EASE Council Post: Pippa Smart on Editors - the unsung heroes of quality publishing

We recently began a new initiative on our Blog, featuring regular posts from EASE Council Members, to share insights into the work our Council are doing both with EASE and in their professional work.

These posts are intended to help our members and the wider community get to know our Council a little better and showcase our collective achievements.

In this post, Pippa Smart highlights recent publications and activities that champion the efforts of journal editors.

Recently I wrote an editorial for my journal, Learned Publishing, on how publishers have responded to the recent pandemic. As I subtitled my editorial, the past 6 months have seen “Innovation, collaboration, and change”. Although the editorial was more focused on publishers and how they have responded, I also discussed some of the editorial strategies that have been implemented to manage articles, increase the speed to decision, and work in a more collaborative manner with other journals and with preprint repositories. Looking across these changes, I hope that many of them will be permanent, and that they will also foster further changes in the scholarly communication landscape.

Editors are often the unsung heroes of scholarly communication. Frequently working in the background, we manage the pivot between authors and readers and have to balance the needs of both parties – which can be tricky when they are not aligned. Editors help authors to improve their articles; we provide guidance on how to better their science; we advise on language and communication as well as scientific methodology and have to be skilled in identifying worthwhile content and ensuring that the content is clearly understood by readers. And all of this is often done outside regular work hours, often working in isolation and without a close team to help.

I have been humbled by my interaction with all types of editor while working with EASE. The role of EASE and other editorial organizations is hugely important to ensure that these unsung heroes have a community of like-minded individuals with whom we can share experiences and ask questions. Nobody knows all the answers and – speaking from personal experience – discussing problems with EASE members is not only rewarding but can also be an important lifeline and help to avoid mistakes.

In the past months many editors have had huge stress put upon them, for a wide range of reasons. Several journals received an overload of articles, and if you did not attend our conference in June I strongly recommend that you watch the video of Ines Steffens (at Eurosurveillance) and Naomi Lee (The Lancet) as they recount how they managed the tsunami of articles submitted to them, and the challenges of homeworking teams and the lack of suitable reviewers.

Unfortunately, there have been criticisms levelled at journal editors for sub-standard reviewing and quality assurance processes. But the flip side are criticisms of journal editors taking too long to process submissions on the disease – i.e. spending too long on the quality assurance processes. Some journals were able to draw on support from well-resourced publishers, while others had to manage without external support, and I think it is easy for the media to ignore the lack of support that many editors receive.

As the recent Nature article asked: “Will the pandemic permanently alter scientific publishing”? I also asked this question in my editorial, and I wish I knew the answer. I sincerely hope that we won’t simply revert back to the status quo of previous years. However, if we are to introduce improvements to the current system of publishing, there is the need to better recognise the role of editors and to provide better training and support mechanisms for us. The need to balance speed and quality has never been more important and the role of the editor as a disinterested arbiter of quality science and quality articles should be better recognised.

My hat off to all my fellow editors and to EASE for providing a platform where we share, discuss, agree and disagree, and help ensure a robust future for editing and quality publication.

Pippa Smart
PSP Consulting, UK
EASE Past President