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by Melissa Olson-Petrie
July 30, 2007
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Editorial economies

The files and file cabinets arrived in June 2003. That delivery signaled the official arrival of the journal Frontiers to the History Department at Arizona State University. A few days later, Victoria Hay began her work as the founding director of the Office of Scholarly Journals in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). It was no coincidence.

Hay had been a senior lecturer teaching professional writing and editing at ASU West. But then her teaching load began to include freshman English courses. This reminded her of a statement she had made when she completed her doctorate in English literature. "I decided I would never teach freshman composition again," Hay recalls.

Fortunately, she heard about the Office of Scholarly Journals, a concept that was taking shape on ASU's Tempe Campus. The office would support the work of faculty members who edit scholarly journals.

Hired as the office's founding director, Hay draws on her academic background as well as her experience in magazine journalism. She has worked as an editor at Arizona Highways and Phoenix Magazine. She's also published more than 150 articles for popular and scholarly periodicals, not to mention three books.

A catalyst for the Office of Scholarly Journals had come from co-editors Susan Gray and Gayle Gullett, both associate professors of history. They wanted to bring Frontiers to ASU. The interdisciplinary feminist journal was based at Washington State University. The journal's arrival at ASU was contingent upon receiving support from the university.

"The idea was that [the college] could practice economies of scale by creating an editorial office that could perform copy editing, managerial, and other functions for a number of journals," Gray says. The solution was the Office of Scholarly Journals (OSJ).

Universities often underwrite the cost of hiring a professional editor to work with a faculty member who assumes a journal editorship. Some universities also provide editorial services to help professors produce publishable papers and books. The Office of Scholarly Journals, by contrast, centralized editorial support for Frontiers and other journals edited by CLAS faculty members.

"As far as we know, there's nothing quite like us anywhere else in the country," Hay says. "I think it reflects the university's commitment to foster scholarly excellence. Publication is a crucial part of scholarship. You share what you learn in a discourse with other scholars and with the larger world."

One of Hay's students once described scholarly journals as "publications without pictures." While this is a good way to start thinking about them, Hay says, credibility, not graphics, is a better measure. If publications were placed on a spectrum on the basis of credibility, scholarly journals would most likely be at one end. The writers are scholars from universities and research institutes. The manuscripts are scrutinized by peer experts.

At the opposite end of the spectrum would be the least credible supermarket tabloids that claim pigs can fly and the like. In the middle, would be magazines, such as The Atlantic, that employ fact-checkers to confirm the content of articles.

"A scholarly journal is distinguished by having its content reviewed by people who are experts in the discipline of the scholarly journal," Hay says. She points to another one of her office's clients, Mathematical Biosciences and Engineering. The journal is co-edited by Yang Kuang, a professor in the Mathematics and Statistics Department. At least two scientists with relevant expertise assess the accuracy and quality of the scholarship contained within each manuscript slated for publication.

At times, editors and peer reviewers can be quite blunt in their assessments. Hay has seen rejections along these lines:

Dear Professor Barfinkle,
Your thesis was disproved five years ago. You should read my article on thus-and-such [insert article title, journal, and publication date]. Thank you for considering our journal, and good luck in finding a publisher.
Sincerely, The Editor

While the language in letters among other editors, reviewers, and authors might be more delicately couched, the underlying purpose is to maintain high standards of scholarship–the heavy intellectual work involving arguments, theories, and interpretations. This heavy work is the part of editing a scholarly journal, the developmental editing, that appeals most to Gray in her work with Frontiers.

"We work one-on-one with an author on a piece, much the way you work with a graduate student on a seminar paper," she says. This editing examines the content of the author's paper as a whole. Comments might include: There's a problem with the argument here. You need to move that paragraph over there. You don't really have a good conclusion.

"It's the kind of teaching I find the most rewarding, working with students on individual research projects and trying to take an argument and develop it to its fullest extent," Gray says. "I see tremendous continuity between working with advanced undergraduates and graduates and then working with authors for Frontiers. It calls forth some of my best instincts as a teacher."

The developmental work is the territory of the faculty editors, who are versed in their particular disciplines. This differs from the work of the OSJ editors. Their territory is more at the sentence level through copyediting and the style level through formatting manuscripts to conform to a journal's preferred style guide.

"We don't do substantive or content editing," Hay says. "By the time we get the copy, it has already been through the peer review process. The factuality of it and the general shape and organization is pretty much the way the editors and the peer reviewers want it."

What often comes to the fore during copyediting is the author's skill with the English language. For example, Hay estimates that 90 percent of the contributors to Mathematical Biosciences and Engineering are native speakers of languages other than English. They speak and write in Chinese, Russian, Italian, German, and French.

"That is probably the most hugely international and diverse journal we've got," Hay says. "Really, what we're doing is editing English as a second language more than anything else."

At OSJ, Hay reads all copy that comes into the office first. She does a light copyediting. The text then goes to graduate research assistants, whom the office usually hires from the Scholarly Publishing Program.

"You really don't have to be a scientist to edit copy as long as you understand the structure of English well and you know the conventions of the style manual for that discipline," Hay says.

In editing after Hay, the RAs finalize style matters, such as the formatting of endnotes. They continue the copyediting process by working back and forth with the ASU editor and the authors.

"On top of the regular copyediting, I also have to make sure that they are saying what they intend to," says Tina Minchella, the RA who works on Mathematical Biosciences and Engineering and Letras Femeninas. "I have realized that being considerate and professional will get you the farthest when making suggestions on someone's work, especially through impersonal e-mails."

"The idea was that if we had this resource," Hay says, "we would be able to encourage both younger scholars and senior scholars to bring journals to ASU."

Having a system in place, including infrastructure such as that available through the OSJ, is essential before taking on a journal, says Frontiers' Gray.

"The thing about editing a journal is that it never quits," Gray says. "Every time you turn around, there's something new you have to learn how to do." This can include empanelling peer reviewers and guest editors, rewriting contracts as needed, seeking resources to create a Web site, and more.

Having the instincts of a border collie might serve potential journal editors well, Gray adds. They'll need to chase down the details while keeping the big picture in sight.

"You're trying to keep all of the sheep more or less together and going in the same direction," Gray says. "Every issue is a flock. There's always several of them strung out down the road, and you're back and forth."

It's been about three years since the Office of Scholarly Journals opened. Two of the people responsible for creating the office have since retired—Beth Luey of the Scholarly Publishing Program and Assistant Dean Gwen Stowe. Former CLAS Dean David Young is now senior vice president for academic affairs.

Hay and the office's first clients, especially the editors of Frontiers and Mathematical Biosciences and Engineering, started by producing periodicals. But they also created the systems that define how they work together.

They had no model to build their relationships upon—namely who would do what and when they would do it. At the same time, they worked to substitute technology for people power whenever possible to help keep costs down, Gray says.

"I think for a relatively small amount of money, the university is getting a big bang for its buck," she says. "Having journals produced from campus, especially the very good journals, raises the visibility of the university. It's a measure of the active engagement of the faculty in national and international scholarship. That's exactly what the university should be about.


For more information about the Office of Scholarly Journals, contact Victoria Hay at 480.965.7404. Send email to clasjournals@asu.edu