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.