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Editor in the Spotlight - Richard Primack

December 8, 2011

"My most important strategy is to keep working steadily, so that the amount of work does not overwhelm me"

Richard Primack, Professor of Biology at Boston University, has been an Editor of Biological Conservationopens in new tab/window since 2004, and was appointed Editor-in-Chief in 2008.

Since its launch in 1968, Biological Conservation has become one of the leading journals in conservation. It publishes research in the discipline of conservation, spanning a diverse range of fields contributing to the biological, sociological, and economic dimensions of conservation and natural resource management.


Biological Conservation publishes 12 issues per year and is covered by the Thomson Reuters Journal Citation Reports for 2010 with an Impact Factor of 3.498. Last year, the journal received almost 1,300 submissions of which around 25% has eventually been published.

Richard Primack’s research group is investigating the impact of a warming climate on the flowering and leafing out times of plants and the spring arrival of birds in Massachusetts, Japan, and South Korea.

Q. What does being a journal editor mean to you and what do you find most rewarding about this role? A. Being a journal editor for Biological Conservation means being able to maintain the quality of research in my field, and being aware of the latest developments before they are published. I get my greatest satisfaction from helping new researchers to publish their first article. Also, I have enjoyed the friendly and cooperative interactions among the editors of our journal, all of whom work together to improve the journal.

Biological Conservation cover

Q. What are your biggest challenges as editor of Biological Conservation? How do you overcome these challenges and what extra support can Elsevier provide? A. The greatest challenge is the increasing complexity of the job, including managing editorial workloads, dealing with authors, ethical issues, and the diversity of articles. A further challenge is that the current online submission system (EES) is nearing the end of its lifetime, and is showing its age. At present, the Elsevier representatives provide excellent and rapid advice and assistance. However, an early release of the new online system will be of great benefit.

Q. In many areas of research, the growth of paper submissions is outpacing the growth of qualified reviewers and resulting in pressure on the peer-review system. What do you think the solution to this problem is and how do you see the peer-review process changing in the future? A. At Biological Conservation, we are experiencing a steady growth in the number of high-quality submissions. In order to reduce the workload on editors, we are appointing another handling editor. We have been able to find enough reviewers as long as we send out multiple invitations so I don’t see a serious problem with the present system. We are also increasing the percentage of submissions that we immediately reject without peer review. A recurring problem is what to do when handling editors do not want to accept new papers for a while, such as when they are sick, having a baby, travelling, on vacation, involved in intensive work projects, etc... At those times, I must give the other editors more work.

Q. We have observed a recent trend that researchers are increasingly accessing journal content online at an article level, i.e. the researcher digests content more frequently on an article basis rather than on a journal basis. How do you think this affects the visibility of your journal among authors? A. The whole process of online access is changing the way that people think about scientific literature, especially journals. In the short term, it means that people all over the world can have access to a wider range of journals, at the cost of a more narrow focus. The long-term consequences are less certain. One specific response we have made to the issue of online access to single articles is to make sure that articles state on the first page that they are part of a Special Issue or Special Section when that is appropriate.

Q. The move from print to electronic publishing has stimulated a broad discussion around alternative publishing models. These models are often termed as ‘open access’ and include:

  • Author Pays Journal

  • Sponsored Articles

  • Free access to archives

  • Open-archiving

Q. What is your opinion about the ‘open access movement’ and how does it affect your journal? A. This is something that we have not yet addressed, but we may have to soon. At present, Biological Conservation and the other leading journals in our field are still peer-reviewed, regular journals.

Q. Researchers need to demonstrate their research impact, and they are increasingly under pressure to publish articles in journals with high Impact Factors. How important is a journal’s Impact Factor to you, and do you see any developments in your community regarding other research quality measurements? A. Impact Factors have confirmed and quantified the ranking of journals that experienced researchers were already aware of. We did a study two years ago and discovered that large numbers of papers that we rejected were later published in journals with somewhat lower Impact Factors than our journals, but none were published in higher-ranked journals. So clearly Impact Factors are describing something that is affecting the publication process. Right now it is not clear which other quality measures would replace or compete with the increasingly important Impact Factor.

Q. As online publishing techniques develop, the traditional format of the online scientific article will change. At Elsevier we are experimenting with new online content features and functionality, we call this project the Article of the Future. How do you think changes like these will affect your work as an editor? A. I will have to see what this means. However, features that make an article easier to use, such as PowerPoint slides and colorful graphics that can be incorporated into presentations and lectures, would add value to the article.

Q. Do you use social media or online professional networking within your role as an editor or researcher? Has it helped you and, if so, how? A. I don’t use any social media or online networking at present. If it appears necessary or useful I will learn it, but so far it has not come up in any interactions. Currently, email, electronic bulletin boards, and electronic mailing lists work fine. I also still see great value in visiting other universities and scientific organizations and attending local, national and international meetings to meet new people in person and develop collaborations.

Q. How do you see your journal developing over the next 10 years? Do you see major shifts in the use of journals in the future? A. One of the most obvious developments is the ever increasing number of papers from China, India and other developing countries. At present, the quality of these papers is uneven, and the rejection rate is high. However, the quality will almost certainly improve over time. In response we will need to appoint new members of our editorial team from those countries.

Q. Do you have any tips or tricks to share with your fellow editors about being a journal editor? A. My most important strategy is to keep working steadily, so that the amount of work does not overwhelm me. I set aside a regular time to work on the journal at least once each week, because if I don’t send manuscripts to handling editors and authors in a timely manner, then they can’t do their jobs. For manuscripts that are hard to find reviewers for, I keep a small reserve of close colleagues, often in my own department, whom I can call on to provide reliable reviews on short notice. And finally, I always remember that authors are people, and I try to treat them the way I would want to be treated: fairly, clearly, and in a timely manner.

Previous Editors in the Spotlight

  • Jackie Ying

  • Karl Shell

  • Charles Sheppard

  • Erik Maskin