By Prof John Drury
On 31st December 2019) I stepped down from being editor of the British Journal of Social Psychology (BJSP), a post I occupied for three years, shared with Hanna Zagefka (Royal Holloway University of London). The occasion has prompted me to review some of the things I learned (or views I developed) from the role.
Before I do that, it is worth explaining what being an
editor entails. The following applies to BJSP but is also true of many other academic
journals. The basic bread-and-butter job of the editor (also called ‘chief
editor’ or ‘editor-in-chief’) is triage. This means that when submissions come
into the journal, the editor decides whether they should be considered further
or rejected there and then (‘desk-rejection’). If the editor thinks a
submission merits further consideration, they forward it to one of the
editors. These are the people that invite the reviewers. The reviewers
might be people listed on the journal’s editorial board as ‘editorial
consultants’, but more likely they are anyone the associate editor regards as
most appropriate and willing to provide expert refereeing for the particular
So, if you are considering any of these roles, you might
find useful some of my thoughts on editing a journal.
1. Co-editing is good
In the past, a single editor-in-chief was the norm. Today,
shared editorships are becoming more common. Sharing the editorship is helpful
for a number of reasons. First, you benefit from each other’s experience and
judgement. In my case, Hanna’s decision-making presented solutions to numerous
tricky problems that I struggled over. Second, and more practically, sharing
the load allows breaks from triage and enables holidays without a backlog
2. Reviews are not decisions; associate editors use their
judgement to make decisions
Editors receiving reviews should use these reviews to make their judgements about a submission. You may be surprised to learn, however, that for some journals (not ours) the editor stands back, and exercises little of their own judgement. They treat the reviews as if speaking for themselves. This means that for a ‘revise and resubmit’ they automatically send the revision out for review again. In my view, this is sometimes a waste of time. Even where a significant revision is required, if the editor has the expertise to judge whether the author has made the necessary changes (and can determine that these changes have not adversely affected the rest of the paper), a second round of reviews is not necessary. If the editor needs the extra expertise then send it out again, but otherwise the editor’s job is not to stand back but to think for him- or herself.
3. Manage your associate editors
It follows from the point above that it is necessary to
appoint associate editors with the range of expertise sufficient to cover the
types of papers that get submitted to the journal. So you need to find out what
kind of thing gets submitted, what kinds of topics are submitted most often,
and who in the discipline has knowledge in that area. There is another
consideration, however. When I look at the lists of associate editors for some
journals, I think either the journal doesn’t have many submissions, or those
associate editors are burned out. At BJSP, we managed the issue of the workload
of associate editors by appointing a large number of them, to spread the load.
This makes it more likely that your associate editors will get to their
allocated submissions in time and that they will give them the care and
attention they need.
4. Triage is emotional labour
Just as it’s exciting to find promising and interesting
submissions in the editor’s inbox, there is an emotional cost to handling the
rejections. As authors ourselves, we know the pain of a rejected paper. We know
the time and effort that has gone in. At BJSP, in common with many journals,
the desk-reject rate at triage is around 50% (and the total rejection rate
closer to 85%). That’s a lot of disappointing news to give.
5. Give rejected authors something constructive
At the triage stage, rejections occur for a variety of
reasons. Sometimes, papers are rejected because authors are not familiar with
the culture of research publishing. The editor has a responsibility to help
these aspiring authors learn something, even if it’s simple things like the
presentation of statistics. In fact, the same is true of more experienced
authors who might also get rejected at this stage. It is incumbent on editors
to include in the rejection letter something constructive that the authors can
use as they take their work forward.
6. It’s hard to spot top papers
One of the pieces of advice I remember receiving in a
discussion about improving the journal’s impact factor was to identify early
those papers that are likely to be well-received. But this turned out to be
much harder to do than you might imagine (at least for me). Quite a few of
those submissions that I thought would likely get a lot of interest were
rejected by the associate editor (and sometimes even desk-rejected), and one or
two of those that I thought only just scraped in were among those most highly
7. Think carefully about special issues
Another piece of advice we received was about special issues. It is widely thought that these are typically highly popular and highly cited. If you are an editor considering a call for a special issue, I suggest you check the data from your journal. While for some disciplines and journals, special issues always work, for others the articles in special issues actually get fewer people reading and citing them than normal articles. The lesson here is to think carefully about the topic of the special issue. Is it one that large numbers are interested in or not?
8. Keep an eye on the website
In the old days, of course, the triage role of the editor would be all there is, more or less. But since the journal will now have a website, and online versions which will be the principal way that readers access articles, in my view it is important to keep an eye on how the journal is being presented online. The job of managing the website will fall to the journal publishers, of course, but editors will be the best judge of content and so will have views on the prominence of content across the site.
9. Run a social media account
Twitter is now clearly an excellent way of raising the profile of particular articles and indeed the journal as a whole. The publisher will probably have their own Twitter account, but your name and profile can help in all promotion drives and can result in greater interest in the journal from both readers (measured in both downloads and impact factor) and authors (measured in number and quality of submissions).
10. Typesetting is not proof-reading
Many journal publishers do not provide a full proof-read of
the articles they publish. At all stages, associate editors and authors should
be alerted to any presentational issues in their manuscript, and authors should
check all drafts and proofs very carefully. Sometimes typesetters introduce new
errors into a manuscript, so vigilance is required.