Domhnall MacAuley: Seduction, hubris and medical editing

Domhnall MacauleyAt the annual course for new medical editors there were visitors from 25 medical journals around the world. When delegates fly in from Australia, New Zealand, and Chile, it seems like those from Sudan and Saudi Arabia are our next door neighbours. The common interest is their job – newly minted editors of specialist medical journals. 

Some things have changed. In the world of publishing there used be few journals and many authors. Now multiple journals compete for a finite number of researchers. Anyone can start a journal, but competition is intense in the struggle for attention in the electronic world. Peer review no longer ignites debate as it used to and our discussions were much more focused on the challenges and opportunities offered by electronic media. Editors take it for granted that submission, peer review, publication, and post publication peer review occurs using the web. We used to discuss the shape, feel, and typeset of each delegates paper journal- soon we will just pass around a bunch of ipads. As a reminder of the speed of development, it is not long since the days of editing by envelope – large brown parcels full of manuscripts, and when journals were periodicals parked on rolling racks in dusty medical school basements. Does anyone now remember Index Medicus?

Some things haven’t changed. Almost all are part time editors, and most do the job on top of their day job. They still have to balance the needs of publishers, readers, researchers, and the expectations of their society owners. About one half had a formal contract and many seem to have an open ended time commitment. Academic publishing still depends largely on individual enthusiasm and commitment to the role. Impact factor continues to carry disproportionate importance but other metrics are rapidly gaining traction. Making money is a challenge- the web is free and readers do not expect to pay. While the author pays model in open publishing is more acceptable since the major funding agencies started to build in publication costs, no one has yet sorted out the right pricing structure for material behind access controls. The market may ultimately determine the price but, at present, the market doesn’t want to pay.

So, how long are you going to stay in the job? This question always gets people thinking. Being an editor is seductive- power, influence, and a tiny bit of celebrity status. We are all probably susceptible, but I think part time editors of specialist journals are at greater risk (I would say that, wouldn’t I). Career editors have little to gain from their decisions, but specialist editors make decisions that determine the success of their colleague’s papers (and their careers). Such power massages self importance with insight a possible casualty. George Ikkos (International Psychiatry), who has an interest in power and  leadership, reminded me of the literature in organisational behaviour;  the work of Tom Peters and in particular David Owen’s observations on hubris. While searching these, I came across Kamran Abbasi’s editorial, where he suggests that this malaise can also be found in trusts, hospitals, and clinical teams. So, beware seduction.

How can we protect ourselves? Impact factor may have a purpose. It’s a reminder to all editors that no matter how much they achieve, the person who gains most is their successor.

Domhnall MacAuley is paid an honorarium for teaching on the course but gains much more from the company of such an interesting and stimulating group of colleagues. He is primary care editor, BMJ

  • Richard Smith

    Why, Domhnall, do you think that most of scientific editing continues to be so amateur when science itself is highly professional and big business and the consequences of science can be so huge? It's a paradox, and surely it can't go on much longer, although I've been saying that for 20 years.