Thursday, November 8, 2018

"Why'd you do it?"

One of the great benefits of academic life is that we are, to some degree, in control of our own time schedule. Sure, there are classes to teach, and meetings to attend, and conferences to go to. But we have a remarkable degree of flexibility to dictate the specific timing and organization of our working days (and for some of us, nights). A friend used to (somewhat) jokingly say, the great thing about being a professor is that you get to choose when to work your 80 hour week. So, here I am working from home on a Wednesday morning enjoying the New England foliage reds and yellows being lit up by the sun, while wood ducks paddle around the pond at the back of my yard.

Actually, I stayed home to practice a somewhat rough talk I'm supposed to be giving in two days' time. I was going to do this last night, but when I put my kids to bed and came downstairs I discovered I had one decision letter to write as Editor, and two other manuscripts to evaluate whether to send out to Associate Editors and possible review. By the time that was done, it was too late to practice my talk. In the morning I said. But when I got up this morning, and saw the kids off to school, there was a new manuscript with reviews and an Associate Editor's recommendation, waiting for me to read and comment on. There goes an hour. Sure, I could put it off till tomorrow. But what if (as often happens), several more papers show up needing decision letters? The main challenge of being Editor isn't making the decisions (that's certainly tricky), or the total amount of time (a lot), or handling appeals (rare, and usually collegial). Its the whack-a-mole nature of it. You can't put it off till tomorrow, because in all likelihood there's more to do tomorrow. But you don't know how much. Sometimes a day off. Sometimes 7 papers. So, the rule is to always keep my Editorial desk clear. And that cuts into my ability to control my own time. It's like playing that arcade game, Whack-a-mole. Not that I should publicly compare writing manuscript decisions to hitting rodents on the head.

I often get asked why I agreed to step in to be Editor-In-Chief, given the obvious difficulties the position poses. I ask myself that sometimes, like this morning as I wrapped up my decision. To be honest, it was never a role that I aspired to. I never thought "I want to do X and Y to set myself up to be Editor" - quite the opposite, I was wary of the idea and leaned towards saying no. So why'd I do it?

I think it is worth explaining, in public.

I always find it difficult to take the time to read papers, with all the other demands on my time. When I do read others' papers, I was often reading rather narrowly in areas where I needed to learn. Lately I've been reading about CRISPR/cas9, fibrosis, TGF-Beta, and the mechanism by which alum induces inflammation. As a result I was losing the birds-eye view of the landscape of evolutionary ecology, which I once had as an ambitious graduate student, when I would sit with a stack of papers for an entire day each Saturday and just read read read read, sampling broadly. I used to read the entire issue of Ecology, and Evolution, front to back each month. Certainly no longer. Editing, it seemed, was a way to corner myself into reading more, and more broadly, to regain the big picture perspective I feared I was losing. Now in my capacity as Editor I read ecology, behavior, population genetics, game theory, ecosystem ecology, theory, genomics, and so much more.

So, reason number 1:  read more.

There were other reasons, to be sure. The American Naturalist plays a special role in the development of many of the key ideas in our discipline. I think it plays a large role in driving many of the ideas that my colleagues and I consider. And I felt an obligation to do my best to help maintain that tradition and perhaps drive things forward in new directions, trying to bring AmNat back to the forefront of new ideas in a wide variety of subdisciplines.  I had been an Associate Editor for the journal for 10 years, and Secretary for the American Society of Naturalists, so I felt some duty to continue this service. Somebody's got to do it.

Then there's the hope that I would learn to be a better scientist and writer myself. If one spends hours each day considering the limitations of others' writing and experimental design and graphics and data analysis, presumably one learns to avoid those mistakes.  I think the jury is still out on that point. I still get papers rejected, and still get grumpy about it, just like everyone else. Maybe I'll improve. Maybe I'm already an old dog who won't learn new tricks. But I'll try.

Lastly, there's the benefit I didn't anticipate. People thank me, and that feels good. Seriously. And the people who thank me the most are often the people whose papers I decline, especially when I decline without review. You think that's odd? Well here's the thing: we have a tradition at AmNat that we seek to give everyone some feedback, and we try to carefully justify our decisions. So when I decline something without review, I try to give feedback myself. Sometimes this entails lengthy reviews of my own. As a result, authors feel like I've really thought about their work. And they've come to expect Editors to make casual decisions without careful thought, so when they see a thoughtful decision letter they respond positively. I've had to decline (sometimes without review) papers by some of my academic mentors and idols, people who loom over our field. And when I do, I often get really nice thank you letters. I keep some, but probably shouldn't make them public. Its an unexpected perk, to feel like people appreciate the effort I put in. Judie Bronstein put it best. She told me that as Editor she learned that she gained as much pleasure from shepherding good papers to publication, then she did from publishing her own work. I'm still learning to live up to that attitude, as I struggle to find time to get my own papers written. But it is something I aspire to.

Ultimately that effort is in service of a simple goal. We have limited resources as a journal: limited copyeditor time, limited pages from the publisher. My goal is to publish the best and most interesting and thought-provoking science I can. Sometimes that means seeing a diamond in the rough and really shepherding someone's paper through multiple rounds of review to make it as great as it could be. And that's rewarding. Sometimes that means declining papers that just aren't what we are looking for, but nevertheless making some value-added suggestions that help the authors make their work better and more publishable elsewhere. You read (on twitter for instance) a lot of criticism of the review and editorial process. Thoughtless and casual decisions. Unreasonable demands. Poor reasoning . I can't say we always get it right, at AmNat. (I know my co-blogger, Andrew, recently had some complaints on a decision from AmNat). But I am really proud to be involved in a journal that aspires (and often manages) to provide constructive reviews and decisions that really do seek to make each paper better, whether we publish them or not. (Almost) every day, I get to see peer review done well in service of making scientific publications better: more accurate, complete, interesting, and readable.


  1. I want to hear from people who've turned down EiC jobs at leading journals. I want to hear why someone *didn't* do it. Because I have the anecdotal-and-possibly-wrong impression that anybody likely to be asked to do it is unlikely to say no.

  2. Thanks for this post. I guess the EICs are too busy whacking moles (good analogy) to comment. I'm finishing 5.5 years of a 6 year term as EIC of The Condor: Ornithological Applications. Paraphrasing a point mentioned in the post, I think an EIC will probably be miserable if they don't gain considerable satisfaction from improving other people's manuscripts. There's a second point to emphasize, at least for me. I feel like my work to strengthen the journal is a tangible contribution to the discipline, to my home professional society, and to my tribe. Frankly, that feels better to me at my current career stage than clawing my way forward writing the next paper.


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