Journal development in action: planning and managing editor changes

How collaboration and thinking ahead can lead to smooth editorial handovers

Succession planning image

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Heraclitus once told us that "nothing is permanent except change". Change is important, and there is no exception in the world of academic journals. We need new ideas to challenge how we do things and to drive our journals and fields of research forward. Change within journals often comes from an Editor-in-Chief stepping down and a new one coming on board. Changeover of editors is a positive and valuable development for a journal. It gives researchers the opportunity to move into a leadership role and to play their part in shaping the field. We need new editors to re-evaluate editorial policies, question workflows and develop the scope and focus of the journal. They also serve to bring together communities. Research needs journal editors to have different ideas from one another, to pursue new initiatives and ventures to push the field further. Succession planning can be challenging, but it can also be a rewarding process for all parties. These tips might help make the journey a little smoother.

Working together

A collaborative approach between the publisher and the outgoing editor is usually the most rounded and productive means of identifying the next journal editor(s). How that collaboration is managed will be different across journals, but some of the key areas where we can work together are: writing the advert/description for the role, assessing applications, deciding a shortlist, and managing the transition period and handover to new editor(s). The tools available to publishers can be valuable throughout the process, for example using Scopus to identify top researchers, or analysing review data from Editorial Board members.  In addition publishers can also draw on a wealth of experience of managing editor changes for different journals. Some journals may use a search panel which might include other editors, Editorial Board members, society members or other actors in the scientific community. It can take a long time to identify the right person for an editor role and therefore the succession process may be discussed and started a number of years before the end of an editor’s agreement.

Inside or outside

As with most roles, there is the option to recruit from within (the journal) or to bring someone in who isn’t already formally associated with the journal. We would advocate a mixture of these two approaches. Fostering and developing the editorial skills of board members can lead to recruitment possibilities for a handling editor role and potentially an Editor-in-Chief position. When recruiting members of the Editorial Board, assessing their reviews and contribution, it is worth considering if they would make a good editor one day. The Editorial Board is the ideal venue to ensure that a journal is diverse in representation not only of the different subject areas within the scope but additionally in terms of gender, background, race and ethnicity etc. Those who are associated with the journal already will likely have a deeper understanding of the scope and the kinds of papers the journal receives. Conversely those from outside may have a fresh perspective on how the journal could be developed.

Publically posting the role

Although not all journals find it the norm to post job adverts for editor roles publically, we would encourage this practice. A public advert, usually on the journal homepage, ensures that the process is inclusive and transparent. The editor, publisher and others will likely identify people who would be particularly well suited to the role and they can be encouraged to apply or show their interest.  Gender decoders such as can be used to ensure that job postings are gender neutral. If there is an honorarium offered for the role this should be made explicit in the advert (not necessarily the amount) as well as the contract start and end dates. The commitment that the role will need should be stated clearly and truthfully. An editorial role should only be undertaken with a full understanding of what the time commitment will be.

Diversity is key

All editor shortlists should include both male and female candidates; Elsevier’s recent “Gender in the Global Research Landscape” report highlights some of the issues in this arena. Try to be aware of any bias that may be influencing you or others making shortlist decisions: this recent article gives an insight into tackling unconscious bias. There are a number of different approaches to deciding on the final candidate from your shortlist. Some journals conduct formal interviews, others may ask for vision statements or development plans for moving the journal forward. Though the ultimate responsibility for selecting and appointing the new editor is usually that of the publisher; the input and recommendations of the outgoing editor(s) will be invaluable in this process.

Handing over

A smooth editorial transition is important, not only for the other journal editors and the Editorial Board, but for authors and reviewers within the wider academic community. The aim is to avoid delays in assigning and handling manuscripts, piling pressure on the outgoing editor to finish up handling papers and on the incoming editor to bring on associate editors and learn a new editorial system in a short amount of time. It is best practice to have a period of overlap between outgoing and incoming editor to ensure consistency is maintained in the journal. How long this is will depend on the journal: it may be a month to a year. Three months is usually a good timeframe for the incoming editor to come on board before the outgoing editor formally steps down.

Whatever the context and needs of your journal, a collaborative and inclusive approach should ensure that you identify and appoint a suitable replacement and that you both benefit from the handover process.


Written by

Jennifer Wood

Written by

Jennifer Wood

Based in London, Jennifer Wood is Senior Publisher of the food science journals portfolio. After graduating in biomedical science at Cardiff University, she worked at BioMed Central developing their microbiology journals and at Mark Allen Group as in-house editor of two nursing journals, before coming to Elsevier in 2015. At Elsevier she has worked on the developmental psychology and food science journals.


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