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Are we asking too much - and giving too little - to journal editors?

Adair Lummis, center, with colleagues David Roozen, left, and Scott Thumma, at The Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Credit: Hartford Seminary.

Low pay. Great expectations and scrutiny. And a job where a knack for effective begging comes in handy.

So who would want to be an editor of an academic journal on religion?

People like sociologist Adair Lummis of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

The scholar who has done groundbreaking research on topics such as gender and religion and congregational growth and decline has served at far-below minimum wage for the past seven years as editor of the Review of Religious Research.

As she prepares to step down, it is a time for appreciation of dedicated journal editors such as Lummis.

Scott Thumma has had a front row seat observing Lummis’ work on the review both as the immediate past president of the Religious Research Association, which puts out the journal, and from an office across the hall at Hartford Seminary, where he is director of the research institute.

“Adair Lummis has done a fantastic job over these past seven years. She clearly does not get paid enough for the hours she contributes in service to the association and its journal,” Thumma said. “Adair devotes as much as 20 hours a week at times to the journal. She is diligent about writing reviewers and scholars in the application process – and is always kind with her comments, even when she is putting pressure on some of us delinquent reviewers.”

Despite the workload, Lummis is an especially strong mentor to younger scholars and international contributors, Thumma said, “whether guiding them about which journal they should be submitting their work to, adjudicating between divergent reviewers, or making sense of conflicting feedback for newer persons trying to get their work through the review.”

Jerry Park, associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, said Lummis “has done just an admirable job managing a truly herculean task.”

But praise is not enough.

Lummis, Park and others who do this work say there also needs to be a larger conversation about how journal editors are supported and compensated, and how these issues matter to their mission of disseminating excellent scholarship on religion from throughout the world.

From his own experience, Park says, “I bow deeply to every editor out there that needs to manage this on a day-to-day basis, trying to do great academic journals with shoestring budgets and little person power.”

More work, less help

What has not let up is the publish-or-perish mentality in academic institutions, where the job market in the social sciences is tight, and cost considerations have limited the availability of tenure-track jobs.

Publishing is particularly important for younger scholars looking for work.

“Most places looking to hire are looking for a minimum of two to three papers published before you can even get into the short list,” Park said.

Naturally, those who submit articles would like their articles to be reviewed – and approved – as soon as possible.

And so would editors. But just peek behind the curtain of an editor’s work for a minute, and you will realize it’s not that easy.

Lummis said she wishes she had been told before taking the editor’s job how much of her time would be devoted to finding reviewers. It is not out of the ordinary to have to approach 12 peers to find three to review each submission.

The editor, then, is often caught between being grateful for the volunteer, if not always timely, efforts of busy professors, and the impatience of contributors seeking responses as soon as possible.

“People, you have no idea, without the reviewers, the whole system crashes,” Lummis said.

Making it even more difficult are reports that some senior faculty at leading universities are encouraging their doctoral students not to review for journals, with the idea they need to devote their time to getting published themselves.

“So basically, they’ve just focused on sheer self-promotion instead of being part of the scholarly community where you give back as much as you take from the system,” Park noted.

What also is more challenging is the priority being placed on getting the best international scholarship. A worthy goal, but working with contributors for whom English is not their first language and who may be less familiar with the formats and requirements of U.S. journals often requires even more of an editor’s time.

Credit: Hartford Seminary

Looking ahead

Some progress has been made. Compensation has increased at many religion journals, rising from around $4,000 to $8,000 or $10,000 at some.

But there is also an awareness that the academic societies that produce many of these journals, the Religious Research Association for the Review of Religious Research, the Association for the Sociology of Religion for the Sociology of Religion journal, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, do not have abundant financial resources.

So what can be done?

In addition to raising wages, some other proposed alternatives include:

• Allowing journal editors to teach fewer courses.
• Providing other incentives such as help from graduate students.
• Addressing the issue of “free riders” who do not accept review assignments, but expect their own submissions to receive careful attention.

It also would not hurt to say “Thank you” to editors such as Lummis and Park, along with others including J. Tobin Grant at JSSR and Gerardo Marti at Sociology of Religion. And to offer one’s own assistance.

This is not just for the sake of the editors, advocates say, but it is critical to maintaining the standards of an elite publication, including spotting any errors in the research or other serious problems such as plagiarism.

Park says in an era where some may dismiss religion or view it negatively, religion journals help “sustain the importance of religion in the modern and post-modern world.”

As an editor, he said, “I’d like to be part of the process that says, ‘Let’s look at the complexity of institutional religion in all its many manifestations, as broadly, as widely, and as deeply as possible.’”

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