Making science (part XV): Professional Editors

Once upon a time, science journals were run by scientific societies and their editors were active scientists. Very few of these remain today. Instead, nowadays most journals are own by private, usually very large, publishing companies and their editors are “professional”. That is, their only job is to be journal editors, they are not active scientists. Most of them were active scientists earlier in their career, but left academia to become “professional” editors, usually, shortly after their postdoctoral studies. Because of this, most professional editors are much younger (no problem there) and considerably more inexperienced (hmmm… ) than the principal investigators from whom they receive manuscripts for consideration. Typically, these “youngish” editors can get advice and (one would hope) guidance from more senior editors within the same journal or publishing organization, but they are pretty much in charge of the main decisions of the manuscripts assigned to them.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily, one might naively think. But, as publication in respected, so-called “impactful”, journals has become a make-it-or-break-it for career advancement in science, the power of “professional” editors has grown astronomically. Decisions taken by this scientifically rather inexperienced group of professionals can propel a either budding or established scientist to stardom, or pretty much destroy his/her career. Is this bad for science? Sydney Brenner, genetics and molecular biology pioneer, and 2002 Nobel Laureate, would think it is indeed: “I campaigned against this [culture] because I think it is not only bad, it’s corrupt. In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all. And that’s all been done in the aid of commerce, because they are now giant organisations making money out of it.” (Excerpt of 2004 interview in King’s Review Magazine.)

At some point, it is difficult for active scientists not to wonder why a another scientist would choose to become a professional editor. It has been tempting, particularly for junior scientists, to think that journal editors are simply “failed postdocs”. That is, young scientists that (once) aspired to become principal investigators, but simply fell off the career ladder after bouncing from a few postdoctoral positions. This is surely too simplistic a view. On the other hand, it is undeniable that journal editors did not enroll in a PhD program, and then went on to one (sometimes several) postdoctoral tenures, with the sole intention of becoming a journal editor. Clearly something (professional, private…) happened along the way that pushed them in that direction. When it comes to professional editors of highly impactful journals, it is difficult not to consider whether they would have ended up in such job had they published a few papers in those very same journals when they were scientists.

This current situation, by which the success and advancement of active scientists is in (too great) measure dependent on, often rather inexperienced, professional editors is not too different from how plastic artists, or composers, or professional musicians or writers, depend upon favourable views from their “professional” critics. Prestigious art, music and literature critics exert enormous power, and their verdict too is make-it-or-break-it for aspiring artists. Yet, art critics are not active artists themselves.

Undoubtedly, the fact that the impact of scientific discoveries is determined by non-scientists, just as works of art are judged by non-artists, generates a constant source of friction and frustration, which, unfortunately, is here to stay. Worse than that, it hinders innovation and originality. Sadly, there does not seem to be a simple way out of this vicious circle. But part of its negative impact could be ameliorated if scientists decide to withdraw some of the power they have themselves given to professional editors. After all, these are dependent on the manuscripts that the scientists submit to them and the referrals that the scientists produce for them. A concerted effort would be required, though, admittedly, never easy to achieve among such a bunch of individualistics. But it will have to be done if original, innovative and curiosity-driven science is to survive.

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