Interview with Koen Vermeir, the new Editor-in-Chief of Centaurus



What is your background and what is the scope of Centaurus?

Koen Vermeir: I am a research professor at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Before coming to France, I studied and worked in many European countries and in the USA. My background is in physics and philosophy but I specialized in the history of science. I have broad interests in the history of science and that serves me well as the Editor of a generalist journal. I also work on contemporary issues related to science and policy and I have been an expert for the European Commission, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the United Nations and other international institutions. I do this because I believe that the history of science can make a difference in today’s society. This strong commitment has led me to take on leadership roles in global organizations and my role as Editor of Centaurus should also be seen in this light.

The journal was started in 1950 and it has remained one of the major journals devoted to the study of the history of science. Since 2007, Centaurus is the official journal of the European Society for the History of Science (ESHS). We are closely and fruitfully working together and we share the same vision for the field. The journal has traditionally focused on the history of the natural sciences and mathematics, but it is now broadening its focus. This fits the mission statement of the ESHS, which is to promote European cooperation in the field of the history of science understood in the “broadest sense”. This means that we will now also include the history of the social sciences, humanities, technology and medicine. Crucially, Centaurus will be open to all kinds of approaches and methodologies practiced in the field, without favoring any of them over the others.


What sets Centaurus apart from others that publish similar material?

Koen Vermeir: Centaurus is the place to publish the best work in the history of science. Everyone is welcome to submit, and all submissions are treated equally. As the official journal of the European Society for the History of Science we pay special attention to new research that is being done in Europe, e.g. in special sections, and in this way, Centaurus is developing its own voice and style. Because the history of science cannot survive if it isolates itself on an island, we will also foster interdisciplinary approaches that connect history of science to other disciplines. As such, we aim to make the history of science more visible in academia and beyond.


What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to Centaurus?

Koen Vermeir: You can publish in Centaurus if you have something new to say in the history of science. This may be a new argument, the exploration of new sources or a new methodology. It also helps if your subject is timely or if you take an interdisciplinary approach.

It is important to have a colleague read your manuscript before you submit. It is always very helpful to take into account the reader’s perspective. You have to test out your arguments on others and to make sure that the reader understands what you are trying to bring across. For academics, it is especially important that they try to write clearly. Simple phrases are often better than complex ones, and jargon should be avoided.

Note that we also have a mentor program to help authors who are new to international publishing.


Please describe the ideal submission.

Koen Vermeir: First of all, the submission must have a good abstract, because this is usually the starting point to see if the manuscript is appropriate for the journal and to find potential reviewers.

All articles we publish are original contributions, of course, that have not been published elsewhere. The ideal article is well argued, takes a novel approach and presents a wealth of new (archival) material. It is a clear contribution to the field of the history of science, and even has a potential impact beyond the field (in other disciplines, but also outside of academia).

Finally, all the formal requirements are in order: the submission contains all necessary information, and includes print-quality illustrations. An initial submission does not yet have to follow the journal style, but a revised submission should be formatted according to the Centaurus style.


What do submitters most often get wrong about your submissions process?

Koen Vermeir: For the final submission, we far too often see that the English prose has not been sufficiently revised by a native speaker, the illustrations are low-quality and cannot be printed, and the references are not correctly formatted. This all leads to many back-and-forths with the authors, and creates considerable delays in the publication process.


How much do you want to know about the person submitting to you?

Koen Vermeir: Our publication and evaluation process is strictly independent of the person who is submitting. The only exception are junior scholars who have as yet little experience with international publishing. For them, we have a special mentor program in place to assist them in the sometimes arcane process of academic publishing. Their work will have to undergo the same rigorous evaluation standards as other submissions, however. In all cases, manuscripts are double-blind peer reviewed, so the experts who evaluate the manuscript have no idea of the identity of the author.


If you publish writing, how much of a piece do you read before making the decision to reject it?

Koen Vermeir: In some cases, it is clear after the first few paragraphs that a submission is not appropriate for Centaurus. But I make a point of always reading a piece to the end before rejecting it. There may be valuable material in the manuscript that I can highlight in my rejection letter to the author. I always try to give constructive feedback on a submission, even if it is clear that it cannot be published in Centaurus. I think that we owe it to the author to explain why their submission is not suitable and I see being Editor-in-Chief also a service to improve the field in general, not just the publication I oversee.


What additional evaluations, if any, does a piece go through before it is accepted?

Koen Vermeir: Centaurus follows a rigorous double-blind reviewing process. When a manuscript is submitted, the Centaurus Office first looks whether all formal criteria are in order. This also includes assessing stylistic and linguistic adequacy and executing different plagiarism checks. At a second stage, an Associate Editor is appointed to follow up the submission. This is usually someone from the editorial board, the editorial team, or myself. He or she personally reviews the manuscript for relevance and quality and makes sure it conforms to the aim and scope of the journal. This step ensures that we avoid wasting the author’s and reviewers’ time. It is only at the third stage that manuscripts are sent to reviewers for double-blind review. The Associate Editor or the Editor-in-Chief typically consult three or more reviewers before making a judgement on the manuscript. If revisions need to be made, they will be assessed by the reviewers and the editorial team. If the revisions are not adequate, the manuscript may be subjected to several rounds of peer-review, so authors are encouraged to take reviewers’ suggestions for improvement very seriously if they want to get published and get published quickly.


What is a day in the life of an editor like for you? Please give us a glimpse into your behind-the-scenes submission reading process.

Koen Vermeir: First of all, it should be clear that Centaurus is the result of teamwork. Jonathan Regier, the Assistant Editor, gives invaluable support for the day to day workings of the journal, especially with respect to the individual submissions. We have two Book Review editors, Noemí Pizarroso López and Mihnea Dobre, who are always on the lookout for interesting books that should be reviewed. They are particularly interested in uncovering hidden gems that do not receive broad exposure in other journals. Authors are most likely to be in touch with Margaret Meredith, our excellent copy-editor, who shapes the final version of the article into publishable form. And of course there is a whole editorial board that takes on different tasks and functions, most notably maybe as mentors for new authors and as evaluators for special issue proposals.

Colleagues tend to underestimate all the work that goes into editing an international journal. In the case of Centaurus, this is not only following up the day-to-day management. Because this journal is taking a new start with a new editorial team, it is also about putting the journal on a new and more stable footing, creating growth and developing a vision for the future. The task list of the editors is very diverse: from checking minute details in the proofs of an article, to scouting for interesting manuscripts or developing a general vision for the future of academic publishing.

As far as I am concerned, I usually start the day checking if there are any new submissions in the system. We aim to reduce the time from submission to publication as much as possible. The average time from submission to decision used to be 3 months and we were able to drastically lower this time to 3 weeks, without any compromises in regard to quality. That is a major accomplishment. This means that I have to be vigilant all the time and we immediately process new submissions from the moment they arrive. This also means spending a lot of effort to quickly find the right experts who can evaluate manuscripts without much delay, and checking-in with them regularly to see how they make progress.

Being an Editor requires a lot of planning, keeping to strict timelines and using flexible management techniques. Our focus right now is on attracting and selecting interesting thematic issues that will be published over the next two years. I am also revising the procedures for evaluating these special issues. This is part of a more general overhaul of procedures for following up more closely the time-lines of special issues to avoid delays in publication. Unexpected problems can always turn up, of course, ranging from unresponsive authors to difficulties with converting Chinese or Sanskrit fonts, and it is important to take such surprises into account in your planning. 

We are reinvigorating, expanding and growing the profile of the Journal, and this means making changes at all levels. This is currently taking a lot of my time. We are changing the overall style of the articles and of the journal. We have increased the transparency of the journal’s processes and put in place a conflict of interest policy. The journal is growing and that means creating new structures as well as new managing procedures. The publisher now has a dedicated Centaurus office, for instance, and we have to create systems that bring together all the stakeholders, facilitating communication between them. Indeed, as an Editor I am constantly exchanging with my editorial team, with the publisher, with the production team, with authors, experts, mentors and board members, as well as with the ESHS, the scientific society that supports Centaurus.

I am also active more generally in the world of scientific publishing and I am contributing to the future of scholarly communication. Besides Wiley, I’m also working with other publishers such as Elsevier, Springer Nature, Brepols and I am on the Advisory Board of the ECR platform of F1000, an innovative open access publisher that also promotes open peer review and open data. Next week, I will be a speaker in the session of the Society for Scholarly Publishing at the International Conference Academic Publishing in Europe, for instance, at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. We will focus on the methods and tools that academic publishers must cultivate to successfully meet the challenges posed by ongoing disruption in the scholarly communications ecosystem. I am also working with the European Commission to develop new sustainable models of academic publishing. A recent piece in Nature reports on some of these developments and debates in which I have been involved. 

Innovating the world of academic publishing and participating in international debates is only a small aspect of my work as an Editor. First of all, I need to keep close tabs on what is happening in my own field, in the history of science. This means going to workshops and conferences, reading what appears in other journals, and continuously exchanging with peers. I am also assisting our book review editors, making suggestions for interesting books to review or publishers to contact. In deciding what should or should not be published, an Editor bears considerable responsibility as he or she is shaping the discipline. Later this year, we will publish a special issue that explores the role of the editor in scientific publishing. The guest editors Aileen Fyfe and Anna Gielas put it well: investigating the individual backgrounds of editors, their editorial personas as well as their editorial activities will cast new light on processes of knowledge production, transformations of scientific communities, and the idea of what makes a scientist a scientist. This will be the first thematic issue studying the impact that editors have made on their disciplines: a really exciting project!

Stay tuned to Centaurus in 2019: there are many exciting articles and thematic issues in the pipeline!


How much do you edit an accepted piece prior to publication?

Koen Vermeir: We have the great luck of having Margaret Meredith as our professional copy-editor because she is also an expert in the history of science. It is one of the exceptional services that we provide to authors: professional and high quality copy-editing by someone who really understands their text.

In order to make sure that this service is sustainable, however, we only accept manuscripts that are already acceptable in readability, formatting and English vocabulary and grammar. We cannot rewrite manuscripts from scratch; submissions must be advanced enough linguistically so that we can make them into excellent articles. It is therefore crucial that authors have the final version of their texts revised and proof-read by a native English speaker.

The author gets to approve the final edits and is expected to do a very careful proof-reading before we move the article to production.


How important do you feel it is for publishers to embrace modern technologies?

Koen Vermeir: Given the fast changes in scholarly publishing, I think it is crucial for publishers to work with the newest technologies. For scientific publishing, traditional tools will soon be obsolete. Many scientific discoveries are now made by computers who crawl the content of thousands of scientific articles – more than a human can ever read – and these discoveries are the basis of new medication and other innovations. What we think of as the major publishers, like Elsevier, do not advertise themselves as publishers anymore but as data management companies. The future of scientific publishing will be absorbed into a much broader and more complex system of scientific information. This system will still include scientific results, but not necessarily formatted in the form of a traditional “article”, and it will also incorporate large amounts of scientific data, research software and special algorithms as well as access to integrated networks of hardware and scientists. On top of it all will be the meta-data, proprietary algorithms and search functions that can connect it all, and this will – in all probability, but let’s see – be managed by the new big data companies.

This will also have repercussions for Centaurus and the history of science. Although I expect that humans will remain our core reading public for some time to come, we will inevitably be taken up in this evolution of scientific publishing. Those who will keep to the traditional tools of publishing may well become invisible in scientific terms because they are not part of the large integrated information eco-system. Traditional articles and books will be hard to find, may not be cross-referenced, and may not count in the new systems that are being built to evaluate scientists. I very much appreciate traditional publishing, and what I just described is not necessarily my ideal outcome for scholarly publishing in our field, but it is currently the most probable one.

Of course, these new technologies will also bring major benefits to readers. It will be much easier to find relevant information and access it – if you have access, that is. With one click, references open up and you can read the relevant primary and secondary literature. This is something that we are already implementing, for instance with the online enhanced PDF tools we use, such as ReadCube. ReadCube automatically opens if you read the pdf version of Centaurus articles online, but you can also use it for offline reading of Centaurus articles if you download the app. Currently, the functionalities of ReadCube and similar tools have not much been used by authors in our field, but this may change in the future.