For several years at least, there has been a lively discussion on the future of scientific journals as a platform for scientific publication, and indicators of the impact of researchers themselves. This multi-faceted discussion, taking place under the growing influence of the Open Access movement, has touched new aspects. One of them is the role of the editor in chief and of editors in general throughout the process of scientific publishing.
The question is simple and straightforward: does a scientific journal need editors? At first sight this question seems to be completely unfounded. It is hard to imagine running a journal without an “editorial team”, who, in this case, exercise care over the quality of published works and decide what should be published and what should not. However, in the era of the digital revolution and the development of Open Access, which is based on the idea of openness of scientific papers, this question is posed more than often.
Why does a journal need editors?
The answer to this question seems obvious. The current system of scientific publications requires that researchers publish in journals with a high impact factor, which results, among other things, in applying pressure on to the quality of published works. The quality is checked in the process of peer review as well as through the selection of relevant content, and this is carried out by the editors. However, the current system is slowly being challenged by the new paradigm of the digital flow of information and freedom of access. Consequently, the scope and role of editors are changing.
Indirectly, this is explained by Phil Davis in the article published in Scholarly Kitchen under the title “Have Journal Editors Become Anachronisms?” where he comments on the role of the journal and its editors. Describing the current situation from the perspective of the system, the authors and the readers, Phil Davis comes to the conclusion that the journal and editors together are best seen as a model of quality signalization. In simple terms, both for authors who want to be read, as well as for readers who may have a problem with finding valuable content, a journal is a guidepost and editors decide on the quality and usefulness of this guidepost.
“If we view journals as mediators of quality signals in a crowded information space — a space that is getting a little more crowded each year — the future of the journal presents many more opportunities than when it is seen as a mechanism to control the distribution of scientific research.”
The issue of quality is the cornerstone of the debate on the role of journals and editors. A professional publication has to guarantee a high level of published content. It is hard to argue with that. Each year a large number of scientific articles from various disciplines are created. Quality and journal impact factor is determined on the basis of papers that were accepted for publication. At some point, their level of scientificity must be verified.
There is another issue of a structural nature. The current system of publishing scientific articles through journals and benefits to researchers in the form of, for example, impact factor, simply excludes the possibility of a viable journal without editors.
Does Open Access need editors?
The question of the role of editors in the process of publishing scientific articles takes on a whole new perspective in the context of Open Access. The question arises whether, in the face of open access to scientific papers and unfettered flow of information, the role of the editors as the guardians of quality does not lose its meaning?
This question can be asked in the context of the overarching objective of OA, which is free access to scientific content. In the traditional model of publishing an author must rely on the assessment of the editor. But no one can guarantee that this evaluation will be objective, free from errors or just that the article will not be published due to external factors, such as lack of space. In the case of Open Access, and especially of Green OA, the author may change the rules of the game. Instead of a pre-publication review, the author can self-publish and bet on a post-publication review, one verified by the readers. In this model, proposed by David Colquhoun, the traditionally understood role of editors has changed. As the author wrote:
“There is an alternative: publish your paper yourself on the web and open the comments. This sort of post-publication review would reduce costs enormously, and the results would be open for anyone to read without paying. It would also destroy the hegemony of half a dozen high-status journals.”
Green OA therefore may allow you to bypass the editorial step. But what about OA journals that replicate the verification model of the current publishing system? Can we imagine OA journals without editors? To a certain extent it is possible. If, in the end, articles published in OA journals are also freely available, it is possible to apply the same post-publication review principle. Especially since there are cases in which the quality of the journal and the editors’ work can be questioned. Just look at the list of predatory journals created by Beall or a case where an OA journal was willing to charge a fee for a false article, one that the editor-in-chief had not even seen.
Under the assumption that the scientific community should verify the work of their colleagues –confirm or refute them, and it is their job to do that, giving free access to published articles we allow the opportunity for this type of verification. After all, editors are recruited from the same scientific community.
Opinions of Journal Editors
It is difficult to consider the issue of the role of Journal Editors in OA journals without reference to their opinion on the subject. That is why I asked some JEs to answer the following question: Do OA journals need editors or not, and why? (What is the role of JEs in OA journals?). Here are the answers.
Dr. Melissa S. Bowlin; Journal Editor of Animal Migration
Open access journals desperately need editors. The main reason is that even an open access journal must have its articles peer-reviewed, and someone needs to organize that. Although there are problems with the current peer-review system, we do need a system with which to moderate science. Until someone comes up with a better system, we’re stuck with peer-review.
Peer review requires someone to look over the comments by the reviewers and make recommendations for publication based on those comments. Moreover, it sometimes requires an individual to ignore a review that happens to be way off-base or not particularly constructive. That individual, by definition, is an editor–someone who knows the field well and has a vision for the journal. Only they can interpret reviewers’ comments in light of that vision.
Editors also give journals a sense of credibility. Authors, reviewers and readers can be certain that someone has made certain that the peer review process has been completed fairly and that someone who is well-known in the field has judged the manuscript to be appropriate for the journal.
Professor Genhua Pan; Journal Editor of Graphene Spintronics and Nanostructures
I think the central roles of a Journal Editor include the following:
- Seeking high quality submission of papers for the journal from the relevant research communities
- Managing the peer review process for submitted papers: finding the required number of reviewers, getting the reviewers report back in a specified time frame, quality control of the peer review reports and bridging the communications of the authors and reviewers
- Ensure the timely publication of the accepted papers
- Promoting the journal to the scientific community.
These are required for any journal whether open access or not.
Professor Manuel Ritoré
OA journals needs editors to supervise the peer-review of papers submitted to the journal, as in classical subscription journals. The role of the Journal Editor is the same one as in non-OA journals.
Dr. Eric Jacques Bernhard; Journal Editor of Tumor Microenvironment and Therapy
In response to your query I believe at this time that the short answer is a definite yes. The reasons are:
- The Editor and editorial board bring experience in the field and credibility to the journal.
- The Editor is often tasked with establishing and promoting the journal.
- The Editor makes a first-pass decision regarding submission suitability, and the final pass review of all manuscripts, along with the many tasks in-between.
The literature is already quite cluttered with reports of limited impact and some of low quality. Having an open publication with feedback from readers would only make the problem worse, and there are reports that should not be published.
Dr. Neil Youngson, Journal Editor of Non-Genetic Inheritance
I do think that open access journals benefit from having editors. The editor is a useful third contributor to the publishing process along with the author and reviewer. I thought about how a journal would be without an editor. It could be argued that the quality control of plagiarism detection, design and layout advice, and language editing to improve readability could be automated or performed by production (e.g. language and typesetting) staff. However, an editor also provides the author suggestions on how to improve a manuscript’s scientific content, and suitability for the intended readership, be that an expert or less-informed audience. These tasks require a high level of familiarity with the area of study. This need is especially strong in specialised journals compared to those with a more general scope. The editor’s expertise in the field can also be used to identify ‘hot’ current trends, or areas that deserve increased coverage. The editors are of course ideally placed to organise a special issues to meet the need of the field. This role increases the usefulness of the journal for researchers in a field.
A final advantage of an editor over journal staff is that they share most of the same stresses (grant applications, teaching loads, experimental frustrations and aspirations) as the authors and that can lead to the authors being more favourable towards journal requests.
Dr. Jagmeet S. Kanwal, Journal Editor of Neuroscience of Decision Making
The role of a Journal Editor (JE) for open access (OA) journals is like that of a conductor of an orchestra. In a traditional setting, the audience hears the music, sees the musicians playing, and follows, even if only from behind, the sometimes-smooth and sometimes-jerky movements of the crisply dressed conductor. With the popularity of digital music, this vision is left to the listener’s imagination, while the music streams loud and clear right into the ear canals and literally inside the head. Yet, the conductor continues to play an important role in creating the music.
So too, the JE of an OA journal will continue to create content even if the audience feast their eyes only on the rapidly and digitally accessible full text reports of published findings that are instantly downloaded into one’s personal library. Gone are the days when a prospective reader held a heavy, bound journal in their hands, feeling the texture and smell of each slowly turned page. Even prospective authors pay less attention to the names of members of the Editorial Board, the Review and Section Editors or even the JE than they do about the speed and agility with which a manuscript can be uploaded into virtual space. This is not because editorial board members are any less reputable than before but because of the interdisciplinary nature of many of the OA journals and the need for speed to publish. Nevertheless, the deeply embedded processes of creating content and knowledge, of attributing credit and sharing knowledge with others has not dramatically changed. At least for scientific journals, a JE’s knowledge base and understanding of the state-of-the-field and published material is critical. Even in OA journals, the scientific content needs to follow a theme and the JE can play an important role in charting a path for the continued dissemination of cutting edge research. This function is frequently provided by the JE by inviting articles, opinions and appropriate reviewer commentary.
The most important component of the publication process is the authoring and reviewing of original research articles. Traditionally, JEs facilitate and even drive this process. In OA journals, many aspects of this process are facilitated by the available technology and access to the Internet. As technology advances, there is a possibility that more and more of the functions of a JE will become automated. Establishment of new databases will allow automated selection of reviewers and availability of new software will highlight problems with language in an article as is already used to detect plagiarism, e.g. using iThenticate. These facilities will also lead to a change in the conventional role of the Editor. The JE’s role will become more of a promoter of the journal and its research domain via blogs and tweets. Overseeing timely error-free functioning of the process of publication, however, will remain critical as will the need for the human connection and interactions.
A fully automated publication mechanism, without any JEs, has the potential to turn the publication process into a runaway train with identity-less passengers embarking on it just for the ride, or a performance where music-like sounds are heard but there is no symphony to depart with.
So, do OA journals need editors? Looking at the opinions of Journal Editors, the conclusion is decisive: Yes. The tasks of editors and their role in OA journals are clearly presented and it is difficult to imagine a journal that would not have an editorial board. But does this mean that OA journals cannot exist without editors?
This is in fact a question about the future development of Open Access, as well as of OA journals. It is difficult to say at this point what shape this movement will take. OA journals are to some extent at a crossroads. On the one hand, they are rooted in the current publishing model based on the traditionally edited and published journals, which is still dominant. On the other, they offer a new quality, not just for scientists but also for a more general audience. However, there are already new, experimental forms, like the mega-journals, which obliterate current boundaries between disciplines or journals, and that are in essence portals or blogs. It is not too hard to imagine a situation in which OA journals will absorb some of the characteristics of Green OA, and that the journal-like mode will be reduced to some kind of filter, like a search engine on the Internet. Will OA journals in the present, “transitional” form stay as they are, or continue to change? And how will those changes affect the roles of editors? Will they even still be needed?