Notes Toward an Ethics of Editorial Care

Travis Chi Wing Lau //

I have lately been prompted in multiple, unexpected ways to think about the work of editing in academia. Most recently, I shared publicly that an editor advised me to avoid publishing under my full name because it risked “confusing readers” and impacting the way my work gets cited. The editor sincerely had the best of intentions with their advice: my “choice of professional name,” because it deviated from the conventional two-part first and last name, would only invite more incorrect citations of my work and other editorial snafus. The racist implications of this advice aside, these kinds of interactions beg some critical questions: What are editorial ethics? What kinds of practices and values are implicitly and explicitly embodied in and perpetuated by editorial decision-making and the kinds of relationships they forge with writers? I reflect on all of this from the position of having been an editor in multiple capacities: formerly as a section editor of a disability-focused and disability-run literary journal, The Deaf Poets Society, and currently as both the Book Review Editor of Literature and Medicine and co-editor of an in-progress anthology of disability poetry and poetics.

Throughout these different editorial positions, I found myself confronted with the need to define who I am as an editor or, to phrase it differently, develop an editorial style. As a scholar who has struggled with being on the other side of the peer review and editorial process, developing an editorial style has felt new and daunting. Who do I want to be as an editor and how do writers who work with me come to experience being edited by me? The discomfort of asking these questions of myself and defining an editorial identity is unsurprising given just how much editorial labor in academia is often uncompensated, untrained, and unrecognized—we take on this work as service to the profession but are often not adequately prepared to do this work, let alone do it ethically. It is this latter fact that I find most troubling: how do editors learn how to do this work “on the job” while they already wield a position of power that determines what gets published and how? The uncritical valorization of peer review as that which ultimately safeguards the scholarly integrity of academic work often bypasses the pervasive ways that editors occupy gatekeeping roles at multiple levels, be it the direction of scholarly debates, the future (or death) of certain fields and subfields, and the capacity for certain members of the profession to have access to job security or career advancement. To take seriously the etymology of “editor,” derived from the Latin editionem (a “bringing forth, to produce”), editors bear the potential to both bring forth new work as much as they can foreclose it. This is undoubtedly an ethical responsibility however little that is recognized.

I have come to understand a lot of my job as an editor to be navigating different forms of care work. To be entrusted with a piece of writing from a contributor—especially if they are a junior, contingent, early career scholar, or emerging writer just beginning to submit work—is a tender process of honoring the vulnerability of that act of submission. Too often submission becomes the other valence of this word: a submission to judgment (often by anonymous figures who do not have to be accountable for what they say or how they say it), to editorial fiat in exchange for the gift of publication. This model invites toxicity and a lack of transparency that many of us, especially underrepresented and marginalized scholars know intimately. I know so many of my colleagues who have simply consented to feedback because they have felt unable to advocate for themselves in editorial process or feel that their publication’s future depends on submission to the editor and peer reviewers. It is an editorial failure when an editor fails to recognize when a peer reviewer’s feedback is unproductive or even cruel. It is an editorial failure when the editor presumes that feedback speaks for itself. It is an editorial failure when work is dismissed without accountability to the writer. It is an editorial failure when the writer leaves the process unclear as to why the piece is not moving forward or why this publication may not be the best place for it.

I find myself wondering more and more how to truly enact an ethics of editorial care—one that acknowledges the power dynamic inherent to the process of publication while also holding work to high standards. Those standards should function as sign of respect rather than of a weaponized “rigor” that imagines only certain bodyminds and identities as worthy of being publishable authors. My own setbacks and failures as a writer have increasingly shifted my understanding of editorial work toward a more dialogic model: an ongoing, shared vulnerability between editor and writer that compassionately enables a piece to be “brought into being.” As an editor of book reviews, I find myself persistently inviting my reviewers to think more deliberately about their relationships to the work being reviewed, to the larger fields in which the reviewer and the work intervene, and to their colleagues for whom they are writing. The strongest reviews I have helped to edit come to embody the dialogic spirit of the editorial process we cultivate together: the reviewer enters into conversation with the work not for the sole purpose of summarizing or critiquing it but for asking seriously what the text might offer in spite of what the reviewer might perceive as its failures or missteps. Generosity here can be just as rigorous, if not more productive, for its capacity to imagine what a text can do and what new forms of inquiry are catalyzed by that work.  

So much of my job as an editor has been to facilitate the conditions for a writer to do the work in which they are most invested rather than presume to know better about the piece they “should” be writing. It is the work of aligning the vision of the publication with that of the contribution even if that alignment is tension. As an editorial collaborator, I am as much an advocate for the writer as much as their guide even across differences in perspective, discipline, background, and rank. Editorial success, at least for me, is when we achieve a thoughtful mutuality that makes safe space for vulnerability and difference.

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