In the title of his 2011 post on the Scholarly Kitchen blog, Phil Davis asks, “Have Journal Editors Become Anachronisms?” Davis singles out the role of the editor in his title, but he defends the journal and the editor as two parts of a single whole—the stratified, peer-reviewed, publisher-owned, status-quo system of scholarly publication that is threatened by the rise of online self-publishing. In Davis’s words, “The principal function of the journal is to organize and mediate quality-signaling within the author–reader market. The role of the editor is simply to make this happen.” I argue, however, that the future of the role of the editor is not necessarily tied to the future of a hierarchical, capital-driven academic publishing structure, as Davis asserts. I believe we can value editors while at the same time critiquing the publication process they facilitate.
Initially, I was struck by Davis’s use of economic terms to describe a process—academic publishing—that I view as being controlled by forces outside of the economic realm. Davis describes the role of the scholarly journal as quality control in a world of “hyperinformation”; his conclusion is that we need to “stop thinking of it [information overload] as a receiver problem but as a market problem in which authors compete for the limited attention of readers.” In what he calls our “attention economy,” demand for knowledge is limited in comparison to the supply of studies scholars produce—thus, there is value in having specialists (editors and peer reviewers) who can separate the valuable from the invaluable products. Davis’s use of the terms “market,” “economy,” and “value” suggest that the production and dissemination of knowledge is a commodity, prepared for sale by editors, who add economic value to the products created by scholars.
While I agree that editors add value to academic work, I question whether that value can be quantified in purely economic terms. Interestingly, Davis is responding to articles published in the Guardian that specifically argue against the commodification of knowledge. In one of these articles, George Monbiot attacks academic publishers, calling them “the most ruthless capitalists in the western world.” Not once, however, does he include the role of the scholarly editor in his criticism. Instead, Monbiot argues that journal subscription fees—the highest of which he cites at over $20,000—are placing an undue burden on university libraries that is then passed on to students. Of course, not all journals charge these exorbitant fees—only the ones at the top of the prestige hierarchy. Does the quality of the scholarship (or peer review, or editing) in these journals correspond to their monetary value? Are those journals that cost less necessarily inferior? When Davis argues that “the greater the stratification, the more efficient the [journal publication] system,” he seems to be conflating academic quality, economic value, and prestige into a single attribute. I think this may be a dangerous oversimplification.
Trying to unpack what Davis means by “quality” leads me to question the whole purpose of academia—and with it, the purpose of the education system—a lofty goal for a blog post. I think it is relevant, though, not only because it will help us define the potential for the role of the editor within the future of academic publishing, which may well be less “prestigious” given the availability of online self-publishing tools, but because it is a hot topic in the news—at least in my home state of Wisconsin. Our governor, Scott Walker, recently attempted to change the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin system—known as the “Wisconsin Idea”—by striking language prioritizing the pursuit of truth and the extension of knowledge beyond campuses in favor of the more economically-based goal of creating human resources that “meet the state’s workforce needs.” (Speaking of editing, Walker later claimed the significant change was a “drafting error”—a potentially interesting thread for discussion.) Walker’s market-based terms strike me as similar to those Davis uses to describe scholarly publishing.
The image above is from the Wisconsin State Journal: "Gov. Scott Walker proposed, then backed off, changes to a state law that defines the University of Wisconsin's mission as advancing knowledge throughout the state. Changes introduced in the budget bill are highlighted in yellow." Read more here.
Let’s assume, for the purposes of this post, that the goal of scholarly publishing should be similar to the (unedited) Wisconsin Idea: the pursuit and dissemination of truth. It seems that even in the current status quo system Davis describes, this pursuit does not always receive the highest priority. In an article called “Scholar as E-Publisher: The Future Role of [Anonymous] Peer Review within Online Publishing,” Thomas Gould argues that the inclusion of more voices in academic conversations through more accessible online publishing will provide a more rich conversation—and possibly even one that is more academically correct. Gould shows that the traditional peer review system, in which prestigious and highly specialized experts evaluate each other’s work, does not always advance the search for truth. He cites a 1980s study in which two professors submitted twelve different articles—all of which had actually been published within the two previous years—to twelve prestigious academic journals. Three were caught as resubmissions; one was accepted; and eight were rejected, in many cases on the grounds that they contained significant flaws in methodology. Gould also cites research showing that women (and, presumably, other minorities) are excluded within the prestige-based system. There seems to be room for improvement within the stratified system Davis cites as being so efficient; a more open and dynamic review process facilitated by accessible online forums—and good editors—could help.
I think Gould, Davis, and I would agree that the scholarly editor can fill a necessary role in promoting quality academic work. Whereas Davis fears that publishers and editors will go down together with the ship of the prestige-based system as online forums make publishing a more democratic process, Gould suggests that editors and peer reviewers embrace a new system of online publishing as traditional publishing houses fail. To enable this change, he says, it is essential that universities change “the value attached to editorship and peer review… because many small journals will not be able to provide any financial reward or even a ‘buy-out’ of faculty time.” In other words, rather than evaluating editorship as a “service” a faculty member provides to a profit-driven publisher, universities must build (compensated) time for this kind of scholarly participation into faculty positions. In terms of public universities, at least, we as citizens can advocate for this change—which may require a realignment of values away from profit and toward the pursuit of truth. Preserving public university mission statements, like the Wisconsin Idea, that are consistent with these values, ensures we have a foundation upon which to build toward a more accurate and accessible—and therefore, more valuable—scholarly conversation.
 David Colquhoun, “Publish-or-perish: Peer Review and the Corruption of Science.” The Guardian (September 5, 2011), and George Monbiot, “Academic Publishers Make Murdoch Look Like a Socialist,” The Guardian (August 29, 2011).
 In a comment, David Wojick criticizes Davis’s ambiguity around this term: “Phil, I would expand this point by questioning the concept of “quality” in the model (which I otherwise like very much). You seem to think quality is independent of the community, a property of the paper itself, as it were. Perhaps so but then we also need a parameter for importance to others. Journals aggregate articles on particular topics, precisely because enough people are working on that topic. Within that aggregation we often also find papers that are only important to one, or a few people, but very important. In short we need a more relativistic concept than simple quality. The diffusion is not that simple.”
 Matthew DeFour. “Scott Walker Acknowledges Misfire on Wisconsin Idea, Says Aides Miscommunicated,” Wisconsin State Journal (February 6, 2015).
 Thomas H. P Gould, “Scholar as E-Publisher.” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 41, no. 4 (July 2010): 428-48.
 Ibid., 437.
 Ibid., 444.