Ten things I learned from being editor of the British Journal of Social Psychology

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 journal’s associate 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 submission.

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 building up.

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 cited.

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.

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