Editor Roles

Editor Roles and Responsibilities

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

  • Providing guidelines to authors for preparing and submitting manuscripts
  • Providing a clear statement of the Journal’s policies on authorship criteria
  • Treating all authors with fairness, courtesy, objectivity, honesty, and transparency
  • Establishing and defining policies on conflicts of interest for all involved in the publication process, including editors, staff (e.g., editorial and sales), authors, and reviewers
  • Protecting the confidentiality of every author’s work
  • Establishing a system for effective and rapid peer review
  • Making editorial decisions with reasonable speed and communicating them in a clear and constructive manner
  • Being vigilant in avoiding the possibility of editors and/or referees delaying a manuscript for suspect reasons
  • Establishing clear guidelines for authors regarding acceptable practices for sharing experimental materials and information, particularly those required to replicate the research, before and after publication
  • Establishing a procedure for reconsidering editorial decisions
  • Describing, implementing, and regularly reviewing policies for handling ethical issues and allegations or findings of misconduct by authors and anyone involved in the peer review process
  • Informing authors of solicited manuscripts that the submission will be evaluated according to the journal’s standard procedures or outlining the decision-making process if it differs from those procedures
  • Developing mechanisms, in cooperation with the publisher, to ensure timely publication of accepted manuscripts
  • Clearly communicating all other editorial policies and standards


The following are examples of editorial policies and standards that editors may require of submitting authors:

  • State all sources of funding for research and include this information in the acknowledgment section of the submitted manuscript.
  • State in the manuscript, if appropriate, that the research protocol employed was approved by the relevant institutional review boards or ethics committees for human (including human cells or tissues) or animal experiments and that all human subjects provided appropriate informed consent.
  • Describe in the manuscript methods section how cultured cell lines were authenticated.
  • State in the manuscript, if appropriate, that regulations concerning the use of animals in research, teaching, and testing were adhered to. Governments, institutions, and professional organizations have statements about the use of animals in research. For examples, see the statements from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology,1the Canadian Council on Animal Care,2 and, for links to other informational sites, the University of California, San Francisco.3
  • When race/ethnicity is reported, define who determined race/ethnicity, whether the options were defined by the investigator and, if so, what they were and why race/ethnicity is considered important in the study.
  • List contributors who meet the journal’s criteria for authorship as authors and identify other support (e.g., statistical analysis or writers), with the contributor’s approval, in the acknowledgment section. Some journals may require and publish a statement of author contribution for each article. In addition, some journals have a requirement for original research (sometimes called a guarantor policy) that at least one author who had full access to all the data takes responsibility for its integrity and the accuracy of the data analysis. JAMApublishes these statements in the acknowledgment section. A description can be found in the JAMA Instructions for Authors.4
  • Reveal any potential conflicts of interest of each author either in the cover letter, manuscript, or disclosure form,ain accordance with the journal’s policy.
  • Include (usually written) permission from each individual identified as a source of personal communication or unpublished data.
  • Describe and provide copies of any similar works in process.
  • Provide copies of cited manuscripts that are submitted or in press.
  • Supply supporting manuscript data (e.g., actual data that were summarized in the manuscript) to the editor when requested or indicate where (site) the data can be found.
  • Share data or materials needed by other scientists to replicate the experiment. As an example, the Information for Authors of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)bstate: “To allow others to replicate and build on work published in PNAS, authors must make materials, data, and associated protocols available to readers. Authors must disclose upon submission of the manuscript any restrictions on the availability of materials or information.”
  • Cite and reference other relevant published work on which the submitted work is based.
  • Obtain permission from the copyright owner to use/reproduce copyrighted content (e.g., figures and tables) in the submitted manuscript, if applicable.c
  • Provide written permission from any potentially identifiable individuals referred to or shown in photographs in the manuscript.
  • Copyright transfer statement dor licensing agreement.e


aA sample disclosure form can be found at: https://jama.jamanetwork.com/data/ifora-forms/jama/auinst_crit.pdf (Accessed November 11, 2019).
bProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Information for authors. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/misc/iforc.shtml (Accessed November 11, 2019).
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 November 11, 2019).
dA sample copyright transfer agreement is available at: https://aacrjournals.org/sites/default/files/downloads/authors/copyright_form.pdf (Accessed November 11, 2019).
eA sample licensing agreement is available at: https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/book-authors-editors/book-authors-helpdesk/rights-permissions-and-licensing/19392 (Accessed November 11, 2019).

Some journals may also request or require adherence to the following trial registration or reporting guidelines:

  • Registration information for clinical trials f,5
  • Adherence to the CONSORT statement,6which helps standardize reports of randomized trials.
  • The use of the STARD flow diagram and checklist7for reporting diagnostic tests.
  • Compliance with MOOSE guidelines8for reporting meta-analyses and systematic reviews of observational studies.
  • Compliance with SAGER guidelines9or reporting of sex and gender information in study design, data analysis, results and interpretations of
  • Adherence to STROBE checklists10for the reporting cohort, case-control, and cross-sectional observational studies.
  • Adherence to QUOROM guidelines11for reporting meta-analyses and systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials.
  • Adherence to the MIAME standards12for reporting microarray experiments.
  • Adherence to any discipline-specific standards for data sharing and/or open access archiving.


fSome guidelines for registering clinical trials can be found at: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/292/11/1363 (Accessed November 11, 2019).

A resource that provides information about many of the reporting guidelines is the EQUATOR network.13


Peer Review

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

  • Assigning papers for review appropriate to each reviewer’s area of interest and expertise
  • Establishing a process for reviewers to ensure that they treat the manuscript as a confidential document and complete the review promptly
  • Informing reviewers that they are not allowed to make any use of the work described in the manuscript or to take advantage of the knowledge they gained by reviewing it before publication
  • Providing reviewers with written, explicit instructions on the journal’s expectations for the scope, content, quality, and timeliness of their reviews to promote thoughtful, fair, constructive, and informative critique of the submitted work
  • Requesting that reviewers identify any potential conflicts of interest and asking that they recuse themselves if they cannot provide an unbiased review
  • Allowing reviewers appropriate time to complete their reviews
  • Requesting reviews at a reasonable frequency that does not overtax any one reviewer
  • Finding ways to recognize the contributions of reviewers, for example, by publicly thanking them in the journal; providing letters that might be used in applications for academic promotion; offering professional education credits; or inviting them to serve on the editorial board of the journal

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

  • Evaluating all manuscripts considered for publication to make certain that each provides the evidence readers need to evaluate the authors’ conclusions and that authors’ conclusions reflect the evidence provided in the manuscript
  • Providing literature references and author contact information so interested readers may pursue further discourse
  • Identifying individual and group authorship clearly and developing processes to ensure that authorship criteria are met to the best of the editor’s knowledge
  • Requiring all authors to review and accept responsibility for the content of the final draft of each paper or for those areas to which they have contributed; this may involve signatures of all authors or of only the corresponding author on behalf of all authors. Some journals ask that one author be the guarantor and take responsibility for the work as a whole
  • Maintaining the journal’s internal integrity (e.g., correcting errors; clearly identifying and differentiating types of content, such as reports of original data, opinion pieces [e.g., editorials and letters to the editor], corrections/errata, retractions, supplemental data, and promotional material or advertising; and identifying published material with proper references)
  • Ensuring that all involved in the publication process understand that it is inappropriate to manipulate citations by, for example, demanding that authors cite papers in the journal14,15
  • Disclosing sources (e.g., authorship, journal ownership, and funding)
  • Creating mechanisms to determine if the journal is providing what readers need and want (e.g., reader surveys)
  • Disclosing all relevant potential conflicts of interest of those involved in considering a manuscript or affirming that none exist.16,17Sample correspondence related to this topic is available on the CSE website.18
  • Providing a mechanism for a further discussion on the scientific merits of a paper, such as by publishing letters to the editor, inviting commentaries, article blogs, or soliciting other forms of public discourse
  • Explicitly stating journal policies regarding ethics, embargo, submission and publication fees, and accessibility of content (freely available versus subscriber only)
  • Working with the publisher to attract the best manuscripts and research that will be of interest to readers
  • In some instances, a publisher may put pressure on an editor to publish a review or article in an effort to increase reprint sales. The editor has a responsibility to readers and the scientific community to resist such pressure19


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.

2.1.1 Editorial Freedom

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:

  • A journal mission statement
  • Written editorial priorities, objectives, and measures of success
  • Written editorial policies
  • A written job description, specifically detailing components of editorial freedom, including the degree of control regarding editorial content, acceptance and publication, and advertising content (a sample job description can be found in the Appendix to this section)
  • An editorial board, including associate, assistant, and topic editors, that is nominated or appointed by and reports to the editor
  • Sufficient support from the parent society, publisher, owner, or other journal sponsors in both funding and staff to carry out the journal’s stated mission
  • A mechanism for regular and objective evaluation of editor performance by the publisher or sponsoring organization based on predetermined and agreed-upon measures of success
  • Direct lines of communication with the publisher, owner, and any publication oversight body
  • A mechanism to prevent inappropriate influence on the editor by others and to handle conflicts in an objective and transparent manner with the goal of conflict resolution and maintenance of trust

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.

2.1.2 Confidentiality

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.25

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.

2.1.3 Conflicts of Interest

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.16,17 Sample correspondence related to this topic is available on the CSE website.18 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.

  • Personal conflicts. Editors should avoid making decisions on manuscripts that conflict with their own interest, such as those submitted from their department or by research collaborators, co-authors (in the case of collaborators or co-authors, some time period should be established, such as “for the past five years”), competitors, or those addressing an issue in which they stand to gain financially (e.g., stock in a company whose product is discussed in the article). If they may have a perceived or actual conflict of interest, editors should delegate handling of any decision to other editors with decision-making responsibility. Also, editors should submit their own manuscripts to the journal only if full masking of the process can be ensured (e.g., anonymity of the peer reviewers and lack of access to records of their own manuscript). Journals should have a procedure in place to guide the handling of submissions by editors, associate editors, editorial board members, and colleagues/students of any of these to allow for peer review and decision making that avoids any conflict of interest. Editorials and/or opinion pieces are an exception to this rule.
  • Financial conflicts. The most evident type of potential conflict of financial interest arises when an individual or organization may benefit financially from a decision to publish or to reject a manuscript. Financial conflicts may include salary, grants from a company with an interest in the results, honoraria, stock or equity interests, and intellectual property rights (patents, royalties, and copyrights). Some examples of potential direct and indirect financial conflicts of interest that should be avoided are given 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.

  • Nonfinancial conflicts. Other nonfinancial conflicts of interest should also be avoided or disclosed. Some of these include personal, political, academic, and religious conflicts. Examples are listed below.
    • A reviewer evaluating a manuscript reporting research results similar to results he or she is preparing to submit for publication might be tempted to delay the review until his or her manuscript is accepted or might be unduly influenced by the concepts or hypotheses in his or her ongoing and unpublished research.
    • A reviewer with strong feelings on a controversial topic might be partial to or biased against a manuscript on the topic and want to publish or reject it regardless of scientific merit.
    • An editor chairing a department might struggle to reach an objective decision about a manuscript submitted by a member of his or her faculty because of his or her commitment to the academic advancement of those researchers.


2.1.13 References

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