From Jiffy Bags to Social Media | A Quarter Century as Editor-in-Chief

Professor John Allen had remarked “Sounds interesting!” when he was offered the post of Editor-in-Chief of The Biological Journal of the Linnean Society in 1997. And there is little he would done differently for the next 25 years. We thank you, John.

Published on 14th September 2023

Professor John Allen

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I was born in Reading in Berkshire in 1946 and educated there, before studying zoology (in the area of population genetics) at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. After meeting my wife Eleanor, who was studying geography, we decided to move to the tropics. I had two applications accepted at the same time—one at the University of Freetown, Sierra Leone, the other at the University of Dar es Salam in Tanzania. We chose Tanzania and had a fantastic time, living there for five years. They were my formative years in teaching, and there was so much biodiversity to work on. In the end, I focused on snails and butterflies. After various twists and tales, I got a job at the University of Southampton, where I stayed until I retired! I was lucky: not only was I teaching and trying to do research, I then became Editor of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (BioJLS).

You became Editor in 1997—how did that come about?

I had been a contributor to the journal, and was attracted to it partly because of its association with Sam Berry, who was an active member of the Population Genetics Group, which still thrives today. I had edited a special issue of the journal for him on frequency-independent selection. Then in 1996, I received a letter from David Lees, the then-Editor of the BioJLS, whom I had known previously. He was wanting to retire as Editor and I’d been suggested as the ‘ideal person’ to take it on. I thought ‘sounds interesting!’ and said yes, so in June 1997 I took over. In June 1997, I took over from David Lees, who was Editor-in-Chief at that time.

What were your ambitions for the journal?

The thing that I hated most was that things were done so manually—copies of manuscripts in Jiffy bags were sent in from the authors, referees were found, cover notes were sorted and sent—then everything was revised, sent back and forwarded in batches to the publisher for setting - Academic Press in those days. I could see that there were larger technological changes taking place, so when the opportunity arose around 2006, I jumped at the chance to try Manuscript Central. It just revolutionised everything.

What else have you seen change?

The number of submitted papers increased, and at one point (around 2015–2017) it was at about 600 a year. This coincided with a peak in special issues; we now produce more of these than ever before. There was a time when so many manuscripts were being submitted that I considered limiting the numbers concerned with ecomorphology (adaptive morphological changes in species), but in retrospect continuing to accept them paid off, and we even had a virtual issue on the subject. I also wanted to make sure that guest editors received the right recognition, which is something we do well across the journals.

You were an early adopter of social media as a tool to promote the journal. What impact do you think it has had?

In my opinion it hasn’t traditionally attracted authors, but it has been good for engaging the public with the journal. However, I do think that it will have more of an impact on future authors who engage with scientific research online. Regarding papers that have caused a stir, there was one published that posed the question ‘Does the sixth mass extinction really exist?’ (i.e. caused by human activity) and it received a lot of attention. I feel I’ve been quite receptive to more controversial papers. You have to take risks.

Thinking about special issues and virtual issues, are there any that you are particularly proud of?

There was one special issue that looked at palaeontological species and related organisms across the Wealden in the south of England. I had noticed in the University of Southampton weekly bulletin that there was going to be a conference on this subject at the Oceanography Centre. The whole special issue was based on the Isle of Wight—‘Dinosaur Island’. To my amazement, someone who had been at the conference asked me to write a paper about my father’s work – he was a well-known Wealden geologist - which was then reviewed and included. Every special issue I have really enjoyed being involved with—I found it fascinating dealing with all the guest editors and watching their special issues come to fruition.

During your time as editor, what have been your highlights, and would you have done anything differently?

I haven’t used Associate Editors in the way that our other journals do; authors dealt directly with me and as a result, papers could be processed quickly. However, Associate Editors and the publishers have provided essential support in challenging situations concerning publication ethics. Above all, I always had good relationships with authors and reviewers—I was quite informal in how I wrote to people to engender warmth and I strived to make them feel valued. Being an editor is a very responsible but enjoyable role! I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

This interview was first published in The Linnean, Vol 39 No 1 May 2023