"Almost every editor I have ever met has a problem with finding good quality peer reviewers"

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"Almost every editor I have ever met has a problem with finding good quality peer reviewers"

I am in conversation with Pippa Smart, an independent research communication and publishing consultant who runs her own company, PSP Consulting. Having worked in the academic and research publishing industry for over 25 years, Pippa has developed an incisive understanding of how the industry works. She uses her extensive experience and knowledge to advise publishers in the development of their publishing programs and runs customized training programs on topics such as editorial skills, journal business development, and copyright. Her clients include ALPSP, WIPO, EASE, BioMed Central, USAID, CLA, WHO, and FAO. Following a degree in Publishing and Anthropology from Oxford Brookes University, Pippa worked for several publishers including Cambridge University Press, Blackwell Science, and CABI where the roles she undertook included production, technical development, and editorial and strategic management. She was Head of Publishing at International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), an information development charity, where she developed and implemented the publishing support program to provide consultancy services to publishers in developing countries. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Learned Publishing, the official journal of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), and an editorial board member of Science Editing and International Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. She is a non-Executive Director for Practical Action Publishing and a Council member of the European Association of Science Editors (EASE). Pippa is also one of the editors of the Science Editors’ Handbook, a trusted guide used by digital and print editing professionals.

This is a continuation of a previous conversation. The previous segment captured our discussion about the recent tides of change in academic publishing. Here, Pippa talks about the challenges faced by journal editors and some of the critical skills they need to develop to successfully run a publication in today’s competitive scenario. She also shares her views on the unique struggles faced by researchers and publishers in developing countries, highlighting visibility and credibility as the topmost challenges. Towards the end of the interview, Pippa talks about her experience editing the Science Editors’ Handbook.

You frequently interact with journal editors. What are the topmost concerns expressed by most journal editors during your discussions with them? What are the major challenges they face?

The biggest challenge that every editor I know faces is how to raise the quality and improve the efficiency of peer review. Almost every editor I have ever met has a problem with finding good quality peer reviewers, getting them to deliver their review on time, and getting them to write constructive feedback for authors. Apart from this – but for similar reasons – time is a big problem: most editors work in their own time and have to compromise their commitment to the journal with their responsibility to their regular work and family life: it's a difficult balance.

What are some critical skills journal editors must develop in order to successfully run an academic publication?

Editors need a range of skills to be successful. As an Editor-in-Chief, they need strategic skills – planning, management, overview, delegation, negotiation, vision, etc. As the editor having to deal with articles, they need the skill to read and comprehend quickly, critical appraisal skills, in-depth knowledge of the subject area, the ability to take advice (not always easy!), be objective, avoid bias and discrimination, undertake in-depth analysis of an article (as opposed to the wider view as an Editor-in-Chief), communicate clearly in writing, and be decisive. Good judgement is required by all editors, both in the practical decisions and in the ability to select good reviewers, editorial board members, etc. Communication is, of course, paramount, and the ability to appreciate different viewpoints is vital to avoid conflict (with the publisher, other editors, authors, etc.). The ability and willingness to make decisions (and abide by the consequences) is a key skill that is sometimes forgotten: the editor must be able to take advice and then make decisions – and be able to justify every one of them.

Pippa, you have also spent a considerable amount of time supporting publishing initiatives in Africa, SE Asia, and Latin America. What, according to you, are some of the challenges faced by developing countries with regard to scholarly publishing?

Visibility and credibility are the two major challenges. The lack of available technical solutions and knowledge of international initiatives can disadvantage them (as mentioned earlier) and lead to a lack of visibility. This is exacerbated by their exclusion from the two main indexes (Web of Science and Scopus). These indexes are making some effort to address this problem (e.g., the emerging source index), but it will be very slow to have any effect.

Journals produced in these regions also suffer from credibility problems. In many countries, “international” journals are held in greater regard than the national journals, although the quality of what the former publishes may be similar (or even lower). (But this is not true in all regions and all disciplines; for example, within Latin America it is common to find national journals held in higher regard.) Language, of course, remains a problem. If the journal publishes in English but the editorial staff are not native English speakers or not fluent in English, then the articles accepted and published may also suffer from language problems, and for native English speakers this introduces a block. Unfortunately, we are very language-driven and will assume (often incorrectly) that something badly (or inconsistently) written is bad science.

Elsewhere, you’ve also referred to “the gap in information provision between the developed and developing world." How large is this gap? How can it be bridged? What role do journals and publishers have to play in bridging this?

Whilst impossible to measure, access to high quality information is still far easier in the developed world than in the developing one. Apart from subscription barriers, there are technological barriers: slow internet speeds, lack of familiarity with online systems, and lack of experience in quickly assessing and selecting appropriate information sources. One concern of mine is that although the open access environment has made a great deal of research available in the developing world, not all of it is of high quality. Therefore, the researchers that previously could only access old, out-of-date print literature are now bombarded with poor quality information. Moving relatively quickly from one environment to another, I wonder whether there yet are sufficient skills and time to sift through the available literature to identify the good quality information. And, unfortunately, if poor selection is made, this will go on to influence and undermine their own research.

Regarding what can be done about this, I feel that the responsibility lies with the academic institutes to educate researchers about selection. Publishers can do relatively little beyond the very limited current quality criteria (proof reading and indexing) and it would be impossible to introduce a global accreditation system.

You make an interesting observation in one of your articles: “Whilst the move to commercial publishers has been a pragmatic decision by these institutional publishers, it has raised concerns in the librarian and academic world about the commercialisation of research.” Could you elaborate? What are some of these concerns?

It is the objective of commercial companies to make money, and if journals are moved to them then there is a likelihood that the commercial companies will monetize the journal in a way that may be detrimental to the free flow and discovery of information. I know of several journals that have felt trapped by the contracts they signed with commercial publishers which preclude them from offering the journal openly unless they can pay the publisher (which they often cannot afford). The commercial publishers are doing nothing wrong, but it is important for any journal to consider the consequences of an affiliation with a commercial publisher and balance the – often considerable – benefits against the potential disadvantages.

Could you share your experiences while editing the Science Editor’s Handbook?

The short answer is that whilst I loved meeting and dealing with so many knowledgeable authors, I was very glad when it was finally published! The handbook has been maintained by the European Association of Science Editors for many years, but was due a total overhaul because many of the chapters had become very out of date. I was asked if I would update it, and it seemed a great opportunity to work with influential people and build resource for our members. It did, however, take far more of my time than I had anticipated. Most of the authors and reviewers were great, but I during production I spent a great deal of my time acting as confidante and counsellor for the authors. I became far too informed about one author’s marital and health problems, and spent a lot of time being jealous of another author who seemed to spend most of her time flying around the world (mostly on holiday). It taught me a lot about how to deal sensitively with authors whose work needed extensive editing, and I learnt to be a sympathetic ear for authors with problems!

Pippa, over the years, you’ve played several roles, e.g., consultant, writer, editor-in-chief, trainer, speaker, scholarly communications specialist, advisor, and editor. What is closest to your heart?

Almost impossible to choose! I am very lucky to really enjoy what I do, and to have the chance to do so many different things. If forced I would say that training is my highlight as I love working with people and have remained friends with many people I met during my training courses.

This was a great interview! Thanks, Pippa, for your time and valuable insights.

Read Part 1 of the interview: The advantages and disadvantages of the digital boom in publishing

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