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Scholarly journal editors at frontiers
of specialized knowledge
March 9, 1998
One of the most respected, time-honored tools for disseminating academic research and commentary is the scholarly journal. Thousands of these publications exist, and they cover every academic sub-specialty and area of interest imaginable, from the International Journal of Intelligent Control Systems and Invertebrate Reproduction and Development, to Clinical Kinesiology, Journal of American Studies of Turkey, Bird Behavior, and everything in between.
And "everything" is only a slight exaggeration. The University Libraries subscribe to nearly 5,000 specialized academic journals, and one librarian at the Homer Babbidge Library estimates that at least that many more exist.
To the casual observer, this proliferation of specialty publications may appear to be a mass of minutiae. But for the academic community, journals are vital. They represent the ongoing dialog of high quality discovery, inquiry, and commentary. "High-quality" is the operative phrase here. And that's where journal editors come in.
These editors include an array of peer-acknowledged specialists - members of editorial boards, assistant and associate editors, and managing editors - who review selected manuscripts and ensure the integrity of the publication. But the real control of the journals lies with the presiding editors, alternately known as "editors" or "editors-in-chief." These are the people who more often than not decide whether an article or study will be accepted by the journal. In many instances they are also responsible for deciding the focus and scope of the journal, and for highlighting or downplaying various trends within the specialty. By doing so, these editors directly or indirectly affect the direction of the specialty itself.
In short, journal editors are highly influential within their field. This bodes well for the University, whose faculty includes, by one count, nearly 25 editors and editors-in-chief of international journals. The University also boasts more than 75 additional faculty who hold other editorial positions on scholarly journals.
"It really does add to the prestige of the University," says Peggy Chinn, professor of nursing and editor and founder of Advances in Nursing Science, an international journal that was recently voted among the top five - out of more than 100 - nursing journals by deans of American schools of nursing.
"Every submission I get comes here to the University of Connecticut," Chinn adds. "There is an immediate association with that. The authors know that this is a high quality journal. With that acknowledgment comes a perception, an association with that excellence, that the University enjoys."
Carl Schaefer, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and editor of one of the oldest and most influential journals in his field, The Annals of the Entomological Society of America, agrees.
"Having an editor of a prestigious journal on the faculty adds enormously to the reputation of the department and the University," Schaefer says. "When researchers send their papers here for consideration there is an immediate perception that the University of Connecticut is a center for this type of study."
At the cutting edge
"In many ways, it is like looking into the future of your specialty," says Domenico Grasso, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and editor of the international journal, Environmental Engineering Science. "I get to see some very interesting and innovative papers."
This is true for most editors and it puts them in the critical position of deciding what deserves viewing. The decision is by no means arbitrary. The review process generally takes into account the opinions of review boards and associate editors that comprise experts who are familiar with the submission's specific subject area. But the ultimate decision on what to publish generally resides with the editor. This is a tremendous responsibility, especially with so many faculty worldwide subject to the pressures of "publish or perish."
Yet while most journals reject two to six manuscripts for every one they receive, increasingly, rejection is not a death knell for a submission.
"Because so many journals today are international in nature, there are a lot of articles written by people for whom English is a second or third language," says Lawrence Hightower, professor of molecular and cell biology and editor in chief of the highly influential Cell Stress and Chaperones.
"Often the research is sound, but the authors are really struggling with communicating their findings clearly."
And this phenomenon is not limited to the scientific journals.
"We get submissions from all over the world, including Eastern Europe, China, Russia, and India," says Lee Jacobus, professor of English and co-editor (with Regina Barreca, professor of English) of Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory
In the past, many journals would have rejected poorly written submissions out of hand. But an increasing number of editors are willing to work with the authors.
"That was a goal of mine from the inception of ANS," says Chinn. "I see working with authors as an extension of teaching."
Chinn adds that her willingness to do so more than 20 years ago, when she founded Advances in Nursing Science, led to a demand among nursing researchers for other nursing journals to treat authors in a like manner.
"It resulted in a re-evaluation by many competing journals on how they handle rejections."
Shaping the discipline
Schaefer, who has been the editor of his journal for 25 years, estimates that he personally reviews between 100 and 200 manuscripts per year. Only 60 percent of these are published. Hightower, who was involved with the creation of Cell Stress and Chaperones three years ago, says he did almost nothing else except work on the journal during the publication's initial five-month start-up period. He now has an editorial assistant to help.
Linda K. Lee, associate professor of agricultural resource economics and editor of Agricultural Resource Economics Review, is not so fortunate. "I have no editorial assistant, so I am responsible for the bulk of the work behind putting together every issue," she says. Despite this, Lee says she works hard to maintain the journal's quality, and to keep the contents fresh and topical.
And that begs another question: Why get involved with these journals at all.
"Academic journals are the vanguard of scholarship," says Bruce Stave, professor of history and editor of the Oral History Review. "This is where the latest research is read by the people who know the most about the subject matter. That means scrutiny is at its highest. Taken together this is the very essence of scholarly debate and dissemination. It is who we are and what we aspire to do."