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My understanding is that editing a special issue helps encouraging research in a particular area, and gives the special issue editor a higher reputation in the field.

But what makes this better than organizing a workshop in a conference, for example? is it just more reputable (i.e. similar to how reviewing for journals is more prestigious than reviewing for conferences)?

Are there any other benefits aside from that?

P.S. I come from a computer science background

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  • The word "benefit" has many and various meanings. But to help those who seek to answer this question, I shall present a more-complete rewrite of the question: Basically, why should anyone [whose goal is to be hired to a tenure-track position, and who considers any accomplishment that does not result in a more attractive c.v. to be worthless] agree to edit a special issue? Jul 30 '21 at 8:01
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    The replies up to now are correct as far as reputable journals are concerned, but be aware that there are also non-reputable folks emailing invitations to edit a special issue. (I just got another such invitation today.) Jul 30 '21 at 17:05
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+25

A good special issue will provide a snapshot of the current state-of-the-art on a given topic. As such, the editor gains:

  • An opportunity to influence how people think about the topic (by defining the scope of the special issue, and by soliciting contributions that align with the editor's goals; perhaps also by the opportunity to write an editorial/introduction to the issue).
  • Exposure. The special issue gives the editor a reason to interact and engage with anyone they consider interesting/important.
  • A long-lived association of the editor's name with the topic: people will continue to read (papers from) the special issue for years, whereas a workshop/conference is forgotten as soon as it ends.
  • CV points - as covered in other answers.

Interestingly, some of these benefits are probably lessened now that journals are largely read online only. When special issues existed as printed books, interested researchers would get hold of a copy and at least skim-read most of the papers, and it would probably be given to new PhD students looking to get up-to-speed on the field. Nowadays it's just more pdfs on the journal website, and most readers probably won't even notice that a particular paper came from a special issue.

Finally, as noted by @AndreasBlass, none of these benefits are worth anything if the special issue is not in a well-regarded venue.

Edited to add: Many of the `classic' special issues I can think of exist in a wider context: often they arise out of a meeting or workshop. Usually the editors of the special issue also had a substantial role in organising this meeting, and the editorial task was probably a modest addition to their workload that ensured the highlights of the meeting were preserved for posterity. This is a rather different circumstance from the spammy 'We invite you to propose a special issue' emails we all get every day.

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    To push back on this a bit--1. Your first bullet can also be accomplished by the normal process of writing good papers. The only thing unique here is the opportunity to write an editorial/introduction. This could also be accomplished by writing a perspective piece. 2. The exposure is also not unique to special issues, and seems like it could be accomplished with much less of a workload just by normal networking at conferences, or reaching out about collaborations. 3. Do people really make this connection? As you later mention, these days most don't even realize when papers come from sp.issues.
    – spacetyper
    Aug 3 '21 at 6:37
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    4. CV points seem highly contingent on the impact of the journal, which is what I'm most interested in--how much weight does this tend to carry in evaluations? Your last sentence briefly mentions this, but there's a pretty wide range of journals between "well-regarded" and "not-well regarded". For example, I was contacted by a very middle of the pack type journal, and it feels like the benefit couldn't possibly pay off the work load. Regardless, thanks for your answer as I'm trying to get a better understanding of the cost/benefit here.
    – spacetyper
    Aug 3 '21 at 6:40
  • @spacetyper I don't think I ever suggested that any of these 'benefits' were exclusively available to those who edit a special issue. See also my edit.
    – avid
    Aug 4 '21 at 15:50
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It is promotional evidence of the kind senior leadership required for a distinguished professorship. Depending on your department standards (which are hopefully public), you may need both workshop organization and editorship to demonstrate senior leadership in your field.

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It is a very good way of gaining practical experience with editing a journal and how the peer-review process ought to work. If you had only previously been an author, it is a very informative exercise. It is a lot of work to do properly. Understanding the peer review process and what editors do ought to help you to write better papers, which will in turn advance your career. It is an intrinsically useful activity (at least the first time), not all benefits are direct and immediate. Gaining skills is likely to be a good way of progressing your career.

Also a lot in academia relies on this sort of service on a quid-pro-quo basis. If we want to publish papers, somebody needs to review them and act as editor. So if you are looking for career progression, this is the sort of work you will be expected to take on as a consequence of your more senior position.

ETA: @AndreasBlass makes an excellent point (+1) in the comments. I would strongly advise against editing special issues for disreputable journals. This is essentially exploiting the quid-pro-quo service of academics for commercial gain. I have a paper with the word "cancer" in the title, but this is not my area of expertise. Nevertheless, I get endless requests of this sort from disreputable journals. The very fact they are asking me is evidence that they have no interest in quality control on the papers they publish - if the did they would have looked at my Google scholar profile (for instance) to find out whether I actually did work on the medical side of cancer. Wait until you get invited by someone you know or who you trust.

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