Taking Editing Seriously

When I first applied to edit a journal, it was in part about thinking that I would really enjoy some of the tasks – reading submissions and reviews, putting together issues, and engaging with cutting edge work in the field. That is what I’d enjoyed about editing books before I became a journal editor – that, and creating space for interesting conversations between scholars and research I found interesting. Three years and two journals into it, I think about editing more as a duty than as a privilege – something I am sure many editors come to feel.

I don’t mean I don’t like it anymore – quite the opposite – the more I edit, the more I enjoy it. I mean that editing a journal is not primarily a cool supplement for one’s own research or a privilege imbued with the power to discipline the discipline. It is, or at least it should be, a service performed for the authors and consumers of the content of the journal. It seems appropriate, then, to think about what that service entails. What should I expect of journal editors to whom I submit? And what should authors expect of me? What is involved in taking editing seriously?

I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about that in the last couple of days. Here’s my .02.

Its obvious that taking editing seriously involves being meticulously organized about manuscripts, paying attention to choosing good reviewers, and using professional judgment to think both about the quality of articles and the remit of the journal. But the more I edit, the more I think that taking editing seriously is about taking being trustworthy seriously.

By suggesting that trustworthiness is an important part of editing, I mean that, no matter how good an editor is at organization, or no matter how good their professional judgment, both have limited utility if an editor is either unable to communicate how the process of submission, review, decision, and publication works or unreliable in that communication. In other words, for me (or anyone else) to be an effective editor, authors and reviewers both need to have a sense of what is going on in the process, and that the information provided to them by an editor is true and reliable.

It almost becomes routine to assign manuscripts to editors, invite reviewers, and make decisions – and it should, because it should be done both carefully and quickly. At the same time, the stakes are high.

The stakes are high because very ‘reject’ is a setback for an author and the piece of research s/he has submitted, and therefore something that should be taken very seriously by the editor who is making the decision. Every ‘accept’ is a promise to an author that becomes a line on their CV long before it becomes an article. Every ‘accept’ is also a recognition of a certain quality of research in the article, and a commitment to promote that article, to maintain that quality of research in the journal. Every issue a journal publishes aspires to be useful or even inspirational for the audience – an editor’s commitment to that is also a promise.

This means, as an editor, that it is important to make decisions deliberately. But it also means that a successful editor can be trusted – by Reviewers (who need to trust that their time and effort will not be wasted), by Authors (who need to know that a navigable process will commence when they submit their article, and that ‘accept’ means ‘accept’), and by Readers (who need to know that professional judgment has been dutifully and evenly applied to the contents of the published product). Reviewers, authors, and readers need to be able to trust that editors are both being straightforward, and committed to (and capable of enforcing) their promises.

To me, then, the service of editing is deeply implicated in the service of making sure that your word has value, your promises can be trusted, and your judgment is transparent. I never expected that as I embarked on it, and it is certainly the most challenging aspect of editing – well beyond organizing and engaging the content which is submitted. At the same time, I think that the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is the importance of not only being efficient and right but consistent and communicative – that trustworthiness is an under-analyzed part of taking editing seriously.