Why edit a journal? More generally, how to contribute to scientific discussion?

The other day I wrote:

Journal editing is a volunteer job, and people sign up for it because they want to publish exciting new work, or maybe because they enjoy the power trip, or maybe out of a sense of duty—but, in any case, they typically aren’t in it for the controversy.

Jon Baron, editor of the journal Judgment and Decision Making, saw this and wrote:

In my case, the reasons are “all three”! But it isn’t a matter of “exciting new work” so much as “solid work with warranted conclusions, even if boring”. This is a very old-fashioned experimental psychologist’s approach. Boring is good. And the “power” is not a trivial consideration; many things that academics do have the purpose of influencing their fields, and editing, for me, beats teaching, blogging, writing trade books, giving talks, or even . . . (although it does not beat writing a textbook).

I’ve been asked many times to edit journals but I’ve always said no because I’ve felt that, personally, I can make better contributions to the field as a loner. Editing a journal would require too much social skill for me. We each should contribute where we can.

Also recall this story:

I remember, close to 20 years ago, an economist friend of mine was despairing of the inefficiencies of the traditional system of review, and he decided to do something about it: He created his own system of journals. They were all online (a relatively new thing at the time), with an innovative transactional system of reviewing (as I recall, every time you submitted an article you were implicitly agreeing to review three articles by others) and a multi-tier acceptance system, so that very few papers got rejected; instead they were just binned into four quality levels. And all the papers were open-access or something like that.

The system was pretty cool, but for some reason it didn’t catch on—I guess that, like many such systems, it relied a lot on continuing volunteer efforts of its founder, and perhaps he just got tired of running an online publishing empire, and the whole thing kinda fell apart. The journals lost all their innovative aspects and became just one more set of social science publishing outlets. My friend ended up selling his group of journals to a traditional for-profit company, they were no longer free, etc. It was like the whole thing never happened.

A noble experiment, but not self-sustaining. Which was too bad, given that he’d put so much effort into building a self-sustaining structure.

Perhaps one lesson from my friend’s unfortunate experience is that it’s not enough to build a structure; you also need to build a community.

Another lesson is that maybe it can help to lean on some existing institution. This guy built up his whole online publishing company from scratch, which was kinda cool, but then when he no longer felt like running it, it dissolved, and then he ended up with a pile of money, which he probably didn’t need and he might never get around to spending, while losing the scientific influence, which is more interesting and important. Maybe it would’ve been better for him to have teamed up with an economics society, or with some university, governmental body, or public-interest organization.

Good intentions are not enough, and even good intentions + a lot of effort aren’t enough. You have to work with existing institutions, or create your own. This blog works in part because it piggybacks off the existing institution of blogging. Nowadays there isn’t much blogging anymore, but the circa 2005-era blogosphere was helpful in giving us a sense of how to set up our community. We built upon the strengths of the blogosphere and avoided some of the pitfalls.

Similarly this is the challenge of reforming scientific communication: to do something better while making use of existing institutions and channels whereby researchers donate their labor.