Skip to main content

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

In the latest installment of I AM EDITOR, Lindsey Mitchell explores perceived consequences.

Published onMar 11, 2023
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

We all know the scene—an overconfident character goes into a delicate situation uttering these words, only to find out shortly how much, and how badly, things can go wrong. The phrase has almost become as much jinx as joke, and if you have even an ounce of superstition in your body, you probably would not dare utter these words prior to an important event or project, even in jest.


Putting aside these fate-tempting connotations, I would assert that this is a question we should be asking ourselves more often. “What could possibly go wrong?” Instead of leaning into the question with an audacious level of sarcasm, what would happen if we tried to answer it honestly?


Journal editing and publishing is a complex ecosystem that balances on a multitude of processes both manual and automatic. The number of ways these processes can break down is staggering, and any one of us can think of a dozen catastrophic problems off the top of our heads that we hope we will never have to face in our careers. There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude to be found in reading websites like Retraction Watch, but don’t we all worry that someday it might be our journal highlighted in those headlines? That being said, when it comes to day-to-day operations and the mistakes and fumbles we all are likely to come across in any given year, are any of them so insurmountable that we must hold ourselves to an impossible standard of perfection, lest the whole system come crashing down in flames?


As I have navigated through my career in the world of academic publishing, this concept of what I call “perceived consequences” has been brewing in my mind, and I think it’s a thought experiment we would do well as an industry to conduct occasionally. We editors hold ourselves to a very high standard—it’s likely one of the reasons many of us ended up in this job to begin with. We’re hard workers with an eye for details and a love for efficiency. But the disease of perfectionism, combined with the pressures of publishing, can leave us feeling paralyzed by the potentials of what could go wrong if we make even one, small mistake. We’ll work longer hours, scrutinize every email twice, and struggle under our over-inflated workloads alone because we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t.


So, ask yourself: what could possibly go wrong? What will happen if I don’t clear my queues by the end of the day? If I set boundaries over how many hours I will work past close of office (if any)? If I don’t answer emails while I’m on vacation? If it takes me longer than an hour to respond to that urgent message? If there’s a typo in that email I sent?


We are all haunted by this dark shadow of “what if,” and we give it power over us when we don’t turn to face it and answer it honestly. For my part, I have learned that for most of these scenarios, the answer to the “what if” is—nothing. The gears of the journal will keep turning, the larger world of publishing will be none-the-wiser, and odds are, not even your close colleagues will bat an eye, if they have the time to notice at all. There is no neon sign in Times Square that lights up every time you spell someone’s name wrong in a quick, off-the-cuff message that will be forgotten as soon as the clock strikes 5:00.


We bear the burden of our mental health largely alone. Read any articles online or any employee assistance program materials, and you will find that the message is the same: here are the steps you can take to minimize your stress. The internal battle of managing burnout ultimately can feel very isolating, especially when it feels like we have no control over the many factors that can lead to burnout in the first place. That is why I think it is so important that we start not only setting appropriate boundaries, but also acknowledging that the world will not end if we enforce them. As amazing as we all are, our journals won’t crumble to dust the moment we take a second to breathe. If anything, the argument can be made that we will be of better service to our authors, editorial boards, and employers if we make our own well-being just a little bit more important than the number of papers still waiting to be processed.


I hope you will take the time to reflect on your perceived consequences now and again. Perhaps you will discover that, more often than not, they are in need of some adjustments. I hope, in time, we all discover that we are able to ask, “What could possibly go wrong?” and know that, whatever the outcome, we can handle it.



Lindsey E. Mitchell is the Managing Editor of Arboriculture & Urban Forestry for the International Society of Arboriculture. She has been working in academic publishing since 2013.



No comments here
Why not start the discussion?