Have journal editors become paper pushers?

The author examines how many researchers feel the professional obligation to review and evaluate papers submitted by peers, while others do not

By Gordon G. Gallup, Jr.

I have served in a variety of editorial capacities. I have been a journal editor, an associate editor, an editorial board member, a reviewer, and an author. Based on my experience I am convinced it has increasingly become the case that some journal editors are publishing papers they often have not read and sadly, know little about.

When it comes to making editorial decisions, a growing number of editors are deferring to reviewers. I was asked to review a paper recently for a fairly prominent, high impact journal. Following the initial round of reviews the editor returned the paper and the reviews to the author without rendering a decision. Once the manuscript had been revised and resubmitted, it was sent back to the reviewers for further evaluation. Because the author was not willing to acknowledge some of the problems with his paper and was reluctant to take the necessary steps to address these issues, this lead to a succession of revisions. In the process it became clear that the editor felt his job was simply to serve as a conduit for the transmission of correspondence back and forth between the author and the reviewers. Upon receiving the fourth revision I wrote back to the editor declining to review the paper again, and suggested that perhaps it was time for him to read the paper and the reviews, and render his own judgment about the merits (or lack thereof) of the paper. The editor did not reply.

This is not an isolated instance. Like proverbial deans, some editors have taken to counting rather than reading, i.e., they simply tally up the number of positive and negative reviews. On occasion, authors and reviewers can have strongly held conflicting and even irreconcilable differences. Because of such deadlocks, I know people who have been forced to withdraw their papers because the editor was unwilling to intervene and take a stand. Being an editor is not a popularity contest. Editors need to make decisions that may not always be in the best interests of authors or reviewers, but rather in the best interests of the discipline. When I was an editor I rejected several papers that were unanimously endorsed by the reviewers, and I accepted one paper that met with uniform rejection by the reviewers. Editors should take responsibility for papers that appear in their journals. Editors have an obligation to publish papers that are rigorously reviewed, edited, and carefully evaluated. Reviewers are an essential component of this process, but reviewers should not be empowered to make editorial decisions. Reviewers should only be advisory to editors.

Fortunately, many researchers feel a professional obligation to review and evaluate papers submitted by others for publication. In the past, many journals provided reviewers with feedback consisting of copies of the other reviews along with the editor�s decision letter to the author. In a growing number of instances, however, this is no longer the case, and perhaps as a consequence many reviews are not as thorough or constructive as they could be. Nor is it always the case that reviewers are given credit for their input. Journal editors used to acknowledge the important work of reviewers by publishing a list of reviewers in their journal on an issue by issue or annual basis, but unfortunately that practice has likewise become the exception rather than the rule.