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Challenges and Joys of Editing Scientific Journals in India

Challenges and Joys of Editing Scientific Journals in India

Representative image. Photo: Element5 Digital/Pexels

Many leading Indian scientists dismiss science journals published in India. They send their research to only the top journals, which are generally published in the US, UK, or Europe. They say they owe themselves, their students, and their country, nothing but the best. Occasionally they agree to referee manuscripts for Indian journals, and may even contribute short reviews or commentary articles. A former director-general of the CSIR boasted that he had never published in an Indian journal. An editor faces an unusual challenge – should she invite otherwise competent scientists who think it is infra dig to publish in the journal to join the editorial board (EB)?

Then there are other Indian scientists who believe that unless we produce at least a few internationally well-regarded journals, our scientific ecosystem can never be complete. Some claim to publish even their best research in Indian journals, and urge colleagues to do likewise. While some might indeed do so, I suspect that a larger fraction makes a virtue out of necessity when their “Indian” papers failed to cut ice internationally.  

Often students and junior colleagues have well-founded fears of publishing in Indian journals. When selection committees meet to examine their cases for promotion, many members are looking for impact factors of journals. Most Indian journals do not have high impact factors. This is reality. It isn’t fair for a senior to put the abstract idea of a scientific ecosystem ahead of a junior’s career prospects. This also is a challenge for editors of Indian journals.

Journals stacked on a shelf. Photo: yeaki/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

My specialisation is in genetics of fungi. I always found it exhilarating to receive invitations to referee manuscripts for Genetics or Fungal Genetics and Biology, which are among the leading journals in the field. Refereeing offered me a privileged preview of a significant advance in the field, the inviting editors were highly regarded scientists, the authors represented the global fungal genetics community, and there was a feeling of collegial fellowship all around. I invariably completed my reviews well before the deadline.  

It was harder to muster similar enthusiasm and alacrity to invitations from Indian journals. The manuscripts hardly ever reported a significant advance. A majority were poorly written, either because the authors were not fluent in the English language, or quite inexperienced. Sadly, it does not help that teaching and evaluation standards at some of our universities are less stringent than those at the local RTO for a driver’s licence.  

While an editor’s “inner Gandhi” whispers that some of the authors are in impoverished corners of the world and defy odds to keep the flame of enquiry from flickering out, her/his “inner Bezos” warns against squandering the limited number of competent scientists who will agree to referee manuscripts for Indian journals in a timely manner. Therefore, not every manuscript can be sent out to be refereed by a subject expert.

As editor, I rejected more than 90% of manuscripts based on a quick reading of their abstract, and a turn-around time of a day. I assuaged myself thinking it enabled authors to submit their manuscripts to another journal without wasting time. As an experiment, a fraction of “rapid reject” decisions were forwarded to other EB members for oversight and transparency in the process. None of my fellow editors raised doubts about my rapid reject decisions. We published fewer than 10% of the manuscripts received.

The rapidly rejected manuscripts included many review articles. Review articles do not report the findings of primary research, but summarise research done by several scientists in a field. Many scientists write reviews to meet publication targets. Some write them even if they have no primary research papers in the field. They do not see incongruity in expecting their submission to be sent out to an expert for review. This problem of “novice reviews” was exacerbated by the Universities Grants Commission during its short-sighted – and thankfully short-lived – rule that PhD candidates must publish a specified number of papers before becoming eligible to submit the thesis. Soon, large language models (eg ChatGPT) will churn out reviews. This will add a new challenge.

While some referees evaluate manuscripts using a uniform acceptability standard regardless of the journal, others lower the bar for journals they perceive are lower down the totem pole. Giving some leeway is understandable, but excessive undervaluing undermines efforts to raise standards (professor Vitury Sitaramam memorably noted that “for every thesis there is an examiner with the required empathy”). The challenge is to set the bar just right.

Also Read: Science in India Is Plagued by Inequities and Needs Democratic Reforms

The joys

Is journal editing in India just a tedious litany of challenges with no joys? No. First-rate scientists, both from India and abroad, from time to time express support by sending manuscripts to us. An eminent French molecular biologist and historian of science published over 14 years a series of 45 papers in the Journal of Biosciences (JB). An American fungal geneticist, who is also a friend, published a review article in JB in 2010, which at last count (Google Scholar, February 5, 2023) garnered 325 citations.  Last year, a former editor of the Journal of Genetics (JG) published a brilliant new hypothesis concerning X-chromosome inactivation in mammals in the journal. I dare anyone to challenge my assertion that only a small fraction of scientists who don’t publish in Indian journals published anything anywhere with comparable commitment, citation count, or creativity. Schadenfreude is not a sin.

Admittedly, goodwill takes a journal only so far. Making a real difference will require much effort, and improvement will happen in small, slow, and grinding increments. A bit like negotiating a traffic jam. 

Both JB and JG are published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. The Academy also publishes nine other journals. For the Academy staff working in the editorial offices, the journals are their career. Many take pride in their job, and work with dedication. This, in turn, prods editors also to raise their game. 

The Academy journals receive manuscripts from across the world. Certainly from India, China, Iran, Türkiye, Brazil, Russia, and Pakistan. But also from less widely known countries such as Timor-Leste, Burkina Faso, Macedonia, Antigua, Papua New Guinea… It tells me that we editors are engaged in something bigger than what we might have initially imagined. This also is a source of joy.

D.P. Kasbekar is a retired scientist.

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