Journal Editors: No More an Anachronism than the “Wisconsin Idea”

ARIANNE PETERSON

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.[1] 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”[2] 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.)[3] Walker’s market-based terms strike me as similar to those Davis uses to describe scholarly publishing.


Wisconsin Idea Editing Attempt

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.


[1] 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).

[2] 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.”

[3] Matthew DeFour. “Scott Walker Acknowledges Misfire on Wisconsin Idea, Says Aides Miscommunicated,” Wisconsin State Journal (February 6, 2015).

[4] Thomas H. P Gould, “Scholar as E-Publisher.” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 41, no. 4 (July 2010): 428-48.

[5] Ibid., 437.

[6] Ibid., 444.

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  1. Arianne, this blog post raises many valuable questions about the role online publishing has in the future of the scholarly journal, and the role of editors as these distribution channels evolve. As scholarly journals become less affordable for universities, many students will have little choice but to turn to the more accessible (and often free) self-published online scholarship. I stumbled on an article about this very issue being worked out at Harvard recently. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/apr/24/harvard-university-journal-publishers-prices. The article points out, that if a university like Harvard is taking the lead on speaking out about the high cost of scholarship, then many other institutions will follow their lead. If this continues, the future of the scholarly journal will continue to be threatened. What does this mean for value of the journal editor in the future?

    There must be a way to balance these issues. The printed journal is respected and viewed as the “gold standard” by many, even as online, open access publishing becomes more affordable and more pervasive. It seems that a solution could be for scholarly journals to provide supplemental articles and older scholarship as a free service electronically. This would attract new readers, allow access for those who are not subscribed through their institutions, and also provide an avenue for photos and other graphics that are not printed due to economics.

    I also found your perspective on Scott Walker, and his involvement with the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, especially interesting. I was shocked to learn of a governor making changes to a mission statement of an academic institution. Altering the mission statement to reflect economics and job creation is intolerable. I agree with you, the pursuit of truth and extension of knowledge is what matters!

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  2. Arianne, I appreciate that you have expanded upon Davis’s use of economic terminology in his article, and that you have tied in the “Wisconsin Idea” to this conversation. It seems that these two values are in tension: money vs. the pursuit of knowledge. I would assume that most of the scholarly community would defend the latter as their primary value but would also acknowledge the former as an inescapable fact of life. Separating academic work from economic return altogether would ignore the very real restrictions that exist for nearly everyone involved in the process – few have the luxury of pursing knowledge and truth without a need for money somewhere along the way. I think what we all detest is the thought of a CEO at the top profiting from so many hours of labor by those who are actually invested in scholarly conversations toward the pursuit of knowledge and truth, and what we are okay with is honest scholars and editors getting compensated for their work.

    As I reflect on the system Davis critiques, I think it becomes difficult to conceptualize a system of academic conversation that does not hinge on an economic return. What would such an online system/database/community/website look like? I like the ideas that you present. I would add that I think this kind of innovation will stumble many times before it finds its stride, and so I would advocate for the participation of the scholarly community in “trial and error” for some of these various innovations until we find one that seems to accomplish what we’re looking for. As for the editor’s role, I think “quality-signaling,” as Davis suggests, will always be needed. The role may look different, but some of the inherent skills in this kind of work remain vital to producing and signaling quality research in academia.

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  3. Hello!

    I’m interested in this idea of open, accessible, and online forums. When you state, “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,” my first reaction was worry. Although more voices may generally lead to more correct conclusions, I also see the havoc wreaked by the already-accessible online forum of Facebook. In this, there are so many voices and perspectives, all coming from vastly different points of instruction, learning, and understanding, that it seems as though the vast number of people participating makes it difficult to come to any conclusive understanding. It leaves me with the feeling that academics will be remaking (or re-explaining) the wheel again and again just to keep the numerous voices up-to-date on current information. However, I think this could lead to an ever-more-increasing presence of editors, who would be responsible for mitigating the information, making editors absolutely vital to this process.

    Further, it seems that having more accessible information would lead to editors editing academic content even more heavily, making the articles clear and concise, truly accessible for other readers. If accessibility for more readers, combined with good editors, truly leads to more clear academic writing, I am excited for the potential and possibilities that the future of academic writing holds.

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  4. Mark Van Dusseldorp March 4, 2015 — 3:10 pm

    I think you are right, Victoria, to predict that an influx of writing in a more accessible publishing world will create more rigorous editors. But, as we know, the supply of academic writing already far outweighs its demand, so with much more work to do, an editor will need to assemble a team of editorial assistants who promptly cut off a good chunk of submissions, many of which will be decisions based on subjective interests and preferences. Pretty soon the system will start to resemble the one we have now. I kind of hate to say it, but this seems okay to me; better yet, leave well enough alone with the current system. The traditional peer-review system may not always be directed towards the pursuit of truth, but neither would a new, electronically based, open access for all system. People are self-interested and I think they would be more likely to send out embryonic research done in sloppy and uninteresting ways, simply because it’s easier to get it published.

    I do agree, Arianne, that academic quality and economic value are often conflated; the idea is that something is better because it costs more. Whether it’s an organic avocado or a tuition price tag, we tend to think that we get what we pay for. This isn’t the case, of course, but as humans we love to put faith in these kinds of correlatives, and I think it’s unlikely that we can eliminate them. That being said, if things were to change, if academic writing was open access, we would manage to find another way to discriminate and create hierarchy.

    I should also say that there are dozens and dozens of well-respected publications both online and in print, that are not academic per se, but publish all kinds of critical writing from diverse sources that is well-researched. It seems that these publications have less incentive to prevent people from publishing because they have no institutional ties: they don’t really have to answer to anyone and they love to publish unknown or under-known writers.

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  5. This is a great post, Arianne! In your discussion of Monbiot’s attacks on publishers for their supposed “ruthless capitalis[m]” in regard to the production of information as a commodity, you note how he fails to mention the role of the scholarly editor in this capitalist process. I think that perhaps he refrains from mentioning the editor because to do so would quickly invalidate his argument; that is, while it seems worthwhile to point out the problematic nature of exorbitant journal subscription fees (because these fees prevent many demographics from accessing the journals’ information and because these costs do not necessarily correspond with the quality of the information), it seems difficult to find fault with editors, the group who tries to ensure that the information published is of high quality. Certainly, the publishing business may orient itself toward “quality-signaling” (as Davis argues) because each publishing company wants to promote their publications as valuable in order to maintain a profitable business. But editors, rather than focusing on quality-signaling, are focused on quality. Rather than acting “simply to make [quality-signaling] happen,” editors, I think, strive to improve the content, readability, and completeness of academic work, producing texts that are valuable for readers regardless of the work’s subsequent ability to make money. Surely editors are missing from Monbiot’s argument because their role is not to perpetuate the prestige hierarchy that the publishing business can create, but rather to maintain the integrity—as best they can—of the academic writing produced within that hierarchy. Your thesis, Arianne, wonderfully articulates a very important point, that editors can be valued for the work that they do (which, I think, is based on improving quality) while the publication process can still be critiqued and improved. While good editors are embedded within the often too-exclusive publication process, these editors can also help to challenge the current publication process by facilitating the development of new forms of knowledge-dissemination, like the accessible online forums you discuss.

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  6. Like many people, I was surprised to learn that some journal subscription fees can be more than $20,000. (According to the article in the Guardian that Amy references, subscriptions can be even higher than that—as much as $40,000.) Upon reading this I wondered which journals command such high fees. When I searched Google I came across an article in Harvard Magazine that revealed the most expensive journal Harvard libraries subscribed to in 2014 was the Journal of Comparative Neurology (JNC) for $28,787. Was this money well spent? That’s difficult for me, someone far removed from the field of neuroscience, to say with any certainty but I lean toward yes.

    On the one hand, $28,787 seems like an exorbitant fee. No doubt many universities and institutions cannot afford to pay this much, meaning they are unable to benefit from the research findings in JNC. But JNC is far from the only voice in this field; indeed, by at least one measure JNC isn’t even a leader. According to Wikipedia, in 2011 the journal’s impact factor ranked 69th out of 244 journals in the “Neuroscience” category. (A journal’s impact factor is determined by the number of times each article in a journal has been cited during the previous two years.)

    What keeps JNC’s subscription fee so high? There are probably myriad reasons, and the purpose of this post is not to denigrate the journal, its contributors or its subscribers. In fact, quite the opposite: I have to believe the fact that it costs so much to subscribe to JNC is testament to its value—real or perceived—within the industry. In his Scholarly Kitchen blog post, Davis writes about the role that journals play in “quality-signaling within the author–reader market.” This is a huge point that should not be glossed over, and it could very well be why JNC is “worth” the amount its subscribers pay to access it. If JNC readers pick up a copy of the journal and are confident that its articles will be edifying, truthful and timely, that’s difficult to quantify. And in the life-saving field of neuroscience, it might even be worth more than $28,787.

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  7. Like many people, I was surprised to learn that some journal subscription fees can be more than $20,000. (According to the article in the Guardian that Amy references, subscriptions can be even higher than that—as much as $40,000.) Upon reading this I wondered which journals command such high fees. When I searched Google I came across this article in Harvard Magazine that revealed the most expensive journal Harvard libraries subscribed to in 2014 was the Journal of Comparative Neurology (JNC) for $28,787. http://harvardmagazine.com/2015/01/the-wild-west-of-academic-publishing Was this money well spent? That’s difficult for me, someone far removed from the field of neuroscience, to say with any certainty but I lean toward yes.

    On the one hand, $28,787 seems like an exorbitant fee. No doubt many universities and institutions cannot afford to pay this much, meaning they are unable to benefit from the research findings contained in JNC. But JNC is far from the only voice in this field; indeed, by at least one measure JNC isn’t even a leader. According to Wikipedia, in 2011 the journal’s impact factor ranked 69th out of 244 journals in the “Neuroscience” category. (A journal’s impact factor is determined by the number of times each article in a journal has been cited during the previous two years.)

    What keeps JNC’s subscription fee so high? There are probably myriad reasons, and the purpose of this post is not to denigrate the journal, its contributors or its subscribers. In fact, quite the opposite: I have to believe the fact that it costs so much to subscribe to JNC is testament to its value—real or perceived—within the industry. In his Scholarly Kitchen blog post, Davis writes about the role that journals play in “quality-signaling within the author–reader market.” This is a huge point that should not be glossed over, and it could very well be why JNC is “worth” the amount its subscribers pay to access it. If JNC readers pick up a copy of the journal and are confident that its articles will be edifying, truthful and timely, that’s difficult to quantify. And in the life-saving field of neuroscience, it might even be worth more than $28,787.

    Like

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