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I understand that academia is a very competitive place where motivated people are always trying to get ahead of the others. What I have noticed is that few famous/known/recognized people tend to commit to more and more duties, some of them unpaid, to the point that they have very limited time to perform some of these duties.

For example head of departments are also main editors of famous journals, may be a member of an international panel, on top of all the other duties. Then what I read and hear is that we are overworked, but it seems that many duties which bring prestige but involve a fair amount of work are centralized.

Because people tend to say "yes" then why is not all this work more evenly distributed? It seems that this would benefit more people and make the system less cluttered. I am referring for example to journal editors, or having 50 phd/post-docs and not being able to properly supervise any of them, etc.

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    Because many people find it difficult to say "no" to things they want to do. – ff524 Nov 2 '17 at 20:20
  • @ff524 I understand that but it is not a one-way decision, people who manage journals should invite editors that will actually have time to do their job. – Herman Toothrot Nov 2 '17 at 20:23
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    1. What gives you the impression that the current system isn’t working just as it should? So people are complaining that they’re overworked, so what? To me that’s just evidence that people like to complain (while enjoying the prestige of being very busy, important people). 2. What better system do you propose? There are lots of people who aren’t busy but they don’t have a good reputation as serious scientists so would not be qualified to be editors of prestigious journals. The fancy jobs go to those who have the credibility to do them well - there isn’t anyone else. – Dan Romik Nov 2 '17 at 21:21
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    @DanRomik I completely disagree, there are plenty of good scientists that would do a great job if involved or given more responsibility, it's a chicken and egg story, important people had to start somewhere, and many good scientists are excluded because someone is hoarding all resources and jobs. One of the reasons the EU has tiered grant application is to avoid this vicious circle. – Herman Toothrot Nov 2 '17 at 22:03
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    @user4050: That's because you misunderstand the main job of an editor. It's not to process manuscripts efficiently. It's to be famous. An efficient journal with unknown editors is one that no one reads and no one cites because everyone thinks it is no good (and probably, it will be no good because its editors don't know who the good referees are and can't tell good papers from bad ones). An inefficient journal with famous editors at least gets the papers it publishes some recognition. – Alexander Woo Nov 3 '17 at 16:07
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One way to answer this question is to borrow a concept from economics known as the Pareto Principle. This principle, slightly reworded, states that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. This concept plays out in many different fields beyond your question in relation to academics. The talented people tend to do produce way more than the average and not so talented.This gives the appearance of centralization when it is really just the 20% producing 80% of the results

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    this is true, and I agree with you, I saw same thing in academia also, but I dont think talent have to do anything with productivity – SSimon Nov 3 '17 at 15:03

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