How to edit a volume of papers

With the Wellnhofer volume now with the printers (not long now people – please spread the word) it seemed an appropriate time to revisit some of the basics of science publishing that I began with advice on how to publish a paper and complete a PhD. Now let’s take a look on the other side of the fence from the perspective of the people who deal with those papers. Coming soon will be my take on how to review a paper, but we will start with how to edit a volume.

Of course I have only edited one volume of papers, which with the best will in the world is not a huge amount of experience, but still a lot more than most researchers since they aren’t very common. I also know a few editors of various palaeo journals, and while the specifics of handling a single volume are rather different to that of an ongoing series the major points (dealing with referees and authors, sorting out formats etc.) are similar and can be applied to either. While this post is designed to be of practical advice to any prospective editors, it should also be of help to those contributing to such volumes to see things from the other side and understand the issues at play

First off, don’t take this kind of thing on unless you have the time to do it. The Wellnhofer volume was pretty small really, and since I knew all the people who would likely be contributing and the referees, plus the support of an experienced co-editor in Eric Buffetaut and the support of the Zitteliana people, this made things much easier. I would hate to have had to have done of much of the extra stuff on my own, with strangers, or handling something twice the size.

Next you must sort out as much of the basics before you begin – is there a publisher lined up, are costs and issue in terms of numbers of pages, use of figures or colour, copyright problems etc.? There’s no point setting up a volume and then having to reject papers or ask authors to change papers because you ran out of room, or the publisher can’t print colour. Also make sure you have deadline to work to, or if there isn’t one, set one so things don’t drag on forever.

Now you can ask for papers from contributors. Have a strict theme for the volume (often easy enough as they are typically attached to a meeting or workshop, or to celebrate some person, anniversary etc.). Make sure the call goes out in newsletters, on websites, directly to researchers and if you can through a journal or two. If you can, invite senior researchers to contribute – this will ensure you get a decent number of high quality papers in the volume which will attract other papers and make sales which can be important (you can of course make it invitation only). This is rarely a problem as typically people will *want* to submit, but bear it in mind and perhaps give some people advanced warning that the volume is planned. Give them time to submit, no-one can conjure up a good paper in a few weeks! Make sure the authors are well aware of deadlines, issues, what format and style should be adopted, the deadline for submissions, and the rest.

One thing I have to emphasise here as it applies to all deadline is be as ruthless as possible with deadlines and timelines. Scientists are very ‘free’ most of the time since you can write a paper however you want, whenever you want and submit a paper anywhere you want. This is not a useful mindset for something like a special volume with a fixed publication date, when a normal journal can just delay a ‘late’ paper to another edition. Make times and stick to them.

Assuming you actually get sent some manuscripts, your problems are just beginning. You must choose how to have them reviewed and refereed and then get that done which is bar far the longest phase. Will there be two or more referees for each piece? Are you going to be a referee in addition to other referees, or act as a ‘normal’ referee yourself and if so for how many papers? Or just an overlord style editor making decisions on papers? You will need to recruit referees for the papers (obviously a good place to start in among the ranks of your authors since by definition they are probably experts in the field) and establish a review protocol (plenty more on this in the companion post coming up) so the referees know what information you want and how the reviews should be written. Choose and delegate papers to referees carefully, the referee must have a good knowledge of the area the paper covers and if possible not be a close collaborator of the authors, (or for that matter a bitter rival) and have the time to do the work (don’t send one referee five, 50-page papers to be done in a week). If you can keep it down to 1-3 papers for each referee and given them 6 weeks or 2 months, you should be OK. Make sure *they* stick to the time too (though remember they are doing you a favour) – you can only do so much without all the papers refereed. Don’t forget if you want to contribute a paper to the volume you will need a co-editor to handle your paper, or get the normal journal editor to take it for you.

Now you can work out what you want to keep and what you want to get rid of. Obviously the papers with the best reviews should go in and any that were listed for rejection should probably go, but beyond that things get tricky. If you have a page limit you are likely to exceed you can’t take everything, no matter how good the reviews, or borderline papers may have to be rejected. You might think a paper is great but the referees hated it, or vice-versa. It might be brilliant but badly written or with a serious calculation error that would take ages to fix, but then meant you had a great paper – is there time to get it fixed? Don’t forget that any paper that requires a second full round of revisions and refereeing will suck up a lot of time – only allow this if you can afford it, or alternatively give the author only a small window to make the changes and ensure referees are prepared to review the paper again quickly at short notice. If two authors are discussing similar subjects you may want to get them talking to each other so they can refer to each other’s work in their own papers and cross-reference results etc., those who come to opposing opinions you may want to have an extra page or so each to debate their ideas more directly etc. so keep these ideas in mind.

All these kinds of time issues can be complicated by field seasons, teaching, major meetings and so on, don’t expect someone to return a paper in two weeks if that time includes SVP. Make sure all major decisions are made with the approval of your co-editors, or journal editors etc. Make sure all authors get prompt replies giving them specific details of the state of their papers (accepted, require revisions, rejected etc.) and reasons why. Do treat people with deference and respect, even if you have to reject a paper because it was half-written nonsense.

So now you can send the papers back out the authors for them to make their minor changes and get the manuscripts basically finished (again, set deadlines). In the meantime you have a list of papers you expect to be published and can work on the layout of your volume. Even though it will have a unifying theme, you want the papers to run in a logical order, so where possible put the taxonomy papers together, or follow a paper on flight with one on biomechanics or whatever. This makes the volume as a whole more user friendly since it’s easier for people to cross reference and compare things if they are in consecutive papers. You will probably also have to write a general introduction for the volume, perhaps one that references the other papers so now you know what will be in there, it is a good time to get this done.

Hopefully the papers will come back promptly, and can be sent onto whoever is compiling the volume (i.e. document layouts etc.). You will have to ensure that the documents are correct and correctly catalogued, appendices are present, tables formatted right, figures are sent to you in the correct formats and of sufficient resolution and sized correctly and all those fiddly details. If not, the graphics people will soon be in touch asking for all of this stuff and again if people are away it can be hard to get hold of important things.

Once the formatting is done, proofs can go out to the authors to check over the minor details, and you should probably do as many of them as possible yourself as well. Reading a whole volume takes time, especially when you have to concentrate and look for errors. Once these are back and any last minute changes have been taken care of the volume can go to the printers. Finally you can set about distributing any copies to reviewers or journals and societies to market the volume. Make sure people are aware that the volume is coming out, how much it costs, where to buy it, what is in it and so on. Sure science is not about making money, but there is little point in collecting together a bunch of papers if no-one can get hold of them or read them, so you have a duty to yourself and the authors to get the best distribution you can. With a little luck it will soon become widespread and people can enjoy the fruits of your labours.

Congratulations, you have now published a volume so you can settle down and catch up on all the work you should have been doing for the last 18 months instead of endlessly e-mailing colleagues, authors, referees and editors demanding they sent you work you were promised ‘tomorrow’ six weeks ago.

6 Responses to “How to edit a volume of papers”

  1. 1 Andy 30/12/2008 at 9:27 pm

    Awesome post! And a very timely one – it dovetails nicely with a series of posts I’ve written on peer review (if you’ll forgive the self-promotion). Not sure if comments here handle HTML, so here is the URL for the latest post in the series:

    Your comments on timeliness in the edited volume process are very good. I’ve been involved with volumes edited at both ends – one that took several years to come out, and one that looks like it will take only about a year from submission to publication (which I think is some sort of record)! My extreme kudos to those editors that crack the whip so incessantly.

    Looking forward to your upcoming post on peer review. . .

  2. 2 David Hone 31/12/2008 at 9:02 am

    Yes I have been reading them Andy, very good stuff. What is nice is that we seem to have been writing pretty much the smae thing, but attacking it in different ways so to speak and we emphasise different points differently. This is really nice as not only is there different things to take from each, but it also emphasises the different approaches different referees take. Once I get my post up, I’ll link to yours there to make sure it’s accessible.

    This volume took about 14 months all told, and to be honest there was a blank patch of about 6 months where there was no work being doen by anyone – with a bit of luck we could have had it done in about 10 months from submission to publication. It was a lot of work, but I am proud of the results. The thing actually gets published today (the 31st) and thus really is the last work this year!

  3. 3 Andy 01/01/2009 at 12:10 am

    Thanks – and congratulations on the volume coming out! 14 months is a pretty good turn-around for symposium proceedings – a nice New Year’s gift!

  4. 4 David Hone 01/01/2009 at 10:44 am

    Thanks again, though I won’t be entirely happy until I have a copy in my hands and that might take a few weeks.

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