Thoughts on

AMS Publication Editorships


Chuck Doswell

Created: 18 August 2000 Updated: 24 August 2000 - some minor fixes and revisions

This essay is entirely my own thoughts, so the standard disclaimers apply. This essay is prompted, in part, by some reflections after having served as an AMS Monograph editor. It also is stimulated by some recent experiences I have had with an Editor.

Recently, I have been having some discussions with the AMS staff: I'm advocating the creation of some process by which members could express their concerns about Editors, and I also wanted to see some sort of mechanism by which new Editors could get the benefit of the experience of their predecessors. These two apparently disparate topics are, at least in my view, sort of connected.

Before I elaborate on the thoughts I've been having, I want to mention that I understand (and agree with) the need for the Society's publications officers to make the default position one of supporting the decisions of their Editors. As it currently stands, the AMS journal Editors are all volunteers ... typically nominated by the Publications Commisioner, and subject to approval by the Council. Volunteers would be hard to come by in any other climate than one of implicit support. However, I'll return to the topic of voluntary Editors.


Feedback about Editors

I believe the AMS should consider some method for seeking and retaining member feedback concerning publications, and Editors in particular. As it stands, I believe most members feel powerless to do or say anything about the publications process (or the Editors) that will result in a change. It is plausibe to believe that a majority of such input would be stupid "sour grapes" about the review process (mainly, rejected publications), but that doesn't mean that all of it would be associated with bruised egos and personality clashes. Sometimes there are real problems with Editors! If there is no established way to express oneself and no process evident for redress of grievances ... which is the case at the current moment ... most members will choose to say or do nothing, choosing instead to harbor a continuing anger and resentment about the process.

Many members are not aware that the AMS has, from time to time, quietly dealt with journal Editors who proved problematic in some way. That not renewing an Editorship is done quietly ought to be understandable. There is no need for a public humiliation to be associated with what amounts to the "firing" of an Editor. However, it is also clear that most members do not know that there is anything they can do about problems they have had with an Editor. As it stands, an aggrieved member would have to contact the AMS staff (use the phone, or send an e-mail, or a letter), in order to express concern over the way an Editor handled a situation. It's not even clear whom to contact if a problem arises. In my opinion, most members who feel they have a legitimate gripe almost certainly will not want to express their concerns, either believing they would be ignored or that their input would be dismissed as sour grapes over a rejection (or whatever). I also have known reviewers who have expressed concern over the way a situation was handled, so the problems are not only in the domain of disgruntled authors.

So what might a solution be? I'd like to think that in this era of electronic communication, there might be some sort of Web-based chat room, or newsgroup ... a forum where members could go to express themselves concerning publications-related issues, including problems with Editors. If the AMS maintained something of this sort, it should be possible to recognize true sour grapes from legitimate concerns, and members would have the sense that they had a place to go to express their concerns, and to see if other members had had similar problems. Obviously, this would make problematic Editors stand out like a sore thumb, which could be a challenge for keeping volunteer Editors happy. I'll address this concern, later.


An Editor's Guide

In the same vein, it seems to me that with many decades of journal publication behind it, the Society should be allowing newly-appointed Editors the opportunity to benefit from that experience. Around NSSL, it turns out that we have a lot of collective experience, both here and at OU, that a new Editor can tap ... but not every new Editor has that sort of experience nearby upon which to draw. For a new Editor, this can be quite important in setting up the process, and can be helpful when problems arise along the path. Having the benefit of the experience of one's predecessors has a number of advantages. Most journal Editors have never edited a journal before, so this knowledge base is an important resource that the AMS is not currently structured to use successfully on behalf of new Editors.

The apparent absence of any AMS-produced materials that would provide information for new Editors is something I continue to see as a barrier to effective editing. For example, I'd like to see some guidance about how to utilize Associate Editors. The Author's Guide says:

Associate editors usually have expertise in some area covered by the journal and frequently serve as reviewers of papers in that area. They may be consulted by the editors in controversial cases and they provide a general source of advice and opinion to the editors. They may serve occasionally as editors for papers in their particular area of expertise and may be asked to rapidly provide reviews in cases when the originally requested reviews are not forthcoming or are in conflict.

I find it interesting that this appears in the Author's Guide, but there is no Editor's Guide at all! I continue to believe that if the AMS has taken the time to create an Author's Guide, it would at least as valuable to create an Editor's Guide, updated episodically to account for changes. It need not be distributed to anyone other than incoming Editors.

Things such a guide might contain:

  1. Suggestions for how to set up the editorial process:
    • How to set up the funding for, and suggestions for choosing an editorial assistant
    • How to obtain AMS Letterhead paper with the appropriate content
    • How to use phone, fax, and e-mail properly for this purpose -- some institutions (notably the government) can get testy about such things
    • Others?
  2. Suggestions for the selection and use of Associate Editors
  3. Given my recent experience as Editor of an AMS Monograph (see below), there are some suggestions that I would give incoming Editors for how to deal with authors and reviewers to minimize problems. Perhaps my experience is unique, but I think new Editors would benefit from having input from their predecessors. As an Editor, I would have appreciated getting some idea of what was about to happen in advance ... there are many things I would have done differently had I known!
  4. Suggestions for dealing with commonly-arising problems, including guidance about when to seek help from the Commissioner or whomever.
  5. A clear statement of expectations of performance. For instance, in view of some recent events with which I am familiar, it seems to me that Editors should know that leaving a manuscript on their desk for months before sending it out for review is substandard performance. Some specific indications of what might constitute unacceptable performance would be useful.

As an aside, having been an author, a reviewer, an Associate Editor, and an Editor over my career, I'd like the AMS Publications staff to issue a statement about the review process ... if the Editor's Guide included a statement along the following lines, I'd sure be gratified. I'm constantly frustrated by seeing some reviewers (and some Editors) seeing the reviewer's role as being primarily one of censorship. That is, the prevention of the publication of papers. Scientific communication via journals is hindered when reviewers (and Editors) see their task as being mostly that of preventing what they consider to be unacceptable from being printed. Within some reasonable limits, I think the review process should be viewed primarily as a partnership between the author and the referees ... with the goal not being censorship, but rather one of helping the author(s) improve the manuscript. Occasionally, rejection of manuscripts is the result of this partnership, but that should not be the primary goal of reviewing papers. All too many referees, in my experience, seem to be seeing their role in these negative terms.

Moreover, it seems to me that many referees are confused by the difference between a disagreement and a scientific error. If a referee disagrees with the paper's author(s), this ought not to be considered grounds for rejection of a publication. On many occasions, I have seen referees act irresponsibly to block (or at least delay) publication of papers that dispute the referee's own publications. Too many times, the Editor (perhaps seeking to appear neutral) ignores the obvious self-interest of such reviewers and allows them to stand in the way of meaningful scientific communication. The idea of what is an error versus what is simply a scientific disagreement is subtle and not easily defined in objective terms, but I think Editors need to act as intermediaries in such disputes and at least recognize when the self-interests of the reviewers are involved. This is another arena in which it would be useful for the AMS staff to develop some clarifying statements within an Editor's Guide.

I also think it would be useful for Editors to know that they have some choices they can make in case of conflicting reviews (which is typical, not exceptional). If the Editor's Guide offered some input and suggestions from previous Editors about how to make such choices, I'm certain that many incoming new Editors would be grateful. If an incoming Editor knew in advance that the AMS stood behind him/her in this important role, provided certain basic procedures were followed, this could be especially valuable early in that Editor's term of service.

None of this necessarily implies some sort of straitjacket of rules in which Editors would be put! Guidelines are not rules!! Sure, if most everyone chooses to follow the guidelines, they might be interpreted as rules, but it could be made clear that these should be viewed as helpful suggestions and not as rules. Creativity and initiative need not be stifled by having these available, especially if it is made clear from the opening paragraph that Editors can and should experiment if they wish. Personally, I think an Editor's Guide comparable to the Author's Guide would only need to be "order-10" manuscript pages, perhaps including additional material (like input from outgoing Editors) as Appendices or stored on a Website.


Volunteer Editors?

I think that having the Chief Editors of AMS journals be volunteers is a system that needs review. Given the importance of the Chief Editor, it seems to me that this person should be someone who is experienced, knowledgeable, and decisive. I don't think it is obvious that we should entrust this important position to a volunteer. When I was on the Council, it was becoming clear that the Bulletin editorship needed to be given to a real professional Editor, rather than being the spare-time job of the current Executive Director. Similar arguments can be applied to the Chief Editors of all the AMS journals. Furthermore, when problems arise with the subordinate Editors, the Chief Editor's can review the situation regarding possible problems with a subordinate Editor and render a decision about the situation that would be final. Presumably, a quasi-permanent Chief Editor position would have to involve some remuneration, rather than being strictly voluntary. Serving as a voluntary Editor under the supervision of a Chief Editor would be a means of gaining experience for future Chief Editors, and only those successful in the subordinate Editorship roles would be viable candidates for what might be viewed as a coveted job as Chief Editor. Perhaps a single Chief Editor could act in that role for more than one journal at a time.

This is, I admit, a somewhat radical view. However, it puts the right kind of person into the leadership role at the helm of a journal, and it creates a situation wherein it is likely that justice can be served in disputes between Editors and either authors or referees. Of course, there would also have to be some way to seek and obtain job performance feedback about a professional Chief Editor, as well. Presumably, the Publications Commisioner and, ultimately, the Council, would provide oversight of the Chief Editors.


Some reflections upon an Editorship

Having recently been the Editor (voluntary) of an AMS Monograph with multiple authors, I have a few thoughts to share. In order that these thoughts be in the proper context, let me say that this type of editorship is distinctly different from that of a journal. Thus, what I am about to say is only possibly of use to a journal Editor.

AMS Monographs can be of two general types:

  1. a collection of original papers (possibly with supporting materials), or
  2. a single, extended paper (possibly with supporting materials)

There can be multiple authors in either type, but with no. 2, a single author could write an entire monograph. By "supporting materials" I mean that the published Monograph might include "comments" by reviewers of the papers and "replies" by the authors, or there might be reports on the papers by review panels. This sort of open dialog is optional, in general, although I believe it is useful to see such discussions, as they can reveal interesting points of controversy in the field.

Implicit in the production of a Monograph is that the contents are going to be reviewed by someone and that the authors are expected to respond to those reviews in some way. Hence, during the process, referees must be selected and someone has to be in charge of making sure that proper scientific review standards have been maintained. This is likely to be the job of the Monograph Editor.

Unlike a journal, however, which has tight publication deadlines, a Monograph is a one-time publication without any firm deadlines. In my experience as Editor of a monograph of type no. 1, the absence of deadlines created a real problem. Although most authors were quite willing to write, and most referees to review, in a timely fashion, it now seems inevitable that there would be a few "laggards" holding up the process for everyone.

Moreover, there is no possibility for outright rejection of a manuscript in this situation ... the authors are invited to contribute, so the level of their accountability to the referee's comments is negligible. For my selection of authors, this latter possibility was not a problem; with one exception, they all took their reviews seriously and responded in a scientifically professional way.

I had two papers (out of 13) that took interminably long to complete, leading the rest of the authors and review panel members to become discouraged about whether or not their efforts were ever going to see the light of publication. This was manifestly unfair to all the non-laggards, and created numerous problems for everyone. I found I had virtually no leverage in trying to stimulate authors and referees to be timely, in the absence of hard deadlines. I tried a number of non-draconian methods to encourage my laggards to finish, with virtually no success. Finally, I had to create hard deadlines and make it clear that the Monograph was going to go ahead after a specific date, with or without their contributions, to get any movement at all. It was that imposition of toughness that got the Monograph completed.

I also had an author who agreed at the outset to the "boundary conditions" (some basic expectations about the type of material in each contribution, its length, etc.) I set out for each contribution, only to present me (after some considerable delays) with a draft chapter that violated virtually all of the terms I had attempted to impose! It would be vastly different in character from all the rest of the chapters in the Monograph. His Review Panel also had serious problems with the paper and agreed with me that it would have been out of character with the rest of the Monograph, but he refused to budge. Given the years (!) that had elapsed, I felt I couldn't simply reject the manuscript and start over with a new author. That would have meant an inevitable delay of many months, which would have been extremely disheartening to the others. I had to come up with a solution that permitted everyone's ego to be preserved and still have a contribution that could be finished in a reasonable time and would satisfy my "boundary conditions". Eventually, this worked itself out with the help of a special person (whose contribution simply cannot be given enough credit), but I felt I had been betrayed by the author, who put me into a very bad situation by unprofessional behavior and left me there, dangling. This behavior was a great disappointment to me, given the high respect I have for this author's work.

Overall, I built the Monograph by seeking contributions from people with whom I thought I could work and who, in my belief, were capable of writing successful contributions to the Monograph. I have few regrets about my choices, but those few who created problems for me and for everyone ended up occupying most of my time. The fact that in any team effort, you are only as fast as your slowest team member, should have led me to be much tougher, sooner. Since I knew and respected all of the authors, I had hopes that their experience and professionalism would make the completion of the envisioned Monograph easy and enjoyable. That turned out to be naive.

In retrospect, I learned a lesson that I have heard, since, to be one that new Editors often learn the hard way: It's best to be a "tough guy" early, rather than late in the process. I believe that I might have completed the process of creating the Monograph in much less time ... it has taken seven years!! ... had I been more inclined to set tough deadlines and criteria early in the process. I was naive enough to believe that with a set of authors experienced in formal publications I would not have to work so hard to get cooperation. It turned out that I was right about the majority of my authors, but I was surprised and dismayed by how a few authors seemed not to care very much about getting their contributions finished, after agreeing to my solicitation to contribute.

For this type of document (i.e., a Monograph) I would have been better served by having some of my authors refuse my solicitation, forcing me to seek contributions from someone willing to finish in a timely fashion and inclined to respect the terms I was imposing on their contributions. Thus, my recommendation is: Get a clear understanding of everyone's willingness and ability to meet deadlines and to respect any terms concerning the character of the contribution. Perhaps a written, signed agreement is not asking too much ... I see others doing this in documents (like encyclopedias) where numerous authors are contributing individual pieces of the whole. I should have done this. Obviously, this is less important for journals, where the "boundary conditions" and deadlines are well-known. However, in seeking referees, journal Editors are starting to try to get preliminary agreement (via e-mail or phone) from potential referees to do reviews in a timely fashion before they send out the manuscripts. From my experience, I think this is an excellent idea and should become the standard procedure.

It's my impression that several referees also were unable to get their jobs done ... I had minimal direct involvement with this, as I had delegated that responsibility to the Chairs of the Review Panels. The Review Panels tended to shrink with time, as some referees either were slow to provide their reviews or never submitted reviews after agreeing to be on the Panels! It disappoints me to discover that some people will agree to do things and then not do them! Basically, it is this trait that forces Editors to be tough guys. I believe this to be a constant problem for journal Editors, also, at least in the case of referees (see above).

Another thing I regret is that I thought I had encouraged the Review Panels (each led by a Chair selected by the author(s), subject to my approval) to submit Panel Reports that would have taken up controversial issues with the authors, and/or would have added material that the authors chose not to include. Only one Review Panel chose to do so ... and I believe their contribution to the Monograph to be a substantial one. Retrospectively, I think I should have not allowed the Panels to consider the submission of a Panel Report to be optional. By not being "tough", I believe the readers have been deprived of useful material. Given the length of time that the process took, I didn't feel inclined to go back and force the issue.

Lest I leave anyone thinking that this was a negative experience, I hasten to add that I believe the final product will, in the long run, have been well worth the pain it cost me. By far the majority of contributors lived up to my original, naive expectations. The seemingly inevitable "80-20" rule comes into play: 80 percent of the trouble comes from 20 percent of the people. It would be unfair to the majority to suggest that this was how I viewed their participation! Being an Editor can be quite rewarding, but don't forget my recommendation about being tough, early.