The dispatchers of knowledge

XKCD #397 "Unscientific".

What is scientific? XKCD #397 “Unscientific”, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.5.

Journal editors have a key role in the scientific process. By having the final decision on which papers appear in their journal, they act as gatekeepers to ensure that all contributions meet minimum requirements regarding innovation and cogency. Their decisions also shape the scientific discussion and indirectly the collective consciousness of the community. As this consciousness defines what is perceived as valuable and timely research, the editor’s decisions will eventually impact the shape of future science.

Editors can often further impact the scientific process by influencing journal policies regarding for example peer-review. They execute those policies and have the final word in case of disputes. In short, they combine legislative, executive and judiciary privileges within their realm.

On person securely in this realm is Duncan Ackerley. During my research visit at Monash University, I had the pleasure to share office with Duncan who combines his role as a researcher with being the editor of the “Bulletin of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographical Society” (BAMOS). I used that opportunity to interview him about his role as the editor and the scientific publishing process in general.

Duncan started by telling me why he became the editor of BAMOS. After moving to Australia, he wanted to contribute to the Australian meteorologic and oceanographic science community. Although the job “probably eats into more of his actual work time than he should allow”, he generally enjoys that role. In Duncan’s case, an editors typical everyday tasks include organising peer-review, gathering news articles and typesetting the magazine. However, he finds another aspect of the job much more rewarding.

As the editor, he has considerable freedom in the strategic development of the magazine. He is free to select adequate contributions to BAMOS as long as they are “within the AMOS community’s scope”. But his freedom does not stop there. He successfully tried to further develop BAMOS by encouraging contributions from young scientists to the magazine. He achieved that goal by introducing peer-review for articles in the science section of the magazine.

There is good reason why all serious scientific publishers implement peer-review for their journals.

I definitely feel that generally, publications are improved through peer-review. All of my papers have benefitted from the independent insights into what I have actually written. When you write a paper you can become so focused on what you are saying that you interpret what you have said without actually reading it properly. A reviewer therefore – in the simplest sense – provides an independent evaluation of your work.

The only times that this does not work are when the reviewer has their own agenda or has a vested interest in the research, a situation that the journals try hard to avoid.

A potential way to reduce those conflicts of interests or other reviewer prejudices is to use anonymised authors.

I personally think anonymous authors would be a much fairer way of doing the reviews. It removes any potential prejudice in the review process that is based on whether you know the author or not. BAMOS does not use this policy at the moment but, following this interview, I think I will write it into our peer-review policy.

However, there are other problems associated with peer review.

I think the system of peer-review based on the good will of scientists to review work, slows everything down. Journals rely on scientists devoting their time (for free) in order to have papers reviewed. This means that those scientists can only undertake a review when they have sufficient time. This is the first hurdle in the process and one that causes long delays.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this problem.

I don’t think the number of publications is this issue. It may be worth the journal having staff whose job it is to only undertake the peer review but you could not guarantee that you would have an expert in the field if the person doing the review were not actively doing research.

Other journals try to solve the problem in different ways, which might be worth a try.

I think moving to online-only publication with open access would improve the speed of publication – something I feel the EGU journals have been very successful with. The other option is to offer reviewers the options of ‘accept’, ‘minor revisions’ and ‘reject’ – i.e. no ‘major revision’ option. This then means that authors can go away and respond to major revisions in their own time and come back with an improved paper that will pass through peer-review quickly. The disadvantage, of course, is that rejection is demoralizing whereas ‘major revision’ decisions do often lead to acceptance. It does, however, make the reported journal production time appear shorter.

Which strategy to make the scientific publishing more efficient best serves the scientific community remains to be seen. Only one thing appears virtually certain: editors, like Duncan, continue to hold a key role in the scientific process.

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About Clemens Spensberger

PhD student in dynamic meteorology at the University of Bergen.
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