What can a journal Editor-in-Chief do to attract you to submit to the journal? a poll

As briefly mentioned previously in this blog, I have accepted the position of Editor in Chief (EiC) at Global Ecology and Biogeography. I, of course, think it is a fantastic journal (objectively it ranks top in my field and top 10 in all of ecology) thanks to the great work of outgoing EiC David Currie. As you might imagine taking on this new role and my ensuing contract negotiations with the journal owner (Wiley) have caused me to think a lot about exactly what the job of EiC should entail. This is a question of current relevance not just to me but all of ecology and science; the world of academic publishing is changing so quickly that everything in academic publishing is being rethought these days, including the role of EiC. The recently announced movement of the ESA journals to Wiley is a case in point. While this will not result in significant changes to the editorial staff or processes, anytime there is such major institutional change, roles and expectations will be revisited. I expect many of you have thought little if at all about the EiC at journals, but I am incented to provoke you to think about it and am curious to hear your thoughts.

First a quick review for those less familiar with publishing (skip to the poll if you know all of this). Journals typically have an EiC and a panel of associate or handling editors (hereafter AE). The typical flow is:

  1. A paper is submitted electronically
  2. EiC evaluates the paper for quality and goodness of fit and either issues an editorial reject without review or assigns it to a handling editor. These days the EiC editorial rejects 30-90% of all the submitted manuscripts with 50% being a quite typical number (publishing hint: cover letters didn’t use to matter much, but they are now critical in making it past this first screen)
  3. If the EiC decides to send it to review, s/he assigns it to a specific AE (publishing hint: recommending AEs who are expert in the topic of the paper is helpful, but the EiC knows the AEs quite well so this is not particularly subject to gaming – further hint: your letter better be more snappy than your abstract, not just a rehash because that is the one other thing they will read).
  4. The AE may choose to recommend editorial reject without review as well, although typically this is much rarer than the EiC doing it (but maybe 5-10% of all submissions).
  5. The AE provides a list of 5 or so potential reviewers (publishing hint: this is critical  to the ultimate decision, but I have no clue on how to game this aspect of who gets picked as reviewers – I don’t think it can be gamed).
  6. An editorial assistant, increasingly often based at the publisher’s office, will contact the prospective reviewers until (usually) 2 people say yes. Sometimes it may take asking as much as 10-15 people (especially in the middle of the summer). In my experience getting reviewers to say yes has nothing to say about the quality of the paper – so don’t take it as a bad sign if you get a note saying there have been delays in finding reviewers.
  7. Once the reviews are back, the admin will contact the AE to submit a recommendation.
  8. The AE will read the recommendations and should read the paper in full and then make a recommendation (the dramatic accept/major/minor revision/reject that everybody pays attention to, but also a summary of the reviews and a focused list of the most important, must have changes that you should pay a lot of attention to).
  9. The recommendation then goes to the EiC who makes a final decision. Many EiC follows the AE recommendations unless there are serious red flags, but a few insert their own evaluations into the process.

Some journals also have Deputy EiC – and at some journals these DEiC effectively act like fancy AEs while at other journals they are effectively co-EiC. Journals also have a managing editor who is responsible for the business side. In most society journals the managing editor reports to the society, but in journals owned by the publishing company the managing editor is part of the publishing company.

So, everybody who has ever submitted a paper is likely pretty clear on the roles of the reviewers and the AE. What exactly does the EiC do or should they do? I have my own opinions, which I will review in a few days in the comments, but I am curious as a reader and author, what is most important to you that the EiC devotes her/his energies on? (everything in the poll below is a job of the EiC, but obviously some are more important than others) So to put it another way, which features would make you more likely to submit to a journal if you know the EiC was prioritizing time on them?

Please take the poll below. (Note: mss=manuscripts)

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About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

29 thoughts on “What can a journal Editor-in-Chief do to attract you to submit to the journal? a poll

  1. I was glad to fill out your poll, surprised to not see comments here yet?!

    EIC definitely need to set a vision for the journal, and all of the building/maintenance that goes in hand with that.

    But I think there is a fundamental dichotomy among how editors run the manuscript processing. One kind of EIC really takes the reins and has a firm role in decisions – a higher fraction of desk rejects might come from the EIC, and when a decision goes out, it is accompanied by the EIC’s decision and remarks. In that situation, the AE makes recommendations, but really the call is up to the EIC.

    The other model is when EICs defer more authority to the AEs, and the decision letters come from the AE (or not changed much from the AE), and desk rejects are more likely punted to the AEs. Maybe it’s not a dichotomy and more a continuum, but I have a feeling that either journals run one way or the other. Either EIC is managing and doing admin work, or is really editing quite seriously.

    I think journals are better off with the former model, as long as there is a good EIC. That way, if an EIC is doing a great job, then the journal will be amazing. But if there isn’t a ‘strong EIC’ in charge, then the journal is as good as its AEs. What it takes to be a good AE is kinda independent of what it takes to be a good researcher, and it’s just piled on top of whatever additional stuff they have to do anyway. If you assume the distribution of AE quality is normal, then it’s really hard to improve a journal if it’s based on the work of the AEs. But a journal in the hands of an EIC that occupies the upper tail of the distribution can do really great things.

    • Thanks for your comments. Sometimes it just takes one brave sole to start the comments, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

      I definitely agree that there is a range of EiC hands-on-ness (although it probably goes along several dimensions – e.g. I know EiC who do almost all the initial reject-without-review themselves but rarely override the AE recommendations on reviewed mss). And, notwithstanding the excellent AEs at GEB, I quite agree with your assessment of the consequences of leaving everything with the AEs. Variability can be high, which in some ways is worse than consistent averageness.

    • “surprised to not see comments here yet?!”

      I’m disappointed but not surprised. Our traffic and commenting drops substantially in July and August. Plus, for a post like this, I suspect a large fraction of readers probably don’t feel they have sufficient experience to be able to comment.

      • Actually, I’m kind of surprised. I’ve got a half dozen EiC and two dozen AEs who took the poll. Definitely people with enough experience. Plus I’m really interested in what authors think.

        It may be that people are less likely to comment when they take a poll.

      • And some of us may be recovering from ESA and only getting around to reading DE on Friday…

  2. Like Terry, I think the EiC role varies across journals a lot. If you set up a good set of AEs and have a good managing office, you can delegate a lot in both directions. For example, I rated “keep on top of review process to avoid delay” low, because if the EiC has to do that, something is wrong in the journal office. And if the AEs are good, I’d think the EiC in 95% of the cases only needs to visibly back them. The other 5% of the cases, of course, are the interesting ones!

    One way the EiC can encourage authors is to be professional and supportive in decision letters. I am no longer submitting to a major journal I won’t name because of a scathing and unprofessional attack on a grad student author (for one thing, announcing as dishonest a decision to split content between manuscripts, when that split had been recommended by reviewers). Brian, I don’t mean there’s any risk of you doing this! My point really is that I’m not sure, as an author, I can be recruited by many things the EiC does; but I can certainly be driven away. That probably isn’t very helpful.

    Good luck in the role!

    • It is an interesting point that one can drive people away. I have my own little list of journals that annoyed me so much (also involving students in most cases) that I won’t return (although that resolve mellows over the years and as personnel turnover).

      And I agree that the admin staff should be mainly in charge of the timeliness of turnaround, but I was curious to see how important people rated that.

      In general, I am going to be curious to look at the splits on this. Some people clearly filled out the form with a lot of knowledge of how things work and others are just treating it as a wish list (both of which are interesting).

  3. Interesting poll. Bad experience with the review process can certainly drive an author away. For example, I was pretty upset by an editorial rejection which came as an impolite automatically generated message without a single personalized sentence and without even mentioning the name of the editor who made the decision (was it the editor in chief, an associate editor in chief, or a subject matter editor?). I never submitted to that journal (Ecology) again. I was a student, so I was offended more than I would be now.

    I think it’s important that the editor in chief makes sure that the authors are treated fairly during the editorial and review process and that the editor resolves any conflicts wisely.

    On the other hand, I’m not so excited about the attention to brands, journal niches, glamour, etc. Lots of distractions, complexities to navigate as an author, and delays in publishing our results stem from that. I hope a different publishing system will become dominant soon.

    Oh, and one thing that can put me of is if I don’t have access to to the journal contents. Why should I publish in journals my institution cannot afford to subscribe to?

    • All good points.

      Policy on anonymity of editors varies with journal. Personally, I think reviewers have every right to remain anonymous but editors (AE and D/EiC) should be named in every decision as a matter of transparency. But as I say there are those that disagree.

      As somebody about to write the reject-without-review emails, I am not sure what I’m going to do with form vs customized. Certainly customized takes more time and that is a real issue – we just publish too many papers these days – an EiC at a major journal is likely to have to deal with 10-15 decisions on editorial reject and another 10-15 decisions on reviewed ms PER WEEK (all while remaining an active teacher and researcher – certainly the pay is not enough to anywhere near full time on editing). These numbers probably vary by a factor of 5 across different journals. This is why editorial rejects are needed to begin with – they didn’t happen very often (except at Science and Nature) when I started 15+ years ago. And this one is squarely on the scientific community, not the journal publishers – we just publish too much these days (and aim for too high a journals on a regular basis)

      But another issue on form vs customized letter aside from the time is that if you give specific reasons related to a mss is it, I think, makes it much more likely to have the author protest that they’re wrong or they can fix the issues. Once you get into dealing with an appeal on an editorial reject, you’ve kind of defeated the purpose of editorial reject.

      I do think editorial rejects are a recent enough thing we don’t have a fully developed culture around what is reasonable/expected yet. Overall, they are unfortunate and I wish we didn’t have to do them at all. Its easy (even necessary) as an editor to take the statistical view and accept that there will be a few mistakes along the way, but it is much harder to accept this as an author. (and believe me I know this from personal experience).

      Thanks for your comments.

      • How about a mostly form letter with one customized sentence? Especially if it’s about “fit”, it is very valuable to understand why the journal won’t take a look at your paper. And I imagine it’s harder to appeal a “fit” argument than some others.

  4. Let your AEs know that you have their backs in the case of conflicts with authors, especially prominent ones whom some AEs might worry have some power to retaliate against negative decisions. Let the AEs know you’ll take the heat when needed. I’ve been surprised a couple of times over the years to hear about AEs who worry about this, even though I wouldn’t have thought they’d have any cause to. And perhaps they don’t have any cause to worry–after all, as AE at a good journal, *you’re* the one with a measure of power over others–but they do worry.

    Of course, the flip side of that is that the AEs of course need to be careful and fair, so that they deserve to be backed.

  5. I’m not sure if these are EIC or administrative staff responsibilities but there are some one off things that would make it easier for authors. My list includes: having articles link to altmetric scores, clear policies on preprint servers, and clear policies on “self publishing” such as uploading to ResearchGate following publication.

    • Those are all good points. They fall into the joint responsibility of the EiC and the publisher (professional society or publishing company), although the middle one is more the editors decision and the 1st and last are more the publishers.

  6. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to exchange with an EiC !

    A few items on my “wish list” :
    I’d like to see editors stop sending rejection letters that push authors “as an alternative” to submit to the pay-to-publish OA version of the journal but that has an IF of close to 0. If I choose this model, I’ll probably pick the cheapest alternative with the highest IF –

    Second, a number of questions in the poll talk about “fairness”, etc. I’d like to see this characterized by more transparency in how decisions are made. Perhaps some kind of decision-making grid (like those used in some universities for grading schemes) could be developed and made available to rejected authors. What I think is fair is possibly not the same as the journal editors’ version – especially if my ms is rejected 🙂

    Finally, I spent about a decade doing ms reviews for non-native English speakers. One consistent thing I noticed was how badly many authors took comments from reviewers like “needs to be revised by a native speaker” when they had spent months on a paper. Can we just get this phrase deleted and replaced with a more neutral sentence that does not single out “foreigners”?

    My 0.02 cents

  7. As a PhD student who only recently entered into the ‘publishing game’, I must say that I fully accept the editorial rejects without review, mainly because it reduces the load on reviewers (which is often put forward as a big problem today). Everyone knows that ‘high-impact’ journals are overloaded with manuscripts, and if you are rejected there are usually several equivalent journals to send a manuscript to, so an editorial reject is not necessarily that bad – it may even be beneficial for the authors as it can speed up the publication process. If the editor has doubts from the beginning about the suitability of my paper for his/her journal, I rather take a quick reject than a several month long wait for the same decision.
    One of the most annoying things with being rejected (after the first disappointment has settled) is to re-format the MS to a new journal. Some journal editors have acknowledged this and do not force authors to conform to the journal’s style until the revision stage. I think this is a good way to go.
    AMBIO, for instance, give these instructions:

    “Only when your manuscript is at the revision stage will you be requested to format according to Ambio’s style. This way you will not have to spend valuable research time formatting (or re-formatting) your manuscript prior to first submission.”

    • THanks for the perspectives. And you’re right, editorial reject often is beneficial, even if it doesn’t feel like it! Good point about reformatting. I think many journals will accept this but don’t say it officially. But if true, they should just say it officially.

  8. The thing that I have the hardest time with as AE (not GEB, but related) is determining whether a paper is unique enough relative to recently published work. This is particularly challenging when the topic is far from my field. I think it’s Ecology Letters that requires authors in the cover letter to describe how this paper is novel relative to their recent works, and I wish we did that as well. I rarely feel comfortable with a desk reject unless it’s a very closely related field (although my percentage is higher than 5-10%!).

    In my (limited, n=2) experiences with GEB, the AEs have been very hands on with decisions…more so than any other journal. Both times (different AEs) they have acted like 3rd reviewers. The EiC also weighed in both times. I think it is critical that an AE summarize reviews and make a clear path forward for authors, so this is much better than no feedback. But, they also risk burnout if they don’t put more trust in the reviewers.

    Ecography right now has been doing a good job of trying to compile Q&A amongst editors to create more consistency – since no one actually has specific training for the job. They just sucked up a bazillion new Eds, so it’s timely and I think it has been effective.

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  10. > What can a journal Editor-in-Chief do to attract you to submit to the journal?

    1. A policy of double-blind review. Double-blind review. Double-blind review. (Or else totally transparent review — I still haven’t decided which I prefer.)
    1B. If not (1), then a policy of training of AE in unconscious bias.
    2. A user-friendly web page and submission process. (For example, DON’T tell submitters that they can’t submit .docx files once they get halfway through the submission process if you say in your instructions that you accept Word files. (Yes, this is a real example!)) I find most submission software journals use (and presumably pay a lot for) to be terrible.
    3. Reasonable author costs (these should really be zero) and an easy way for those without institutional support to get waivers.
    4. The ability to publish color figures for the online version of the article even if authors choose to publish figures in B&W in print for cost reasons.

    Yes, I want good AEs and reviewers, etc., but what would really attract me is a journal that worked to make the whole process of submission a lot less unpleasant and that made me confidant that my science would be fairly evaluated without respect to my gender.

    • Can’t find the link now, but a little while back I linked to a blogpost over at Plos that exhaustively reviewed the experimental and comparative literature on various peer review reforms, including both double-blind and nobody-blind review. As I recall (and I think I remember pretty well, but of course I could be wrong), the main take-homes were (i) the evidence base sucks; existing studies are rife with serious design flaws, (ii) nobody-blind review greatly increases the rate at which people decline to review, (iii) blinding author names from the ms is often seen through, (iv) keeping in mind (i), blinding author names can decrease gender disparities in review outcomes, increase them (yes, increase them), or have no effect, with none of those three possibilities predominating over the others.

      The conclusion I draw is that double-blinding is an experiment worth trying. But we should be prepared for that experiment to have no effect, or surprising effects, and be prepared to abandon the experiment if any effects it has seem undesirable. We should also recognize that it might well be quite hard to tell what effects, if any, a policy change at any particular journal has, and why it has them.

      • Fair enough. But blinding has been shown to work in other contexts, and it would surprise me if paper reviewing were in some weird world where blinding (well done) has no effect.

        (And I totally believe that nobody-blind increases decline to review rates.)

        (And I keep hearing the “see through” the blinding argument, but I don’t get it. I expect this only happens for well-known, established people working on very specific systems that no one else is working on. In this case, I’d think blinding doesn’t even matter much. What matters is blinding for an unknown female early career scientist with a non-white-sounding last name.)

      • Fair enough re: your priors concerning blinding. I think they’re reasonable, and I share them. I guess I’d just say that I wouldn’t be much surprised if, say, Am Nat’s new blinding policy turns out not to have much effect on the gender and career stage mix of the authors it publishes. (but that’s a guess based on not much, so don’t take it too seriously because I sure don’t!) That’s not to criticize the policy at all; some policies are worth implementing even if we aren’t sure that they’ll have much effect, and worth maintaining even if they turn out not to have much effect. I think Am Nat’s experiment is well-worth trying, I look forward to hearing what effect it has.

        Re: seeing through blinding, I personally don’t see it as an argument against blinding. I just see it as a reality that needs to be recognized. We should anticipate that blinding will often be seen through, and react accordingly. For instance, it’s my impression that Am Nat is dropping reviewers who see through the blinding, at least in some cases. Depending on how often that happens, that could make it materially harder for Am Nat to find reviewers. So they need to have procedures in place to deal with that.

        And sorry, but seeing through blinding doesn’t only happen for well-known authors working in very specific systems that no one else is working on. I just saw through Am Nat’s blinding for a paper on Daphnia (a very popular system) by a not-especially-famous pre-tenure prof. Plenty of people, not just famous people working on very specific and rarely-used systems, work and write in ways that makes their papers recognizable. And pretty much everybody cites their own previous work out of necessity. And hardly anyone bothers to phrase those self-citations in such a way as to try to disguise that they are self-citations. Between all those factors, blinding does get seen through a lot.

      • Ah, good points about citations. Hadn’t thought about that. Hmm…. Doesn’t work to blind the citations. (Of course, blinding might help really early career people who don’t have much of their own work to cite! But that’s not a huge argument in favor…) Definitely something to recognize as happening. And maybe does put blinding in a somewhat different world than where it’s been shown to work. Maybe someone will come up with a brilliant work-around.

      • Sorry, meant to say: “And maybe does put journal article review blinding in a somewhat different world than where it’s been shown to work.”

      • Something else I’ve had to worry about when prepping for double-blind reviews is identifying where the organisms came from. There’s a middling number of people in my system, but I need to identify where I got the animals (for a number of reasons) and that narrows the field substantially. It felt really pointless to go through AmNat’s new process when the Methods section started with ‘animals were collected in [University Town].’

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