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Differences between journal editors and peer reviewers

The peer review process for academic journals comprises a veritable universe of stakeholders: authors, publishers and leadership of professional societies that have their own publications and readership. No two roles are more fundamental, however, than that of journal editors and peer reviewers. 

Reviewers have often been described as the "indispensable heart" or "engine" of the peer review process. Editors, on the other hand, have been described in naval terms, as the "captains" (or even "admirals") of the publication process.

But what do those terms mean? What are the roles and duties of editors (and specifically, the Editor in Chief [EIC]), and how are those different from reviewers?

What Journal Editors Do

To paraphrase Phil Davis, publishing consultant and authority in science communication:

If the function of an academic journal is to gather, evaluate, and publish quality data within its particular market, then the role of the editor is simply to make this process happen.

In truth, there is nothing "simple" about the process; just describing what EICs do is daunting. Three broad categories, as described below, will help us (with some crossover between each category).

Leadership and accountability

Editors grasp the big picture. Theirs is the 30,000-foot view of not only their journal, but also their academic specialty and related industries.

EICs select and then populate the review panels and editorial boards of their journals. After selection, EICs monitor and evaluate the performance of their chosen people. When needed, they deactivate reviewers and editorial board members.

EICs serve as their journal's chief customer service officer, fielding complaints and working through mistakes that occur. With serious problems, the EIC takes the heat. They are responsible for implementing policies to keep up with social trends and movements in academia in general (such as the emerging call for greater inclusion and diversity).

Regarding the peer review process, EICs serve as the final authority for all content. They choose which submissions to accept and which to reject. Often, many good submissions which sail through peer review are rejected. Why? Because the EIC so determines (usually, for exceptionally good yet complex reasons).

Some EICs have likened their role to the manifestation of their publication, at least when facing forward to the outside world:

"Le Journal c’est moi." (The Journal is me.)

As with U.S. President Harry S. Truman, so with the EIC: "the buck stops here."

In recent years, academic publishing has begun to see great value in exploring, expressing and eventually harnessing the multiplicity of identities present in a wide and diverse authorship, editorial boards and reviewer panels. Women, people of colour, contributions from "second- and third-tier" institutions and developing nations, and authors whose native language is not English are all increasingly welcome to participate in the academic publishing enterprise. The EICs are leading the way in this revolutionary blooming of identity and diversity.

Vision and direction for the journal, literature and specialty

EICs provide instrumental vision and direction not only for their own publication(s), but for their broader specialty as well. Their decisions can be politically charged, change careers and make or break alliances. What they publish directly shapes the literature and practice of a field.

EICs must not only see the forest, but also focus on the individual trees. Often an EIC will immerse him/herself in the granular details of the review process. Many EICs, even of large journals that receive thousands of submissions a year, will personally assign every submission to reviewers. As such, they are the "traffickers in chief". And all EICs hand select and place every article in every issue.

Marketing/public face of the journal

When a journal publishes a seminal article, the EIC plays chief spokesperson and representative to an inquiring world. If an article is discredited (with a possibility being retraction), the EIC must serve publicly to put out any fires and attend to damage control. They represent the journal as chief statesman/woman and ambassador, operating alternately as "cheerleader in chief" or "fixer in chief" for their publication.

What Peer Reviewers Do

As the EIC possesses the macro view, the peer reviewer focuses necessarily on the micro view. A reviewer's glory and joy are to further the scientific process by a thorough judging of the merits of submissions, one by one. Briefly, they have two areas of responsibility, as described below.

Responsibility towards authors

Reviewers provide written, unbiased, well-documented and constructive feedback in a timely manner on the merits of submissions. They advocate for authors, seeking to help them improve their submissions specifically, and overall scientific or academic capability more generally.

Reviewers comment on the clarity and effectiveness of writing of each submission, and often provide insight for improvements. Reviewers strive to determine the essence of papers assigned to them, regardless of the institution, country of origin or initial lack of polish of the language used. If a reviewer sees value and promise in a paper, she or he will champion its eventual publication because they know that quality research comes from the most diverse of sources. They avoid personal comments and criticism. And above all, they maintain confidentiality throughout the process.

Responsibility towards editors

Towards editors, reviewers communicate any conflicts of interest for papers assigned to them. They provide timely review according to the guidelines given by the EIC, which may be rigorous.

Reviewers will recuse themselves from reviewing papers for which they have conflicts of interest (financial, academic or personal), or for papers outside their area of expertise. In such cases, reviewers can recommend alternates.

In addition to determining the merits of submissions, they also keep an eye on potential ethical concerns raised during their review, as well as remaining alert for potential concerns about scientific misconduct.

End note

Understanding of the difference between journal editors and reviewers will help you successfully navigate the process of academic publishing.


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