In all the discussions about challenges in scholarly publishing, we are struck by the lack of attention to the work of editing. Editing is at the heart of scholarly publishing — it is the work that takes research into a legible, creditable publication. In Kent Anderson’s survey of 102 (and counting) “Things Journal Publishers Do”, he found that editors are engaged with at least 38. For smaller publishers, editors may be doing a much larger share of the total. For society publishers, where we see responsiveness to the community of researchers as mission critical, editorial work is mission central.

And yet “editing” is not necessarily well understood — in fact, there may be some erroneous assumptions about editing and what it contributes to journal publication. Authors may want to add “understanding the role of the Editor and editing” to the “Seven Things Every Researcher Should Know about Scholarly Publishing”. And any organization or individuals or groups interested in new models for publishing will absolutely want to understand the role that editors are playing in moving research into publication.  

pencil erasing the word "edit"

It is also the case that editorial work may involve a very different process for different fields and disciplines as well as for different types of publications. We thought we would offer here some perspective from our two very different vantage points, as directors of publishing in Civil Engineering and History, with journals that have different models and processes, from the society publishers we work for, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture. We suspect that there is even more diversity among other publisher models and other disciplines.

Key differences between our two organizations and the journals we publish involve scale (number of journals, editors, and papers) as well as process.

Scale and scope

ASCE publishes 35 journals with an output of around 4,000 technical papers, notes, and case studies annually. There are programs with far fewer journals that publish far larger page counts. The trick at ASCE is in managing 35 editorial boards and anywhere from 800-900 volunteer editors and associate editors at any given time.

The smallest ASCE journal receives 50 submissions per year with the largest receiving over 1,500. The workload of an editor or associate editor will vary depending on the title. Still, editors try to maintain an average of 6-10 papers per year, per associate editor.

The staff size for the journals program is relatively small with a team of six in the editorial department, aided by outside vendors that help oversee peer review.

Over the last 5 years, submissions to the ASCE Journals has increased 41%, providing new challenges in getting papers through the process quickly. While the acceptance rate across all 35 titles has held steady as the submissions have grown, a little over half of the papers submitted are sent out for peer review.

The Omohundro Institute (OI) publishes a single journal, The William & Mary Quarterly (WMQ).  The journal, the leading journal in early American history, began publication in the late 19th century and inaugurated a third series under the OI’s auspices in 1943. It joins a book publishing program (in concert with the OI’s publishing partner, the University of North Carolina Press), pre- and post-doctoral fellowships, and professional and public events (lectures, reading groups, seminars, workshops, and conferences). The journal publishes between 16 and 20 articles per year, and 12-15 book reviews per issue.

The journal’s staff includes an Editor, a Book Review Editor, Managing Editor, and two Assistant Editors. Usually 5 or more graduate students at William & Mary, the OI’s founding sponsor, serve as Editorial Apprentices.

Articles submitted to the WMQ  are approximately 10,000 words, plus extensive footnotes. This is not out of the ordinary for history journals. The acceptance rate has ranged from 8-12%. Submissions have been steady for the last decades, though the number of journals in the early American field has increased. Very few submissions, mainly those that are out of field, are not sent out for review.  

Editing Process

The ASCE content is obviously technical in nature, but still subject to different opinions on methods and best practices. Some of the journals have a very active Discussions and Closures process by which a reader can present a response to a paper published and the authors respond. The more animated Discussions require a masters in diplomacy for the editors.

Civil Engineers behave more like humanities editors than one might expect. They are a profession dedicated to precision and as such, review comments are typically very thorough. It is extremely uncommon for a paper to be accepted as submitted or even with what might be considered minor revisions on the original submission. Subsequently, the entire review process from submission to acceptance can be quite lengthy — about 7 months on average.

ASCE does not use terms such as major or minor revisions when sending out decision letters. Mostly a “major” revision will be recommended to go back to the original reviewers for a re-review. In these cases, the author rebuttal to reviewer comments is critical. Papers for which “minor” revisions are required are typically only reviewed again by the editor.

In most cases, a paper is submitted to an ASCE journal and after a staff quality check, is sent to the Chief Editor. The Chief Editor then assigns the paper to an Associate Editor. For the larger journals, there are also Section Editors between the Chief Editor and Associate Editor. The Associate Editor handles the review process and makes a recommendation to the Chief Editor who then makes the decision on the paper. Given that there are typically multiple versions of the paper, this can happen 2-3 times per published paper.

The Editor at the WMQ locates 4-6 readers for each submission. Reviewers are identified in terms of their specialty, but also in terms of the diverse perspective they might bring to a particular topic. Because historical work is generally diverse, and because the goal is persuasive interpretation rather than solely the identification of new information, it is not seen as a strength to have reviewers in the precise area of the research. It might be useful, for example, to have a reviewer who works on a particular subject (political rhetoric, say) for a different period than the essay in question. Or for someone who works with Native American and Indigenous Studies with a specialty in eighteenth-century New England to review a work about the Southwest. Locating a constellation of reviewers who can speak with authority to an aspect of the research, then, is a key aspect of the Editor’s work.

It is typical for a review to be 3-4 pages (single-spaced) in length, though much longer reviews are not uncommon. The process is double-blind, though some reviewers may choose to sign their reviews.

The office staff keeps authors updated every three months about the status of their essay, with an aim to have their work reviewed within three to six months. The vast majority of accepted essays are first rejected with an option to resubmit.  

One of the most important, skilled, and time-consuming jobs the Editor performs is writing to authors to summarize the reviews, and to suggest particular areas of their agreement or divergence, and then point to potential paths toward revision. These letters are typically 4-5 pages. Authors value this feedback, even if they ultimately have a negative decision and publish elsewhere. For us, this is really key — the publication itself is not the only product; the process itself is invaluable.

Reviewer feedback on ASCE journals is similar. There are certainly some reviews that are superficial in nature; however, editors are keen to then augment those reviews with a more thorough review. While ASCE policy requires two reviews, most of the editors prefer three reviews and it is not uncommon for there to be up to five.  

Similar to the process of WMQ, editors try to provide guidance to the authors in how to respond to reviewer comments. In the cases where the reviews are split on whether the paper should be accepted for publication, the editor is required to provide a summary to the authors explaining which parts of the reviewer comments the editor would like to see addressed. There can certainly be conflicting opinions and in those cases, the authors need guidance.

With about 70% of submissions to ASCE journals coming from outside the United States, there can be a significant amount of back and forth between the authors and the editors to improve a paper to a journal’s publication standards. Patience is needed on both sides to ensure that reviewers and editors are clear to authors on the clarifications required. Likewise, the authors must be careful to document their changes in a rebuttal document.  

Dedicated Time

What many readers of scholarly content don’t always know is how much time editors spend on journal content. With ASCE journals, this is extremely variable depending on the discipline of the journal and the submissions.

It is entirely possible for an editor handling 100 submissions to spend more time on journal content than an editor handling 1000 submissions. Generally speaking, the engineering editors are not re-writing the paper with the author (though there are lots of reviewers that apparently moonlight as copyeditors).

New editors of the larger ASCE journals are often surprised to learn that their number one task is managing their editorial boards. The Section Editors or Associate Editors are also contributing a significant amount of work and with 50 or 60 of them on a journal, so the management of that team is critical. The best editors understand this and ensure that they rotate people on and off the board as needed.

Generally speaking, new editors to ASCE journals have moved up the ranks from being a reviewer to an Associate Editor and then a Chief Editor. Succession planning has been an important aspect of what editors are expected to do. As such, new journal editors are typically comfortable with the process of editing. What takes them by surprise is the amount of time needed to be an editor.

Because at the OI we have one journal, we hire to that position, which is full-time and includes a faculty appointment at William & Mary, the OI’s founding sponsor. It has historically been held by a highly regarded scholar in the field (as is our Editor of Books). While the journal Editor works on the content and the contribution to scholarship that an essay may offer, what we might call developmental editing, the Managing Editor is the chief manuscript editor. This is more intensive than copy-editing, and because that position is also held by a person with training in the field, it includes more than corrections but an aim to fully elucidate complex points. Then our Editorial Apprentices check assertions of fact and sources. We did a breakdown some years ago of how much in house time it takes from submission to publication for a single article:  approximately 130 hours. That’s exclusive of reviewer time, and production time.  

The Product

An article in an ASCE journal has likely gone through multiple rounds of review and revision by experts in the field. What is most impressive are the number of volunteers who take the time to provide this feedback and mediate this process. These are individuals with a dedication to their profession, a profession that takes public health and safety very seriously. I can’t stress enough the importance that Civil Engineers put on the peer-review process.  

Despite the time invested in developing the work once it arrives at the OI, the essays in the WMQ have typically been read and commented on by scholars at multiple stages of development well before they arrive in the Editor’s inbox. Drafts are shared in shorter form at conferences, where commenters read them ahead and then offer comments and suggestions, or longer versions are pre-circulated to seminars.

In scholarly publishing of all types, criticisms of peer-review and the role of editors as gatekeepers of the scholarship can seem to be getting louder. Some envision a world where traditional journals are no longer needed and peer review happens haphazardly on the web. Some of the megajournals are already operating largely like this, with little or no editorial oversight.

The reality as it stands is that authors and readers still appreciate the feedback, the improvement, and the curation provided by the current structure. It may differ across disciplines, but it really should be up to each discipline to decide which process works for them.

Regardless of what the future may hold, peer-reviewed journals are still the gold standard, with the heart of the process lying with the editors no matter the discipline or the scale of the publishing organization.

We would love to hear more about the editorial work and process at other organizations, and for other disciplines.  The more we share this information, the better we can appreciate what is diverse — and what is similar.


Note: A thank you goes to Laura Ansley for her perspective. She is a production editor at ASCE Journals and she previously worked on WMQ making her the perfect resource. 

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran is Vice President of Publishing at the American Society of Clinical Oncology. She is past president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing and of the Council of Science Editors. Views on TSK are her own.

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf is the Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library and Professor of History, Brown University. She is a historian with a research specialty in family, gender and politics in eighteenth-century British America and has experience in non-profit humanities publishing.


26 Thoughts on "Editing is at the Heart of Scholarly Publishing"

As a researcher (and former editor), I believe that it is the editorial process, including both peer review and inhouse efforts, that allows me to rely on the journal’s content in advancing my own work. It may be invisible, but it is essential and much appreciated.

Thank you for this piece. As a journal editor myself it has been useful as a lens through which to reflect on our processes. Library Trends is a special topics journal with each issue having its own guest editor. Definitely another kind of editorial process play!

Very interesting, thanks for this contribution!
I want to put forward, once again, one librarian’s perspective.
Traditional peer review indeed has great strengths. Despite its flaws, it works, even if it would be nice to see greater attention to the integrity of data in STEM publishing to avoid the retraction phenomenon.
But I wonder if peer review of the traditional kind, or some suitable surroagate (if any exists), should be reserved largely to vetting of review articles that give landscape analysis of emerging trends as revealed in other fora such as preprints, conference proceedings, and so on.
I see a complementarity between the latter (which fulfill the same role correspondence has long played in scientific publishing), and the latter, which provides the ex post distillation of things going on at the frontiers–also a longstanding need in scientific communication throughout the centuries.
Review articles are critically important because of their value in monitoring trends and in informing at a meta level researchers of sub-disciplinary trends. (Cf. the important role of metastudies in the medical literature.)
Finally, libraries–except the largest with near unlimited budgets–cannot sustain paying for the vast amount of material being published. One wonders too whether so much salami-slicing of research is making it more and more difficult for researchers to get the big picture. Science suffers as a result.
Let the preprints, the conf. proceedings, ‘lo even poster sessions, accommodate the salami-slicing and staking of priority in research results. Let the army of volunteer peer reviewers focus on reviewing –and writing — meta-level articles in a contracted journal space.
In sum, find ways to meet the ever constant need in science to enable quick disclosure of research results, but also the integrative function provided by review articles (not to mention books!)
I suspect that a lot of my colleagues share the above sentiments, but wouldn’t know until this is studied a great deal more. In any case, librarians have a lot to say about all this, being on the front lines and having to broker year over year negotiations with publishers. (Views expressed don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer.)


I believe Shakespeare addressed retractions in Much Ado About Nothing!

The data confirm that the absolute number of retractions has risen over the past few decades, from fewer than 100 annually before 2000 to nearly 1000 in 2014. But retractions remain relatively rare: Only about four of every 10,000 papers are now retracted. And although the rate roughly doubled from 2003 to 2009, it has remained level since 2012. In part, that trend reflects a rising denominator: The total number of scientific papers published annually more than doubled from 2003 to 2016.

Thanks for the helpful comments!
Re. peer review, I only mentioned retractions to point out that no system of review is flawless.
While I share the sentiments often expressed on TSK about the need not to tamper with a functioning system (and arguably traditional peer review may well be the best way to review journal articles), the overall journal publishing system needs reform in other respects.
Start with your observation that “the total number of scientific papers published annually more than doubled from 2003 to 2016.” The sheer number of journal articles has reached ridiculous proportions. And there are so many other problems that need addressing, but I’ll leave it at that.
Will read the Science article, thanks for the link.

Start with your observation that “the total number of scientific papers published annually more than doubled from 2003 to 2016.” The sheer number of journal articles has reached ridiculous proportions.

I might suggest that this is less a problem of the journal publishing system (which has scaled efficiently to meet this demand) than the academic career and funding system that is driving the increase in published outputs. Changing the publication system is a bit like the tail trying to wag the dog.

Brian, I’ll note that the processes you reference (such as “pre-prints”) are very different for different fields. Some fields, like mine, have a robust system of sharing research before journal submission. We don’t call it preprints and we don’t post it the way some fields/ disciplines do. In other words, like so much in the schol comm universe, there isn’t a single prescription. That’s part of why we wrote this (and other like) post– to point to the variety and the need for subtle approaches.

Well put.
Might I add a possible qualifier.
Academic societies, and those who run their publishing arms, are well positioned to influence t and p assessment structures and develop codes for t and p evaluation. These codes would call for evaluating work based not on journal cache but on metrics relating to the inherent quality of an individual article.
Tall order of business and am under no illusion any of the underlying cultural shifts will occur that would enable a less problematic system (on so many fronts) of scientific communication. Been fun to think about all this stuff, and will do a revised version of the preprint where these views are elaborated (presumptuously as a “model”), but then will probably call it quits on this project and start focusing on discrete research agendas this “model” suggests.

Thanks Angela and Karin for an excellent post. You not only cover the professionalism of journal editors, and add to the transparency of the journal editing process (for authors), but you bring to light the “value” that a society journal offers in helping an author publish a well-written manuscript. In my opinion, these types of descriptions of how an ethical journal handles a manuscript needs to be much more visible on the landscape.

In a SK article that I wrote with Jason Roberts (Origin Editorial) a while back — Transparency – “This is What We Do, and This is What We Expect” ( — we attempted to articulate how important this transparency is for quality publishers to differentiate themselves on the landscape.

At Editage, through our global survey on Author Perspectives on Academic Publishing (which can be downloaded at we found that preparing the manuscript is one of the most difficult tasks that researchers face, and that roughly 50% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that “peer reviewer comments are generally insightful and help me improve my manuscript”.

Publishers recognize that the author is their champion. Somehow, we need to communicate that the editorial process is the author’s “friend”, and not to be perceived as a challenge! Many publishers have built author ecosystems with editorial services to support the researcher community prior to submission. At Editage, this is one of our core businesses, and authors around the world appreciate this support; especially those for whom English is a second language.

Yet, with the ever increasing number of manuscripts being submitted to journals these days, the ability to help ensure that the author has the resources to help develop a well-written manuscript is only half of the battle. The journal editorial teams are increasingly needing support to manage the triage of incoming manuscripts. Using natural language processing and machine learning algorithms such as are integrated into our “Ada” automated document assessment service, a lot of the headache can be removed at the initial triage process through immediate transparency of readability, scope, and various ethical parameters (plagiarism, disclosures, etc.). Knowing that this kind of support is also needed upstream in the author’s hands, we have recently launched PubSURE for authors; to help them assess the manuscript worthiness prior to submission.

The human element of the journal editorial team professionalism is immensely important and needs to be broadcast. Yet, with the artificial intelligence tools that are being developed on the landscape, the same editorial teams are beginning to need as much support as the authors themselves, in order for both parties to efficiently and effectively help each other to achieve the ultimate goal of a well-written manuscript.

I thank you for writing today’s SK article and shedding light on the “heroes” of a journal — the editorial team!

Thank you, Angela and Karin, for this helpful TSK post. I’m a new associate editor for an academic library journal and you’ve helped me understand more of what the editor I’ll be working alongside of does on a daily basis. You might have saved me a dumb question or two, as well!

Thank you, Angela, Karin and Laura, for such a thoughtful and detailed description of the work of an editor. Beth Luey–who knows from editing–chose the right word, “invisible.” Being invisible in such a productive way, however, can be a problem within an organizational structure and evaluation process. This post should be on the reading list for every supervisor of an editor or any board or staff member responsible for evaluating an editor’s work and productivity.

I would like to see a discussion about the importance of copy editing. I find that many authors are confused about what editors do and the various types of editing. Copy editing is an important step in the publication process and entails different knowledge, experience, and skills than acquisitions or developmental editing (which is what journal editors seem to do). The copy editor puts the professional face on a document and can save the publisher from embarrassing errors in fact, grammar, and style.

I agree; it is important for the authors to have a good sense of the copyediting provided by the journal editorial team/production office. Although many journals have a strong editorial office, other journals mostly omit the copyediting step and publish a lightly edited version of the text, which may still contain errors and typos (potentially different entities). If authors aren’t aware of the need to have good copyediting (and English language review if necessary), the final product shows it. This is an often-overlooked element of understanding the process of academic writing.

Thanks for the comment.
The work I did recently on all this (fwiw) is very explicit that the model is for physics. Indeed, all disciplines have their own cultures. But the uptake of preprints in areas not covered in arXiv is intriguing. One can only speculate about where this all goes.
Above I (yes) rather glibly generalized my point about physics, to other STEM areas, but on the other hand, I believe some interesting developments may be in the offing in other areas within the next 10-20 years. And preprints–or systematic publishing of other formats (proceedings, poster sessions, forms of communication unique to each discipline including engineering, whatever)–may play a role in transforming journal publishing..
Much more work in the journals should be synthetic and integrative, not so piecemeal, and journals should provide critical narratives of what is going on in OA pre-journal publication venues, whatever they are.
Current trends of journal publishing only reinforce the corrosive specialization that we find across the board in academia.
In any case, I stand by my point that there are far too many journals published in all fields of inquiry, including social sciences and humanities, far too many articles published in those spaces.
The OA mantra has largely diverted attention from this point, as it has (to some extent) from the complex economics of scholarly publishing. This is not to say that OA is not OK. It’s just that it is often (not always) conjoined with rhetoric that overlooks the complex economics of scholarly publishing.
I do wish the society publishers would address the glut issue about journal publishing. But many publishing arms help to fund society activities, and so there will be tremendous resistance to contracting the journal space.
Thanks again for your comment!

I agree your view on future developments in scholarly publishing expanding to include other digital formats within the research cycle.
In terms of the glut of journals and articles…….an interesting reference point is that the output of research grows in parallel to the investment in research. Last year the Congressional Research Service stated that “Since 2000, total global R&D expenditures have grown by 170% in current dollars, from $674 billion to more than $1.8 trillion.” While the P&T process can inflate the number of a papers a researcher publishes, there are a declining number of tenure track faculty in the US. . The dramatic increase in papers from China far exceeds the impact of other factors in the last 20 years IMO.

Judy, thanks for the comments and the article links.
I wonder if someone could do a mutivariate regression to decompose and weigh the factors that contribute to the burgeoning number of articles that grow each year. Independent variables would include R and D expenditures globally, tenure and promotion globally, number of postdocs, and so on.
Incidentally, I wonder if the decline in tenure track faculty creates a competitive atmosphere in which postdocs publish even more intensely (with corresponding salami-slicing of research) in order to increase the prospects that they will get a tenure track job.

Again, as a former copy editor and now an author, I can tell you the wise author is grateful for the work of exacting and knowledgeable copy editors. I’ve been saved from having really dumb mistakes exposed to the world at large. It’s not just the knowledge of grammar, usage, and the Chicago Manual. It’s seeing weak evidence, logical leaps over giant caverns that have fallen short, and mistakes of fact that makes copy editors heroes.

I worked as a copyeditor for almost twenty years (I’m pretty sure I copyedited you at one point, actually!), and although of course I knew my job was important to the final product, I didn’t fully, viscerally appreciate *how* important until I found myself wearing an author hat, looking at my own copyedited manuscript. There in the Word file was a comment in which the publisher’s copyeditor noted that I had given three briefly mentioned walk-on characters the same surname, and was that on purpose? (No, it was not.) Fiction copyediting and scholcomms copyediting are, of course, different beasts, but they share the crucial role of saving us from ourselves!

I agree with Lea’s and Beth’s comments. Let’s also celebrate the even-more-invisible-but-also-sometimes-heroic work of copyeditors! Everything we do is to make someone else look good, usually without even a masthead mention. Some of us also facilitate a smooth peer review process for authors, ease our editor’s workload, and ensure a professional product for readers.

Here, here on copyediting— which can also vary a lot depending on field, type and style of publication, and expectations of authors and readers.

Hi Karen & Angela,
Thank you for so clearly describing the contribution of editors in the system. While peer review has its limitations, from an economic perspective it frequently makes a significant contribution to the research results. So when we use the term ‘output’ to include datasets and other digital formats in the research cycle that do not benefit from editorial work, they may be viewed as equivalent. Valuing the ‘output’ without considering the process overlooks the important role that editing plays.

I’d like to underscore one element of editing — the cultural signaling and leadership editors represent and provide. Editors, editors-in-chief, and editorial boards are major parts of many publishers’ cultures, and a change in leadership or team dynamics can change a journal or publisher profoundly. I’ve seen this many times. The signaling is both internal (what staff and executive leadership aspire to achieve) and external (what the community believes the journal is about, what reputation the editors have, etc.). If the lead editor is a parsimonious micromanager, the culture suffers, the editorial team blanches, and the community withdraws. If the lead editor is an excellent role model and leader, the journal flourishes. Leadership and cultural signaling are major parts of editorial work for a lot of publishers, especially the smaller ones.

I absolutely agree – the most value of scholarly publishing is through reviewing and editing the papers and books. This requires both very good authors as well as very good reviewers and editors. This makes the paper or book valuable for society. We can trust such books and papers. A recently taken discussion worldwide about the role of open access has nothing about the quality of papers and books. It is just about the university money (state or private) the universities want to save on th edge of the next financial crisis. It is naturally but we need to recognize the the heart of scholarly publishing is reviewing and editing, but not OA.

Thank you for an interesting post and for recognising the value of editors (or various types) to the final publications. At Learned Publishing ( we take great efforts to help authors to communicate more clearly to authors – not only through peer review (determining if there is valuable information in an article, and if it is being communicated well), but also after acceptance where we spend time helping authors (including those for whom English is their first language!) to polish up their articles and make them more succinct and easy to navigate. This is all done before the article goes to copyediting.

Two points to add to your article:
1 – the value of editors is (IMHO) rarely appreciated by readers who don’t realise that the final work is not 100% due to the author
2 – there is a tension between ensuring diversity of content and managing available time. There is the temptation to discard articles that need language support because of lack of time and a concern that they will not be as well received as others where the language flow is easier – even if they contain valuable information. I wrote about this in my editorial “Collection, curation, and quality: The editor’s responsibility”.

Recognizing the importance of editors and editing is a major concern of the European Association of Science Editors (EASE – We advocate for quality standards and greater awareness of the importance of editors – including EICs, language editors, technical editors and reviewers.

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