why academic editing is so awful

I want to be fair, here. I have been edited by some academic editors who have been judicious, wise, and seasoned. I also have been edited in a lot of popular press publications and I can tell you that a lot of editors out there are no peach to work with. Good editing is wonderful; good editing is a classic example of filling the needs you didn’t even know you had. I’ve worked with great, supportive, intelligent editors in both academic and popular publishing. I’ve also worked with a lot of editors who should never have been given the job in the first place. Unfortunately, in today’s publishing world, “editor” is a title that is often given to writers as a form of professional advancement that has nothing to do with their ability to edit. Being a good writer is relevant experience for editing, sure, but being a good writer alone can’t make you a good editor. Sadly, the traditional paths of apprenticeship for editing are disappearing. And bad editing, for me, is dispiriting on a level I can barely describe. When you get an edit back that just fundamentally misunderstands the point of a piece, getting up the energy to fight it out with the editor, and contemplating having that fight without burning that bridge, is immensely draining.

And so much academic editing, whether from editors or peer reviewers, is awful.

First, you should read Gabriel Rossman on how you (yes, you) broke peer review.  You can also read my own complaints from when I was guest blogging at the Dish. The basic problem is that most everyone turns into Loki when they are a) empowered with decisions that mean the difference between a comfortable and fulfilling existence as a professor or a life as a low-wage, no-benefits, no-security contingent adjunct, and b) blessed with the protection of anonymity. It’s a recipe for feckless, capricious control of other people’s lives.

For one thing, there’s the seemingly broad assumption within academia that to be an editor or reviewer requires that you insist on a certain number of changes for every piece, no matter what the piece’s topic, field, or initial quality. Like the old joke about how the Oscars are meant to reward Best Acting rather than Most Acting, editing quality is not at all dependent on editing quantity. Yet so many academics seem to believe that they are only fulfilling their function if they hit a certain quota of requested edits. I’ve had editors at popular press publications — big ones, quality ones — say to me, “This is pretty much perfect as written, here’s a couple of minor stylistic edits.” That, to me, demonstrates someone who knows what he or she is doing and has the confidence to actually edit for the good of a publication rather than to fulfill some Platonic ideal of what editing is. I’m not saying that editing was good because it didn’t change my words; I’ve had great editing that’s savaged my initial drafts. I’m saying it’s good because it privileges the writing rather than the editor. Sadly, the idea of a piece making it through the academic review process without huge edits, whether deserved or not, is essentially unheard of.

Bad academic editing manifests itself nowhere more frequently than in the “insert [X figure/philosophy/movement/article that I try to force feed into every piece I edit because he/she/it is important to me] here” tendency. That’s an absolute constant complaint from academics I know, and I know very many. Yes, if someone has a piece of very direct, very relevant literature to your specific research questions — if they have specifically commented on the specific concerns of your piece in a specific piece of writing — then you can ask writers to respond (to specific pieces that you provide specific citations for). But the frequency with which peer reviewers and/or editors say “Read this through X” or “you need to introduce Y here” demonstrates people who simply do not understand what editing is or how it should work. If a credible piece has been sent to you for review, and you are assigning a laundry list of readings to the author because you think that reading is important, you’re failing your role as an editor or a reviewer. That’s not your job. That’s not your job.

That’s particularly troubling in a field like mine, which is dominated, as Keith Rhodes and Monica McFawn Robinson write, by an in-crowd; the “Foucault this” tendency makes it inevitable that the same ideas and articles get recycled endlessly, which in turn only reinforces the prestige of those within that affinity circle. As Rodes And McFawn Robinson write,

“The main advantages of social construction have been in the professionalization of composition itself, of course. By proper operation of its own theories, once one joins the social constructionist in-crowd, the tickets of advancement become more readily available. Those who are good at social moves advance, entering the position to advance the similarly oriented and gifted. But this interesting professional game would seem to have no practical ends. It threatens to offer status as its own end. Of course, in plain fact many scholars do a great deal of practical and progressive work, essentially ignoring the social constructionist credo even while paying it homage, at least implicitly. Nevertheless, the logic of social construction predicts that we should end up with exactly what we have: more tenured specialists, but few advances in pedagogical methods, few measurable results from improved practices, and little over-all progress for the field of writing even in its political status.”

When you’re teaching a class, then you can devise a reading list. When you’re running a graduate program, you can put together a curriculum. When you’re assembling a textbook, you can decide which ideas and information are important to include. When you’re editing or reviewing, you have no business trying to sandwich in your pet scholars or scholarship into pieces that already contain an adequate amount of third party scholarship.

This, however, is the most important point:

Your job as an editor is never to try and edit away claims that you disagree with.

This is an issue that is existentially threatening to the very practice of editing, and from my many conversations with many academics in many fields, very common. As Rossman says, “On quite a few methodological and theoretical issues there is a reasonable range of opinion. Don’t force the author to weigh in on your side.” The entire point of academic publishing is to present new knowledge. Very often new knowledge is threatening, especially to those who created the old knowledge. If editors or reviewers feel no compunction against using the editing process to deny viewpoints they don’t like, then there’s no chance for the kind of shifts in thinking that are absolutely essential to the progress of academic disciplines. At its worst, this tendency results in an endless reproduction of the same stultifying orthodoxies. Yes, of course, if you find blatant factual inaccuracies, or directly and unambiguously self-contradictory arguments, those should be pointed out to the author. But if you’re saying “My own read on X is” or “My impression of the state of the field is that” or “I would argue that,” you’ve already failed. That’s not your job! If you feel strongly that an article’s argument is wrong, then publish a rebuttal of your own. Don’t use the editing process to prevent that argument from emerging in the first place.

Again, my own field is illustrative. In terms as direct as the world of academic publishing allows, Rhodes and McFawn Robinson indicate within their article that they had a hard time getting it published. Their article concerns the vaguely leftist, ill-defined social constructionist epistemology that is the default orthodoxy of composition. They write, “Nobody can miss the reign of this cloudy theory, nor can anyone miss how closely that reign has corresponded with what Haswell has clearly documented as a ‘war’ on scholarship from other perspectives in the pages of the field’s most central and powerful organizational journals. We appreciate that the editors of JAEPL have permitted this admittedly contentious argument simply to go forward.”

That, if you’ll forgive me, is shade. The Journal of the Assembly of Expanded Perspectives on Learning is a fine journal, but not at all a prominent one. And it seems clear to me from the article that Rhodes and McFawn Robinson tried and failed to place it at a prominent composition journal. Given that it’s a vital, well-crafted argument, the situation to me seems clear: that they couldn’t get it published in those places because the editors and reviewers, necessarily insiders within the field, didn’t like the way in which the field was being critiqued. That’s an absolute failure of the basic premise of free, contentious academic publishing. And by its nature, it reinforces the very in-crowd that is being critiqued: those who get published in the most prominent journals get the most disciplinary prestige, and thus the best jobs, and thus become the gatekeepers who ensure that the in-crowd’s ideas advance in the future.

For reviewers and editors, you need only remember Rossman’s credo: “fixing peer review has to begin with you, the reviewer, telling yourself ‘maybe I would have done it another way myself, but it’s not my paper.'” It’s not your paper. Maybe your disagreements with the author’s thesis are correct. But it’s not your paper.

For myself, I have ended up killing more peer reviewed pieces myself, withdrawing them from consideration when I’ve had the opportunity to continue to revise them in order to get published, than I have had published. Not because I think I’m a special snowflake who needs to get what he wants all the time, but because so often the editors involved have misunderstood their position. I could just be self-deluded — always a possibility — but the gripes with academic publishing, from across a wide variety of fields, only grow and grow. The frustrations that people vent as they desperately try and publish before the job market or their tenure reviews don’t come from nowhere. Meanwhile, I try to engage with my problems with my field publicly through listservs and online communities. Whenever I do, someone will say, not incorrectly, “It’d be better for your career if you didn’t do that.” Just as some will say that about this very post. And thus the circle is unbroken.