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.
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.
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.
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.
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.