Why would anyone want to be an (Associate) editor, anyway?

This post is jointly written by Steve Heard and Kathe Todd-Brown. Using the first person for Steve and the third for Kathe seemed less awkward than alternatives, but this should not imply Kathe’s contribution was less important than Steve’s. Disclosure: Steve has been an Associate Editor for The American Naturalist for 13 years. Kathe has not yet taken on an AE role.

So the other day this question (above) popped up in my Twitter timeline: a question from Kathe Todd-Brown, an early-career biogeochemist who’s thinking about how much – and what kinds of – service to take on. I dashed off a superficial reply along the lines of “well, somebody has to, and it’s pretty interesting”.

Then Kathe explained her thinking a little more. When she did, I realized that I’d wondered all the same things at his corresponding career stage. So, here’s Kathe’s longer-form question and my attempt at an answer – not so much directly to her, but to my own early-career self and to anyone with similar questions.

Kathe says: Is being a handling/associate editor* for a journal worth it? For most service activities that I’ve interacted with so far there is some professional reward: organize a conference session and meet folks outside your current network, review a manuscript and improve your own writing. But being an editor seems to have very little return, and yet several academics I admire have chosen to take this on.

While I do want to give back to the community (I love academia/research and want to see it grow/evolve), there’s a line where the time you devote to service starts to interfere with your own research.

Yep, every one of these thoughts is one I had before taking on my first AE position! Now, 13 years in, here are the reasons I (still) volunteer as an AE:

  • Somebody has to do it (or do they?) If nobody volunteered for AE roles, who would handle all our papers? We all want to publish (and science needs us to), and our current publishing system won’t allow that unless we can draw on academics who volunteer as AEs**. It’s not impossible to imagine alternatives, of course, and here I may be a stick-in-the-mud for rejecting the ones I’ve heard about (Kathe is much more open to such new ideas, and the smart money is often on the younger scientist). Some branches of academia use “publication” systems that are less AE- and reviewer-dependent. For instance, mathematics and physics have arXiv.org, which posts “preprints” as submitted,  without formal pre-posting review, and instead encourages open community discussion. While this has some advantages for access and fast citation while minimizing editor effort, its rather obvious disadvantages in terms of consistent publication quality make me glad arXiv doesn’t matter much in my own field (Kathe, however, is a bit less negative). Computer science and engineering make heavy use of conference proceedings, although neither of us is sure whether this is as different as it seems at first blush. There may be other systems that do away with the need for AEs (or, we both think, more likely replace them with other types of service). But that’s not the system we have right now, and for that system to work we need AEs.
  • It’s part of my job. Well, specifically being an AE isn’t part of my job (as a university professor), but doing (some fuzzily defined quantity of) some kind of service to the university, to the community, and/or to the profession is. One path to job satisfaction is to find service roles that are needed and that you actually enjoy. The AE role fits that description for me; Kathe wonders if other service roles would fit better for her, and that’s fair enough. (Note, by the way, that these first two reasons hold for all kinds of service roles; I’ve argued before that they’re why you should consider serving as Department Chair, even if you’re not interested in doing it.)
  • It’s familiarized me with how journals work and to how Editors-in-Chief think. It even lets me influence (to some extent) both of those things.
  • It shows me how to write a good review (and a bad one), and perhaps more importantly to my own career, how to write a good Response to Reviews (I was terribly, if not legendarily, bad at this, early on).
  • I’m proud of having helped improve some of the papers I’ve handled. Peer review has two functions: a gatekeeping one, and a manuscript-improvement one. It’s easy to focus on the former, but as Andrew Hendry argues, the latter is probably more important! I think some of the papers I’ve handled got a lot better as a result of my editorial effort. These papers don’t appear on my CV, but I think of them as part of my contribution to science anyway (they’re part of my “academic inclusive fitness”, discussed here in a different service context).

I had two major fears about becoming an AE – one reflected in Kathe’s question, and one not. In both cases, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

  • I worried being an AE would be a lot of work. AEs vary in approach. Some generally just curate the reviews they get, and if that’s your style then in principle handling a paper is less work than reviewing one (as long as you get a couple of thorough reviews that more or less agree with each other). My style is different: I nearly always give the manuscript a careful read and write what amounts to my own review. Even with my relatively intensive style, though, handling a paper isn’t much more work than reviewing one. It helps a lot that my journal has a fantastic office staff, professional and dedicated; so all I have to do is suggest reviewers, and all the imploring, chasing, nagging, and collating is done for me. Not all journals are like this, so if you’re considering taking on the role it’s worth asking a current AE or two about it.

      Given the near-equivalence of handling and reviewing, workload is really a just function of how many manuscripts you see as an AE and as a reviewer. The AE load is usually negotiable with the journal office when you sign on, or when your circumstances change. I’ve handled ~10-12 papers/year*** for the Naturalist, and they relaxed that rate the year I spent as an Acting Dean. This isn’t bad at all, especially since as an AE I feel OK declining a good fraction of the review requests I get from other journals.

  • I worried being an AE would make me really, really unpopular. After all, I reject a large fraction of all the papers I handle, and about half the time I do so without even sending them out for review (so I can’t even hide behind reviewers’ opinions). And an AE doesn’t have the option of anonymity. But after handling well over 100 submissions, I’ve dealt with exactly one incensed author. I’ve had many authors thank me, and here’s my biggest surprise: several authors have thanked me for rejecting their papers, telling me that the final versions published elsewhere were much stronger as a result. It’s still possible, of course, that the next author I reject will hunt me down and give me a horrible wedgie; but it seems that I greatly overestimated this risk.

So should you volunteer as an AE? Your mileage may vary, but it’s been a pleasure for me. Kathe makes a really good point, though, when she says that “there’s a line where the time you devote to service starts to interfere with your own research”. Early in your career – say, as a postdoc and as a pre-tenure Assistant Professor – it’s wise to be careful about your total service load; service (no matter how important we say it is) won’t get you hired and won’t get you tenure. It’s unlikely you’ll be asked to AE pre-tenure****, but if you are, insist on a light manuscript load – no more than you’d normally accept review requests for. But once you’re established enough that your service portfolio starts to grow, I can heartily recommend a stint as an AE.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) and Kathe Todd-Brown August 27, 2015

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*The terminology varies a bit among journals. Associate Editor, Handling Editor, Corresponding Editor, and Editorial Board Member all mean the same thing. The Editor-in-Chief (or just-plain-Editor) oversees all; AEs choose reviewers, consider reviews, and recommend decisions to the EiC.

**I suppose we could have super-high page charges and a cadre of paid, full-time AEs; but that’s not our model (fortunately, I think).

***Although I see most of these manuscripts 2-3 times, in their original form and then following at least one round of revision.

****That’s not because journals don’t think you’re important enough yet. Instead, it’s because journals assume you’ll say no, and that if you don’t, you probably ought to.


9 thoughts on “Why would anyone want to be an (Associate) editor, anyway?

  1. Chris Buddle

    Great post – I agree with all the points. Here’s another one… being an Associate Editor makes it a bit easier to say “no” to review requests. I know that sounds a bit childish, but I often feel guilty/bad about saying no to review requests, for perhaps less than ideal reasons (we are *all* too busy….). However, ever since taking on a role as a subject/associate editor, this allows me to be a bit more selective in the reviews I do, and allows me to really justify sticking to my self-imposed quote of reviews (which is about one per month).

    I should also say that being an AE really gives good insights into where the discipline is going. It gives great exposure to a range of papers I might not otherwise read. that makes it quite fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Chris – I totally agree about declining other reviews (that’s what I was getting at the end of my first “worry bullet”). As a reviewer I tend to take on only stuff that’s really interesting to me (two such on my desk today!), since as an AE I handle a broader array of things. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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  3. Jeremy Fox

    I’d add: it’s a real feather in your cap, especially if you’re asked to serve at a leading journal. It gives you some measure of influence over the direction of your field. And it keeps you in touch with the latest thinking and results in your field.

    Liked by 1 person

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