Should journal editors be anonymous?

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.

12 thoughts on “Should journal editors be anonymous?

  1. By the way, just so there are no misunderstandings, I think peer reviewers should be anonymous, or at least have the option of being anonymous, to ensure they feel free to give forthright advice. This post isn’t an argument against any and all anonymity in peer review.

  2. As a point of comparison, are Program Officers anonymous? Similar situation – they make the decisions and should make defensible decisions that do not require anonymity.

    • No, NSF program officers aren’t anonymous. Indeed, it’s common for applicants to communicate informally with the program officer handling their grant, in order to get feedback.

      • Whoops, my bad. I agree that you’ve got a strong rhetorical point. If NSF program officers don’t need anonymity, why should journal handling editors need it?

        Although on the other hand, editor anonymity didn’t used to exist at all in ecology, and now it’s creeping in. Which suggests that arguing “We don’t need editor anonymity because lots of editors and other decision-makers get by just fine without it” isn’t going to stem the tide. Because if it would, then how would editor anonymity ever have started to gain a foothold in the first place? Honest question, to which I don’t know the answer. I’m not privy to decision-making at any journal that’s started allowing editor anonymity.

  3. Speaking as somebody with no experience from editorial work, I agree with you that it should not be anonymous, for mostly the same reasons. With lots of talk that the review process has gotten more random, with more editorial rejections, it is important that the process it at least transparent. Otherwise, as you say, trust may go down and conspiracy theories/rigged game ideas start floating around. The overseer point is also good, but I guess you can make the argument that the Editor-in-Chief (never seen an anonymous EiC) should oversee the subject editors.

    However, again from somebody with no editorial experience, many of the negatives for open editorialship you mention are probably true in some situations. And they are likely to hit younger scientists harder than people with more established careers. So I can imagine that lacking the option of editor anonymity might make it harder to recruit early career researchers and maybe also female researchers, since they often seem to be at a disadvantage during evaluations and also have to take more heat for voicing unpopular views/decisions (again, my perception). So we may loose diversity by having a strict open policy. All in all, I personally still think that the arguments favour open editorialship, but it is not an easy issue.

  4. I can see arguments either way. According to this, some people deliberately network with editors from top journals in the theory that it is harder to reject someone you are friends with. This seems like a good argument for editors being anonymous. This year I had a paper rejected without review from an editor I know. He followed up the standard rejection email with a personalized email explaining his decision, suggesting that it might be awkward for him to reject people he knows.

    I can’t find the article, but earlier this year I read something (possibly in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment) that suggested that a high proportion of papers that are rejected without review from one top quartile ecology journal were resubmitted unchanged to another top quartile journal where they were subsequently accepted. The article argued that editors are not necessarily the best people to make decisions about the worth of papers that don’t fall within their speciality, and that peer review by relevant specialists is a fairer assessment. However, it sounds like journals receive far more submissions than they are going to be able to publish, and that it is becoming increasingly harder for editors to find reviewers. Making an editorial decision to reject a proportion of potentially quite decent papers without review sounds like a necessary evil. I can understand why editors might prefer to be anonymous, although I can equally appreciate that, by being named, there may be a perception that they are more accountable.

  5. I often hear that it is getting difficult to find reviewers. Is it also difficult for journals to find editors? I suppose it varies among journals, but generally speaking, do ecologists feel good about being an editor of some (prestigious) journals? I think many people review papers even when they do not want to do so (because they feel somewhat obligated). I am wondering if editors are being editors in a similar way… Also, is the editor selection process basically the same for most journals?

    • In my experience ecologists are glad to be asked to be editors. Especially for a leading journal; that’s a significant feather in your cap. It’s also often interesting work–it gives you an early look at the best new science being produced in your field, and a window into other people’s candid opinions of that science. It’s a service to the field as well; wanting to do it and doing it out of a sense of professional obligation aren’t mutually exclusive. Some editors for journals sponsored by scientific societies do it in part out of a desire to support the society. And if you do it well–and sign your decisions–you’ll enhance your reputation with many more colleagues than you’ll upset. For all these reasons, it’s not difficult for journals to find editors as far as I know. At least not leading journals; the story may be different for obscure journals, or unselective journals like Plos One, but I have no idea.

      Re: the editor selection process, that’s a good question to which you’d think I’d know the answer, but I don’t. Oikos just emailed me one day and invited me to join the board, but I don’t know how they decided to pick me. I don’t think ecology journals ordinarily have a formal nominating process or written procedure for choosing editorial board members, so whatever the process is I think it’s informal.

  6. I hadn’t heard of anonymous academic editors before (my experience is mostly with in-house journal editors, though). Can you name the journals that do this? Is it a general policy for all decisions by each journal, or is it happening on an ad-hoc basis? I agree with your reasons for it being a bad thing.

      • I think in a few cases the Ed is anonymous unless she/he chooses to sign her/his name to the editorial synopsis. But, in a few systems (e.g., Wiley journals), you can still sign into the system and see which Ed is handling your paper even if they don’t admit to it in the decision later.
        I’d be kind of curious how many Eds sign their name to rejected vs. non-rejected manuscripts.
        It is really awkward to try to argue with an anonymous handling editor. Dear Associate Editor, …

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