“Editors are everywhere. They are at work wherever words are being written and published—words about the universe, the world, our society, and our human sojourners here.” Thus begins Elsie Stainton’s guide: The Fine Art of Copyediting. Stainton goes on to detail the various skills and practices performed by editors. And she is not alone. Just take a look at the top journals, magazines, and best-selling novels, and you will see that editors are everywhere, in all types of jobs and industries. Yet titles such as “Have Journal Editors Become Anachronisms?” still appear. Why is this question being posed?
In an age of ever-increasing technology, humans have replaced once time-consuming or laborious tasks with the simple click of a button. Still wondering what ‘anachronism’ means? There is no need to hike to the library and check out a dictionary; Google is on hand, happy to answer your query. In addition, spell-check, autocorrect, and digital robots save time and effort. Unfortunately, such quick-fix technologies can also lead to embarrassing mistakes. In “The Editor—A Vital Role We Barely Talk About Anymore,” Kurt Anderson references the current population’s “unwavering belief that technology can solve any problem.” I would argue, as Anderson does, that technology cannot solve all our problems and, even more importantly, that it does not do the job humans can do of perfecting a product. This is where editors enter the picture, leaving their human touch imprinted on writing, molding a piece in ways that machines cannot.
As critics and experts debate their importance, journal editors continue to do the often thankless work of compiling, composing, and creating the world’s scholarly journals (among other mediums). Anderson speaks to the “need for leadership and accountability” and a strong uniting vision for a journal, elements that an editorial board alone cannot provide. Anderson’s point is vital to understanding why editors are still relevant and necessary today. Imagine other organizations functioning without a CEO or president. Who would set a course and goals for the company? To whom would its members look for guidance? “Leadership,” Anderson tells us, “is an elusive and abstract trait…but noticeable in its absence.” When journals lose their editor, and all the guidance that he or she provides, the results are felt by its audience. Unfortunately, readers can also feel the overreaching presence of editors, who have the power to make decisions that can be “politically charged, change careers, and make or break alliances.” This power is used and abused, as power by leaders such as CEOs often is. However, the solution to power abuse is not to eliminate the position of power, but rather to give it to someone worthy of such power and responsibility.
An editor also gives a magazine a level of credibility that cannot be earned without. Juri Allik disagrees, calling for a world without academic journal editors or even peer reviews, one in which the “quality of articles would be determined by post-review: the number of all views, downloads, likes, comments and references.” Davis cites David Colquhoun, who agrees with Allik, proposing that authors “publish [their] papers on the web and open the comments.” I see an immediate problem with such a system. Popular opinion, especially through sites in which likes and views are options for rating, is volatile and often random. Look at what’s trending every few hours on Facebook or Twitter: a new viral video of a talented piano player or an article about the horrendous name a celebrity has given to his or her child. Does interest in or views of these mediums make them high quality writing or news? I sincerely hope not. In general, Davis claims that statistics provided by comments, downloads, and citations “provide little additional information” that would be of help to the reader. Instead, we as readers greatly need the presence of a human editor to wade through information and provide guidance.
Other opinions are not so drastic as to suggest a complete reworking of the current system, but rather that prominence goes to the peer reviewer, rather than the editor, as a judgment of merit for publication. This attitude can lead to overemphasis on the role of a peer reviewer. Anderson’s examples highlight journals’ requirement to be peer reviewed, but not to have a lead editor. Peer reviewers, while of great importance in ensuring the relevance of subject matter in proposed articles, are not able (or willing) to control the direction and purpose of a particular journal as lead editors do.
As technology continues to provide shortcuts and new options, the need for editors’ sharp eyes and artistic vision increase. Davis calls journals “mediators of quality signals in a crowded information space.” How can journals show their audiences which articles are of high quality if there is no human guiding the selection of such information? When authors self-publish, following the notion that publishing controlled by editors “must be taken back…and returned rightfully to the people,” proponents forget that this erases one of the vital functions of an editor. Databases collecting self-published works offer no guide to differentiate between works of high and low quality. Editors, on the other hand, work to enhance quality signals, as readers are inundated with ever-increasing amounts of information. In many ways, they also make it more efficient for readers seeking information. If I wish to read an article about racism in British literature, a Google search yields over one million results. However, if I skip that step and instead seek out nationally or regionally recognized academic journals that contain such topics, I greatly increase the likelihood that the article I read will be relevant, or, at the very least, high quality.
Finally, editors serve, if nothing else, as an extra set of eyes. What author would be unhappy to learn that an editor had found and corrected several grammar mistakes that the author missed? This would save the journal and author from embarrassment when the article is published. Peer reviewers may find some mistakes, but often their role emphasizes ensuring the overall quality of an article, not the perfection of each line within. As someone hoping to enter the field of editing myself, I am clearly biased. However, I still believe it is quite evident that editors offer authors and journals so much more than they are given credit for. Rather than emphasizing the power they take from readers, remember that their power is used to amplify and enhance quality writing and publication, all for the benefit of their (perhaps ungrateful) audience.
1 Stainton, Art of Copyediting, 3.
2Anderson, “The Editor.”
6 Allik, “end of editors.”
7 Davis, “Editors Become Anachronisms?”
9 Anderson, “The Editor.”
10 Davis, “Editors Become Anachronisms?”
Allik, Juri. “The end of academic journal editors?” University World News 319 (2014).
Anderson, Kent. “The Editor—A Vital Role We Barely Talk About Anymore.” The Scholarly Kitchen. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2014/09/23/the-editor-a-vital-role-we-barely- talk-about-anymore/.
Davis, Phil. “Have Journal Editors Become Anachronisms?” The Scholarly Kitchen.http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2011/09/19/have-journal-editors-become- anachronisms/.
Stainton, Elsie Myers. The Fine Art of Copyediting. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.