Editors of scientific journals have responsibilities toward the authors who provide the content of the journals, the peer reviewers who comment on the suitability of manuscripts for publication, the journal’s readers and the scientific community, the owners/publishers of the journals, and the public as a whole. Depending upon the relationship between the editor and publisher for particular journals, some of the roles and responsibilities between the two may overlap in some of the following:
Editor Responsibilities toward Authors
The following are examples of editorial policies and standards that editors may require of submitting authors:
aA sample disclosure form can be found at: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/data/295/1/103/DC1/1 (Accessed March 9, 2012).
bProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Information for authors. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/misc/iforc.shtml (Accessed March 9, 2012)
cAn example of information commonly required for permission to reuse copyrighted material can be found at: http://www.nutrition.org/publications/guidelines-and-policies/permissions/ (Accessed March 9, 2012).
dA sample copyright transfer agreement is available at: http://circres.ahajournals.org/misc/AHA-CTA08-2008.pdf (Accessed March 9, 2012).
eA sample licensing agreement is available at: http://www.nature.com/nbt/pdf/nbt_license.pdf (Accessed March 9, 2012).
Some journals may also request or require adherence to the following trial registration or reporting guidelines:
fSome guidelines for registering clinical trials can be found at: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/292/11/1363 (Accessed March 9, 2012).
A resource that provides information about many of the reporting guidelines is the EQUATOR network.12
Editors are responsible for monitoring and ensuring the fairness, timeliness, thoroughness, and civility of the peer-review editorial process.
Peer review by external referees with the proper expertise is the most common method to ensure manuscript quality. However, editors or associate editors may sometimes reject manuscripts without external peer review to make the best use of their resources. Reasons for this practice are usually that the manuscript is outside the scope of the journal, does not meet the journal’s quality standards or is of limited scientific merit, or lacks originality or novel information.
Referees are chosen by the editors or by associate editors or members of the editorial board to whom the task has been delegated. The amount of anonymity in the peer-review process varies. Some journals attempt to mask the identities of both the authors and reviewers (double masked or double blind); however, although masked, the identity of the author(s) may be known by the reviewers based on the area of research. Many journals follow the practice of keeping reviewer identities anonymous to the authors (single masked or single blind). Alternatively, some journals give reviewers the option to reveal their names, and a few journals provide authors with the names of all reviewers associated with the manuscript.
Peer review is usually a gift of uncompensated time from scientists to whom time is a precious commodity. Therefore, it is important for editors to clearly define the responsibilities of these individuals and to implement processes that streamline the peer review process as much as possible (see section 2.3 for more on reviewer responsibilities).
Editor Responsibilities toward Reviewers
Editors have the responsibility to inform and educate readers. Making clear and rational editorial decisions will ensure the best selection of content that contributes to the body of scientific knowledge.
Editor Responsibilities toward Readers and the Scientific Community
Journals are typically owned by professional societies or associations, foundations, universities, hospitals, research institutions, libraries, governmental organizations, non-profit organizations, or commercial publishers.
Editor Responsibilities toward Journal Owners/Publishers
Meeting all obligations, which sometimes compete against one another, and handling the demands of other individuals and groups (such as the parent society, owners, publishers, funders and sponsors, authors, readers, advertisers, news media, and government agencies) require that the editors have editorial freedom, comprising both authority and autonomy. It should be recognized that this is a difficult challenge and, therefore, editors should not hesitate to consult peers and/or organizations, such as the CSE, should concerns or uncertainties arise.
Responsibilities of Editors toward the Public
Many responsibilities of editors toward the public are carried out through the mechanisms established for the processes and constituencies mentioned above. Editors’ roles have benefited society in many ways, from the quality-control measures taken when considering manuscripts for publication to requiring authors to abide by standards that would advance science and deposit information into freely available public databases as a condition of publication (e.g., data sharing). Editors are regularly taking steps to see that the outcomes of the scientific enterprise benefit the public. This includes identifying dual use research, which is research that can be misused to harm the public or its well-being.
Dual Use Research
One additional area that has emerged with advances in science, technology, and global exchange of information is consideration of “dual use research.” This is research with a legitimate scientific purpose that may be misused to pose a threat to public health and/or national security. As defined by the United States National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), dual use research of concern (DURC) is a subset of dual use research “that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others to pose a threat to public health and safety, agriculture, plants, animals, the environment, and material.”19 Examples include knowledge, products, or technologies that could be misapplied to create or enhance harmful consequences of biological agents or toxins, disrupt immunity of vaccines, increase transmission of harmful substances, or alter biological agents and toxins to make them resistant to clinical or agricultural prophylactic or therapeutic interventions, or conversely to enhance the susceptibility of a host population to harm.
Everyone has a stake in the responsible management of DURC, but especially individual researchers, institutions and institutional groups (e.g., institutional biosafety committees), funding agencies, scientific societies, government/regulatory bodies, journal editors, and the global scientific community. In the United States, the National Policy on the Transfer of Scientific, Technical, and Engineering Information, issued in 1985 (National Security Decision Directive-189),20 states that, to the maximum extent possible, federally funded fundamental research that is unclassified will not have government-imposed restrictions on its conduct or reporting. More recent legislation, such as the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-56)21 and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-188, H.R. 3448), takes additional steps intended to prevent bioterrorism, including the establishment of a national database of potentially dangerous pathogens and imposition of safety and security requirements on facilities and individuals with access to them.
Identification and consideration of DURC throughout the research continuum before submission of manuscripts for publication is an important early step. However, while journal editors do not have sole responsibility for the management of DURC, inevitably, editors will be faced with submissions that could be considered DURC and the challenges that come with handling them. Considering the risks and benefits of publishing DURC is a task in which many editors have no experience. Identifying DURC is subjective, and it is difficult for even the most knowledgeable editors and scientists to manage submissions that provide legitimate scientific contributions without censoring their communication because of potential harmful use.
In 2003, the “Statement on Scientific Publication and Security”22 was published by a group of editors simultaneously in Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature, and the American Society for Microbiology journals. This statement recognizes the challenge of dual use research and documents the commitment of journal editors and authors toward responsibly and effectively balancing the need for public safety with the requirements of transparently reporting scientific results. There may be times when it is appropriate to “encourage investigators to communicate results of research in ways that maximize public benefits and minimize risks of misuse.” In rare cases, some information needed to reproduce the experiment should be eliminated or the manuscript itself should not be published. Editors who may potentially receive DURC submissions should consider establishing best practices for processing these manuscripts.
The NSABB and organizations around the world have entered into dialogues with all stakeholders to find ways to ensure that science continues to be done and communicated in an unfettered way, while being mindful of and minimizing the risks and consequences of misuse. Tools and information on this topic are being built and shared by the global community.
Editors can educate journal boards, reviewers, and authors; establish screening methods to recognize DURC; obtain reviews of these manuscripts from individuals with technical and security expertise; and create an ongoing network to share experiences and further refine ways for managing DURC.
Editors should develop guidelines and procedures to allow the scientific evaluation as well as the evaluation of the possible risk of communicating information with dual use potential. Additional information on what to consider when evaluating a manuscript with potential dual use can be found in the report titled, Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism.23
An editor essentially is responsible for what appears in his or her journal. To establish and maintain high-quality journal content, an editor should, prior to accepting a position, receive an explicit written statement from the journal’s owner that defines the editor’s responsibilities and autonomy. Regardless of the scientific field, editors should be given full responsibility for editorial decisions on individual manuscripts (see section 2.5). The editor’s right to editorial freedom may be supported by the following and should be agreed on by both the editor and the journal owner/publisher:
Much of the above may be laid out in a contract. The terms of the contract should specify the duration of the editor’s appointment and the grounds for termination, from both sides.
Editors and the publication staff should keep all information about a submitted manuscript confidential, sharing it only with those involved in the evaluation, review, and publication processes.
Editors should consider adding a confidentiality notice to all correspondence, including reviewer forms, to serve as a reminder to authors, editors, and reviewers.
To minimize the potential to influence editorial decisions, many journals have policies not to release content to the publication’s sales team until it has been accepted or published.
Journals should have a mechanism – consistent with established industry standards – to safely store, archive, and/or destroy paper and electronic manuscript review files and related content. Records and retention schedules, such as how long to keep published manuscripts and associated correspondence or rejected manuscripts and associated correspondence, should be documented in writing and reviewed on a regular basis.
Journals may receive subpoenas for information about manuscripts. Legal counsel is advised in this scenario. Formal subpoenas can be issued only by a regulatory agency or court of competent jurisdiction. Formal inquiries from law firms, for example, are probably best to politely decline, citing confidentiality. Generally, editors should resist revealing confidential information when served a subpoena unless advised to do so by legal counsel. Not only is the requested information usually confidential, but often uncovering ALL information (for which lawyers are trained to ask) can be time-consuming, interrupt normal business, and be expensive. Citing, for example, the Avoidance of Undue Burden or Expense Under Rule 45(c)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure may be useful.24
Confidential information should not be used for an editor’s own purposes, and editors should take reasonable steps to ensure that such information is not used inappropriately for the advantage of others. In cases of breach of confidentiality by those involved in the peer-review process, editors should contact the involved parties and follow up on such cases until they are satisfactorily resolved.
Generally, editors of journals with embargo policies should enforce them to encourage the confidentiality of publication content until the embargo release date, unless the editor is authorized by the copyright owner or required by law to disclose the information. The copyright owner is often the journal owner—usually the society or publisher—but may be the author. There are 2 general exceptions under which an editor may release manuscript content to others not involved in consideration of the manuscript prior to publication: (1) to an author if a commentary or editorial is being solicited to highlight the manuscript and (2) to the public when research findings have a major health or societal impact (a rare event). In the latter case, journals often prefer to coordinate release of the peer-reviewed study findings with announcements to the public so that details are clearly presented and widely disseminated. This type of content is often made freely available online prior to print. A good summary of the importance of releasing information to the public and honoring embargoes is described in a JAMA editorial25 (see section 2.6).
Conflicts of interest in publishing can be defined as conditions in which an individual holds conflicting or competing interests that could bias editorial decisions. Conflicts of interest may be only potential or perceived, or they may be factual. Personal, political, financial, academic, or religious considerations can affect objectivity in numerous ways.
Editors should set and regularly monitor a conflict of interest policy for editors, reviewers, editorial board members, editorial staff, and authors.15, 16 Sample correspondence related to this topic is available on the CSE website.17 These policies should be published in the journal with the date of their adoption or publication and made easily accessible to all readers by a parallel online publication (usually as part of the Instructions for Authors). Editors should strive for fairness and impartiality in their policies. This can only be achieved if all parties involved in the peer-review process disclose any and all conflicts and allow the Editor to decide how they should be handled. It is also important to recognize that an Editor and/or reviewer can be impartial while nonetheless being in conflict of interest. Since the perception of conflict of interest is detrimental to a journal’s reputation, avoiding even the perception of conflict of interest should be a priority. Enforcement of these policies must also be considered: practices to deal with premeditated or inadvertent breaches of the journal’s conflict of interest policy should be stated in writing, regularly reviewed, and carried out consistently.
One challenge for editors is to recognize the potential for biases arising from conflicts of interest in the publishing process and to take appropriate action when biases are likely. Some specific types of conflict of interest are mentioned below.
Direct: An editor, author, or reviewer is reporting or considering a study involving a specific commercial product while he or she holds equity positions or stock options in the company making the product and thus has the potential to realize direct financial gain if the assessment is favorable.
Direct: A reviewer gains key knowledge by evaluating a competing research team’s work and uses it prior to the publication of the work but does not cite it in his/her own patent application.
Indirect: An individual involved in the publication process is employed by an organization that would obtain some advantage from a favorable product-related publication or may receive compensation if a product does well as a result of a favorable report published in the journal. Similarly, an author of an editorial commenting on the importance of a research article may minimize positive findings if he or she has been a consultant to a company selling competing products.
Indirect: When an investigator studies the product of a commercial enterprise from which the investigator has received monies previously (e.g., consulting fees, honoraria, or speaking fees), the situation differs slightly. In such case, there is no direct relationship between the evaluation and a personal gain the investigator may anticipate. Nevertheless, previously received payments could conceivably influence the researcher’s opinion; therefore, they must be regarded as a potential conflict of interest and should be disclosed.
Indirect: An author is being considered for a research grant and publication of an article favorable to the company reviewing the grant may influence the award.
Explanation and enforcement of authorship disclosure. It is the editors’ responsibility to establish the authorship criteria guidelines for their journals. Many biomedical journals operate according to the standards established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).26 It is the editors’ responsibility to publish their authorship criteria (in print and/or electronic media) and then to enforce these standards by collecting relevant documentation from authors. Collection can take place either at manuscript submission or at some point during the peer-review process, preferably prior to any commitment to accept and publish a study. An observational study by Bates et al27 suggests that, among 3 highly regarded biomedical publications, the effectiveness of authorship and contributorship policies varies.
Journals should require disclosure of all conflicts of interest from everyone involved in the publication process: editors, reviewers, editorial board members, editorial staff, and authors. The intent of disclosure is to allow others to make an informed decision about the existence and impact of potential conflicts of interest or bias, including the necessity for recusal or disqualification under extraordinary circumstances. Editors are better equipped to make informed decisions on potential biases if they have full knowledge of all the circumstances, and readers and reviewers have more information to interpret the work when there is a public disclosure. However, some argue that mandatory disclosure of actual or perceived conflicts does not allow a manuscript to be judged solely on its scientific merits and may introduce prejudice. Under what circumstances disclosure is needed and how it is handled varies among journals.
The ICMJE28 states: “Editors should publish this information if they believe it is important in judging the manuscript.” This approach gives the editor the discretion to decide whether the potential conflict is significant enough to reveal. Examples of disclosure forms and actual disclosures can be found in the Annals of Internal Medicine,g the American Society of Hematology’s journal Blood,h and the American Academy of Neurology’s journal Neurology.i
gAnnals of Internal Medicine conflict of interest information is available at: http://www.annals.org/site/shared/author_conflict.xhtml (Accessed March 9, 2012).
hBlood copyright transfer and conflict of interest disclosure form. Available at: http://bloodjournal.hematologylibrary.org/site/forms/copyright_transfer.xhtml (Accessed March 9, 2012).
iNeurology disclosure agreement form. Available at: http://www.neurology.org/misc/DisclosureFormDummyForRef.pdf (Accessed March 9, 2012).
Most metrics of scholarly performance, including the Journal Impact Factor (JIF), are based on citations to published articles. This may generate strong temptation to inappropriately increase citations, something that is referred to as citation manipulation or citation gaming.
Citation manipulation refers to any systematic practice that inappropriately pressures authors to cite material with the primary goal of boosting citation rates. The CSE considers all such practices unacceptable.
It should be stressed that some of the practices described above are only inappropriate if the additional citations requested do not add significantly to the scholarly content of the manuscript (i.e., the intent of the request is dubious). To alleviate such concerns, the CSE recommends that editors deal with such issues by clearly informing authors that they need not feel pressured to cite articles simply because they have been requested to do so, especially if the request does not appear to have scientific merit.
Anybody involved in the peer-review process can become a party to citation manipulation. Therefore, it is every participant’s responsibility to judge how reasonable such requests are. Stakeholders in the peer-review and editorial process should be alerted to citation manipulation and bring concerns to the attention of the editor, publisher, or other accountable party. Journals may also decide to publish a policy statement condemning citation manipulation practices. It should be noted that most impact factor formulas monitor when self-citation by a journal reaches an unacceptable level. Although such behavior may result in a short-term gain, the strategy may not work in the long-term.
The editor-in-chief or principal editor should define the terms and roles of the editors and editorial board that are appointed by and report to him or her. As mentioned above, the editor-in-chief should require disclosure of any conflicts of interest. Some journals request potential editors to identify service on other publication boards and may consider an editor’s role in the editorial and financial decisions of a competing publication inappropriate.
The editor-in-chief or principal editor should ensure that the journal’s editors and editorial board are identified in the journal masthead; receive the necessary training and oversight to adequately perform editorial functions; and actively perform their responsibilities, such as assigning reviewers or reviewing manuscripts and advising on policy considerations.
Editors are responsible for monitoring the turnaround time for every publishing stage from manuscript receipt to publication or rejection. Processing data and evaluating trends can help editors scrutinize acceptance and rejection rates of specific types of manuscripts, manage the inventory/backlog of accepted manuscripts, track reviewers’ and editors’ performance, and assess staffing needs.
Some journals publish annual editorial audits,j which include the total number of manuscripts submitted, acceptance rates of solicited and unsolicited manuscripts, and the average manuscript turnaround time. Many journals follow the practice of listing the dates of manuscript receipt and acceptance as part of the published article. This information helps answer questions from readers and potential authors about how long it will take to see their manuscript in print. The editor’s responsibility for timeliness extends to providing prompt responses and decisions for all journal-related activities, including responses to authors’ queries.
jAn example of an editorial audit is available at: http://www.conbio.org/Publications/Newsletter/Archives/2008-8-August/newsl013.cfm (Accessed March 9, 2012).
Editors have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the literature by publishing errata or corrections identifying anything of significance, retractions, and expressions of concern as quickly as possible (see section 3.5). When appropriate, they should provide a forum (e.g., letters to the editors) for offering responsible alternative opinions.
Errors in published articles require a published correction or erratum. These corrections should be made in such a way that secondary publication services, such as PubMed, will identify them and associate them with the original publication. Many online journals provide a direct link between the original article and the correction published later.
Editors should monitor the number and types of errors that appear in their journals. This review can be done simultaneously with the evaluation of other journal statistics. Editors should take corrective measures when there is evidence of an increase in preventable errors.
Editors are responsible for promoting the integrity of the literature and fostering good publication practices. Journals should develop and define authorship or contributorship criteria to minimize confusion about expectations (see section 2.2). Authorship disputes persist despite the current common efforts to make authorship or contributorship transparent. Examples include the “honorary” listing of a person who does not meet authorship criteria, submission of a manuscript without the knowledge or consent of an author/contributor, misrepresentation of a contribution, and an ordering of the byline that indicates a greater level of participation in the research than is warranted. A journal’s Instructions for Authors should define the criteria for authorship or contributorship, but editorial practices should be in place to consistently handle authorship disputes. For example, an individual may contact the editor with a complaint about not being included in the author byline of a submitted manuscript despite having met authorship criteria. In this case, the editor should query the corresponding author regarding the claim. Depending on the response, the journal may need to turn the investigation of the complaint over to the institution(s) where the work reported in the manuscript was done. In most cases, the journal will not have enough information to make a judgment regarding the allegation. Consideration of the manuscript may have to be postponed pending resolution of the complaint. Authorship abuses may be driven by some factors that are beyond the role of the editor (tenure decisions, funding, awards, or competition among authors). Editors, however, should collaborate with research institutions and other organizations to determine why authorship disputes continue to arise and to work toward solutions.37-42 Sample correspondence related to this topic is available on the CSE website.17
Despite editors’ best efforts to solicit fair and unbiased reviews to evaluate manuscripts fairly, and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the journal and its readers, authors may still want to challenge editorial decisions. Editors should have a policy in place to address complaints and help resolve these issues, although it is not easy to explain to an author that the research reported in his or her manuscript does not warrant publication in comparison with the many others under consideration.
Concerns of possible scientific misconduct are usually expressed first to the editors of a journal about a manuscript that is under consideration or has already been published. Journals should develop a consistent policy to encourage the reporting of indications of misconduct, for evaluating the allegations, and for handling the findings. Journals should include a general statement in their Instructions for Authors that allegations of misconduct will be pursued. Although the editor is not solely responsible for monitoring possible failure to meet legal or ethical research and publication standards, it is within his or her responsibilities to create and enforce policies that encourage good publication practices.43 Sample correspondence related to this topic is available on the CSE website.17 When allegations and/or findings of misconduct are presented, the editor will be faced with some level of responsibility for investigating, judging, and/or penalizing the author for these lapses. The Council of Science Editors recommends that each journal articulates a specific policy on the editor’s responsibility for notifying an author’s institution of failure to comply with the journal’s ethical standards. Additionally, the editor and the publisher have a responsibility to inform readers and secondary services of work formally proven to be plagiarized, fabricated, or falsified.44-47 Sample correspondence related to this topic is available on the CSE website.17