancet have proven themselves to be brilliant hypotheses.

While advocates of traditional publishing often criticize open access (OA) publishing as lacking in editorial standards, this is not necessarily so. Green OA has the same editorial standards as the traditional publications that provide the articles for a Green deposit into a repository. Gold OA is a different matter, however, as the “author-pays” aspect of it limits the payment to what the traffic — meaning the author or his or her benefactor — will bear. Kitchen readers have heard me make the point about the average revenue per article before: If the journals industry has combined revenues of $10 billion, and the number of articles published each year is around 2 million, then the average revenue per article is about $5,000. In an all-Gold world, publishers with revenue greater than $5,000 per article (which includes every one of the most prestigious journals) are highly exposed, especially when some Gold publishers charge as little as $1,500 per article. Thus in a dystopian future where Gold OA dominates, there will be insufficient revenue to cover the high editorial costs of the most distinguished editorial operations. The accelerating decline and fall of the editor can thus be laid at the feet of BioMed Central, which pioneered the Gold model. Of course, not everyone will be unhappy if editors find their next career as a Starbucks barista.

Which brings us to the agencies that support Gold OA by tying OA to research grants. Why would such organizations take steps that would lead to the undermining of outstanding editorial programs? There are three possibilities, the first of which is Hanlon’s Razor. Hanlon’s Razor states that one should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Then there is the cynical view: how galling it must be to back a researcher with a large sum of money only to see the high-impact journals reject the papers that grow out of that research. Distinguished publishers, in other words, hold grants officers accountable — and who wants to be held accountable? The cynics among us suspect that funding agencies are leading the war on editors, with the aim of reducing scientific publishing to content marketing: articles become content that promotes the brands of their tax-advantaged funders. Finally, we have the Law of Unintended Consequences, whose realm is boundless. In this view (which overlaps with Hanlon’s Razor) the funding agencies are attempting to do a good thing, but don’t appreciate that their actions may serve to weaken the strongest and most distinguished editorial franchises.

I find it hard to take a generous view of the funding agencies because of the way they report their finances. A clear illustration of this was published a while back on the eLife blog. This explanation of the cost of publishing research is financially illiterate, accounting only for marginal costs and leaving out fixed costs and overhead. But, hey! who’s counting? Not including fixed costs and overhead is akin to saying that the cost of delivering higher education consists of the sum of the hours an instructor actually spends in front of a classroom. I was amused to see that eLife’s analysis now has company in the Trump administration, which is proposing cuts-that-are-not-cuts to the NIH research budget. How can this be done? Why, by not reimbursing for overhead. If this action were to be implemented, it would reduce NIH funding by about one-third, resulting in the closing down of many research projects and putting many a postdoc on the street. But again, who’s counting?

Putting Gold OA into the hands of funding bodies has the practical effect, whatever the intentions of the agencies, of making more robust editorial operations seem terribly overpriced. This why there are no new plans to create such editorial shops and why we may someday live in a world without them.

Theoretically, there is a way out of this. Post-publication peer review, by whatever name, could take the place of the editorial work that in the traditional model occurs prior to publication. And it makes a certain sense: let’s have the community at large evaluate publications. The problem is that there is to date no strong economic model for this, though organizations such as the Faculty of 1000 and Publons are trying to change that. Unless and until there is developed a strong, widespread service with solid economics, post-publication peer review (I would prefer to call it “editorial appraisal”) will not supplant the work that we now associate with our finest publications.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


29 Thoughts on "Decline and Fall of the Editor"

Editors may be losing significance as you note, but I’d argue that editorial work itself doesn’t follow suit. It shifts from pre-pub to post-pub, and gets distributed across an entire readership instead of a single editor or board bearing the burden alone.

That’s not to say that ‘anyone can be a journal editor’, but rather that the very act of choosing what to read is a legitimate editorial process; just on a personal level. The principle applies to post-pub peer-review, too, as long as a reader is sufficiently self aware of his level of expertise in relation to what he’s chosen to read.

You forget that once published even if retracted is still cited and believed by those who want to believe the retracted article. Witness the immunization debate or fluoride!

To mix metaphors, post publication review is no way to run a railroad!

No doubt about that… but the Wakefield debacle just goes to show how unreliable pre-pub editorial and review processes can be even in the most prestigious jornals, doesn’t it?

Doesn’t post-publication peer review lend itself to the vagaries that come with publisher’s liability? It seems especially vulnerable when you consider the rather consistent occurrence of ethics violations. While many of those violations may not be scientific in nature, enough are that I’d hate to see an even less-curated avalanche of unsolicited — and, at least some times, heavily publicized — post-publication activity occur before a particular article’s falsehoods and manipulations are revealed. Of course, avalanches occur today, but who knows how much faster and heavier they become in a world without pre-publication editorial work, not to mention where the responsibility will lie for stopping them or cleaning up after them?

I think that this is a great defense of the valuable work that Editors and high quality Editorial programs do and a stark warning of how they might suffer in the future. If lost then the absence of their contribution will surely be felt.

Esposito is right to distinguish peer review from editorial tasks. The issue, however, is that, in STM publications at least, elegance of style and language do not count nearly as much as the clarity of the exposed elements of a scientific article. The latter concern – clarity – falls in the corner of peer review.

Personal experience has also shown me how poor publishers can be when it comes to editing. I once used the Latin phrase “annus mirabilis” to describe a certain phase in the development of the Internet. Some “editor” at IOS Press thought that “anus mirabilis” was much more appropriate… And I was given no chance to correct the galley proofs. This said, typos become important only when they create opportunities for confusion.

And what do people think of the editorial work at Scientometrics? Is Springer so concerned about its bottom line to skip editing altogether, if we are to trust the results in this particular publication?

In trying to improve and optimize the process of scientific scholarship, let us concentrate on what is crucial for true communication and debate rather than scapegoating APC-Gold (i.e. Gold in Esposito’s imperfect terminology) for bad editing. Poor or inexistent editing was present much before Open Access.

Let us also remember that a good writing style is difficult to achieve for everyone, but particularly for those whose native tongue is not English (I know…). On the other hand, peer review, when it is well done, will easily handle clarity. If something is not clear, it is not acceptable; if something is clear, but not adroitly addressed, that is simply too bad!

What is crucial is the general usefulness (and this includes access, of course) of the published research results, not the “quality”, whatever this means, of particular journals.

Science needs good communication channels. In the digital era, these communication channels will ultimately look very different from journals. In 2017, defending the journal form is starting to look like defending the scriptoria in the late 15th century in Western Europe.

À bon entendeur, salut ! (= salutations to those who listen and understand well).

I was not talking about editorial style but editorial judgment. The best journals have superior judgment, which comes from their editorial program. Judgment makes the journal, and peer review is only one small piece of it.

Esposito writes: “The best journals have superior judgment, which comes from their editorial program. Judgment makes the journal, and peer review is only one small piece of it.”

Here is something truly extraordinary. May I inquire where this thesis comes from? The judgment of journal editors is largely conditioned by the quest to increase impact factors, i.e. increase visibility in a particular club of journals which also claims to be made up of “core” journals. The obsession is such that even the 3rd decimal is considered relevant to this “judgment”. Prestige, sexy problems, and the like, underpin many editors’ judgment. If that is what makes a journal, as Esposito claims, this means the journal is only viewed as a marketable commodity, not as the adequate vehicle for optimal scientific communication.

Let us make a small thought experiment: what would hurt a journal more? Lack of editorial judgment, or lack of peer review? In the former case, we would end up with something equivalent to PLoSONE; in the second case, we no longer have a scientific journal.

For further thoughts on this issue, some readers may want to check out the following:, a recent lecture by Richard Smith.

It is the consistency of impact factors over time that refutes your argument. For the record, I am not suggesting that only high-impact publications are worth anything. I advocate a pluralistic environment, but we are moving to a Gold OA monoculture.

The “consistency of impact factors”? In the first place, impact factors vary, sometimes wildly, from one year to the next; secondly, if they remain somewhat consistent, they simply demonstrate the “staying power of power”.

As for the “Gold OA” monoculture, I suspect you mean, once more, APC-Gold. This is faulty terminology. Non-APC Gold also exists, as well as repositories developing peer review capacity (and other services).

Presently, we have the oligopolistic mono-culture of the big, multi-national publishers, and, thanks to OA, we are beginning to see the advent of a new, multi-faceted, culture.

APC-Gold, IMHO, is ultimately doomed because it opens the door to rogue journals. See my essay for BOAI15 on the BOAI site.

My last comment on this thread. “The staying power of power” is what is meant by an institution.In scholarly communications these are good things.

I am delighted to see you confessing that, in your opinion, institutions exist only for power’s sake. I will remember this, and will probably quote you to this effect some time in the future. Thank you again.
Straw man. This is the fallacy of refuting a caricatured or extreme version of somebody’s argument, rather than the actual argument they’ve made. Often this fallacy involves putting words into somebody’s mouth by saying they’ve made arguments they haven’t actually made, in which case the straw man argument is a veiled version of argumentum ad logicam.

We have now reached back to times before print, deep into scholasticism… Forgive me if I find myself chuckling.

I particularly love Crotty’s appeal to the critique of logical structure of the argument (argumentum ad logicam). If my critique holds, it may indeed be possible to mount a different argument that will ultimately prove a thesis held by Esposito. If that is the case, I am waiting… Meanwhile the thesis appears very vulnerable.

As for the strawman argument, it requires claiming the possession of a discriminating criterion of the sharpest variety to distinguish between the “actual” and the “caricatured” argument. On what basis can one make such a claim confidently?

I would merely suggest that there is a difference between these two statements:

“The staying power of power” is what is meant by an institution.


Institutions exist only for power’s sake

If you are unable to differentiate between the two, then this is unlikely to be a productive conversation.

If institutions can be defined as the” staying power of power”, then it means that they cannot exist without power, and, therefore, a primary concern for it as well.

Poorly conceived distinctions can also be unproductive.

This will be the end of my participation to this thread.

Again, these two statements mean very different things:

Institutions exist only for power’s sake


they cannot exist without power, and, therefore, a primary concern for it

Joe’s post and the comments so far focus on the role of the journal editor, but the concern expressed here is equally relevant in the world of academic books. The work of the “acquisitions editors” on the staffs of university presses and other academic publishers is similarly poorly understood and in many cases hard to quantify. But the study of monograph costs by Ithaka S&R reveals that acquisitions editorial activities can account for almost half the cost of a scholarly book. While not every manuscript needs heavy editorial intervention, at its best the work of an acquisitions editor can be crucial in nurturing the work of an author whose voice might not otherwise be heard. If BPCs are set too inflexibly at $10,000-$15,000 there is the same danger of squeezing book editors out of the picture for all but the most tradey of titles, depriving some authors who need an editor most. Only if the possibility of higher BPCs for certain, editorially-complex, books is recognized can what is often a precious function be preserved in an OA environment.

Well, Joe Esposito consistently creates the most though-provoking posts. But many of these comments seem to reflect a “let’s let the market decide” perspective. Neo-liberalism hits the scholarly journal. Open access will guarantee that those with the cash publish and get published. Outsiders will remain outsiders. (And I’ve seen these clouds from both sides now). But, in the end, excellent publishing will remain in the hands of excellent editors. How many of us have actually had an online or print textual community improve our work *after* publication? Come now. That blue-sky dream is really a statement that the market alone speaks. I remain convinced (by long years of experience) that in the long run, writers, not indifferent readers, will decide, and those publishers who produce excellent work — and that means excellent editing — will survive. Yes, the press of mediocrity will take the path of the least common denominator. So be it. Down with expertise. Anybody can edit. Hail the new order! But all new orders turn out to be very short-lived. So keep in touch with some good editors. You will need them before the end.

Conversely, how much meticulously edited and carefully curated work goes unread or read by few at best? If it’s any significant proportion, that’s a lot of quality editorial work wasted then, isn’t it?

This again is instrumentalist, market-driven thinking: quality and attention wasted? The emphasis on product seems to miss the point. Scholarly communication is as much process and textual community as it is final delivery. The digital held out the promise of this community — once — but it has sadly been kidnapped by the same corporate mindset that has destroyed most of middle class culture in the USA: aggregated, streamlined, obsessed with the end result. Care, attention and immersion in one’s work is the core of the arts, humanities and sciences. If we forget that, we are headed for nothing but puffed-up trumped-up mediocrity (over worse).

I agree with the author and a previous commenter that there is a paucity of editorial oversight in both journals and in book publishing. I would, however, like to point out that a good editor is invisible and that the job is not always thankless, but can be very rewarding (particularly if you are not one that is inclined to be in the limelight).

Joe, I doubt your calculation with regard to the “dystopian future where Gold OA dominates” and the conclusions therefrom because of two reasons:
1. If there is a higher value in publishing in Science than in any BMC journal then there will be people which ar willing to pay for it. Not all cars have the same price tag of, say, $30,000. Some are sold for as low as $10,000 while others are sold for as high as $100,000 or even $1,000,000. Where is the problem?
2. The well-above-average APCs of Science etc. are mainly due to their high rejection rates. If you would calculate an article submission price instead of an article publication price, BMC journals and Science would be rather close to each other. That means vice versa that if people would actually consider Science’s APC too high and therefore lower the number of submissions, the workload would reduce and henceforth the APC could be lowered as well.

It is utter gibberish. Tis goes to illustrate the unspeakable pride of so many “scientists” who have arrogated themselves to be the regnant priests of whatever field they happen to toil in. The comments after the article are especially telling. The line :
“Peer review is sufficient; no need to bring in the gratuitous comments of editors who are not working scientists (even if they were trained as scientists)….”
This is laughable at best, catastrophically offensive at worst. Pride and entitlement on display. Love the Hanlon’s Razor analogy !!

Robert, I believe you’ve mistaken an ironic aside for a genuine assertion. It appears to me that Joe was parodying this attitude, not embracing it.

I am always amused at some of the articles that Joe publishes in SK. Never sure if he is just trying to get our attention. Certainly there are many great editors still laboring with many of the best scientific publications. Try telling Dr. Drazen at NEJM or Dr. Bauchner at JAMA that they are not working scientists, both physicians are world class in their own right. Look at the editors of Annual Review publications, again a blue ribbon group of researchers. There are many high quality publications that have rejection rates above 90% and that is due to the editorial oversight. I think the scientific community still values high quality research and post peer evaluation is a step backwards at best. However having both Green and Gold Open access is a good service and gives many authors who have been rejected by a traditional STM journals an opportunity to still get published. Each year there are hundreds of thousands of articles that are rejected by NEJM, AMA, Lancet, Springer and Elsevier and yet many authors if not most will still find a publication home.

What is meant by “editor” in this article reflects only one role in scholarly publishing. By using that term Joe is mainly focusing here on the work that journal editors do, and those editors are almost always faculty members, not employees of the publishing company. The opposite is true in book publishing. Only for book series do faculty members play a similar role. The main editorial role is performed by acquisition editors who are members of the publisher’s staff. At presses that publish journals some of those editors may be involved in the acquisition of new journals, but that is where their role begins and ends; they have no ongoing part to play in journal publishing. In book publishing they perform the same role as journal editors in reviewing submitted manuscripts and making decisions about whether to pursue external review; if they do, they then choose who the reviewers are. But book acquisition editors play a much greater role thereafter, representing the book and its author to the rest of the publishing departments, including production and marketing. They may also play one on nine roles I identified in my essay on “Listbuilding at University Presses: Few if any of these roles exist for journal editors. Moreover, acquisition editors have a complex relationship with faculty editorial boards, which operate in ways differently from the editorial boards of journals. Joe knows all this, of course, but chose not to address the other meanings of “editor” or these multifaceted dimensions of the job as it exists elsewhere in publishing. As for copyeditors, they may or may not be employees of the publisher; the trend has been to outsource this work more and more. Contrary to what Joe seems to imply, though, both copyeditors and acquisitions editors are often thanked for their help by authors, as any perusal of the Acknowledgment sections of books will show.

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