By N. Reed Dunnick, MD, ABR Associate Executive Director for Diagnostic Radiology
Having served as editor-in-chief of Academic Radiology for more than five years, I have come to appreciate the good and not-so-good aspects of the position. On the positive side, editors are the first to see the results of scientific studies. This helps them keep abreast of the field and better evaluate papers submitted to the journal. By seeing papers that are not yet published, editors can better assess new submissions and whether they will add to the growing body of knowledge of the field.
All papers in peer review journals are sent out for review. Reviewers indicate the types of papers they would like to see, and editors find pleasure in selecting reviewers who are keenly interested in the subject of the paper and look forward to their comments. Rarely is a paper written so clearly that it can be published without change. Recommended changes include every aspect of the manuscript from the title to the figures and references. This is another source of joy, as editors know the paper will be improved by the changes the authors make in response to the reviewers’ comments.
When the reviewers’ comments are in, the editor’s job becomes sorting through the comments to see if the authors are likely to be able to respond to the requests for changes, or if the paper has a fatal flaw that cannot be fixed. There is no point asking for a revision if the problem with the paper cannot be remedied. To do so would only frustrate both the authors and the reviewers. When the requested changes are minor, the editor can review the revised manuscript. However, if major changes are requested, it is better to send the paper back to the original reviewer(s). When the authors have responded appropriately, the paper can be accepted for publication.
Those who review for a journal also have the benefit of seeing scientific information before it becomes publicly available. They may even feel pride in helping to improve published papers. Certainly, the editor has a feeling of accomplishment when the monthly journal issue is published. In this era of electronic publication, papers are available online after the copy editor has reviewed them and the authors have responded to editor queries. It is not uncommon to receive a letter to the editor regarding a paper before the monthly issue is even paginated.
While editors get an understandable amount of pleasure from participating in the scientific process that advances our field, there are also less pleasurable duties. The most common is called a desk rejection. These are papers that do not fit the niche of the journal, are missing a required component, or have a fatal flaw that even the editor can appreciate. While editors would like every submission to benefit from constructive criticisms provided by reviewers, there just aren’t enough reviewers to do a conscientious job on every paper. Almost all peer review journal editors must reject a portion of the submissions without external review.
A painful experience is when someone challenges a published paper. This may result from many issues, including plagiarism, research methodology, statistics, ethics, etc. If it is clearly a difference of opinion, it may be handled by inviting a letter to the editor, which would then be sent to the original author for response. More egregious complaints require further investigation, often with outside experts and involvement of a publication or ethics committee. Yet, this process of peer review is essential for scientific progress.
The job of journal editors is to select the most impactful research, work that advances our field. They must welcome dissent while protecting the process of peer review and ensuring the integrity of our science. The joys of serving as an editor far outweigh the sorrows.