Editing TS journals
Helle V. Dam1 (Aarhus School of Business, Denmark)
When I was invited to speak at the EST symposium on publishing in TS, the organizers asked me to address the topic of Editing TS journals based on the following questions:
- What are the objectives and ambitions of journal editors?
- What are their editorial policies and how do they try to implement them?
- Do they have enough contributions? Do they have too many?
- What are the main strengths they seek from manuscripts?
- What are the weaknesses they see most often?
- What other problems do they have as editors?
- What advice would they give to contributors?
In this written version of my presentation, I shall focus on the latter four questions, in particular on 4, 5 and 7, as these seem to be of most direct interest and relevance to readers, especially to those readers who are young scholars with little or no publication experience. Each of these four questions will therefore be treated in a separate section (sections 2, 3, 4 and 5). The first three questions, which may be of interest to a broader section of the TS community, including fellow editors and referees, will be addressed together in one section (section 1), which also contains an introduction with some background information.
- Background: About the journalHermes
The journal that my main editorial experience – and consequently this paper – is based on is Hermes – Journal of Language and Communication Studies (see, however, footnote 1). As a “journal of language and communication studies”, it covers a wide variety of topics, including discourse and genre analysis, lexicography, business communication, intercultural communication, general linguistics – and translation studies. Thus, Hermes is not only dedicated to TS, but is a broad-ranging journal. We usually refer to it as an omnibus journal. However, I do think that the issues involved in editing an omnibus journal are basically the same as those involved in editing a more focused journal dedicated exclusively to TS.
Hermes was founded in 1988 at Aarhus School of Business (ASB), very much as a local journal which was meant to give exposure to and increase the prestige of the research done at ASB and, more specifically, to offer local researchers, including our young scholars, a possibility of publishing.
Since Hermes was founded in 1988, the ambitions of its editors have increased, and the journal has changed on a number of points. The present profile of Hermes can be summed up as follows:
- Today Hermes is an international journal, but with local roots. Thus, we have an international readership with subscribers from all over the world. The contributors are also from all over the world, but we still get relatively many contributions from Denmark (although mainly from universities other than ASB) and the other Scandinavian countries. As for our language policy, authors are now strongly encouraged to write in English or one of the other widely extended Western languages (French, German or Spanish), and contributions not in English must have an English abstract. However, the editors are all from ASB, and so far referees have been local, although we have recently decided to change our referee policy in this respect, so that in the future all contributions will be reviewed by an external referee as well.
- Hermes is still an omnibus journal with a broad coverage. One important reason for this is the fact that it is still published at ASB, by the Department of Language and Business Communication, and the editors and other scholars who work at the department strongly feel that the journal should continue to reflect the many research topics covered by the department, thus serving as a unifying force for the people who work there. This reason is less rational than what would perhaps normally be expected from an ambitious journal, but the importance of non-rational drivers should not be underestimated in any project that involves real people. The Hermes project certainly both feeds on and nurtures corporate spirit.
One (positive) consequence of the omnibus profile of the journal is that we receive a relatively large number of manuscripts, so that we are able to be selective and still publish two issues a year.
- Although many well-established scholars choose to publish in Hermes, the journal still receives a relatively large number of contributions by young scholars. This means, among other things, that we need to run a thorough refereeing procedure (cf. section 1.1 below).
1.1 Main objectives and editorial policies
The editorial board of Hermes currently has three main ambitions:
- to run an international journal that publishes high-quality research papers
- to offer publication space also to young scholars
- to offer fast publication
Some of these ambitions may seem contradictory at a first glance: how to ensure high-quality papers while at the same time offering publication space to young and inexperienced scholars, for example? To us, the answer lies in a careful and thorough refereeing procedure. Thus, rather than simply rejecting manuscripts if they are not fully up to international standards in the first go, we usually give authors a chance to improve – provided that their manuscripts have potentials, of course. We may label this policy thorough reviews rather than immediate rejection.
This policy is time-consuming both for editors, referees and contributors, as the reviews sometimes need to be very detailed, and the refereeing procedure usually involves several rounds of readings and revisions. For young scholars’ contributions, three rounds of revisions are often required, whereas for experienced scholars one or two rounds are standard.
Time-consuming as it is, the policy of thorough-reviews-rather-than-immediate-rejection is clearly difficult to combine with the third objective: fast publication. Admittedly, the two are not always compatible. Although we are usually able to publish a manuscript within six months upon submission, it may take up to a year if a lot of revisions are required. However, we do give high priority to fast publication to ensure that ideas and findings can be published while they are still new. Slow publication not only hampers the dynamics of science; it is also very inconvenient for the individual scholar to have to wait for publication for perhaps three or even four years, in particular when later publications build on a paper which remains unpublished for several years.
One of the reasons we are able to ensure fast publication in Hermes is that the editors are local and that we use local referees2 whenever we have the necessary expertise in-house. In our experience, local people, for whom running the journal is a con amore project, tend to able – and, more importantly, willing – to work fast. Also, the journal is typeset and printed locally at ASB – another factor which speeds up the process. The fact that Hermes is locally rooted no doubt means less prestige for the journal, but it does facilitate fast publication. And makes the journal much less expensive, we may add.
Perhaps our policy change from using mainly referees from ASB to always using external referees, which is mentioned above and in footnote 2, deserves some elaboration. The reason for the change is that we wish to boost objective number 1: to publish high-quality papers. It is quite clear that, in the scientific community, blind reviews performed by scholars with no involvement in the journal are considered a sine qua non for a high-quality journal. Still, highly qualified and dedicated internal referees may in principle do their job at least as well as external, independent referees would. Our policy change is therefore admittedly just as much a question of achieving more prestige as it is a question of ensuring higher quality as such.
- Quality criteria
In this section, I shall address question number 4: what are the main strengths we seek from manuscripts? When the editors of Hermes send out manuscripts to be refereed, referees are asked to make a review in which they specifically comment on i.a. the themes listed below. These themes are basically equivalent to the strengths that we seek from manuscripts.
- Relevance. Here we are interested in whether the paper and its topic is relevant for the journal (does it treat a topic Hermes usually covers?), and whether it is relevant per se. One very important relevance criterion is that the paper has added value with respect to other publications in the field, including that it represents an element of innovation. Thus, the paper should contain something new – it should take up a new topic, present a new way of looking at a topic previously dealt with in the literature, introduce a new method, analyse new data, or the like. Although we certainly also find that originality is a strength, the manuscripts accepted for publication in Hermes need not be original in every way. They may for example only present new data, whereas for instance the methodology may not be new. What is important is that something in the paper is new.
- The appropriateness of the literature on which the paper is based. Manuscripts should be based on all the relevant, including the newest, literature. This criterion is obviously linked to the above criterion: for a manuscript to have added value, it must relate to the relevant literature.
- The appropriateness of the approach, theory and/or methodology chosen by the author. This quality criterion is probably self-explanatory: in a strong manuscript, the theory/-ies chosen should for example be appropriate for the topic treated, the design of an empirical study should be methodologically appropriate and reflect the purpose of the study, etc.
- The quality of (the presentation of) the analyses. This is linked to the previous criterion, in so far as both criteria are partly related to methodology, but here we emphasize not only the importance of high-quality methodology and analyses, but also that methods and analyses should be sufficiently detailed, well-explained and illustrated in the paper for the analyses to stand out as clear and convincing to the reader. Thus, the methodology and analyses need to be explicit and clear, and the results, the interpretation of the results and the conclusions drawn by the author must be convincing.
- Documentation. All statements made in the manuscript should be well-documented. Most importantly, claims and conclusions should always be substantiated either through appropriate references or through explicit and convincing analyses.
- Logic and coherence of the argumentation. We find it important that the basic argumentation in the paper is coherent and makes sense, i.e. that there is a clear and logical connection between the individual parts of the paper (theory, analyses, conclusions, etc.), and that the interpretation of results and the conclusions are logical and well-argued. It is also important that the paper has a clearly defined research question and/or hypothesis from which the entire article evolves in a logical and focused way, and that the author does not engage in irrelevant deviations or take up too many sub-issues on his/her way towards the conclusion.
- Readability. It is important for us that the text is easy to read and no more complicated or technical than need be. We stress that the paper should be well-structured, that it should be written in a clear and straight-forward style, that specialised concepts should be defined (clearly), that abbreviations and acronyms should not be used excessively, and, when used, they should be spelled out.
I would like to stress that the criteria listed above are probably very general quality norms, rather than specific Hermes criteria. Exactly how they are described and interpreted and how much weight each of them is given by individual journals, editors and scholars may of course vary. For example, there are probably different perceptions of the style in which academic articles should be written (should they be easy to read, or is complex style a necessary and perhaps even desirable feature in scientific texts?). However, there is general agreement that, basically, science – and scientific papers – should be explicit, logical and innovative (see also Gile and Hansen 2004:304, and the research textbooks they refer to). What may be specific to Hermes is that we usually give contributors a chance to improve their manuscripts in order to meet the quality criteria, rather than use the criteria to reject papers that do not meet standard scientific norms from the very beginning.
- Typical weaknesses
In this section I shall address question number 5: what are the weaknesses we see most often in manuscripts? The weaknesses could of course be described as the opposite of the strengths presented as quality criteria above, i.e. as irrelevance, inappropriate methodology, incoherent argumentation, etc. However, although some overlap is inevitable, I shall try to avoid too many repetitions by describing some frequent flaws at a more specific level.
Below is a list of the weaknesses that the members of the editorial board of Hermes find we encounter most often:
- The purpose of the paper is not (clearly) stated/the paper lacks focus. A very frequent weakness is that the purpose of the paper is not stated or not stated clearly. Thus, the paper may lack a central research question or problem and/or a hypothesis. Without a clearly stated purpose there is nothing to guide or frame the paper and it risks dissolving into incoherent bits and pieces with little or no focus. The paper also risks becoming too long – not necessarily in the sense that it exceeds maximum length (in Hermes’ case 25 pages, i.e. quite a lot), but in the sense that it contains irrelevant deviations from the central topic and repetitions.
- The literature (review) does not reflect the state of the art. Literature reviews sometimes do not include a presentation of all the relevant and central authors and their most recent work. This flaw is easy to remedy if it is only a question of adding a few references and elaborating a bit on the review text, but sometimes it has as a consequence that the article and the study it presents does not reflect the state of the art of research in the field in question. This is clearly a much more fundamental weakness, which may be difficult to remedy.
- Excessive use of quotations. In particular young scholars often resort to giving long quotations in their literature reviews, rather than write their own text in which they rephrase other scholars’ ideas and summarize previous research in the field.
- Problems with the relationship between theory and analyses. In quite a few manuscripts, authors present theory which they do not apply in the analyses, i.e. the relation between theory and analyses is simply missing. In other cases, too much weight is given either to theory or to analyses, i.e. the relation between the two is unbalanced. This kind of problem is also most frequent in young scholars’ manuscripts, but it is certainly not uncommon in papers by experienced scholars.
- Undocumented claims and over-generalisations. This problem is related to the quality criterion referred to as documentation in section 2 above. We find that quite a lot of authors state ideas etc. as facts, even if they have never been shown to be facts – neither by others nor by the author her-/himself – and therefore ought to be stated as for example assumptions. The other kind of documentation problem – over-generalisations – is particularly salient when findings of empirical studies are presented and interpreted. Thus, sometimes very categorical conclusions are made, even if the study they are based on is small, clearly only deals with one aspect of the topic in question, its results are not entirely clear, etc.
- The conclusion is not a real conclusion. Some conclusions are not “real” conclusions in the sense that they do not relate to the purpose of the paper, nor do they sum up the presented findings and put them into perspective. In stead, the conclusion may take up a new topic or present new information about the analyses or other parts of the paper. The issue of inadequate conclusions is sometimes related to the first problem in this list of weaknesses, i.e. lack of a (clearly) stated purpose: if the purpose of the paper is not clear (to the readers and to the author), it is of course difficult to make an adequate conclusion.
- Style problems. This issue is related partly to the quality criterion of readability mentioned above and partly to authors’ compliance with the style sheet. It is surprising how often manuscripts are flawed by clumsy and unclear writing style, undefined concepts, too many abbreviations, examples which are not explained or not translated if they are in an exotic language, etc. It is equally surprising how often the journal’s style sheet is not observed; in particular, the references rarely follow the guidelines, even when the manuscripts have been revised several times. In fact, flaws related to style are probably the most frequent flaws in manuscripts. Here I speak not only from my experience as an editor and referee for Hermes; style problems are frequent also in contributions to collective volumes and to other journals.
- The abstract is not sufficiently informative. A problem which is more specific is lack of informativity in abstracts. Rather often, abstracts are formulated as if they were introductions to the articles rather than short summaries describing purpose, method and results.
The last weakness I shall mention is peculiar to reviews:
- Reviews which are simple summaries. Sometimes manuscripts for reviews are simple summaries and lack a motivated assessment of the quality of the reviewed publication. However, the assessment part is really what makes a review useful.
Some of the weaknesses described above are evidently more serious than others and require different degrees of revision. For example, lack of a clear focus is more serious than lack of compliance with the style sheet, and it clearly takes much more time and work to referee and revise a paper with focus problems than a paper with minor style flaws.
Still, unless they are very serious, all the listed flaws can in fact be remedied, as long as the paper generally meets the quality criteria stated in section 2 above: relevance and innovation, coherence, logic and appropriateness of literature base, approach, theory, methodology, analyses and documentation. What clearly cannot be accepted for publication are manuscripts of an anecdotal and non-scientific nature, which are based on personal experience and/or impressions rather than the newest literature, systematic empirical studies, etc. However, it is my impression that in the field of translation and interpreting manuscripts of this kind are not nearly as frequent as they used to be.
- Other problems
In this section, I shall briefly address question number 6: what other problems do we have as editors? Apart from flawed manuscripts which require detailed reviews and extensive revision, I should like to mention two other factors which complicate the editorial process. One is about observation of deadlines; another has to do with proof-reading:
Hermes has two annual deadlines for submission of papers: March 1st and September 1st. If these deadlines are observed – and the manuscript is not too problematic – the article can be published in the next issue, six months later. This means that we run a very tight schedule if the journal is to be published on time, considering the many phases in the process: reviewing, revising (often several times), typesetting, proof-reading (twice), correcting, and printing. As explained, we give high priority to fast publication, and we also emphasize punctuality. As one of the founding editors says: “a journal should be as punctual and reliable as a clockwork”. However, academics are busy people who have real problems observing not only the initial deadline, but also the subsequent deadlines for submission of revised versions of the manuscript and proofs. Authors therefore often ask for, and expect, flexibility and extension of deadlines. This is understandable, but it does complicate the process and conflicts with our objective of fast publication.
The second problem I wish to mention has to do with proof-reading. As is probably well-known, in the proof-reading phase, corrections should be limited to minor changes related to layout, hyphenation, updating of references and the like. However, rather often authors suggest major changes also in the proof-reading phase, and may for example wish to rewrite, add or delete entire paragraphs. This is another factor which complicates the process.
- Advice to contributors
In this last section, I shall address question number 7: what advice would we give to contributors?
First, there is one very obvious piece of advice:
- Try to follow the quality criteria presented in section 2, and avoid the flaws presented as typical weaknesses in section 3.
This should take any author’s manuscript a long way towards publication. However, it is not always easy to assess one’s own work. We are often blind to our own errors, and especially when we have worked with a text for a long time, we become unable to read it clearly, let alone assess it. My second piece of advice therefore is:
- Have a colleague read your paper and discuss it with you before you submit it for publication.
A third piece of general advice would be:
- Take the peer review as an opportunity to learn and improve your work
As editors we sometimes experience that authors perceive the peer review not as constructive criticism and a welcome opportunity to improve their work, but rather as offensive and sometimes even personal criticism. It happens that an author whose manuscript receives a critical review becomes so offended that s/he withdraws the paper. This is regrettable, not least considering that the referees have devoted a considerable amount of time and energy trying to help the author improve his/her manuscript.
At a more specific level, especially beginners are well advised to:
- Always be very clear about the purpose of the paper.
Make clear right from the very beginning what research question or problem is addressed in the paper, and stick to answering that question all the way through the article. A clear definition of the purpose is the only way to ensure a clear, focused and coherent paper, which does not wander about attempting to answer all sorts of different questions.
Finally, I have a plea for everybody – young as well as experienced: when your manuscript has been accepted for publication, please adapt it meticulously to the journal’s guidelines for manuscripts. In particular, make sure that the references follow the style sheet. The references are probably the one thing we spend most time checking – time we could spend doing interesting research and reviewing interesting papers.
Dam, Helle V., Jan Engberg & Heidrun Gerzymisch-Arbogast (eds). 2005. Knowledge Systems and Translation. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Gile, Daniel, Helle V. Dam, Friedel Dubslaff, Bodil Martinsen & Anne Schjoldager (eds). 2001. Getting Started in Interpreting Research. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Gile, Daniel & Gyde Hansen. 2004. “The editorial process through the looking glass”. In Claims, Changes and Challenges in Translation Studies, G. Hansen, K. Malmkjær & D. Gile (eds), 297-306. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
 Helle V. Dam is from the Department of Language and Business Communication at Aarhus School of Business, Denmark. Apart from being a member of the editorial board of the journal Hermes, she has co-edited the collective volumes Getting Started in Interpreting Research (Gile et al. 2001) and Knowledge Systems and Translation (Dam et al. 2005), and has experience as a referee from a number of other contexts. Her own research focuses on interpreting.
 As explained above, we have recently decided to change our referee policy, so that we always use at least one external referee. It remains to be seen to what extent this change will increase publication time.