What Psychology Journal Editors Really Do (Really?)

A while back I posted the following on a private site.  It got some interesting responses.

I find this [previous] discussion of editorial motives and behavior very interesting.  I am about to break the code of silence here; please don’t spread this around and get me into trouble.

Among the things you guys seem not to know: After you are appointed the editor of a major psychology journal, you are invited to editor boot camp.  This is a three-day retreat in which you learn how to do the job.

Day 1 was mostly an overview of the “system” – the roles people play (from publishers to reviewers to authors), the stages of publication, and the various electronic systems that are used.  Then there was a short section about reviewers – how to select, treat, cajole, and reward them.

Day 2 was about dealing with authors.

The first part was about initial submissions: How to politely decline articles that have no business being submitted to your journal.  How to politely decline those that violate every policy that your journal has stated (about length, figures, etc.).  How to politely decline articles by native English speakers that are barely readable.

But the biggest chunk of the day was about writing action letters.  Did you know that there is a rule that you can never say something in the paper was good without adding a “but” after your comment?  Did you know that you are always supposed to tell the author to make the paper shorter (unless your journal has a strict word count and the author has adhered to it)?  And did you know that you are supposed to perseverate on something – either writing or completeness of references – just so the author acknowledges that you, the editor, are in control?  Hey – that’s social psychology at work.

Oh, and my favorite exercise on Day 2 was the 30 minutes we spent yelling obscenities at each other; the idea is to help develop a thick skin against stupid attacks by authors.  In particular, the 15 minutes we had to impersonate a famous author writing back after a rejection provided some indelible images.

And then there was Day 3.

That’s the one I really shouldn’t be talking about.  That is the Day We Learn To Screw Up Science.  Yes, indeed.  It’s our job to make sure that method sections are so inscrutably written so that no one could ever accurately replicate a study even if they tried.  That way, authors can always say their original results were fine because the replication was not “exact”.  Yes, indeed.  It’s our job to make sure that in results sections authors don’t describe every analysis they did and don’t create 20 graphs, each of which compares two means.   The production people don’t like to check the typesetting on long paragraphs filled with equations and statistics, and creating good-looking tables and graphs is difficult. Yes, indeed.  It’s our job to make sure that the paper reads so that the hypothesis that was proposed at the beginning turns out to be supported at the end – even though the authors had no idea what their hypotheses were in the beginning.  Of course the paper would be so much better if the authors spent 10 pages justifying what they first thought would happen regarding, for example, stereotyping, but at the end they spent 10 pages explaining why that didn’t happen, and then 10 more about why they got in-group/out-group effects instead.  But we are told that no one wants to read all that stuff, and that at the end of a paper, people would like to believe they have learned something.  Oh yeah, and we learned to think about how all those pages with not much in the way of conclusion would really screw up our impact factor so that no author worth his or her salt would send a paper to our journal any more.

Day 3 was truly exhausting.  On our way out the instructors gave us chocolate and lollipops, waved to us, and with big smiles said: “So long, suckers!”

This entry was posted in Perspectives on Editing, Perspectives on Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What Psychology Journal Editors Really Do (Really?)

  1. Woopsie Daisy says:

    In my view authors should be encouraged to provide all sorts of extra details useful for replication in online supplements. Please tell me the publishers are not hostile to online supplements, also.

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