March/April 2004

Musings of a Retiring BSSA Editor

When you read this, I will have completed my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. It has been a fun job for the last 8 3/4 years, and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in this role. I am extremely grateful to the many dedicated Associate Editors who have served on the Editorial Board; without their hard work, the Bulletin would not succeed. I also thank the three people who ran the editorial office during my tenure: Susie Alde, Neena Paul, and Carol Mark. All of them established an excellent rapport with the Associate Editors and most authors, which contributed a great deal to the smooth operation of the Bulletin. Without Susie, Neena, and Carol, none of us could have done our jobs. They exercised the gentle art of persuasion as they nudged volunteer reviewers, authors, and Associate Editors to complete their work. I greatly appreciate the strong support of the SSA Headquarters staff, including Susan Newman, Kathy Rowe, Janice Sellers, and Linda Turnowski. All of them have given great service to the Society and the Bulletin. Finally, no peer-reviewed journal can succeed without a large group of excellent authors who submit papers and participate cooperatively in the review process, and the often unnamed peer reviewers who donate their time freely to reading, evaluating, and offering suggestions to improve papers.

The editor of any journal must be a strong supporter of and believer in the peer-review process. Shortly after I took the job as Editor, one member of the SSA Board of Directors said that he had rarely seen a paper improve as a result of the peer-review process. I believe that this person has a jaundiced view of the process. When conscientious reviewers provide thoughtful reviews of papers and Associate Editors evaluate those reviews and work constructively with authors, the peer-review process can lead to significant improvements in presentation of the science. Success requires cooperation and an open-minded acceptance of often-critical comments. I have often reminded authors to consider that the comments of reviewers reflect issues that might come up among readers of their published papers. By addressing comments constructively, authors can improve the value of their papers to all readers and can thus enhance the value of their work. The Editorial Board has a responsibility to both authors and readers. To authors, the Board must provide rapid and constructive reviews and a willingness to evaluate the arguments of both authors and reviewers. Associate Editors must work with authors and reviewers to develop a paper that is deemed suitable for publication. The Editorial Board must work to provide readers with a journal that contains well reasoned, well presented, and innovative science about relevant topics. The Board also has a responsibility to allow reasonable speculation but avoid unsupported hyperbole. Authors have a responsibility to consider carefully what they submit to the peer-review process. Submitted papers should be in a form that the authors would be proud to have published. It is not the duty of the peer-review process to be the first phase of editing for manuscripts. This is unfair to reviewers and the Editorial Board. Reviewers have a responsibility to provide timely, clear, and objective reviews. Associate Editors have a responsibility to evaluate all comments, and authors have a right to present carefully reasoned objections to any of the comments. Therefore, reviewers should understand that perhaps some of their criticisms will not lead to modifications of the paper.

I have read with interest the lively exchange in Eos about anonymous reviewers. I can see merits to both sides of the argument. It is often difficult to find two willing reviewers for a paper even without the added requirement that the reviews be signed. Many reviewers sign their reviews as a way to initiate discussions with authors. In other cases, reviewers wish to remain anonymous for various reasons, including that the authors have some clout over future funding of the reviewers. It is the job of the Associate Editor to evaluate reviews critically, be aware of any personal conflicts or animosity, and discount comments that are believed to be unfair or motivated by personal objectives of the reviewer.

The peer-review process is far from perfect. There is always a trade-off between a thorough evaluation of a manuscript and a timely review process. The Bulletin generally uses two external reviews of submitted papers (one for Short Notes). Our desire to have a wide range of opinion must be balanced against the imposition on reviewers and the need for speed of publication. The Bulletin provides several checks during peer reviews: First, the Associate Editor has great latitude in providing instructions to authors about how to modify their papers, and second, the Editor evaluates the final review process. Again, it is not a perfect system.

I have often speculated about how to have a more productive comment-and-reply forum in the Bulletin. The Comment and Reply section can allow for a discussion of issues in dispute. As such, it can contribute to the vitality of our community as we seek answers to important questions. When reviewers feel strongly about papers that have not been revised according to their suggestions, I remind them that they have the opportunity to write comments expressing their disagreement. Some comments and replies present a challenge to the editorial process in trying to keep the discussions clear and pertinent.

As we move into the future, the Society will need to examine the focus of the Bulletin. I have encouraged a broadening of the types of papers we attract and publish in the Bulletin by expanding the Editorial Board, including scientists with a wider range of specialties and scientists not based in the U.S. The result has been a larger Bulletin. One reader commented that the Bulletin is too thick to fit in his briefcase. Is thicker better? If not, how do we limit the size of each issue? Should we go to monthly publication? Should we forgo paper publication and publish entirely on the Web? Should we be more selective in the topics of papers that we consider for publication (such as eliminating papers on forensic seismology)? The Bulletin has been a home to papers about basic science as well as applied topics that are relevant to society at large. The Bulletin has also been the home to many excellent methods-and-techniques papers. Should we set higher standards for papers that are published? Should we discourage long papers by means other than through the current price structure, with higher page charges for longer papers? Should we be more aggressive in encouraging electronic supplements to papers as a means of shortening the printed Bulletin? How many special issues are appropriate? We have recently had a number of special issues devoted to significant earthquakes, some of which did not occur in California. We have also had a number of topical special issues. Such issues have generated considerable enthusiasm among authors and guest editors.

There are other issues that we have discussed during my years as Editor. Susan Newman and Chris Biemesderfer have done an excellent job of helping us chart a course into electronic publication that is cost-effective and useful to our readers. At some time, we need to consider how we can institute a less paper-intensive peer-review system. Receiving electronic submissions of papers could increase the efficiency of the editorial office, reduce mailing costs, and speed up the review process. However, my experience is that some authors still have difficulty preparing electronic files that we can easily read. Many reviewers submit their reviews by e-mail. It may be worthwhile exploring an electronic review system such as the one used for reviewing NSF proposals or papers for many journals. The one drawback to such a system would be the possible loss of valuable comments that reviewers write by hand directly on a manuscript.

Page charges are a constant issue of concern. Page charges pay for the functioning of the Editorial Office and the preparation, publication, and mailing of the Bulletin. Many journals have no page charges but charge libraries huge fees for access. The Bulletin has page charges but is relatively inexpensive for libraries and individuals, which assures a wide distribution. Another issue is the editorial office. During my tenure as Editor, the time required to run the office has increased considerably. Part of the reason is that we have accepted a larger responsibility for the quality of the final publication. We work with authors to ensure that text and figures are well presented, correctly edited, and correctly typeset. We review material after authors have read page proofs and ensure that corrections have been made and that no new errors have been introduced during the correction process. Considerable time is spent tracking papers through the peer review process to prevent serious delays.

The future of the Bulletin appears bright. The Society, including headquarters, the Board of Directors, and the members, have shown their commitment to the Bulletin. I wish Andy Michael all the best as he undertakes the important job of being Editor of the Bulletin.

Michael Fehler
Los Alamos National Laboratory

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact the SRL editor by e-mail.



Posted: 21 June 2005