Monday, August 6, 2018

Should I do an edited collection? Advice from Journal Editors

Group publications can be challenging in many ways. We asked legal historians for their
Credit: British Library Flickr
advice on doing edited volumes or special issues (h/t: LSA Law and History CRN). Our questions:
  • What works and what doesn’t?
  • What did you learn the hard way or wish you had known from the start?
  • Was it worth it in the end?
  • Were there any unexpected benefits?
We received a ton of responses. In the first post of this series, we covered advice on contributing a chapter as an author. The second post was about putting together such collections as an editor of the volume or special issue. In this third and final post, we share advice from scholars who have been editors of journals that produce special issues.

Our title borrows from Karen Kelsky’s post on the same topic (h/t: The Professor is in).

Gautham Rao

Law and History Review is a leading journal of legal history published by Cambridge University Press for the American Society for Legal History.  Over the years, we have had several special issues and since I have taken over as Editor, our editorial team has approved another.  We have also been in discussions to carry a few more special issues, including one on our new digital imprint, The Docket.  We are chiefly interested in proposals that highlight new approaches to familiar questions; new fields or subfields; and, especially for our digital publication, historical inquiries into contemporary problems.  In my brief time at the helm of LHR, we've taken the initiative to put out a call for papers for a special issue on judicial originalism.  We were extremely fortunate to receive numerous proposals that used original research to frame new arguments about originalism.  The most successful ones had a few characteristics in common: they were clear as to the potential argument and they seemed feasible to complete in an article-length manuscript.  The necessity of a clear argument will surprise few of your readers.  But it bears emphasizing that several proposals, although smart and provocative, seemed extremely unrealistic.  For a small editorial team facing a relatively tight publication schedule, these proposals in particular seemed like they would require a great deal more time to get through peer review and editing.  So while it may seem like authors must propose papers that are groundbreaking, it is perhaps even more important to make sure that the proposal is something a group of editors can envision jumping through the hoops of the editorial process.”
From another scholar who has overseen special issues as a journal editor: 
“Here are some thoughts, they are not arranged in order of significance or any particular logic.  A couple brief notes before the list: while the list seems mostly negative, I actually was pleased with/proud of the symposia we published while I edited [journal X]. I like symposia as a way of compelling, for lack of a better word, readers to engage a topic outside their intellectual wheelhouses. I’m not sure that the “typical X reader”…would pay attention to an article on…Southeast or South Asia, or care whether digital humanities might contribute…but when all or most of a volume covers one of those topics, then it is something that flashes across their radar screens and perhaps encourages engagement.  And I also like the breadth of engagement with a topic that a good symposium provides. 
For some background, as I recall, while at [X] I published two symposia that were proposed to me, one that I organized, and one (two?) that were organic, in the sense that I had some related articles to hand and thought that tying them together in an issue would be useful. So I did published symposia a fair amount. I also helped organize another symposium when I was on the editorial board of another journal. My comments mostly apply to the one I organized the call for papers on, and the two that were proposed to me, though the first applies to all categories. 
  1. Eating space: a symposium, even if it is not the whole issue, takes pages from other people’s articles. For some journals that might not be a problem. For [X], it was a significant issue. Every symposium I printed created a backlog of articles and while most authors didn’t complain much, it understandably mattered to some (the tenure folks) more than others.  At the very least, editors need to think about the impact on the other articles in their pipeline and be aware of authors who legitimately need to be published within certain timeframes.
  2. Uneven product: Every symposium has some strong articles and some not so strong articles. The question is what to do about that. Referees can usually bring weaker articles up to an acceptable standard (and I always insisted on the right to refuse to publish any article that the referees panned in the first round of reviews, fortunately that never happened). But that can take time, and editors have to decide whether they need to stick to a particular timeline (this will come out in issue 3 this year) or insist on delaying publication to fix a problem article or two. I tended to insist on the timeline, because delaying an issue (or shifting a symposium scheduled for issue 3 to issue 4) would lead to a chain reaction of delays and article juggling. But that meant that some less than perfect articles got by.
  3. Editing: there’s another problem that relates to point 2—who gets to decide what referee reports the author should engage and how? I insisted that since I upheld [X’s] standards, I had to make that decision, so would not allow symposium organizers to become guest editors. Instead, I picked referees (sometimes in consultation) and then I wrote the editor’s letter to the author regarding the referee reports, but I cc’d the symposium organizers. This let them into the conversation about revisions, and allowed us all to work together to make sure the symposium maintained its ‘voice,’ while at the same time respecting [X] process. It also let the symposium organizer help with revisions. That worked the times I tried it, but that doesn’t mean it always would.
  4. The co-author that ate the world: The downside of the technique I described in point 3 was that it created a risk that the symposium organizer might help so much that he/she would become co-author of several parts of the symposium. And then, the journal no longer seems to be publishing a collection of related essays by different people, as much as giving one person the chance to publish several articles at once. I’m not sure what to do about that situation, it did happen in one symposium and I got some comments about it from readers (not complaints, exactly, but some eyebrow raising). Unfortunately, when that happens, it’s as much as sign of a weak collection of articles as it is a sign of a symposium organizer whose ego has run wild. And probably the answer to that is to pull the symposium. But by that point, a lot of work has gone into the product (and publication schedules have been set), so pulling it is easier said than done. This may be the biggest problem with publishing a symposium in a journal. In the end, the journal editor has to cross his/her fingers and hope it works, because if it doesn’t, usually the journal is stuck with the symposium in a way that the editorial office of a publisher is not. The publisher can refuse to publish a book. But once a journal has made a space for a symposium it is almost impossible to refuse to publish it, even if you have a backlog of articles in the pipeline.
  5. Saying no: I actually turned down a couple of proposals, including one with a bunch of big name authors. In one case, I turned the idea down because I thought the proposal was [not as interesting as I had hoped]. In another, I was worried that the timeframe the organizer was proposing was too optimistic and that I was not going to get well-thought out pieces. It’s very easy for conference panels to think that they should become a symposium. Most of the time that is not the case.
Again, I’m generally happy with the symposia I published while editing [X], but I’m happier with some than with others. Which is not a big deal, but is worth thinking about. I think my experience was mixed enough that I would not have published any other symposia if I stayed on as editor. I do think there is a space for them, but I think perhaps this is a place where an e-journal or a blog might have worked better for most of the proposals I saw.”
A very big thank you to contributors!