The Top 10 Things we learned editing Politics

After 6 years our time as the editors-in-chief of Politics has come to an end. Here are the top 10 things we learned.

Editing a journal is a demanding but rewarding experience. Having reflected upon our time in the role, here are the most important things we learned:

  1.  Reviewers are the back-bone of scholarly research. The overwhelming majority of reviewers are conscientious, constructive, and considered in their feedback. Over 100s of submissions, we can count on two hands the number of reviews we received that were either inappropriate, incompetent, and/or incomplete. We know from personal experience that an inappropriate review can do lasting damage. Thus, it is important that colleagues continue to provide constructive peer review and do so at the ratio of least 3 reviews for every journal, book, or proposal submission they make. And it is important that editorial teams offer advice on what makes for a good peer review, remove inappropriate reviews from the process, and use functions available through online submission systems to share best practice amongst reviewers.
  2. Abstracts are important. The old adage about never getting a second chance to make a first impression holds with academic papers. A well-written abstract that is able to capture the central argument of the paper, key findings supporting the argument, the original contribution, and its significance to a specific body of literature that sets a strong platform and positively influences editorial teams, reviewers, and readers. A poorly constructed abstract, while not necessarily fatal, puts one at a disadvantage, even if what follows is higher quality.
  3. Titles are important. An editor, reviewer, and reader should be able to understand what your paper is about from the title. The best titles are able to convey the central argument in an accessible manner: e.g., Gender Matters! Bad titles involve puns, pop cultural references of limited import, or strings of key words. Coming up with a good title is hard work.
  4. Promotion is important. We know that for many colleagues, the idea of promoting research is anathema to what scholarship is supposed to be about. The reality is that the volume of high quality scholarship going into circulation in any subfield means that it is increasingly difficult for anyone to keep on top of the latest research. We all need help. Promoting work on social media, writing blog posts about key findings, and ensuring that freely accessible versions of papers are available through institutional repositories (in line with provisions granted by licensing agreements) are no longer optional extras, but required steps if one wishes for their research to be read.
  5. Citations may be unpredictable, but we have learned 2 things: While it is difficult to predict what will be a highly cited paper, it is quite easy to predict what will not. A paper improves its chances of finding an audience if it is able to clearly convey the question/puzzle/gap it is addressing, its argument, key findings, methodological choices, original contribution, and the significance of the contribution alongside strong underpinning research, a good title, and proactive promotion. Unfortunately though, this is no guarantee of success and many excellent papers go without the levels of citation one might expect and the recognition that they deserve. The converse though is more simple: papers that are unclear about their contributions, leave it unstated why a reader needs to care, have an obscure title, and/or fail to make use of social media channels are guaranteed to be citation ‘heat death’.
  6. Read your proofs carefully! The production process can do odd things to your original text and generally is murder on tables. It is important to read your entire article in full and go beyond merely answering outstanding queries from the copy-editor. The last thing you want is for your brilliant article to be blighted with an incoherent passage of text.
  7. Good journal publishers do much more than many academics give them credit for. We realise that this one will be controversial, particularly in light of calls for moving away from commercial models of scholarly publishing. However, just managing the peer review process is extremely time consuming. With the demands of a contemporary academic post, editing anything but a small niche journal with a low volume of submissions would become near impossible if it also included being responsible for technical support, website maintenance, online system maintenance/support, marketing, copy-editing, production, subscriptions, distribution, and design. Yes, one could do these themselves, but with what energy and time? While we do not wish to comment on profit yields in scholarly publishing, colleagues need to keep in mind all the back of house support that makes it possible for their papers to reach academic audiences and what it costs to do so.
  8. It is difficult to understand what being an editor entails until you have experienced being an editor: outside of a small number of journals, editors are not remunerated – either financially or in terms of time – for the work they do. That means that they do a full workload – of teaching, admin and research – as well as editorial work. Editorial work is most often done in evenings and at weekends. We have found that many colleagues do not necessarily understand this or the constraints it imposes. For example, there have been times when it has taken longer than we would have liked to come to a decision – often because we have not had the time to chase a reviewer due to other commitments. One thing we would say leaving the role is that editors are on your side – they want publish great articles and have them reach a wide audience. All they ask in return is some understanding of the demands of the role and some leeway when things don’t go as planned.
  9. Part of being a good editor is remembering that colleagues are human beings. The reality of the role is that around 90% of the time, you are delivering bad news to someone. Bad news can have significant consequences in terms of career plans and people’s sense of self. In particular, our research is often an extension of ourselves and even for very experienced colleagues, the separation is difficult to maintain. For these reasons, when we started, we agonised over decisions where we would not be moving forward with a paper. Over time, making those decisions began to become easier. But while heavy emotional investment in each submission was neither good for our mental health or practically sustainable, we always resisted the temptation to become mechanical about the decision-making process as a way of insulating ourselves from its consequences . Although we knew that delivering bad news was the norm for us, we also acknowledged that receiving bad news was not a regular occurrence for its recipients. Moreover, it was often quite unexpected. We therefore felt that it was important to be as supportive as possible, providing extensive feedback (even when papers were not ready to be sent out for peer review) and encouraging authors not to give up. This doesn’t mean that bad news didn’t still sting, but we hoped that we were able to help authors’ see a way forward for their work. The lesson for us was that this has broader import outside of editing. As academics, through marking, peer reviewing, grant appraising, supervision, and other forms of regulation, we have to deliver tough news. But never forget that the recipient is a fellow human being who deserves to be treated with respect, given a clear rationale for the decision being made, and as much as possible, support on how to improve going forward.
  10. One can be the difference that one wants to see in the discipline. During our tenure, we tried to institute practices that we believed would create the conditions for a more inclusive, open, and innovative discipline. This included doing our best to make our editorial board and team more diverse than had been the norm for disciplinary association journals, keeping Politics pluralist in the approaches we published, and being welcoming to new approaches and topic areas that were emerging from engagements with fields like gender studies, media studies, and LGBT+ studies. Where we were not as successful as we would have liked, and where much work remains to be done, is in establishing the connections and mechanisms that will enable an increase in the volume of high quality scholarship from the Global South that gets published. We are not alone with this concern. For example, the editorial team at African Affairs is leading the way in developing support structures that can help remove the barriers that colleagues from the Global South may face. Getting this right is important if politics and international studies have any pretensions of advancing global knowledge.
Martin Coward

Martin Coward

Martin is Editor of Politics with Kyle Grayson. His research focuses on theorising political violence in an urban context.

Kyle Grayson

Kyle Grayson

Kyle Grayson is a senior lecturer in international politics at Newcastle University and the co-editor of POLITICS.

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