Confessions of a Journal Editor

Joyce Hessleberth for The Chronicle

April 25, 2011

Journal editors seem to be mysterious creatures, emerging from their editor-lairs on occasion to make an oracular pronouncement of the publishing fate of your manuscript. Since I am an editor of a journal, however, my fellow editors are not quite so mysterious to me, and I have some insights into that side of the publishing process.

Different disciplines have different customs regarding things like publication format, length, frequency, and order of authorship. My field is in the physical sciences, where professors publish anywhere from a few papers a year to many. Those papers range in length from several pages to tens of pages depending on the topic and journal. Papers may be single-author but, owing to the collaborative nature of science, are more commonly multi-author and may involve researchers from one or more institutions, their graduate students, postdocs, other research staff, and undergraduates.

In my blog, I get a lot of questions about the peer-review system. Many of the questions are from early-career scientists for whom the process seems complicated and baffling, and perhaps even arbitrary at times. Here I will try to demystify some aspects of peer review, keeping in mind that my experiences are confined to about a dozen physical-sciences journals (as an author) and about half that number as an editor (in one or more of the possible editorial roles).

What do editors do? Different journals have different editorial structures involving different layers of editorial staff, such as:

  • Editorial boards. There are different types of editorial boards: active ones (board members review papers and make recommendations to other editors) and ceremonial ones (a list of names of people who have no role other than agreeing to let their name be included on a list).
  • Associate or assistant editors. Some journals that cover a wide range of research topics rely on associate editors to provide additional advice to editors. Associate editors may select reviewers (typically anonymous) for manuscripts and, once the reviews are returned, give their own report and review summary to help the editor make the final decision.
  • Editors. Journals may have one or more "chief" editors who make the final decision on a paper based on all the information acquired during the peer-review process. Editors may provide their own review comments as well (particularly if they have knowledge of the research field represented by the paper) or they may provide only an overview based on reviewers' materials (which may or may not be in agreement with one another).

Do we even need editors? Yes, because the anonymous reviewers turn in reports that can conflict and vary in quality. Someone has to take that information, distill it, summarize it, assess it, and make a decision. If the manuscript is publishable or potentially publishable, the editor provides guidance to the authors regarding the nature and scope of the suggested revisions.

Why do editors sometimes request reviews from the "wrong" reviewers? In an ideal world, editors obtain reviews from two to three thoughtful, objective people who have no conflicts of interest with the authors or their research. In reality, editors may not have sufficient information to find the ideal reviewers, or the ideal reviewers may decline to do a review. In the real world, therefore, some reviewers may not be as objective, expert, or constructive as they should be. In my experience, it is rare that all reviews for one manuscript are problematic.

A related issue involves a situation in which an author instructs an editor that a review should not be solicited from a particular person. The editor is not bound by that instruction, which for most journals is considered to be a suggestion, not a command. Sometimes the editor will agree that the person is unlikely to be objective and accede to the author's request. But the editor may also feel that the potentially biased reviewer is one of the few people who can comment with a deep level of knowledge of the research in question. In that case, however, the editor should be alert to potential conflict and make sure there is substantive justification for any highly negative review comments.

What should you, as a reviewer, include in a review? I get that question a lot from early-career researchers who lack confidence in their reviewing abilities. A common worry seems to be that an inexperienced reviewer will assess a manuscript in the "wrong" way—say the wrong things at the wrong length, and miss some things that other reviewers pick up on.

My advice is to remember that by the time you do a review, you've probably received plenty of your own. So when you're writing one, consider: What would you like to read in a review of your own manuscript (other than that your work is pioneering, innovative, fascinating, and entirely correct)? Probably you would like to get comments on whether your results and ideas are believable and understandable.

It is the responsibility of a reviewer to note any errors in content, to provide constructive criticism of ideas and interpretations, and to comment on the length, organization, and clarity of the text. It is not the responsibility of a reviewer to correct the technical errors in writing, although editors may greatly appreciate such corrections. A common approach that many reviewers take is to provide a brief overview followed by a more detailed and systematic list of comments (negative and positive) and corrections.

What should not be in a review? It should go without saying, but reviews should not contain insults, unprofessional personal comments about the author(s), or unreasonable self-promotion (i.e., unreasonable demands that the authors cite the reviewer's own papers). I have, of course, seen examples of "unconstructive" criticism in reviews, but fortunately they are much less common than useful comments.

If you do a good job as a reviewer, will editors be nicer to your own manuscripts? First, it is important to realize that "nicer" refers to editing activities such as being as efficient as possible with the review process, and does not mean that an editor will send your manuscripts to your friends to review or accept a weak paper that should not be accepted.

I try to provide excellent "customer service" to diligent reviewers, but the main rewards of being a good reviewer are that you gain the respect of fellow academics (some of whom may be influential in your career) and you have a more significant impact on the literature in your field.

Should you complain to an editor if you think your manuscript was unfairly rejected? As an editor, I am reluctant to encourage that, but there are cases in which an editor misses something important or misunderstands a critical issue. A carefully reasoned, polite communication stating your point of view might sway some editors, although that approach is less likely to be effective for journals with extremely high rejection rates. If you do complain, make sure your letter is professional and not angry in tone.

Why would anyone want to be an editor? I was once in a committee meeting that involved senior scholars at my university. During the course of a discussion, one professor stated that most journal editors were "failed researchers" who had run out of their own ideas and became editors because they had nothing better to do.

As he soon learned, quite a few of us in the room happened to be journal editors, and we did not consider ourselves to be "failed researchers" with nothing better to do.

I am sure that there are many reasons why people agree to be editors, but in my case I enjoy having this kind of role in my field. I get a broad view of interesting research that is under way, and I interact with scientists from all over the world. If I do my job right (with the help of reviewers), I can have a positive effect on the careers of my fellow scientists and on the body of knowledge in my field. It is a great feeling to see an interesting manuscript that needs a bit of work, to provide some suggestions and ideas to improve the paper, and then to see it revised and eventually published. It can be just as satisfying as seeing one of your own papers published.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is