Saturday, 22 December 2018

The Role of a Journal Editor

Having navigated the academic publishing system as an author, reviewer and occasional editor, I can confirm that there are inconsistencies at almost every turn*. From the variable quality of reviews to the procedures in place during article or chapter production, even within the same journal, authors and reviewers can have very different experiences.

Previously, I was led to believe that the role of an editor was clear and consistent. Editors read manuscripts, find reviewers, and make key decisions based on reviews and their own expertise. In addition, editors can help guide authors towards what they feel are the most important points that should be addressed following review. This is particularly important when it comes to clarifying the direction of a paper when reviewers express conflicting views.

However, a number of editors and associate editors, who are sometimes paid by journals, don't always act in a way that is helpful or fair to authors and reviewers. In many instances, following peer review, authors receive a 100% stock reply with no indication that an editor has even read the paper. This may not matter if all reviews pull in the same direction, but that rarely happens.

For example, imagine one reviewer is positive and recommends revisions, but another argues convincingly to reject the paper. The default option for 'non-editors' will be to reject the paper following review without explanation. Alternatively, if 2 or 3 reviewers are positive and suggest revisions, the decision will automatically become revise and resubmit again, with no explanation or guidance.

Even a single sentence to confirm that the paper has been read would add something.

The problem is that authors can be left in limbo wondering what comments are more important especially when reviews are contradictory or if one review is simply of a higher quality than another. A paper in this position will typically go back out to the same reviewers and unless both are happy, the paper will be rejected (based on the logic outlined above).

This lack of direction can have a negative impact on revised manuscripts as the content becomes muddied when authors feel they must appease every reviewer comment. It is possible to request additional clarification from an editor, but this does not guarantee a reply.

Regardless of the outcome, if there is zero editorial input, the editor simply becomes an administrator rather than a fellow academic who plays an important role in developing the work and journal. This also poses problems for reviewers who then feel that their contributions are not worthy of further comment regardless of the final outcome.

Of course, many journals appoint excellent editors and their input ensures that authors will submit their best work to that outlet again and again. These editors have a genuine desire and duty of care that improves the work.

On the other hand, those who are new to scientific publishing may be surprised to learn that when you lift the lid, many journals appear to have almost no editorial input. This makes me think that there may be some confusion of what is expected following an editorial appointment.

Perhaps as well as a list of predatory publishers, we also need a list of journals that have 'real' editors. That is, experts who continue to set the bar high by providing a service to the field, which should be welcomed, encouraged, applauded and rewarded.

The role of a journal editor may be changing, but when much of psychology still struggles to ensure that papers, data and associated materials are freely available, I'd rather editors said more, not less.

*Note: This is purely based on my own and colleagues experiences publishing within psychology, health and computer science.