In this paper, we attempt to initiate an ethical mapping of the role of editors in science’s culture of reward. The narratives we chose to paraphrase illustrate an under-recognised political role for the editor, that of the censor. It is through semi-censorship that editors grant or withhold reward; it is through semi-censorship that the epistemic content of journals is constructed and through semi-censorship that the status and credit of scientists is decided upon.
When we talk of censorship, we do not refer to explicit, premeditated, politically planned and governed control of information flows. Of course, many journals are specifically tailored to specific schools of thought in a discipline and have, as such, an identity drawn from the epistemic paradigm they subscribe to. Through their decisions and action, editors guard this identity. This is a process that is visible from the outside, and known amongst the group of authors the journal targets. It usually can be understood via consulting journal websites and guidelines. As far as selection is in the service of this identity, it falls short of being labeled censorship. However, to avoid dogma and the dismissal of the potential value of critique, these paradigms can never be considered as being above discussion.Footnote 6
In practice, the censorship as conducted by editors will be implicit, unknown and very probably invisible to most – including authors and the editors themselves. Some editors are among the victims of this particular social, political and economic organisation of science. Editors handle large numbers of manuscripts, whether original research or other types, and value judgements are required for each and every one of them. These decisions cannot be separated from the value systems in which the editors are embedded themselves. Editors judge based upon scholarly value, medial value, economic value and probably many other values, and hybrids of all of them. Again, these value systems and especially intermediaries or hybrids are implicit and unknown. Except for a few epistemic preferences, they are not on the journal’s website, they are not in the editor’s manual, yet they are embedded in editorship practices, shaping the distribution of reward in science.
Authors are also victims. In the most visible sense, (primarily) the major, monolithic journals discriminate against theoretical and conceptual articles by making them commission-only, but more importantly by rejecting critical ideas before peer review merely because editors disagree with the content. If they did this with original articles, imagine the controversy: editors reject results of study because they disagree! However, more subtle censorship infrastructures exist through careful nudging of the content of papers through translation of peer review results, additional editorial review steps (pre- or post-peer review), or authors anticipating all of the above and engaging in self-censorship to navigate the conflicting value systems of the contemporary publication landscape.
Of course, the degree to which such semi-censorship is performed will vary greatly across disciplines, journals and regions. The stronger the position one value system is in place vis-à-vis the others, the more it will determine the content of value judgements made by editors. Following Franzen (2009), we hypothesise the ‘top-tier’ journals to be more at risk than any others because of their complex relationship with research success, research excellence, research dissemination and prestige in general (Reich 2013). If these journals (and others) want to remain interdisciplinary and act as a forum for novelty, quality and paradigm-altering contributions, any form, however light, of censorship is a handicap at best. In order to allow value to be granted to a wide array of research types, editors require room for maneuvering which conflicting value systems may withhold. The incentives associated with specific publication outlets and publication types – for acquisition, career development, and building prestige, exemplified in the dominant striving for excellence, further reinforce current censorship practices (Halffman and Radder 2015).
This pilot analysis of editors as gatekeepers of reward has several limitations. First, apart from the literature we cite, it is built entirely on our own personal experiences of interacting as authors with editors (and in the case of DS, interacting with authors as an editor). However, this experience is not inconsiderable, and we have attempted to avoid having any personal biases skew our analysis. This is a pilot analysis using our own data, and we suggest that larger analyses using a wider pool of data would be beneficial and, accordingly invite others to join the conversation. Second, we have paraphrased communications from editors rather than quoting them verbatim in order to respect both their confidentiality and the rules of the journals concerned. Despite our attempts to paraphrase carefully, this limits the reader’s ability to assess the meanings of those communications themselves.
Editorial valuation practices consist of work, the type of work that goes into assessing contributions, articulating value associated with them internally and translating it to a value judgement that also has merit externally. We propose that editorship, in close allegiance with authorship, should pursue value through dialogue. In practice, this should take the shape of a conversation, a practice in which value is constructed in a manuscript through a series of open interactions in which editorial decisions are less unidirectional decisions and more collective obligatory passage points on the route to publication (and reward) (Vora and Boellstorff 2012). A label we all know, for instance “major revisions required”, would become the collective decision of authors, reviewers and editors, only to be followed by the next obligatory passage point “minor revisions required”, etc. Helgesson and Muniesa (2014) have – ironically, in an editorial – pleaded for such a route.Footnote 7 Rather than call for the consolidation of value systems or abolishing all but one, which would require a large-scale and radical structural rearrangement in the organisation of science, we argue that they should feature prominently and transparently in editor-author conversations and become embedded in both manuscript and judgment of that manuscript.Footnote 8 While there have already been several promising steps towards open peer review, open editorial review is equally important yet much less developed, possibly because editors are more powerful than peer reviewers.
We realise that this call is ambitious, as it requires a re-articulation of the roles of both editors and authors, however small. After an initial adjustment period, such conversation need not entail significantly more work that existing editor-author communication. Existing research on publishing cultures, publishing practices and peer review provide the initial ingredients for such re-articulations. Also promising is the announcement that the American Sociological Association (ASA) is opening up its archives of editor-author interactions.Footnote 9 This would be the place where best practices of the editorial conversation can be identified more concretely. One of us is a senior editor at an ethics journal and has first-hand experience of making such aforementioned judgements, subject to the same value systems, in pursuit of said conversations. Because of its nature as a humanities and social sciences journal, the editorial team members may have a more explicit understanding of the role of challenging paradigms – or displaying their multitude – in the advancement of research. As a result, the journal seldom rejects before review. Nonetheless, even as a member of the editorial team, it has been difficult to persuade other editors to move to a system of blinded review, because of a (mis)conception of at least one other editor that there is nothing problematic about revealing author identities to reviewers. This suggests that editorial traditions themselves are perhaps those most resistant to change, even when supported by some editors. Hopefully the slow transition from being gatekeepers of reward to being more transparent keymasters of collaboration in publishing can now begin.
More research is needed on the various cultures and paradigms that can bias editorial decisions and lead to conscious or accidental censorship. Specifically, we envision three routes towards expanding our empirical and conceptual understanding of editorship and evaluations of value. First, an empirical analysis of the recently opened ASA archives (as mentioned above) would offer clear empirical examples of author-editor conversations. The ASA archives offer the type of data required for a deeper and more constructive understanding of value creation and value evaluation by authors and editors. Second, a larger survey of authors’ experiences of editors acting as gatekeepers and censors, ideally conducted by independent researchers whose experiences are not included in the analysis, would be beneficial. Any such study would avoid the potential for bias in our pilot analysis while also providing more generalisable data. Third, an ethnography of editors focused on the many value judgements that take place in their practices would allow access to the tacit expertise editors build and transfer, how their relationships to publishers influences these, and the articulations they offer themselves when it comes to their gatekeeping endeavours.
In addition, editors should be assisted to assess and avoid (where possible) the potential for dominant paradigms to bias their decisions. Since editors perform their duties largely without any formal training (Galipeau et al. 2016), this would require at least some education about publication paradigms, dogmas and power distributions as part of existing work directed towards publication ethics. At the very least, editors should be made aware that they are operating within a number of paradigms, some with respect to the epistemic content of their discipline and journal, some with respect to publishing practices. Ideally, publishers, journals and editors disclose these for all to see and to take into account upon submitting work. As a consequence, editors may be subconsciously censoring any work that does not agree with the current paradigms to which they subscribe. Of course, this is not a responsibility limited to editors. In the pursuit of editor-author conversations as part of the publishing process, editors, publishers, authors and reviewers should all be aware of the various factors and pressures that affect editors.