Episode 6 in the June Blogs series aims to cast some light onto one mysterious aspect of academic publishing – the role of the editor.
About a year ago I was approached by the editors of Autism: International Journal of Research and Practice to see if I would like to become an action editor for the journal. I was absolutely thrilled. I love this journal – it publishes nearly all my favourite work in the field, it has a strong focus on work of practical value, and it has a superb social media profile (thanks to the brilliant social media editor Laura Crane). It’s been a really exciting year, getting to grips with a new part of my professional life. While the editorial team, including the publishers at SAGE and the wonderful editor-in-chief David Mandell, have been really supportive, there’s a lot I’ve been learning “on the job”. Like reviewing papers, editorial work is not something we get taught to do. Instead, we pick it up as we go along, to varying degrees of success.
So I thought it would be of interest to write a blog about what it’s like being an editor at a journal, to demystify the process a bit for people trying to get published, and as a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned this past year.
First, the basics.
Autism, like most journals, has an Editor-In-Chief. They are ultimately responsible for the journal content. They screen every single submission that comes in and sends them out to specific Editors for processing. At Autism we also have the aforementioned Social Media Editor and an Editorial Assistant – the excellent Katie Maras – who helps to manage the whole editorial process, doing things like responding to authors chasing a manuscript, and adjusting the deadlines for authors or reviewers who request more time.
Finally, there’s also the Editorial Board. I’ll be completely honest with you – at the start I didn’t really know what the Editorial Board did. Members are basically a Who’s Who of autism researchers from around the globe – the kind of folk who publish fairly regularly in the journal. The Editorial Board are academic stakeholders in the journal. They have a tacit commitment to agree to review for us fairly regularly, and would be there to help us out if we need them – e.g. looking closely at a paper that might be controversial. I was invited to join the Editorial Board of Autism a few years ago and I guess it was a pre-requisite for becoming an Editor.
A last group of people who are crucial to the success of the journal are the team at SAGE, the journal’s publisher. One of the many useful things they do is keep us updated on innovations in academic publishing – using examples from other journals in their portfolio to help us decide what’s right for Autism. We’ve recently had conversations about how to display lay abstracts on the journal website, how to articulate to authors our requirements on data sharing, and what the new Open Access policy from UKRI means for our journal.
The Editorial Dashboard
Apart from the people involved, the other key player in all this is the online system – in our case, handled by Manuscript Central. I log in to the system just as I do as an author or reviewer – but now I have an “editor” tab to look at as well. The system tells me the status of all the manuscripts I have. Here’s a screenshot from the other day.
A couple of key things to know about the system. One is that it creates template emails for virtually all the correspondence we need to do as an Editor. This means that everything an author or reviewer receives, apparently from me, is actually a form email. I edit nearly everything I send out a little, but there are huge swathes that go untouched. This has led to some confusion – for example when inviting a reviewer to look at a revised and re-submitted paper, the form email says “thank you for reviewing a previous version of this manuscript”, which may not always be the case. The second thing to know is that the system automates a lot of our correspondence, like the reminders that go out to overdue reviewers. It’s important to attend to these reminders because they help us get the best outcomes for authors – who want to get a decision on their paper in good time. But it’s also important to know they are not personal!
So, what do I do?
I am an Action Editor, along with six others. David sends me manuscripts every week or two – normally 2 or 3 at a time turn up in my editorial dashboard. I then do a close read of each manuscript, deciding what to send out to review, and what to reject out of hand (the so-called “desk reject” option). I do look at the cover letter too but, if I’m honest, it rarely tells me anything that will sway my decision based on the manuscript itself.
At this stage I’m asking myself, does this paper have the potential to add usefully to knowledge about autism? Are the fundamentals in place: a well-articulated argument, clearly stated research question, appropriate methods and analyses that are laid out well with sufficient detail? Ultimately, is it worth asking two experts in the field to give their time for free to examine this closely? I probably look a bit less closely at the discussion because, if everything else is in place, it’s fairly easy to bring a wayward discussion into line during the revision process. I’ll also send things back to the authors at this stage if they don’t comply with the journal’s reporting guidelines and I’ll request a change to be resubmitted before sending the manuscript to review.
Let’s talk about the dreaded “desk reject” then.
There are three fairly common reasons why I might ‘desk-reject’ a paper. The first is if the paper is simply out of scope for the journal. Basically, it need to tell us something about autism that we can use – if not now, then one day – in practice.
The second, is if I spot what I consider to be a fatal flaw. Like a study where the inclusion criteria for the sample prohibits useful conclusions from being drawn. An (imaginary) example might be a study examining how autistic people experience romantic relationships, that recruited only straight, married people. (NB: this study would be fine if it was asking a narrower question about the autistic experience of heterosexual marriage).
The third, is if I feel that the paper can’t really advance our knowledge because the field is so crowded already. For example, if you want to say something new about how autistic people label emotions from facial expressions – a topic that has already been subject to multiple reviews – you need to have a pretty comprehensive approach (big sample, robust methods) to go beyond what’s already known and avoid recapitulating existing weaknesses in the literature.
When I desk reject, I try to include a useful note for the authors to encourage them. But I must admit, this can be pretty hard, when the note boils down to “I’m just not sure your study tells us anything useful, that we didn’t know already”.
For anything I decide to send out, I have to invite reviewers. The authors will have nominated a couple usually, and I will normally invite one of these right off the bat. The exception is when the nominated reviewers are two very senior profs who I doubt will have the capacity to review for us. It is startling how often the same, “big name” reviewers are nominated time and time again and it’s worth authors thinking about being more selective in their nominations to avoid this problem and perhaps speed up the process for themselves. For all such nominated reviewers the system forces us to do a google search to check they are legit before inviting. This is quite funny when I find myself searching someone like “Catherine Lord” to check her qualifications…
The Dashboard really comes into its own at this stage. I can invite my first two listed reviewers but add another half a dozen “alternates” in order, and the system will automatically invite those as the top few decline the invitation to review. I’d say it normally works through 4-6 reviewers before finding two who are available – more than that right now, because Covid-19 is making lots of people less available to review – and more as well if the topic is a little more obscure. Right now I have a paper that has been sent to 15 candidate reviewers with only once acceptance… I search for reviewers on the system normally by looking for people whose chosen keywords or previous publications match the topic of the submitted paper. I’ll be trying to find people who understand the topic but also the methods and analyses used – the latter is harder because people don’t always signal this in their reviewer profiles.
If the work took place outside of the Europe & North American context, where most of our reviewers and authors are working, I’ll make an effort to seek reviewers from the same part of the world or at least with experience collecting data in similar settings. A project in South Korea may be influenced by regulations, recruitment barriers and pathways, or local services with which a reviewer based in South Carolina is not familiar.
The goal is to end up with a pair of expert reviewers who have agreed to look at the paper – and this takes a good 6-8 weeks or so, I would say. As a reviewer, the absolutely best thing you can do to help with this process in a general sense is accept or decline reviewer invitations quickly, so the system can move on to the next person on the list. If you can email me with suggestions (fine to just send their names and emails in a reply) that’s also great – especially if they are perhaps early career researchers of your acquaintance who might not yet be on our books.
Do you ever do any actual editing?
So far, there’s limited activity here that you’d actually describe as editorial in the traditional sense of the word. I think it really gets interesting when the first reviews are received. The sequence of events thereafter is: reject or invite a revision; when it’s received, send the resubmitted manuscript back out to review; receive reviews, [repeat]. There’s a few issues to weigh in the balance during this cycle.
One is that, while I always respect their expertise and am grateful for their time, I don’t always agree with the reviewers. In these cases, or when reviewers are just very long and detailed, I always put a note in the email that accompanies the reviews to direct the authors’ attention to the areas I think are of most value in terms of improving the paper. I think this is a key way to support them to focus their revision on the stuff that matters most – so do pay attention to these notes if you get one from an editor. But it seems unreasonable, and disrespectful of the reviewers’ expertise and time, to do any more than that.
Another challenge is the reviewer who always has one more thing they want to change. I’ve not yet sent a paper out for a third review – though I can’t promise I never will. Instead, if reviewers have substantial further comments in a second wave, these tend to indicate that the authors have not managed to address the first round of comments adequately and so the paper needs to be rejected (with a heavy heart because I know how agonising it is to receive a rejection at this late stage). Alternatively, reviewers in round 2 might note a few details that have been added but not adequately elucidated, or request some adjustments to grammar and formatting. In this case, I’ll invite the reviews to make those final tweaks but then I’ll sign off on those myself without going back to the original experts for sign-off.
Accepting a manuscript
Far and away the very best part of this job is accepting a paper. The journal statistics tell me that I’ve accepted just 7 papers out of the 50 on which I made a decision in my first 10 months as an editor. A personal 14% acceptance rate, which amazingly closely matches the journal’s general publication rate of 15% of submitted manuscripts. When a paper is accepted I take such joy in sending out that email, knowing that it will make someone’s day. It’s a treat then to see the work in print, being read, and discussed on twitter. The upside of having such a selective process is that I’m proud of every paper I’ve handled and I hope those authors know what a stringent and thoughtful process they’ve been through to get there.