Dr Arjun Rajkhowa works as the manager of the National Centre for Antimicrobial Stewardship at the Department of Medicine and Radiology, University of Melbourne.
His research interests include public health; media, culture and society; human rights; and policy. He writes for academic journals and online media outlets. He has volunteered in the community sector in Melbourne for several years.
In an academic publishing environment that does not require publishers to compensate contributors for their knowledge and output, or to provide an authentically supportive framework for scholars to exercise ownership of their work, what recourse does an author have to dynamic scholarly revision of their work?
English as a second language
Papers produced by academics who use English as a second language, for example, may have language and style-related errors that may need correcting, but this is often not possible. When a paper is accepted by a publication, a modicum of editorial oversight may be expected, but often there is little editorial oversight. If a paper is poorly written, it ought to be rejected. However, if a paper has been written well and yet contains some errors, then it should be possible to revise the work dynamically and correct these minor errors through ongoing revisions. Some writers simply need time to improve their work!
The lack of editorial scrutiny
Unfortunately, even though academic publishers pride themselves on offering rigorous peer review, and sometimes use rejection rates as an indication of academic standing, in many academic journals, there is little (if any) editorial oversight after the article has been accepted for publication.
The peer reviewer’s role is fundamentally content-related. Depending on the nature of the paper, they are to assess whether the paper accurately represents the results of the study, analyses the issues raised in a coherent manner through cohesive arguments, references the appropriate literature in the field, and otherwise presents ‘sound’ scholarship. The reviewer’s job is not, for example, to correct and improve the quality of the language used in the paper.
Unfortunately, many journals do not provide much editorial input once the paper has been accepted for publication. There is little, if any, editorial scrutiny of the quality of the writing. As authors, some of us are acutely aware of the variable quality of our own writing. Those of us who work in collaboration with other authors often find ourselves belatedly struck by (sometimes flagrant) stylistic and linguistic errors in the paper.
We have little recourse to editorial review after our paper has been processed for production. Those publications that still offer editorial review and input do sometimes significantly improve the quality of the work, but such journals are, sadly, few and far between.
The role of editors – guardians of quality
Editors who excel in their work are craftspeople of the highest calibre. They can gauge the quality and potential of a work, or even an idea, and can mould it into shape. They can see what needs to be added, removed, and improved through some tweaking of the language. They can rein in the authors’ excesses, and hone the parts of a paper that work best. If they are really excellent at what they do, they might even perfect the art of the minimalist approach to editing, i.e. they won’t belabour the editorial process. They make corrections where necessary and efficiently improve the work.
The role of the editor as a guardian of quality of presentation has been significantly diminished. The editors of academic publications serve as de facto publishers – busy scholars with academic appointments, they are generally concerned with making executive decisions about the content and the directions that the journal they are (sometimes nominally) spearheading should move in. The actual production work is undertaken externally, and the role of the content editor has, in many cases, been subsumed by the production desk technician.
The role of outsourcing
It is no secret that the academic publishing industry has outsourced a lot of its production desk work. Most publishers have production offices that are external to the organisation, and have successfully managed to reduce labour costs by outsourcing the production component of the publication process. This outsourcing of the production role has apparently been accompanied by a downgrading or outright dismissal of the role of the editor. The production team does not often provide much editorial input, if any at all. After peer review, where the substance but not the language component of the presentation is checked, there is no further quality improvement on the work before it is published.
If the academic publishing industry, which is highly profitable, wishes to truly work in collaboration with authors (and move away from a model that flagrantly exploits authors), then it should consider developing a more dynamic model of authorial revision and quality improvement.
Authors should be able to amend their content and improve on their work in a dynamic fashion, and not be restricted by the strictures of the print publication model, which is no longer the functional basis of content production and dissemination. Authors should be able to make corrections where necessary and improve the quality of their work over time. They should also be allowed to make substantial changes to their work if such changes qualitatively improve their work, and they perceive making such improvements to be necessary for the future ramifications of their scholarship.
Given the emergence of block-chain and other version-control technology, there is no reason why ongoing quality improvement and review should not be standard practice. In fact, what we have currently – a staid model wherein proofs are sent for ‘final corrections’ in a format that is not particularly user-friendly – belies the affordances of available technology.
In practical terms, this means giving authors access to the publication portal for their articles, and the right to have their quality improvement changes reviewed and articles republished.
Of course, there may be a few hurdles in the way here. Data editing and revision of findings could complicate matters for both authors and publishers. Such a possibility might dampen publishers’ appetite for facilitating dynamic authorship. However, unlike Wikipedia, where the equation between author(s) and reviewer(s) can be incredibly complex, academic publishers can streamline the authorial and editorial workflow, and ensure, for example, that editorial corrections are processed quickly and efficiently, while any content-related changes (if requested) are appropriately reviewed.
It should be noted that the concept of dynamic revisions has, in exceptional instances, already been put into practice. In the biomedical field, the Cochrane Library has long enabled (and standardised the requirement for) ongoing updates to reviews. Routledge has an upcoming encyclopaedia that will allow revisions and updates (as authors were promised when they were invited to contribute). These are, however, rare exceptions (and, in the latter case, we are yet to see how this will be facilitated). I’d like to see this practice adopted more widely in academic publishing, and extended to include revisions aimed at improving the quality of the presentation. Moreover, true dynamic authorship would require a substantially bolder strategy, and greater levels of technical integration involving authorial access to the production portal and an appropriately resourced model for oversight of republication. This would mark a radical departure from the current model, where substantial content-related ‘corrigenda’ are sometimes included in subsequent editions, and no editorial improvements can be made.
Dynamic authorship is about being able to perfect your work over time. In a world where everything that goes online stays online (theoretically indefinitely), the author should have recourse to some degree of the right to perfectibility.