Professional editors are bad for science

February 28, 2014

Commenter mikka wants to know why:

I don’t get this “professional editors are not scientists” trope. All the professional editors I know were bench scientists at the start of their career. They read, write, look at and interpret data, talk to bench scientists and keep abreast of their fields. In a nutshell, they do what PIs do, except writing grants and deciding what projects must be pursued. The input some editors put in some of my papers would merit a middle authorship. They are scientists all right, and some of them very good ones.

Look, yes you are right that they are scientists. In a certain way. And yes, I regret the way that my opinion that they are 1) very different from Editors and Associate Editors who are primarily research scientists and 2) ruining science tends to be taken as a personal attack on their individual qualities and competence.

But there is simply no way around it.

The typical professional editor, typically at a Glamour(ish) Mag publication, is under-experienced in science compared with a real Editor.

Regardless of circumstances, if they have gone to the Editorial staff from a postdoc, without experience in the Principal Investigator chair then they have certain limitations.

It is particularly bad that ass kissing from PIs who are desperate to get their papers accepted tends to persuade these people over time that they are just as important as those PIs.

“Input” merits middle authorship, eh? Sure, anyone with half a brain can suggest a few more experiments. And if you have the despotic power of a Nature editor’s keyboard behind you, sure…they damn well will do it. And ask for more. And tell you how uniquely brilliant of a suggestion it all was.

And because it ends up published in a Glamour Mag, all the sheep will bleat approvingly about what a great paper it is.


Professional editors are ruining science.

They have no loyalty to the science*. Their job is to work to aggrandize their own magazine’s brand at the cost of the competition. It behooves them to insist that six papers worth of work gets buried in “Supplemental Methods” because no competing and lesser journal will get those data. It behooves them to structure the system in a way that authors will consider a whole bunch of other interesting data “unpublishable” because it got scooped by two weeks.

They have no understanding or consideration of the realities of scientific careers*. It is of no concern to them whether scientific production should be steady, whether uninteresting findings can later be of significance, nor whether any particular subfield really needs this particular kick in the pants. It is no concern to them that their half-baked suggestion requires a whole R01 scale project and two years of experiments. They do not have to consider any reality whatsoever. I find that real, working scientist Editors are much more reasonable about these issues.

Noob professional editors are star-struck and never, ever are able to see that the Emperor is, in fact, stark naked. Sorry, but it takes some experience and block circling time to mature your understanding of how science really works. Of what is really important over the long haul. Notice how the PLoSFail fans (to pick one recent issue) are heavily dominated by the wet-behind-the-ears types and the critics seem to mostly be established faculty? This is no coincidence.

Again, this is not about the personal qualities of the professional editors. The structure of their jobs, and typical career arc, makes it impossible for them to behave differently.

This is why it is the entire job category of professional editor that is the problem.

If you require authoritah, note that Nobel laureate Brenner said something similar.

It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists.

He was clearly not talking about peer review itself, but rather the professional Glamour Mag type editor.

*as well they should not. It is a structural feature of the job category. They are not personally culpable, the institutional limitations are responsible.

21 Responses to “Professional editors are bad for science”

  1. lee Says:

    I think NIH director Collins said it best in his recent Nature commentary: “…the overvaluation of research published in high-profile journals”. These editors would find this neither funny nor ironic.


  2. sop scientist Says:

    Hear hear! I completely agree with you, having met a few of the junior glam mag editors at meetings etc. Those that became editors at glam mags lack enough experience in the actual real world of science labs as PIs. It amazes me that even glam mag junior editors wield the amount of power they do. Further, having had a few glam pubs myself with ridiculously huge supplementary data sections, involving >2 years of work providing requested supporting data that do not fundamentally change any of the major conclusions, I am sick of the waste of time and resources that glam editors require. I am hopeful about the new model of peer review from eLIFE. What are other’s thoughts?


  3. bj Says:

    Since the glamor editors sit on neither tenure nor grant committees, they wield no power that isn’t give to them by the PI’s who do. I think this railing against them is a foolish waste of time.


  4. Professional editors are ruining science.

    Dude, get a motherfucken grippe. No one is “ruining science”. Other than needing more money in the system, science is doing fine.


  5. Pinko Punko Says:

    Many times I think they do an OK job, but being young and learning new fields, they only learn them from meetings not in the trenches. This means there is a certain undemocratic stratification of those journals based on enforcing clubbiness. Also a shallowness dominated by du jour thinking. This increases the politics and favoritism of those venues. Recognized brands get enshrined. I think they also let certain names dictate those topics via peer review. Science seems to be infamous for this.

    A few editors at a journal or two were in my field, and they did nice work as post-docs, but jobs were just not there. I don’t blame them for taking those jobs. I think it would be super interesting. Some are very bright. Some are not. Absolutely I would prefer academic editors.


  6. The Other Dave Says:

    Why do editors need to be scientists anyway? Their job is being an editor.

    I don’t want a train conductor cooking my food either, or a physician fixing my car. I think assuming that editors don’t know what they’re doing is incredibly arrogant and annoying.

    If you’re having trouble publishing, DM, maybe you should reconsider where you’re submitting your papers. Or improve the quality of interest of your work. Don’t blame other people.


  7. What do people think of professional program officers? It’s kind of the same deal as professional editors, isn’t it? Should all program officers be of the rotating type?


  8. Pinko Punko Says:

    The Other Dave,

    Editors should be scientists. They are not typesetters. Your first sentence makes no sense to the rest of your comment. Since the editor’s job is to make decisions based on science, and you say that editors know what they are doing, but then say that they don’t need to be scientists, it sounds like a jumble. Yes, DM could have sour grapes, or maybe the situation is not optimal. I do take this post as extra aggressive from DM, but maybe not entirely wrong.

    I guess I feel like program officers have a bigger picture view of science than glamour editors. I usually feel like they have more experience.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    JB- at the moment I’m vulnerable to your suggestion so I’ll say yes on that one. Rotating POs!


  10. cookingwithsolvents Says:

    DM, I generally agree with your comments. It’s usually not worth the delay plus the ‘exchange rate’ ca. 5 solid papers for 1 glamour mag pub.

    Reading the CV’s of PO’s is educational, that’s for sure.


  11. What are your thoughts on a professional editor suggesting experiments that takes a few months before agreeing to send it out for review? True story.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. drugmonkey Says:

    I don’t think editors should suggest experiments much at all. Sorting through issues raised by the reviewers may lead to editor suggestions now and again but it shouldn’t be a default expectation that they mandate lots of new work.


  13. anonymous postdoc Says:

    The problem with professional editors is that people involved with CSR are beginning to think that a manuscript which takes a long time to reach publication must not be impactful, and thus perhaps should not have been funded. That is what you can read between the lines of the Science article on R01 percentile versus bibliometrics.

    Therefore, one’s science is good because peer reviewers picked it out of the pile and said it would be good. Except those rankings do not predict citations. So, ok, the science is good because a professional editor picked it out of the clique pile and said this is high-impact. Except those selections are made by people who are following trends, not people who are actually thinking about public health or even necessarily innovation. So then, if we cannot tell if science is good because of whether it was funded, and we cannot tell if science is good because it was published in J High MucketyMuck, how can we tell if science is good, in a measurable way, ideally by a single continuous variable?

    Frankly, all I can think of are citations. Ideally per finding, not per person. Which means that journals, by delaying the publication of this or that paper, are limiting the citations of certain kinds of science within a funding period, making it seem less impactful relative to trendy stuff by the point funding is next considered – even though it may influence more people in the long run.

    I am beginning to think that arxiv is onto something.


  14. brembs Says:

    Hear hear! I agree completely, professional editors at GlamMagz are major contributors to ruining science – but they only do so at our behest, because we collectively buy into the Glam BS as the stupid sheep we apparently seem to be.


  15. Anonymous Says:

    Why does Nature Medicine hire editors with PhDs? They don’t know shit about medicine.


  16. Grumble Says:

    @ap: “how can we tell if science is good, in a measurable way, ideally by a single continuous variable?”

    You can’t, really. Citation counts don’t tell you anything more than that a finding is popular, trendy, or whatever you want to call it.

    These discussions always seem to lose track of the fact the way science works is that it takes a long, long time before it is determine whether a particular result is “good” or not. Usually longer than any one person’s career.

    So, call me a cynic, but *all* measures on a faster timescale are measures of popularity, not “goodness”.


  17. CD0 Says:

    Professional Editors do what they think it’s best for their journals. Of course they contribute to drive Science in favor of unexpected findings, trendy topics, or, even worse, big names. Not necessarily impactful, solid discoveries. In fact, most articles in Nature or Science do not get more than 20 citations. But it’s the fault of the scientific community to revere the journals that they direct. We have created a culture that values a Nature paper more than 5-6 solid manuscripts in respectable journals, even if the study was meaningless, was published because of the name of the PI, and has being cited only by a review of the same lab.
    Otherwise, I would like all my papers to be published in Nature, Science or Cell.


  18. anonymous postdoc Says:

    Grumble, you make an excellent point. Nevertheless we increasingly have a system where valuations are made based on some kind of metric. We ourselves prefer our data to be quantitative rather than anecdotal, subjective, or descriptive. Administrators are going to choose the metrics that we all think are kind of stupid (JIF, H-index) if we don’t find some kind of alternative that we like better that they can comprehend.

    The post on dual-career couples would suggest that needing metrics is kind of stupid anyway, that a person who was “only hired because” turns out to be just as productive (by some metric?) as traditional hires. So maybe the metrics game is just one more problem begat by lack of funds. Or by the pyramid scheme structure of science: “I can’t tell all these thousands of postdocs apart. If only there were some number I could point to that would tell me which ones I should give a crap about hiring.”


  19. rxnm Says:

    More and more often, it seems, I find the phrase “hate the game, not the player” to be apt.

    Glam eds have a pretty sweet gig, but they only have the power we give them. Which is too much.


  20. mikka Says:

    So it’s not that editors are not scientists. It’s that the way the scientific publishing process has been distorted by the twisted way we evaluate past impact to predict future impact is ruining science, and professional editors are a symptom of this system but they are the ones that ultimately reject my papers so let’s blame them for the whole clusterfuck.

    Good luck getting your papers accepted by Randy Shekman.


  21. patientrb Says:

    Anyone even thought that they are completely redundant and useless, “parasitic”. And so are all journals, all of them. In this electronic age what is a journal for? Scientists, real ones should be moderating wikis and contributed content should be made public at the outset to be genuinely “peer reviewed” through a cooperative and democratic commenting process that is to be available on-line for the rest or eternity and be what real science evaluation is all about.


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