Scientific Journal Editor, the way ahead…

Scientific Journal Editor cover for blogIn the history of creative literature, publication editors have played an important role in guiding some of the best authors of 20th century to their successful books. An ideal collaboration between an author and an efficient editor will not involve the editor infringing on the author’s creative space, rather helping the author to find the relevant within the relevant.  They have the luxury of time (mostly) as well as solitude when they want.  They are mostly not under external pressure. Question of  ‘Bias’ does not arise in literary editing.  Assisting subjective creativity of an author need not be objective.  The author gets an invaluable reader in his/her editor, who will read it with great attention.  The editor has the responsibility of reading it not only as a good subjective reader but also as ‘the author’ of that work also. When s/he plays ‘author’, what they would have done as an author is not important.  The editor has to find out what the author himself/herself could have done better in a particular context.  Therefore, it is very difficult to pinpoint what is objective and what is subjective in case of a literary editor.  Mind you, what I am talking about also includes non-fiction.  All autobiographies, biographies and real life stories are not 100% true in the truest sense.

Being a Literary editor is very different from being a Newspaper editor. Newspaper editors have some space to be biased and they also have time on their side so that they can deliver better quality (better presented) news than a live television news channel.  However, what they present is not creative content.  They can be creative in presenting real-news but cannot add to its content.  That sounds similar to being a literary editor… but it is not.  The comparison between film/documentary editors and literary editors holds better than other comparisons.  However, the comparison falls when the film editor has to rely upon other resources.  A film editor has several constraints including ‘length of the film-reel’, ‘skills of the cameraperson’, ’script and story’ and many others.  Where as, a literary editor has only a pair of inseparable constraints and that is the book and its author.  A book can do many things, which a camera cannot achieve.  The creative possibilities for an author are endless and hence the literary editor’s canvas can also be infinite.

In scientific research publications we have evolved a system of peer review, which involves close scrutiny of a scientist’s research by his/her contemporaries before it is accepted for publication in science journals.  Every science journal also has its own chief editor, who also adds to the review by writing editorial judgements.  Scientific research is a creative activity but scientific research publication is not. There are set rules on how to write an objective research correspondence.  Although there is significant variation between and across journals and disciplines, the format for a research article is set.  Unlike literary editors, scientific reviewers do not have any luxury to know the authors.  In fact, they are called ‘anonymous reviewers’ to maintain objectivity.  They are at par with the journal’s chief editor since they play a critical role in decision-making.  Editors are not anonymous.

A scientific expert reviewer or an editor has a role to be unbiased and critical when s/he receives any research article for review.  Their main focus will be on methodology and analysis of the results, which is appreciable.  They also comment on presentation.  Some of the best journals reject up to 95% of manuscripts received based on various grounds  (some of the best literary publication houses also reject a number of authors every year).  This is fair enough, given that there is emphasis on quality.  Occasionally, science also falls for the reputation of a scientist or a laboratory, which is common in literature, films as well as newspapers. This does some damage to science’s unbiased foundation.  At the same time, we all know the importance of subjective conviction of a scientist in doing what s/he does.  If it is not there, then no one can come up with an objectively convincing result.

The time taken to decide on the ‘final outcome’ is different for different editors. A newspaper editor takes hours to days, a scientific journal editor takes weeks to months, and a literary editor takes months to years.  This is also fair, since the respective pressures and demands guide their urgency.

However, there is a need for scientific editors to learn from their counter parts in other fields.

Scientific journal editors know that they have a responsibility of bringing the best out of scientific community. They are not there just to point out mistakes and suggest corrections and improvement.  The primary reason for science journals to be there is to help scientists to learn from peers and to come up with better approaches and new solutions.  Constructive criticism from a peer reviewer that suggests improvement and may even accept a research article is not good enough.  Present day scientific editors have to learn how to be with scientist authors through their creative process. They have to understand where the author is coming from.  In the name of ‘objectivity’, ‘suitability’, and ‘quality control’, scientific editors have sacrificed their subjective reading ability.   They are hesitant to pursue that path because it takes more time to decide on the final outcome.  They can improve their time efficiency if they start early.  If they start a continuous process of correspondence with prospective scientist authors even before the final manuscript is submitted, it will help the interest of both the scientist as well as the journal editor.  This will also add legitimacy to the economic investment made into the research activity.  Majority of scientific research consumes lot of money and time but only a small percentage makes it to public domain.  I think some pre-emptive guidance from peers and editors will increase the efficiency of research by a good margin.  All the rules of intellectual property, morality and confidentiality can still be maintained.  This should happen irrespective of the reputation of scientists involved and irrespective of pre-existing contacts between editorial team members and laboratories.  Literary and newspaper editors have done this  with some success for decades.


2 thoughts on “Scientific Journal Editor, the way ahead…”

  1. Well written! But some things don’t make much sense to me! There are some guidelines given in every journal about what kind of work suits their journal and how to write..etc. I did not understand what you meant by “start a continuous process of correspondence with prospective scientist authors even before the final manuscript is submitted”… How/what basis can this communication be started? We are living in the age of superspecialization and for me it would be very difficult to give some guidelines to someone in a field even closely connected but not exactly same as what I do! How can we expect that from the editor? Also, reputation of scientists will influence publication and probably we cannot stop it from happening! It is like a politician influencing some decisions… Science has a hell lot of politics these days and being optimistic is nice but expecting editing and publication to be fair would be naive!

    Lekha, Journal guidelines are usually very broad even in case of ‘niche’ journals. I also appreciate the increasing specialization in disciplines, which reduces the researcher’s chances of seeking guidance. What I think should happen is a transparent correspondence between the scientist author and a relevant editorial team member (who knows about the field) before the manuscript is submitted (even better if started at the beginning of the investigation).
    As a journal editor, s/he is not expected to solve the problem for a scientist. However, if they go through the up and down of a research process before it is written, they can make a better judgement. By that I mean, they should know what worked and what failed (and when). Most often, scientists fail to get across the amount of work they put in to arrive at a three page article. Articles rarely say what failed.

    At present there is lack of confidence (more of suspicion) in both of them in each other, which is undesirable.

    It is like statistics in Cricket. Averages do tell a story but the circumstances in which those averages were achieved can increase or decrease their value.

  2. Boring… Too much detail about the process of editing and publishing. This is more like an essay…I feel like Jim Hacker in Yes minister. After Humphrey says a lot with words, Hacker says “What?!!”. You have become Humphrey in this article.

    I would take it any day thasi. Sir Humphrey was slow and often pointless, but he was witty.
    Don’t you think there is something in the ‘DETAIL’?

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