Reflections on Editing a Journal: Experiences with Nationalities Papers

Just a few days ago, I handed over the editorship of Nationalities Papers to Peter Rutland, who teaches at Weslyan University. It has been exciting and exhausting four years editing the journal of the Association for the Study of Nationalities. Shortly after taking on the editorship, I wrote a small piece for the Taylor and Francis Editor’s Bulletin about Nationalities Papers and now I wanted to share some thoughts on editing a journal that might be less obvious to somebody submitting articles (or at least they were to me).

Producing a journal is both a professional and a voluntary enterprise. Every journal is different, but Nationalities Papers, as most other journals, does not pay editors to run a journal. I had a budget that allowed to pay for an editorial assistant and to visit a few conference to represent the journal. Of course, much of the entire operation is not paid. The members of the editorial board who provide their advice and occasional reviews are not paid, neither are the reviewers (although we could offer them a 30% off voucher for books). They are professional in the way in which they are produced and sold and of course, all of us in a journal invest our professional energy and reputation into the process. I will certainly keep this in mind when I submit an article in the future when a review is late or something else is not going as smoothly as I hope for. In order to ensure that every two months a new issue is published with 6-8 interesting and diverse articles often means that ones own research gets put on the  back-burner.

I have had the pleasure to participate in a number of workshops over the years discussing how to get published for academics together with the editors of Ethnopolitics, Slavic Review, East European Politics, Europe-Asia Studies and other journals. Our experiences were strikingly similar, as were the questions by interested academics. One of the big obstacles in the entire enterprise is the peer-review process: it is daunting both for the author of the article and for the editor. The author is worried about harsh comments and maybe even some unfair criticisms. As editor, I worried about finding a reviewer and getting a good review in ample time (our average time between submission and the decision by the editor was just above two months). Again, reviewers are not paid and as all academics, they are often busy with teaching, grading, supervising, researching, drafting grant applications, and maybe even writing up their own research. It is thus no surprise that it is often hard to find scholars willing to commit for a review on a particular topic. I have seen articles where the first invited review took weeks to answer, the second said yes, but never managed to get in the review, the third said yes, but then couldn’t find the time and more than ten people were contacted just to review a single article. With around 100 submissions a year, it is easy to see the scale of the enterprise (luckily often also the reviewers first invited agree). However, many authors believe that a delay in the review process has something to do with the assessment of the article and answer is simply no. Of course, if the reviewers are divided in their opinions (and this happened surprisingly often with one review recommending minor revisions or accept and the other reject), a third review helps to decide. Often, the review process seems democracy in Churchill’s famous dictum: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” While it might be good think about tinkering with the process (like having at least some reviews be public), the overall nature of the process ensures that a graduate student at a small college and a senior university professor have the same fair chance (and I have seen the former accepted and the latter rejected by the reviewers).

A final point about open access: in recent months, the debate has been forced by what seems like a hasty effort in the UK to require the publication of government funded research (what this is exactly seems to be unclear) in open-accession publication for which commercial publishers can charge a (hefty) fee that might be covered by universities and/or grant givers. There is a risk that this might lead to all kinds of distortions in the publication process that might reinforce hierarchies of universities and within the profession. After having edited a journal with a commercial publisher and having been involved in an online journal earlier, I am convinced about the merits of both models. Open access journals, which are free for authors and readers, are a good model for future journals as printing journals is no longer necessary and thus production costs have come down. There is still an odd legacy-effect at place, where authors prefer publication with in-print journals while nobody (except the author maybe) seems to look at the printed version anymore. As a result, university- or grant-funded open access journals deserve greater space in academia, especially as an outlet for research that is generated through government grants. However, I do see space for commercial publications that are published with the support network of a commercial publisher. While I also think that subscription rates are currently too high (and open access publishing might bring them down), it is forgotten in debates that the publishers are not the only beneficiaries. In fact, the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) who owns the journal relies on the income from the journal to organize a wonderful convention annually in New York.

Finally a few key points for authors I used in the ‘how to get published’ workshop:

  • Revise a draft and have a friend read it
  • Never submit the article at the same time with two journals (it happened in one case and both Nationalities Papers and the other journal rejected it)
  • Don’t plagiarize (it can ruin your career and reputation)
  • Be patient with the reviewers
  • Never respond immediately if you get negative reviews (always sleep over it). It will not just make editors less unhappy, it will also help your chances of remaining on good terms with the journal.
  • Don’t blame the editor or send insulting emails (they don’t help, believe me)
  • Most articles require revisions (often major revisions, this is not the exception, but the rule)
  • Don’t be discouraged and revise (most articles that are submitted, but not published, are due to authors not revising their articles).
  • Don’t just think about getting published, but also on getting read and cited. Just getting published does not translate into much readership considering the large volume of academic publications.
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One Response to Reflections on Editing a Journal: Experiences with Nationalities Papers

  1. Pingback: Refleksije o uređivanju naučnog časopisa: iskustva sa časopisom Nationalities Papers | aquamarinepress

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