Should journal handling editors be anonymous?
Editor anonymity used to be rare or nonexistent at ecology journals. But it seems to be more common now, at least for certain decisions and at certain journals. In particular, it now seems to be fairly common for rejections without review to be anonymous.
I can understand the reasons for this. The stakes are higher these days, or at least they’re perceived to be higher, which might amount to the same thing. Many authors probably feel like they have a lot riding on every ms, and editors don’t want authors to get upset with them over rejections. Both because it’s no fun to have to deal with irate authors, and because of the fear that an author might hold a grudge against you and give you a bad review on your next grant or something. I have friends and colleagues whom I hugely respect who serve as editors and are glad to have, or wish they had, the option to remain anonymous.
But while I can understand the reasons, I think they’re outweighed by other considerations. I personally don’t like editor anonymity. I served as an editor myself at Oikos for several years, starting before I had tenure. As far as I can recall, our names went on all our decisions, including rejections without review, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. As an editor, I felt that since I was the one with decision-making power, I needed to take responsibility for my decisions. Which for me meant being willing to sign my name to them. This is unlike being a referee, whose job is merely to provide advice to the editor. And while the final decision officially rested with the Editor-in-Chief, in practice the EiC ordinarily just rubber-stamped the decisions of the editorial board members (that’s the way it is at most ecology journals). And if that led to a senior ecologist getting upset with me (as happened to me once at Oikos), well, if you can’t take the heat stay out of the kitchen.* Once in a while, a professional decision you make might upset someone. That’s unfortunate, but that’s life.
I worry that editor anonymity undermines trust in the peer review system. Authors are more likely to respect a decision if they know who it’s coming from. Editor anonymity feeds the perception that peer review is a crapshoot at best and a rigged game at worst. Journals and their editors should fight that perception, not encourage it.
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has criticized editor anonymity. Now, in fairness their criticism focuses on the practice of editors writing anonymous reviews of the mss they handle.** But COPE’s reasons for criticizing that practice apply to editor anonymity more broadly, I think. As COPE notes, editors are the overseers–there’s nobody to oversee and evaluate them. Overseers shouldn’t be anonymous.
But I bet this is an issue on which some folks (probably including some of my friends) will disagree with me, so let’s talk about it. As an author, do you mind editor anonymity, or not? As an editor, are some or all of your decisions anonymous, and if not do you wish they were? Why? Looking forward to your comments.
*Plus, is it really that common for scientists to hold serious long-term grudges against one another, and be in a position to act on them in a way that would materially affect someone else’s career? Or is the increased competition for jobs, grants, and space in leading journals just causing people to worry more about that unlikely possibility? For instance, in an old post on a related topic, Brian notes that his very first paper as a grad student was a very high profile paper that seems to have upset a very prominent ecologist. But Brian’s career has gone just fine. As I said in a different context, I think it’s pretty rare for one little thing–like say, one editorial decision you make–to materially affect your career one way or the other. But of course, I have nothing more than anecdotes to back this view.
**When I read that, I was stunned. There are editors who do that? I’d never heard of such a ridiculous editorial practice. But that’s not what this post is about.