On My Way In – I: Impressions of a New Editor-in-Chief’s First Months in the EJIL Engine Room

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EJIL’s Editor-in-Chief Joseph Weiler has written a series of editorials titled ‘On My Way Out’, providing advice to young scholars. I’ve always read these with great interest, considering myself squarely in the target audience. That has not changed now that I have joined him as an Editor-in-Chief of this most inspiring journal. I am very much still on my way in, although into what continues to surprise. ‘Not a single dull day at EJIL’, Joseph had promised me. He has not disappointed.

Continuing in the EJIL tradition of being as transparent as possible about the editorial process, let me share with you a few experiences as a fresh Editor-in-Chief. I hope this newcomer’s view from behind the scenes will complement the official accounts and statistics that EJIL already provides.

Unsurprisingly, the core of the job has been an enormous amount of reading. Every few weeks, the Editors-in-Chief receive a pack of over 1000 pages: new submissions, peer review reports, road maps for revisions, revised submissions, peer review reports of revised manuscripts, final submissions. Reading all of these pages is a great way to learn about emerging research areas, different styles of scholarly writing and wide-ranging approaches to peer reviewing (ranging from the rather unhelpful conclusion-only assessments to truly impressive engagement with an author’s work and detailed suggestions for improving it).

Perhaps the best and most educative part of the job has been discussing all of these articles and reports with the Associate Editors and the other Editor-in-Chief. Meeting virtually, some of us with a double espresso because in their time zone it is 6 am, we analyse each and every piece of writing. What is exciting about this article? What does the article allow us to see or understand that was not known already? Will it still be read in five years’ time? Have we recently published on the same topic? How could the argument be made clearer? Who would be in a good position to peer review in this particular area? Is the reviewer’s issue with the article one of quality or one of not liking the argument or approach? Does the author’s revision road map address the issues raised by the reviewer? Has the second, third, or even fourth version of the submission addressed all previous concerns?

In order to facilitate these discussions and to get to a complete issue, an enormous amount of work is done that is not immediately visible when one reads an EJIL article. Associate Editors Justus Vasel and Michal Saliternik write reports on each and every new piece that has come in. They also draw up lengthy and well-structured agendas for our meetings. Editorial Assistant Jenya Grigorova ensures that the 1000+ page reader neatly corresponds with all the items on the agenda. Together with Justus and Michal, Managing Editor Anny Bremner is in charge of much of the communication with the authors and peer reviewers, including chase-the-reviewer and please-be-patient emails. Meanwhile, Book Review Editor Christian Tams and Assistant Editor Gail Lythgoe, commission, edit and curate book reviews. Together with our long-term partner Oxford University Press, Anny takes care of the final furlong, ensuring that manuscripts that have been accepted actually end up in the journal, ushering them along to the copy editor, typesetter and proofreader. She even reviews the quality of the paper on which the articles eventually appear.

Beyond the reading, we invest a lot of time and energy in preparing for EJIL events. In September, we convened a special EJIL Symposium on International Law and Democracy, the EJIL Symposium to celebrate the journal’s 30th anniversary. Authors, whose abstracts had been selected on the basis of a call for papers received feedback on their draft papers from members of the EJIL Boards and colleagues at NYU, which kindly hosted the event. The venue came with its characteristic approach: no endless presentations, but an expectation that everyone would have read all the papers and therefore straight into comments. The comments were as nourishing, diverse and rich in flavours as the breakfasts, lunches and dinners to which the Jean Monnet Centre treated the participants. Both discussants and fellow participants took papers apart and offered suggestions for reconstruction. We hope that some of the papers will end up in this journal’s pages, but that will be only a cherry on the cake: the workshop in and of itself was a celebration of EJIL’s birthday, catalysing thoughts, ideas and experiences beyond what the journal’s pages can ever capture.

The Symposium was accompanied by a meeting of the Editorial and Scientific Advisory Boards, whose members shape the direction of EJIL, in terms of vision as well as practically by supporting the peer review process. Board members have also played crucial roles in the preparation for and implementation of the Symposium, and in designing plans for the next one, for which the call for papers, on Inequality and International Law, has just been issued.  

In the week prior to the Symposium, Justus Vasel, Christian Tams and I hosted an event on publishing in EJIL at the glorious Athens meeting of the European Society of International Law. Conference participants with promising drafts asked about the submission process, while authors who had already published in EJIL gave useful feedback on their experience of the whole process. Given the strong ties between ESIL and EJIL, past and present, we hope to organize similar meetings at future ESIL conferences, ideally together with other international law journals.

Less expected but also instructive has been an enormous amount of other EJIL-related emails on a day-to-day, indeed at times hourly, basis. Some authors express dissatisfaction about the length of time it has taken for their paper to be rejected. This complaint is understandable but difficult to address. For some time now the EJIL editorial team has been able, with very few exceptions, to notify authors within the promised six weeks from the time of submission if their manuscript has been sent to peer review or rejected for curatorial or other reasons. In case of doubt we send pieces to peer review – a decision never challenged when the outcome is publication. Once sent out to peer review, patience is required: the challenge of finding good, speedy and willing peer reviewers is a long-standing one. The hope is that even if EJIL in the end decides not to take the piece, the reviews and editorial comments will still nourish the article, enhancing the possibilities for a strong publication elsewhere.

A few other difficult emails have concerned posts on EJIL: Talk! Most of the EJIL: Talk! correspondence is handled solely by the magnificent trio in charge of this diverse and lively blog – Dapo Akande, Diane Desierto and Marko Milanovic – and their equally responsive associate editors. I cannot begin to imagine the number of emails they receive. But in sensitive cases, EJIL: Talk!-related communication lands on the Editors-in-Chief’s desks, too: the buck stops here, and, so Joseph reminds me, ‘next time it will be your turn to stand trial!’ Some readers write to say that we are not sufficiently strict with our policy against ad hominem attacks, while some contributors think we are too strict in our insistence on refraining from any argument that relates to the person to whom one responds. The EJIL spirit is one of fostering genuine debate about arguments; such debate can flourish in an environment where posts focus on the arguments, rather than the person, of the opponent. The line between what to object to and what to let pass is hard to draw, but after extensive discussions among the entire EJIL: Talk! trio, two Associate Editors and the Editors-in-Chief, the line ultimately identified in each and every case is finely calibrated. Thankfully, in most cases, the issue is eventually resolved through dialogue with authors and/or readers.

Possibly less enduring but much appreciated have been the many generous emails I received on assuming the role of an Editor-in-Chief, sometimes adding practical feedback on how to improve EJIL’s procedures and communications. It may take some time to implement, but keep the feedback coming! Other emails responded to the interview on EJIL: Live! in which Joseph Weiler welcomed me to EJIL. Many emails picked up on issues we discussed: emails illustrating the gender citation gap; emails concurring with the call for acknowledgement of intellectual debt beyond footnotes, also encouraging EJIL authors to cite literature in languages other than English, and emails, also from practitioners, expressing concerns about the quantity of publications. In one instance, my comment about too much being published was misunderstood. I have always argued for and will continue to promote diversity in terms of topics, diversity in terms of authors and diversity in terms of genres and fora. My point about too much being published was inspired by what I believe to be a widely shared experience of a pressure to publish, by scholars young and old, externally imposed or internalized due to the academic culture of which we are products. It is an issue that Joseph Weiler has already raised in one of his Editorials. My interest is in thinking about how the field can foster the conditions for producing work that generously engages with existing scholarship while developing new approaches and arguments. (And I know how hard it is: as I illustrate in the interview, many of my ambitions for the field remain aspirations for my own writing).

There is a lot of work to be done to keep EJIL at the levels to which editorial teams over the last three decades have raised it. However, there is little work that gives as much intellectual satisfaction as contributing to the production of yet another lively, surprising, diverse and enduring table of contents of a new issue of this unique international law journal.

Speaking of the table of contents, I cannot claim much credit for the curation of the previous, this and possibly also the next issue of EJIL: most of the articles had already been scheduled for publication before I assumed this role. The Symposium on Commissions of Inquiry that appears in this issue and which Mike Becker, Doreen Lustig and I convened has been in the making since 2016 and was accepted for publication in its final form last February. But that Symposium does, I believe, reflect EJIL’s enthusiasm for new topics, new approaches and new voices. You can literally hear some of these voices in a forthcoming episode of EJIL: Live!, like EJIL: Talk! an integral part of the EJIL intellectual community. More interested in interviewing than in being interviewed, I am happy to have changed seats, encouraging others to do the talking.

Back to reading!

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Javier S Eskauriatza says

December 10, 2019

Good luck Sarah, it's all in good hands I think.

Muhammad Shahid says

December 11, 2019

Indeed! A great job by the EJAIL Team.