Prepared by the WAME Education Committee
Robert D. Utiger, MD, for the Education Committee
Many people who become editors of medical journals have established scientific reputations as investigators and authors and have served as reviewers, editorial board members, and perhaps assistant editors of a journal. However, they may be unaware of many of the responsibilities of editors and many aspects of the editorial process. This syllabus has been developed to assist both potential editors in assessing an opportunity to be an editor and newly appointed editors as they prepare to assume the responsibility of editorship. An understanding of the roles and responsibilities of editors and of the editorial process should make the experience of editorship more productive and rewarding and improve the quality of the editor’s journal.
The syllabus consists of three parts: a description of the major responsibilities of editors, a series of questions and comments that potential editors should consider before accepting an editorship, and a description of the editorial process and of some of the questions that an editor may have to answer, and possible answers to those questions. While there are some generally accepted editorial policies and practices, editors have much scope in determining the application of these policies and practices to their own journals.
The focus of the syllabus is on peer-reviewed journals that publish the results of original research, but much of the material is relevant to other types of journals.
Further information on these topics can be found in the books and articles listed in the Resources for Editors section of this Internet site. Readers are encouraged to submit their comments on the syllabus and questions not covered to the chair of the Education Committee, Tom Lang
Responsibilities of Editors:
1. Editors are responsible to readers, and should learn about their needs and interests.
2. Editors are responsible for safeguarding the rights of study subjects and animals.
3. Editors are responsible for the editorial content of the journal; that is, the subject matter and types of articles and the actual content of the articles that are published in the journal.
4. Editors are responsible for establishing the policies for authorship and submission of manuscripts to the journal.
5. Editors are responsible for establishing and maintaining a process for the constructive, prompt evaluation of manuscripts, whether accepted for publication or not.
6. Editors are responsible to authors for maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of the authors’ work while that work is being evaluated for publication.
7. Editors must be willing to make decisions and stand behind them, but be willing to reconsider their decisions when appropriate.
8. Editors should work to improve not only the quality of manuscripts but also the quality of research in the field.
9. Editors must be prepared to deal with error and allegations of misbehavior.
10. Editors should maintain editorial independence and work to ensure that authors have editorial freedom.
11. Editors must not have personal, financial, or other relationships linked in any way to any of their responsibilities as an editor.
12. Editors should plan for the future of their journals.
What Potential Editors Should Know Before Accepting the Position
1. Who owns and publishes the journal? Journals are owned and published by medical societies or associations, universities, hospitals, research institutes, governmental organizations, or commercial publishers. Different publishers have different policies regarding the appointment of editors and the conditions under which editors will work. Relevant questions about these matters include:
A. What is the history of the journal?
B. Why did the previous editor leave?
C. What are the terms of the editor’s appointment; eg, pay and duration of appointment? Does the editor have a written contract?
D. To whom does the editor report—a publications committee, the president of the company, a university official, a government officer, or someone else?
E. Will the editor have the freedom to publish whatever he/she believes should be published?
2. What are the policies and objectives of the publisher for the journal?
A. What is the primary purpose of the journal? For example, it is educational, to publish work by members of a society, or to make money?
B. Is the editorial content (original scientific articles, review articles, opinion articles and editorials, and letters to the editor) of the journal fixed, or can the editor change it? Can the editor change the scientific direction of the journal or the space devoted to particular types of articles?
C. Does the publisher require publication of certain material with little or no review, for example reports of committees of a society or a governmental organization?
D. What are the publisher’s marketing and advertising policies? Are these policies acceptable to the potential editor? See part 10.
E. How often is the journal published, are there limits on the number of pages that can be published in an issue or in a year, and are the editorial content and advertising content separated or intermingled?
F. Does the editor have responsibilities for copyediting and other aspects of the production of the journal?
G. Are there print and electronic versions of the journal? If there are the two versions, are they identical or does the content differ?
H. Where is the editorial office of the journal to be located?
3. What support will the owner provide for the editor and the editorial office of the journal?
A. Can the editor appoint one or more assistant editors or an editorial board?
B. Will support be provided for other staff, equipment (computers, manuscript-tracking software, internet and e-mail access), supplies, and rental of office space?
C. Will support be provided for the editor or assistant editors to attend scientific meetings or to attend meetings or courses for editors?
The answers to the above questions should help the potential editor decide whether the position is attractive and the editor will have both the independence and the support needed to publish a journal of high quality.
The Editorial Process
1. Organization of the editorial office.
This will depend in part on the policies and procedures established for review of manuscripts. For example, is the handling of manuscripts centralized in a single office or will some manuscripts be handled by assistant editors elsewhere?
A. Staff is needed to log in and track manuscripts, contact reviewers, and ensure that the journal’s policies regarding manuscript style and related matters (see below) are maintained.
B. Required equipment usually includes computers, manuscript tracking software, and communications equipment.
C. Does the journal have (or need) an assistant editor or editors? Are they and the editor located in the same place, or will they work remotely? What are the responsibilities of the assistant editor(s)—to handle specific types of manuscripts, or simply to share the work overall? How will the flow of manuscripts and correspondence about manuscripts between editors and authors be handled? Who will make the decisions, the editor, the assistant editor(s), or both?
D. Is there an editorial board? What is the role of the board, and what are the qualifications for membership? An editorial board may be an important source of advice and support for an editor, or simply a group of qualified and willing manuscript reviewers. An editorial board is most likely to be helpful to the editor if its functions are clearly defined, its members have varied interests and expertise, and its size is limited. The term of service on the editorial board should be limited, so that the editor is continually exposed to new people and new ideas.
2. Determination of the editorial content of the journal.
A. Editorial content may be predetermined by the owner (see above) and the discipline or geographic region in which the journal is published.
B. Editorial content also may be determined by decisions to accept or reject manuscripts on particular topics. If authors see articles on a topic in the journal, they will probably submit manuscripts on that topic. Conversely, if authors do not see articles on a topic, they will probably assume the journal doesn’t want articles on that topic and therefore submit their manuscripts elsewhere.
C. The editor should have a vision of what the content of the journal should include, based on the needs and interests of readers, the most promising areas of research in the field, and the extent to which the journal should try to attract and publish this research.
D. Should the content of the journal be narrowed, for example, by focusing on studies of particular topics, or broadened to include more topics? Similarly, should the contents of the journal be broadened with respect to types of articles published? For example, should the journal publish editorials, review articles, news articles or issues devoted to a particular topic (so-called theme issues)?
E. The editor can try to attract new or better manuscripts, manuscripts in new areas of research, or new types of manuscripts in several ways. Authors can be invited to submit manuscripts directly or invited to submit by medical societies or other institutions, or the journal can publish notes asking authors to submit manuscripts. Such invitations should be qualified by statements that any manuscript will be evaluated according to the journal’s usual procedures, and that acceptance is not guaranteed.
3. The publication policies of the journal.
A. Policies for authorship.
I. The editor should establish, publish and enforce criteria for authorship. For example, are there limits on the number of authors, and are authors asked or required to describe their contributions to the work? If the latter, will this information be published? (See also Authorship issues.)
II. Authors should be required to identify the organizations that provided support for the research and describe the role played by these organizations in the study and the analysis of the results. Authors should have full access to all results of their studies. This is particularly important with respect to studies about drugs and devices supported by the manufacturers. (See also Conflicts of interest.)
III. Authors should be required to disclose to the editors all personal financial and other relationships they may have with the manufacturer of any product mentioned in the manuscript or the manufacturers of competing products. (See also Conflicts of interest.)
IV. The contributions of persons who are acknowledged for their assistance in the research should be described, and their assent to be acknowledged should be documented.
B. Policies for submission of manuscripts.
I. The topics of research and types of articles considered for publication in the journal should be clearly defined and publicized.
II. Authors should be required to verify the originality of manuscripts submitted for publication, and to identify other related manuscripts that they have published or submitted to other journals. (See also Duplicate publication.)
III. The editor should establish policies regarding manuscripts whose contents are in large part already known, as a result of presentation of the contents at meetings or press conferences, publication of abstracts or as part of governmental reports, distribution of preprints, or posting on the Internet. Many editors will publish manuscripts describing work presented at meetings or published in abstract form or as part of a governmental report, but not manuscripts describing work made public in other ways.
IV. Authors are often required to transfer copyright of the manuscript, if accepted, to the journal. (See also Copyright.)
V. The editor should require that authors document that their research was approved by the appropriate institutional review committee for the protection of human or animal subjects, and that all human subjects or their representatives gave informed consent. Many editors require that this information be included in manuscripts. (See also Human rights protection, privacy, and confidentiality [including IRB].)
VI. The editor should establish policies regarding format and length of manuscripts; numbers of figures and tables allowed; use of published templates for reporting certain types of studies, for example the template for randomized trials (CONSORT, see also Resources for Editors); and method of submission (paper, electronic, or both).
VII. If the editor has a policy that reviewers not know the authors of manuscript (a "blinded" review), then authors can be asked to submit copies of the manuscript with the names and addresses and other possible indicators of authorship removed.
VIII. The editor may choose to ask authors to designate people whom they think are qualified to serve as manuscript reviewers.
C. Information for authors.
I. The journal’s polices for authorship and submission of manuscripts should be written and freely available.
II. The journal’s information for authors may contain more detailed information about the journal’s polices regarding manuscript style, tables and figures, acceptable abbreviations, units of measurement, reference style, and related topics.
III. Other topics that may be included are a description of the journal’s process for evaluation of manuscripts and the results of the journal’s evaluation process.
See other WAME Resources on Authorship.
4. Manuscript evaluation.
A. The editor must establish a process for the evaluation (review) of manuscripts. Will manuscripts be evaluated (reviewed) by the editor(s), editorial board members, external reviewers, or some combination of these people? An editor can serve as a peer reviewer as well as can people outside of the editorial office. Should the manuscript be posted on the journal’s Web site for a specified interval, so that many people can review it (open review)?
B. The editor may establish a system for rapid review of especially important manuscripts. This may include review only by editors or asking reviewers to complete their evaluations within a shorter period of time than is allowed routinely. Authors who seek rapid review should explain why their manuscripts merit such review.
C. The editor may accept manuscripts (with or without revision) without outside review, for example if the quality is deemed to be outstanding or the subject is particularly timely.
D. The editor may reject manuscripts without outside review, for example if the subject matter is outside the purview of the journal, a manuscript on the same topic is just about to be published, the quality of the manuscript is poor, or criteria for the submission of manuscripts are not met.
E. How many people besides the editor should review a manuscript? Many journals have manuscripts reviewed by two people, on the grounds that some manuscripts need to be evaluated by people with different types of expertise or to minimize the risk of editorial decision on the basis of one review that is biased. Other journals routinely have manuscripts evaluated by one reviewer, or three reviewers.
F. Reviewers are advisors to authors and editors. The editor may ask reviewers to make recommendations regarding acceptance or rejection of manuscripts, and should pay attention to the recommendations, but the editor must be the one who makes the decisions.
G. Should reviewers know the identity of authors? Reviewers who do not know who wrote the manuscript might be expected to provide less biased reviews and recommendations. However, masking manuscripts by removing authors’ names and other information is difficult and has not proven to improve the quality of reviews. Few journals at present conduct masked review.
H. Should reviewers be asked to sign their reviews, so that their names are known to the authors? Most journals do not require this, but tell reviewers they may sign their comments for transmittal to authors if they wish. If a reviewer does sign these comments the editor should not remove that signature. If a reviewer does not sign these comments the editor should not reveal the identity of the reviewer to the author or any other person.
See other WAME Resources on Peer review.
5. Reviewers—their responsibilities, selection, and rewards.
Reviewers are the heart of the peer-review system, and no editor can get along without them. Defining the responsibilities of reviewers, identifying qualified reviewers for particular manuscripts, ensuring that reviewers complete their work in a timely fashion, and finding ways to reward reviewers are critical components of editorship.
A. Responsibilities of reviewers.
I. The first responsibility of reviewers is to evaluate manuscripts critically but constructively and to prepare detailed comments about the research and the manuscript to help authors improve their work. The evaluation should include assessments of the originality and importance of the research; the design of the study; the methods of study, including analytic and statistical methods; the presentation of the results; possible confounding; the strength of the conclusions; and the overall quality of the manuscript. (See also Statistics.)
II. The second responsibility is to make recommendations to the editor regarding the suitability of the manuscript for publication in that journal. Reviewers may be asked to write some narrative comments about the manuscript that support their recommendation to the editor regarding acceptance or rejection. They also can be asked to grade some characteristics of the manuscript, such as originality, quality, accuracy, readability and interest to readers, or to complete detailed questionnaires about these qualities and even assign a priority score.
III. Reviewers should declare to the editor any potential conflicts of interest with respect to the authors or the content of a manuscript they are asked to review, and in most instances when such conflicts exist should decline to review the manuscript. (See also Conflicts of interest.)
IV. Other responsibilities of reviewers include treating the manuscript as a confidential document and completing the review promptly. Reviewers should not show the manuscript to anyone else without the express consent of the editor.
V. Reviewers should not make derogatory comments about the manuscript in their comments for the authors. If reviewers do make such comments, the editor may choose to edit the comments or even withhold all the reviewer’s comments from the authors.
VI. Reviewers must not make any use of the work described in the manuscript.
VII. Reviewers should not communicate directly with authors or even identify themselves to authors, except by signing their reviews.
VIII. The editor should provide guidance to the reviewers, particularly new reviewers, regarding how the editor wishes the reviewers to evaluate the manuscript and how the reviewers should meet their dual responsibility of providing constructive comments for the author and advice to the editor.
B. Identification and evaluation of reviewers.
I. The editor should establish a reviewer database that includes information about the expertise of each reviewer as well as addresses and other contact information.
II. The editor may identify potential reviewers on the basis of personal knowledge of the topic or from among the authors of references in the manuscript, the membership of the society that publishes the journal, or computer searches of databases such as PubMed, or by asking for names from reviewers who decline to review the manuscript (see below).
III. Authors may suggest reviewers for their manuscript, whether invited to do so by the editor or not. The editor may choose to use one or more of these reviewers, but are under no obligation to do so. (Authors may ask that certain people not be asked to review their manuscript, but editors are not obligated to accept these requests either.)
IV. The editor should ask reviewers, by telephone, fax or e-mail, if they are willing to review a particular manuscript, and give them a date that the review is due at the editorial office (usually 2 to 3 weeks), rather than simply sending the manuscript to the reviewer. As the same time, the editor can ask for the names of others who might review the manuscript should the person initially contacted decline.
V. The editor is responsible for keeping track of reviewers, and taking steps to make sure reviews are completed in a timely manner. The editor may also wish to include in the reviewer database judgments regarding the promptness and quality of reviewers.
VI. If a reviewer does not complete a review on a timely basis, the editor should proceed with evaluation of the manuscript. He can make a decision to accept or reject the manuscript based on the comments and recommendations of another reviewer(s) or his own evaluation of the manuscript, or by seeking additional review.
C. Rewarding reviewers. How can reviewers be rewarded for their work (and encouraged to continue to review for the journal)?
I. Avoid overworking reviewers, by limiting the number of manuscripts a person is asked to review. A sensible approach to limiting overwork is to ask reviewers to evaluate no more than one manuscript per month, or to not ask a person already reviewing a manuscript for the journal to review another manuscript.
II. Few journals pay reviewers, but they may be rewarded by being publicly thanked for reviewing in the journal each year or given free copies or subscriptions to the journal.
III. Inform reviewers of editorial decisions and send them copies of the comments of other reviewers.
See other WAME Resources on Peer review.
6. Editorial decision making and communication with authors.
A. The editor must establish a system for deciding whether a manuscript is acceptable, acceptable if revised appropriately, or rejected. Will the decisions be made by the editor alone, assistant editors, or both?
B. What considerations should enter into the decision? These may include the comments and recommendations of the reviewers, the availability of space, and—most important—the judgment of the editor(s) regarding the suitability of the manuscript for the journal and the value and interest of the manuscript to the journal’s readers.
C. The editor may always seek additional review and advice, but must keep in mind that this delays decision making.
D. Decisions are communicated to authors by the editor. This means that the editor may need to provide explanations for the decision independent of the comments of the reviewers that are to be sent to the authors.
E. The editor should actively encourage revision of manuscripts thought to be potentially acceptable. When an editor seeks revision of a manuscript, he should make clear which revisions are essential, and which are optional. If the comments of the reviewers are contradictory, the editor must decide and tell the authors which comments the authors should follow. Editors may add their own comments and suggestions for revision, and they (or some person in the editorial office designated by the editor) are responsible for ensuring that manuscripts meet the journal’s policies regarding length and style.
F. In general, manuscripts that are potentially acceptable but need very major revision or additional data should be rejected, but the editor can encourage resubmission. When this is done, the editor should explain precisely what is needed to make the manuscript acceptable. It is a disservice to authors to request revision and then later reject the manuscript. As an alternative, the editor may choose to work closely with the authors to make the manuscript acceptable for publication.
G. Decisions to reject a manuscript may be based on scientific weakness (poor research design, inappropriate methods of study), lack of originality, lack of importance and interest to readers, or simply lack of space. The editor should explain to authors the reasons for decisions to reject manuscripts. This is particularly important when the editor rejects a manuscript but the tone of the comments of the reviewers that will be sent to the authors is favorable.
H. The editor should not make decisions regarding manuscripts about which he may have a conflict of interest, for example manuscripts submitted by members of the editor’s own institution or people who have been collaborators of the editor in the past. In this instance, the manuscript should be handled by an assistant editor or preferably a person outside of the editorial office who is given full power to select reviewers and make decisions regarding acceptance or rejection. The same policy should be followed if the editor himself submits a manuscript - other than an editorial - to his journal, which he should only rarely.
I. Revised manuscripts should be evaluated by editors, to determine if the revisions are satisfactory, and not returned to reviewers. An exception might be when the revised manuscript includes changes that may have introduced important new shortcomings about which the editor needs advice from one or more of the original reviewers. Revised manuscripts should not be sent to new reviewers.
J. The editor should have a mechanism to deal with appeals of decisions, particularly decisions to reject manuscripts. Was the basis for the decision clearly explained to the author? Could the decision have been wrong, based for example on an incorrect reading of the manuscript or bad advice from a reviewer? Editors are not obligated to reconsider every manuscript that was rejected, no matter how forcefully the author may request reconsideration, but should do so if the author provides good reasons why the decision may have been wrong and is willing to revise the manuscript in response to many of the comments of the reviewers.
K. Editors should immediately reject a resubmitted manuscript that was previously rejected and has not been revised.
L. If the editor agrees to reconsider a rejected manuscript, how should the resubmitted manuscript be reviewed? One reasonable policy is to have the revised manuscript evaluated by an original reviewer and one or two new reviewers. Alternatively, the editor may consider the manuscript as a new manuscript, and have it reviewed by reviewers who had not seen it before.
A. Editorials. Who will write them, the editor or others solicited by the editor? Who will review and accept them, seek revision, or reject them? Should all editorials be linked to original articles published at the same time, or should they be about any topic the editor chooses?
B. Review articles. Review articles may be commissioned by editors, or submitted by authors in the same way as are original research articles. They should be evaluated in the same way as the research articles. Should a review be commissioned, the author should be asked to submit an outline for the editor’s review and approval before writing the article.
C. Letters to the editors. All journals should have space in which published work can be questioned, and errors pointed out. Authors should always be given the opportunity to reply to any letter about their work that is accepted for publication. Later work that amplifies previously published work may also warrant publication as a letter to the editor rather than publication as new original article.
D. All journals should publish corrections for errors of fact in articles that were published earlier.
8. Other editorial responsibilities.
A. The editor should know the publisher’s policies about advertising. The editorial process should be conducted independently of the procurement of advertisements. The editorial content of the journal should be separated from the advertising content to the greatest extent possible in the published journal, whether printed or electronic. (See also Advertising.)
B. Protection of human and animal rights. As noted above (see Policies for submission of manuscripts), the editor should require that authors document that their research was approved by the appropriate institutional review committee for the protection of human or animal subjects, and that all human subjects or their representatives gave informed consent. Editors should be prepared to direct investigators to institutional review committees that could review the investigators’ plans. A study reviewed and approved after completion is the same as a study not reviewed at all. Editors may on occasion publish studies not approved by such a committee if they are satisfied that the study subjects, whether human or animal, were adequately protected. Conversely, editors may on occasion decline to publish studies they consider unethical even if approved by an institutional committee. (See also Human rights protection, privacy, and confidentiality [including IRB].)
C. Dealing with the media. The public is not served by premature release of research that has not undergone peer review and has not been published. Editors should establish policies regarding how they as editors and authors who have submitted manuscripts to their journal should communicate with the public. In general, authors should not publicize their work until it has been reviewed and published, except in the rare circumstances in which the research is of vital public health importance. Then, the editor may grant permission for a manuscript that has been reviewed and accepted for publication to be disseminated to the public before actual publication.
D. Dealing with allegations of misbehavior. Editors have a responsibility to investigate all allegations of misbehavior, to determine if there is a reasonable basis for the allegation. Those making allegations must describe the alleged misbehavior in detail. The editor should then communicate the allegations to the accused. Then, if in the editor’s judgment there is some evidence of misbehavior, the matter should be referred to the appropriate academic institution for further investigation. Should such allegations be made before publication, publication should be suspended until the matter is resolved. If the allegations are made, and proved, after publication, the editor should publish that fact, which may include a letter from one or more of the authors and an institutional official retracting the article. Editors should not retract articles on their own initiative. (See also Plagiarism, fabrication, falsification and Duplicate publication.)
E. The editor should maintain and publish records of the journal’s evaluation process, for example the number of manuscripts submitted per year, the average time needed to evaluate them, and the rate of acceptance.
Posted October 26, 2001