Editor Roles and Responsibilities

Editors of scientific journals have responsibilities toward the authors who provide the content of the journals, the peer reviewers who comment on the suitability of manuscripts for publication, the journal’s readers and the scientific community, the owners/publishers of the journals, and the public as a whole. Depending upon the relationship between the editor and publisher for particular journals, some of the roles and responsibilities between the two may overlap in some of the following:

Editor Responsibilities toward Authors

  • Providing guidelines to authors for preparing and submitting manuscripts
  • Providing a clear statement of the Journal’s policies on authorship criteria
  • Treating all authors with fairness, courtesy, objectivity, honesty, and transparency
  • Establishing and defining policies on conflicts of interest for all involved in the publication process, including editors, staff (e.g., editorial and sales), authors, and reviewers
  • Protecting the confidentiality of every author’s work
  • Establishing a system for effective and rapid peer review (see section 2.3)
  • Making editorial decisions with reasonable speed and communicating them in a clear and constructive manner
  • Being vigilant in avoiding the possibility of editors and/or referees delaying a manuscript for suspect reasons
  • Establishing clear guidelines for authors regarding acceptable practices for sharing experimental materials and information, particularly those required to replicate the research, before and after publication
  • Establishing a procedure for reconsidering editorial decisions (see section 2.1.9)
  • Describing, implementing, and regularly reviewing policies for handling ethical issues and allegations or findings of misconduct by authors and anyone involved in the peer review process (see sections 2.1.10 and 3.0)
  • Informing authors of solicited manuscripts that the submission will be evaluated according to the journal’s standard procedures or outlining the decision-making process if it differs from those procedures
  • Developing mechanisms, in cooperation with the publisher, to ensure timely publication of accepted manuscripts (see section 2.1.6)
  • Clearly communicating all other editorial policies and standards

The following are examples of editorial policies and standards that editors may require of submitting authors:

  • State all sources of funding for research and include this information in the acknowledgment section of the submitted manuscript.
  • State in the manuscript, if appropriate, that the research protocol employed was approved by the relevant institutional review boards or ethics committees for human (including human cells or tissues) or animal experiments and that all human subjects provided appropriate informed consent.
  • Describe in the manuscript methods section how cultured cell lines were authenticated.
  • State in the manuscript, if appropriate, that regulations concerning the use of animals in research, teaching, and testing were adhered to. Governments, institutions, and professional organizations have statements about the use of animals in research. For examples, see the statements from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology,1 the Canadian Council on Animal Care,2 and, for links to other informational sites, the University of California, San Francisco.3
  • When race/ethnicity is reported, define who determined race/ethnicity, whether the options were defined by the investigator and, if so, what they were and why race/ethnicity is considered important in the study.
  • List contributors who meet the journal’s criteria for authorship as authors and identify other support (e.g., statistical analysis or writers), with the contributor’s approval, in the acknowledgment section. Some journals may require and publish a statement of author contribution for each article. In addition, some journals have a requirement for original research (sometimes called a guarantor policy) that at least one author who had full access to all the data takes responsibility for its integrity and the accuracy of the data analysis. JAMA publishes these statements in the acknowledgment section. A description can be found in the JAMA Instructions for Authors.4
  • Reveal any potential conflicts of interest of each author either in the cover letter, manuscript, or disclosure form,a in accordance with the journal’s policy.
  • Include (usually written) permission from each individual identified as a source of personal communication or unpublished data.
  • Describe and provide copies of any similar works in process.
  • Provide copies of cited manuscripts that are submitted or in press.
  • Supply supporting manuscript data (e.g., actual data that were summarized in the manuscript) to the editor when requested or indicate where (site) the data can be found.
  • Share data or materials needed by other scientists to replicate the experiment. As an example, the Information for Authors of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)b state: “To allow others to replicate and build on work published in PNAS, authors must make materials, data, and associated protocols available to readers. Authors must disclose upon submission of the manuscript any restrictions on the availability of materials or information.”
  • Cite and reference other relevant published work on which the submitted work is based.
  • Obtain permission from the copyright owner to use/reproduce copyrighted content (e.g., figures and tables) in the submitted manuscript, if applicable.c
  • Provide written permission from any potentially identifiable individuals referred to or shown in photographs in the manuscript.

Peer Review

Editors are responsible for monitoring and ensuring the fairness, timeliness, thoroughness, and civility of the peer-review editorial process.

Peer review by external referees with the proper expertise is the most common method to ensure manuscript quality. However, editors or associate editors may sometimes reject manuscripts without external peer review to make the best use of their resources. Reasons for this practice are usually that the manuscript is outside the scope of the journal, does not meet the journal’s quality standards or is of limited scientific merit, or lacks originality or novel information.

Referees are chosen by the editors or by associate editors or members of the editorial board to whom the task has been delegated. The amount of anonymity in the peer-review process varies. Some journals attempt to mask the identities of both the authors and reviewers (double masked or double blind); however, although masked, the identity of the author(s) may be known by the reviewers based on the area of research. Many journals follow the practice of keeping reviewer identities anonymous to the authors (single masked or single blind). Alternatively, some journals give reviewers the option to reveal their names, and a few journals provide authors with the names of all reviewers associated with the manuscript.

Peer review is usually a gift of uncompensated time from scientists to whom time is a precious commodity. Therefore, it is important for editors to clearly define the responsibilities of these individuals and to implement processes that streamline the peer review process as much as possible (see section 2.3 for more on reviewer responsibilities).

Editor Responsibilities toward Reviewers

  • Assigning papers for review appropriate to each reviewer’s area of interest and expertise
  • Establishing a process for reviewers to ensure that they treat the manuscript as a confidential document and complete the review promptly
  • Informing reviewers that they are not allowed to make any use of the work described in the manuscript or to take advantage of the knowledge they gained by reviewing it before publication
  • Providing reviewers with written, explicit instructions on the journal’s expectations for the scope, content, quality, and timeliness of their reviews to promote thoughtful, fair, constructive, and informative critique of the submitted work
  • Requesting that reviewers identify any potential conflicts of interest and asking that they recuse themselves if they cannot provide an unbiased review
  • Allowing reviewers appropriate time to complete their reviews
  • Requesting reviews at a reasonable frequency that does not overtax any one reviewer
  • Finding ways to recognize the contributions of reviewers, for example, by publicly thanking them in the journal; providing letters that might be used in applications for academic promotion; offering professional education credits; or inviting them to serve on the editorial board of the journal

Editors have the responsibility to inform and educate readers. Making clear and rational editorial decisions will ensure the best selection of content that contributes to the body of scientific knowledge.

Editor Responsibilities toward Readers and the Scientific Community

  • Evaluating all manuscripts considered for publication to make certain that each provides the evidence readers need to evaluate the authors’ conclusions and that authors’ conclusions reflect the evidence provided in the manuscript
  • Providing literature references and author contact information so interested readers may pursue further discourse
  • Identifying individual and group authorship clearly and developing processes to ensure that authorship criteria are met to the best of the editor’s knowledge
  • Requiring all authors to review and accept responsibility for the content of the final draft of each paper or for those areas to which they have contributed; this may involve signatures of all authors or of only the corresponding author on behalf of all authors. Some journals ask that one author be the guarantor and take responsibility for the work as a whole
  • Maintaining the journal’s internal integrity (e.g., correcting errors; clearly identifying and differentiating types of content, such as reports of original data, opinion pieces [e.g., editorials and letters to the editor], corrections/errata, retractions, supplemental data, and promotional material or advertising; and identifying published material with proper references)
  • Ensuring that all involved in the publication process understand that it is inappropriate to manipulate citations by, for example, demanding that authors cite papers in the journal13, 14
  • Disclosing sources (e.g., authorship, journal ownership, and funding)
  • Creating mechanisms to determine if the journal is providing what readers need and want (e.g., reader surveys)
  • Disclosing all relevant potential conflicts of interest of those involved in considering a manuscript or affirming that none exist.15, 16 Sample correspondence related to this topic is available on the CSE website.17
  • Providing a mechanism for a further discussion on the scientific merits of a paper, such as by publishing letters to the editor, inviting commentaries, article blogs, or soliciting other forms of public discourse
  • Explicitly stating journal policies regarding ethics, embargo, submission and publication fees, and accessibility of content (freely available versus subscriber only)
  • Working with the publisher to attract the best manuscripts and research that will be of interest to readers
  • In some instances, a publisher may put pressure on an editor to publish a review or article in an effort to increase reprint sales. The editor has a responsibility to readers and the scientific community to resist such pressure18

Editor Responsibilities toward Journal Owners/Publishers

  • Conducting peer review of submitted manuscripts
  • Complying with the guidelines and procedures of the owner organization, including any terms specified in the contract with that organization
  • Making recommendations about improved evaluation and dissemination of scientific material
  • Adhering to the owner’s and publisher’s fiscal policies towards the Journal, at least in so much as they do not encroach upon editorial independence
  • Adhering to the agreed-upon mission, publication practices, and schedule

Meeting all obligations, which sometimes compete against one another, and handling the demands of other individuals and groups (such as the parent society, owners, publishers, funders and sponsors, authors, readers, advertisers, news media, and government agencies) require that the editors have editorial freedom, comprising both authority and autonomy. It should be recognized that this is a difficult challenge and, therefore, editors should not hesitate to consult peers and/or organizations, such as the CSE, should concerns or uncertainties arise.

Responsibilities of Editors toward the Public

Many responsibilities of editors toward the public are carried out through the mechanisms established for the processes and constituencies mentioned above. Editors’ roles have benefited society in many ways, from the quality-control measures taken when considering manuscripts for publication to requiring authors to abide by standards that would advance science and deposit information into freely available public databases as a condition of publication (e.g., data sharing). Editors are regularly taking steps to see that the outcomes of the scientific enterprise benefit the public. This includes identifying dual use research, which is research that can be misused to harm the public or its well-being.

Dual Use Research

One additional area that has emerged with advances in science, technology, and global exchange of information is consideration of “dual use research.” This is research with a legitimate scientific purpose that may be misused to pose a threat to public health and/or national security. As defined by the United States National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), dual use research of concern (DURC) is a subset of dual use research “that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others to pose a threat to public health and safety, agriculture, plants, animals, the environment, and material.”19 Examples include knowledge, products, or technologies that could be misapplied to create or enhance harmful consequences of biological agents or toxins, disrupt immunity of vaccines, increase transmission of harmful substances, or alter biological agents and toxins to make them resistant to clinical or agricultural prophylactic or therapeutic interventions, or conversely to enhance the susceptibility of a host population to harm.

Everyone has a stake in the responsible management of DURC, but especially individual researchers, institutions and institutional groups (e.g., institutional biosafety committees), funding agencies, scientific societies, government/regulatory bodies, journal editors, and the global scientific community. In the United States, the National Policy on the Transfer of Scientific, Technical, and Engineering Information, issued in 1985 (National Security Decision Directive-189),20 states that, to the maximum extent possible, federally funded fundamental research that is unclassified will not have government-imposed restrictions on its conduct or reporting. More recent legislation, such as the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-56)21 and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-188, H.R. 3448), takes additional steps intended to prevent bioterrorism, including the establishment of a national database of potentially dangerous pathogens and imposition of safety and security requirements on facilities and individuals with access to them.

Identification and consideration of DURC throughout the research continuum before submission of manuscripts for publication is an important early step. However, while journal editors do not have sole responsibility for the management of DURC, inevitably, editors will be faced with submissions that could be considered DURC and the challenges that come with handling them. Considering the risks and benefits of publishing DURC is a task in which many editors have no experience. Identifying DURC is subjective, and it is difficult for even the most knowledgeable editors and scientists to manage submissions that provide legitimate scientific contributions without censoring their communication because of potential harmful use.

In 2003, the “Statement on Scientific Publication and Security”22 was published by a group of editors simultaneously in Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature, and the American Society for Microbiology journals. This statement recognizes the challenge of dual use research and documents the commitment of journal editors and authors toward responsibly and effectively balancing the need for public safety with the requirements of transparently reporting scientific results. There may be times when it is appropriate to “encourage investigators to communicate results of research in ways that maximize public benefits and minimize risks of misuse.” In rare cases, some information needed to reproduce the experiment should be eliminated or the manuscript itself should not be published. Editors who may potentially receive DURC submissions should consider establishing best practices for processing these manuscripts.

The NSABB and organizations around the world have entered into dialogues with all stakeholders to find ways to ensure that science continues to be done and communicated in an unfettered way, while being mindful of and minimizing the risks and consequences of misuse. Tools and information on this topic are being built and shared by the global community.

Editors can educate journal boards, reviewers, and authors; establish screening methods to recognize DURC; obtain reviews of these manuscripts from individuals with technical and security expertise; and create an ongoing network to share experiences and further refine ways for managing DURC.

Editors should develop guidelines and procedures to allow the scientific evaluation as well as the evaluation of the possible risk of communicating information with dual use potential. Additional information on what to consider when evaluating a manuscript with potential dual use can be found in the report titled, Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism.23

2.1.1 Editorial Freedom

An editor essentially is responsible for what appears in his or her journal. To establish and maintain high-quality journal content, an editor should, prior to accepting a position, receive an explicit written statement from the journal’s owner that defines the editor’s responsibilities and autonomy. Regardless of the scientific field, editors should be given full responsibility for editorial decisions on individual manuscripts (see section 2.5). The editor’s right to editorial freedom may be supported by the following and should be agreed on by both the editor and the journal owner/publisher:

  • A journal mission statement
  • Written editorial priorities, objectives, and measures of success
  • Written editorial policies
  • A written job description, specifically detailing components of editorial freedom, including the degree of control regarding editorial content, acceptance and publication, and advertising content (a sample job description can be found in the Appendix to this section)
  • An editorial board, including associate, assistant, and topic editors, that is nominated or appointed by and reports to the editor
  • Sufficient support from the parent society, publisher, owner, or other journal sponsors in both funding and staff to carry out the journal’s stated mission
  • A mechanism for regular and objective evaluation of editor performance by the publisher or sponsoring organization based on predetermined and agreed-upon measures of success
  • Direct lines of communication with the publisher, owner, and any publication oversight body
  • A mechanism to prevent inappropriate influence on the editor by others and to handle conflicts in an objective and transparent manner with the goal of conflict resolution and maintenance of trust

Much of the above may be laid out in a contract. The terms of the contract should specify the duration of the editor’s appointment and the grounds for termination, from both sides.

2.1.2 Confidentiality

Editors and the publication staff should keep all information about a submitted manuscript confidential, sharing it only with those involved in the evaluation, review, and publication processes.

Editors should consider adding a confidentiality notice to all correspondence, including reviewer forms, to serve as a reminder to authors, editors, and reviewers.

To minimize the potential to influence editorial decisions, many journals have policies not to release content to the publication’s sales team until it has been accepted or published.

Journals should have a mechanism – consistent with established industry standards – to safely store, archive, and/or destroy paper and electronic manuscript review files and related content. Records and retention schedules, such as how long to keep published manuscripts and associated correspondence or rejected manuscripts and associated correspondence, should be documented in writing and reviewed on a regular basis.

Journals may receive subpoenas for information about manuscripts. Legal counsel is advised in this scenario. Formal subpoenas can be issued only by a regulatory agency or court of competent jurisdiction. Formal inquiries from law firms, for example, are probably best to politely decline, citing confidentiality. Generally, editors should resist revealing confidential information when served a subpoena unless advised to do so by legal counsel. Not only is the requested information usually confidential, but often uncovering ALL information (for which lawyers are trained to ask) can be time-consuming, interrupt normal business, and be expensive. Citing, for example, the Avoidance of Undue Burden or Expense Under Rule 45(c)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure may be useful.24

Confidential information should not be used for an editor’s own purposes, and editors should take reasonable steps to ensure that such information is not used inappropriately for the advantage of others. In cases of breach of confidentiality by those involved in the peer-review process, editors should contact the involved parties and follow up on such cases until they are satisfactorily resolved.

Generally, editors of journals with embargo policies should enforce them to encourage the confidentiality of publication content until the embargo release date, unless the editor is authorized by the copyright owner or required by law to disclose the information. The copyright owner is often the journal owner—usually the society or publisher—but may be the author. There are 2 general exceptions under which an editor may release manuscript content to others not involved in consideration of the manuscript prior to publication: (1) to an author if a commentary or editorial is being solicited to highlight the manuscript and (2) to the public when research findings have a major health or societal impact (a rare event). In the latter case, journals often prefer to coordinate release of the peer-reviewed study findings with announcements to the public so that details are clearly presented and widely disseminated. This type of content is often made freely available online prior to print. A good summary of the importance of releasing information to the public and honoring embargoes is described in a JAMA editorial25 (see section 2.6).

2.1.3 Conflicts of Interest

Conflicts of interest in publishing can be defined as conditions in which an individual holds conflicting or competing interests that could bias editorial decisions. Conflicts of interest may be only potential or perceived, or they may be factual. Personal, political, financial, academic, or religious considerations can affect objectivity in numerous ways.

Editors should set and regularly monitor a conflict of interest policy for editors, reviewers, editorial board members, editorial staff, and authors.15, 16 Sample correspondence related to this topic is available on the CSE website.17 These policies should be published in the journal with the date of their adoption or publication and made easily accessible to all readers by a parallel online publication (usually as part of the Instructions for Authors). Editors should strive for fairness and impartiality in their policies. This can only be achieved if all parties involved in the peer-review process disclose any and all conflicts and allow the Editor to decide how they should be handled. It is also important to recognize that an Editor and/or reviewer can be impartial while nonetheless being in conflict of interest. Since the perception of conflict of interest is detrimental to a journal’s reputation, avoiding even the perception of conflict of interest should be a priority. Enforcement of these policies must also be considered: practices to deal with premeditated or inadvertent breaches of the journal’s conflict of interest policy should be stated in writing, regularly reviewed, and carried out consistently.

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