Beckman Researchers Contribute as Journal Editors

Beckman Institute researchers like Jeff Moore and Jennifer Cole also contribute to advancing science by serving as journal editors.

Beckman Institute researcher Jeff Moore sees parallels between his experience working on the family dairy farm and his service as an editor for the preeminent peer-reviewed journal in the field of chemistry.

“I have told people this many times: I grew up on a farm and my parents raised dairy cows,” Moore said. “Being a journal editor is an awful lot like being a dairy farmer. The milk is produced 24-7, 365 days a year and, honestly, articles come in 24-7, 365. I put that as a high priority throughout the year, including the times when I’m technically on vacation. I don’t hand it off. It’s basically part of my daily life, every single day.”

The process of publishing your research results in a peer-reviewed journal is a fact of academic life every Beckman faculty member knows well. Publishing in a scientific journal not only plays an important role in furthering science, but also in furthering careers.

Journal editors like Moore and Jennifer Cole of the Cognitive Science group say the drive to publish has only grown in the past 20 years; combine that with the Web-based submission, review, and publishing process that is now the norm, and the result is a changing landscape for journal editors and reviewers, as well as authors.

Submitting papers and research images via the Internet has been used in journal publishing for more than 15 years, while the use of web portals to streamline the whole process of submission to publication is becoming more and more common.

“You just can’t even imagine doing things by paper anymore,” said Cole, who is General Editor of Laboratory Phonology and a leading linguistics researcher. “The push is toward completely automating the whole submission to publication process so it’s all done web-based. The portals are newer but they are becoming the industry standard.”

The ease of submitting over the Internet comes at the same time that there is a greater drive for researchers of all disciplines to publish.

“The publication culture in linguistics has changed radically in 20 years,” Cole added. “There is definitely a pressure on people to publish a certain number of papers in a certain type of venue. A productive scholar would produce maybe one major work every year or two years and some major scholars would produce a major work every five years. If it was a major work, that was judged to be significant and adequate, but that doesn’t’ really pass muster anymore.”

Changing Landscape for Editors

This drive is played out in newer, online-only journals and century-old publications with an online presence that delivers news of big breakthroughs weeks before it appears in print.

The Beckman Institute used to have a library featuring the latest journals from different disciplines, but it was shuttered almost 10 years ago. Stephen Boppart, Co-chair of the Integrative Imaging research theme, has been a book editor, guest editor for journals, and reviewer, and embraces the changes in publishing – with a caveat.   

“I joke that the only time I set foot in the library is with my kids, these days,” Boppart said. “I think online is convenient, but I think maybe we lost some of those historical references. And the other thing, which I fear, is that, as we have this proliferation of journals and articles and papers, the quality gets watered down. It has driven me to know better which the quality journals are and only to focus on those.”

Moore, a member of Beckman’s Autonomous Materials Systems group, is Associate Editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS for short). He has a JACS editorial assistant with an office near his own on the third floor of the Institute.  He is just one of many Beckman researchers who have served, or are currently serving, as editors, reviewers, or guest editors for journals or book chapters in their discipline.

Moore knows both sides of the publishing process, as research paper writer and as reviewer and editor. He does receive compensation for his efforts but that is not his driving motivation.

“I invest a significant chunk of time in this,” Moore said. “I do it, obviously, because I enjoy the science. I also enjoy the opportunity to help because it is something I feel very sincerely about.”

Cole, who is not paid for her current work as a general editor but did receive compensation for previous service on an editorial board, said serving as an editor allows her to play a larger role in her discipline.

“As a general editor you can actually try to stimulate people to submit in areas that you feel have some promise,” she said.

And, she said, it also enhances her work, for both research purposes and for mentoring students. Those are the same reasons why Cole recently agreed to take on another task, serving on the editorial board for a new online version of an important reference volume in her field. 

 “I really thought long and hard about accepting it but I agreed because that kind of material is so valuable to me, and particularly my graduate students,” she said. “I’m trying to encourage them to broaden their knowledge and to not make assumptions about what people are saying on a question they are not familiar with. This kind of online material makes it so convenient, and to have it as an online publication is really important because it means it will be updated more frequently.”

The Value of Journals

The changeover to online that has been taking place for more than 15 years has also moved academic publishing into the modern digital media realm where free access to information has become an expectation. Open access to federally-funded research has been a hot topic of debate recently, especially after a recent bill proposed in Congress called for restrictions on access to such research.

Funding agencies sometimes have a mandate that requires publishing results within a certain time period. On the other hand, research papers often require an expensive journal subscription to access, even though some organizations like the University of Illinois cover the costs of those subscriptions for faculty and staff.

A recent bill called the Research Works Act proposed restricting public sharing of federally-funded research unless the publisher agreed to open access. Some publishers, including many for-profit organizations, supported the bill, while other groups such as academic presses and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science), did not.

The bill was ultimately withdrawn but the debate continues. Some think all taxpayer-funded research should be open to the public.

Moore has been an editor as well as journal contributor for many years (joining with Nancy Sottos and Scott White on a seminal paper on self-healing materials in Nature in 2001), so he has insight into the different perspectives on access.     

“I understand why the world these days has gotten used to getting everything for free,” Moore said. “But when you understand the behind-the-scenes work, you realize there isn’t a business model that really allows that information to be distributed freely and to remain at its current high quality.

“From my standpoint, as a researcher and as an editor, what I value the most is being able to go on the American Chemical website, have a very robust, reliable platform where information is easily found and then easily accessed and trust that it has, a) been through a rigorous review and, b) will be available for many years to come. The importance of being able to access that information is worth the money that universities and others pay for those subscriptions.”

Moore said he thinks the current business model for journals works well in maintaining high scientific review standards and a quality product.

“Many of the high quality publication organizations are non-profit organizations; there are of course profit organizations too, but if you look at the American Chemical Society, for example, or the Royal Chemical Society, they are non-profit,” he said. “But to do a quality job, in terms of delivering publications that are both rigorously peer-reviewed and presented to the world in a way that is meaningful and understandable, there needs to be a huge infrastructure that backs all of that up.

“The peer review system has its faults, but it works pretty darn well.”

Those peer-reviewed publications also need reviewers. Cole said reviewing is an unpaid but expected aspect of academic life and while she is not paid, believes it benefits researchers to serve as editors and reviewers.

“I think it’s really worthwhile because of the enrichment you get for your own scholarship,” she said. “It makes you a better writer because you read a lot of other people’s work and you have a sense of what an effective writing strategy is and also what ineffective writing strategies are.

“You can incorporate that into your own work, it makes you better. It helps to mentor students. You can see a big range of work that gets submitted for journal publication and I can try to advise my students to adopt effective practices.”

This article is part of the Spring 2012 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.