How do publishers choose editors, and how do they work together?
A senior publisher at Elsevier describes the role and importance of a good journal editor
By Laura Hassink Posted on 1 July 2013
As Senior VP of Physical Sciences at Elsevier, Laura Hassink oversees the journal program of nearly 700 journals in all areas of physical sciences. including physics, mathematics, chemistry, energy, computer science and environmental sciences. She has been with Elsevier for 17 years, holding publishing positions across subject areas and in roles including strategy, business development and journal services. She holds a master's degree in economics from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and a bachelor's degree in business administration from Nyenrode University in the Netherlands.
The journal editor plays a central role in stewarding peer review at a journal. Publishers recruit, train and compensate editors and support them with technology, staff and advice to help manage the process of managing a peer review journal.
Selecting a good editor
Editors play a key role on our journals: they put their reputation and name to the journal, they help publishers steer the strategic direction of the journal and they oversee the journal's peer-review process. So one of the biggest responsibilities of a publisher is to invest the time and effort necessary to appoint the right editors.
Before we start the recruitment process for an editor, we think through what we want to achieve: "What is best for the journal, and what is best for the community that journal serves?"
If the journal and its field are expanding, it needs an editor who can manage the growth. If the journal is no longer serving the needs of its community, it requires an editor who can implement and execute change. In both cases, we work to identify somebody who, working with the publisher, is ready and able to help define a vision for the journal and who has the authority within his or her field to execute that vision.
The role of the editor
Peer reviewers may make a recommendation about an article, but it is the editor who has the ultimate responsibility to make a final decision on whether to accept or reject an article for publication in a journal.
An editor does not have to be the leading scientist in the field, though many are, and in every case , he or she will have an impressive academic career. Even more important, a great editor is characterized by excellent communication skills, a clear vision and commitment to the field, the ability to work in a team, and visibility and respect in the community. Great editors are also independent thinkers who are not afraid of making difficult decisions.
Since being an editor calls for a huge breadth of skills, in order to find the right people, the publishers who recruit and support them need to have in-depth knowledge and an extensive network in the field. A publisher will spend a considerable amount of time searching for the right editor, speaking to many people in the field, consulting with the previous editor and editorial board, and doing extensive desk research before making an appointment. At Elsevier, we don't routinely advertise positions, although that does happen from time to time.
Editors are the public face of the journal, so it's crucial to have the right editor on each journal. In order to have a mutual understanding of roles, we have an agreement with each editor laying out their responsibilities and ours as publisher.
How publishers and editors work together
After an editor is appointed, a significant part of the publisher's job is then devoted to working closely with him or her. The editor and publisher work in tandem to execute the plan that was set for the journal. The publisher provides the editors with tools and training to assist them in their important role.
Most editors have active and often demanding careers in academia. A small number may be employed full-time on the staff of the publishing house, but most serve the journal on a part-time basis under the terms of an agreement and with the full approval of their employer, usually an academic institution. Although editors are not employed by publishers, we compensate them for their commitment of time and effort in managing the journal (as long as this is permitted by their employer).
Journals — and journal editors — are a reflection of their communities
The needs and wants of any scientific discipline are likely to change over time, and the journal needs to anticipate and adapt to those changing requirements. Sometimes that means changes are required in the editorial and publishing team to reflect new subject orientation or expertise.
In fields undergoing rapid change, change in editors may happen more frequently. While in the past, editors were sometimes appointed for life, we now appoint editors for a fixed term, normally three or five. This duration is closer to the practice of many society journals and allows a wider range of academics, including those earlier on in their career, to take on the editor role, which is an important experience in an academic career. In some cases, the contract may be extended, but as a matter of practice our editors generally do not serve for more than 10 years.
While editors normally serve for a set term, some may step down mid-term for their own understandable personal and professional reasons. When an editor decides to move on, he or she will often help the publisher in succession planning. In other cases, it is the publisher's responsibility to ask an editor to step down in the interests of the journal, sometimes in consultation with members of the journal community. This may happen for a variety of reasons, but it is always difficult. Editors rightly feel great personal responsibility for the journal and have a strong connection to it. But in some cases, they are no longer able to carry out the role, for a wide range of reasons.
Difficult decisions like these are an essential part of the publisher's responsibility for the proper running of a journal and in the best interest of authors. There are many points of decision making like this in the course of managing a journal that is successful in contributing to its community. In each instance, we have found that open and honest discussion and feedback are essential and generally produce a common understanding and outcome that is in the best interest of authors, the journal and the community.