Talking to the media

Who is responsible?

"My first thought is usually whether it is even appropriate for me to respond on behalf of the editor.  The answer here, of course, is that it depends."

Authors, editors, Elsevier…we all love the media when they want to write a positive, straightforward story about a new research finding that promotes a particular journal.

As an editor, you are probably proud of your role in deciding to publish the article, and welcome any corresponding increase in article submissions, citations and journal reputation that the added attention brings. Those calls from the media are always a pleasure to take and are usually redirected to the article authors who are best placed to answer questions about their research.

But what about when the media focus on something that went wrong? Or an issue that is complicated and not likely to reflect favorably on your journal?  Those calls usually pertain to retractions and publishing ethics, and more often than not they go to editors. They’re not as much fun. Some of those calls come straight to me at Elsevier, and whether or not they’re fun isn’t my concern. My first thought is usually whether it is even appropriate for me to respond on behalf of the editor. The answer here, of course, is that it depends.

Our approach

We begin with the belief that while the publisher is responsible for setting the aims and scope of a particular journal, editors are responsible for the journal’s contents. That means you are accountable for the vast majority of articles that don’t raise any particular questions of impropriety, but it also means you are accountable for the very rare articles that do. So, when a reporter is looking for further information on how a journal handled a particular paper, the journal’s editor is the primary, authoritative source.

We at Elsevier are here, however, to support our editors, and my team is happy to lend that support when it comes to managing media inquiries. There are also situations where we recommend that you pass the media inquiry to us to handle (always in tandem with the publishers). Here are some of the questions we ask when deciding who the appropriate person is to respond.

  • Is it an ongoing investigation? Although we know you would probably provide the same response that we are likely to, i.e. “it would be inappropriate for me to discuss an investigation that hasn’t been concluded”, these inquiries are still best referred to Elsevier.
  • Was Elsevier a key contributor to the decision? Retractions, for example, are usually initiated by the authors, though sometimes by editors without the author’s consent. In either case, Elsevier has a retractions committee that approves each editorial decision to retract. However, when it comes to communicating that decision to the journal’s community of authors, in most cases it is the authoritative voice of the editor they want to hear.
  • Are there any legal implications to responding? Sometimes, in highly charged cases, there could be either the existence, or threat, of legal action. These cases are always best referred to Elsevier so we can assume liability.
  • Does the issue span more than one journal? For example, a wide range of titles were affected by the recent ‘faking’ of reviewer identities in EES, our editorial submission system. In these types of cases, any media inquiries an editor receives should be referred to Elsevier, even if the question is about a paper in that editor’s journal.

Our best advice would be that you should always talk to your publishing contact about the inquiry; together you can decide whether or not Elsevier’s corporate media relations team should be involved. We can work together to make sure Elsevier, you as the editor, the reporters and the journal community at large are best served by receiving the most accurate information from the most appropriate source.

*View Reller’s previous Editors’ Update article, Watching Retraction Watch, to discover what a new breed of journalist means for transparency and public trust in science.

Author biography

Tom RellerTom Reller
Reller (@TomReller) leads a global team of media, social and web communicators. Together, they work to build on Elsevier's reputation by promoting the company's numerous contributions to the health and science communities. Reller directs strategy, execution and problem-solving for external corporate communications, including media relations, issues management and policy communications, and acts as a central communications counsel and resource for Elsevier senior management. Additionally, he develops and nurtures external corporate/institutional relationships that broaden Elsevier's influence and generate good will, including partnerships developed through The Elsevier Foundation.

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