Editors moving forward: stick to academic basics, maximize transparency and respect, and enforce the rules
Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva1, Judit Dobránszki2
1Independent Researcher, Miki-cho, Japan; 2Research Institute of Nyíregyháza, IAREF, University of Debrecen, Nyíregyháza, Hungary.
Received: february 21st 2018; accepted: april 5th 2018.
Summary. Despite all that is taking place in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) publishing, it is undisputable that editors remain the most important gate-keepers of the process. In this paper, we explore why editors need to continue to stick to basic editorial principles and use new digital technologies only to fortify the content, but not to substitute for its quality. To achieve this, in an age of multiple checks and balances, editors have to be carefully vetted and held as accountable as the authors that they screen. Short-cuts could have very negative and unintended consequences for that journal. A journal that suffers reputational damage might struggle to recover trust in its readership, and thus, at the risk of sounding cliched, it is better to prevent reputational damage than to cure it. The only way to avoid this is for editors to evolve and adapt to an increasingly critical post-publication movement that is demanding more transparency and accountability from the scientific base and from society, especially where research is publicly funded.
Key words. Change and evolution, coordination, peer review, quality control, social media scrutiny.
I direttori delle riviste vanno avanti: attenersi ai principi accademici, adottare trasparenza e rispetto e applicare le regole.
Summary. Nonostante i cambiamenti in corso nell’ambito delle pubblicazioni scientifiche (STEM - scienza, tecnologia, ingegneria e medicina), è indubbio che i direttori delle riviste restano i più importanti custodi del processo editoriale. In questo articolo vengono analizzati i motivi per cui i direttori delle riviste devono continuare ad attenersi ai principi editoriali fondamentali e a utilizzare le nuove tecnologie digitali solo per dare forza al contenuto, ma non per sostituirlo nella sua qualità. Per raggiungere questo obiettivo, in un’epoca caratterizzata da controlli ed equilibri, i direttori delle riviste devono essere attentamente sorvegliati e ritenuti responsabili tanto quanto gli autori che essi stessi valutano. Qualunque scorciatoia potrebbe avere conseguenze negative e inaspettate per quella rivista che non si attenesse a tali regole, che vedrebbe intaccata la propria reputazione e che dovrebbe faticare per recuperare la fiducia dei propri lettori. Quindi, a rischio di sembrare scontati, è meglio prevenire il danno alla reputazione piuttosto che curarlo. L’unico modo per evitarlo è che i direttori delle riviste si adattino a un crescente movimento sempre più critico, che richiede maggiore trasparenza e responsabilità da parte di chi contribuisce a costruire la base delle conoscenze scientifiche e dalla società, specialmente laddove la ricerca è finanziata pubblicamente.
Parole chiave. Cambiamento ed evoluzione, controllo di qualità, coordinamento, peer review, valutazione dei social media.
Editors’ roles, then and now
The primary function of a journal editor is that of a gatekeeper of academic publishing, even in the new digital media age. This is because gatekeepers, as the name implies, serve to verify and control, through appropriate vetting processes, what comes into a journal, and what gets processed before release to the public1. Academics may argue what has changed if the basic role of an editor remains the same? In fact, so much has changed over the last 5-10 years, from paper-based peer-review and editing by pen through online submission systems, to networking, communication, promoting journals and attracting new potential authors to journals via social media, all of which directly influence the need for editors to develop new skills and approaches, expanding their roles while maintaining responsibility2,3. Indeed, basic necessary skills, such as expertise and having experience in a specific field of science, a solid publication record and apt qualifications and roles, such as effective communication with members of the publishing triad (authors, reviewers and publisher), will ensure that transparency, objectivity and the highest scientific standard during the entire publication process will remain the same4, or improve. Recently, however, new skills and challenges are needed, in addition to basic ones, due to the development of digital technologies in the publishing area and due to the widened use of social media in science communication5,6, i.e., editors need to become “Twitter-savvy”7.
In this rapid evolution of the humanities and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) publishing landscape, editors need to be trained before they assume their position on an editor board. A basic standard for the majority of traditional STEM journals, even today, is that editors must be properly vetted, and their profiles must be examined beyond research or publishing experience8 and trained before they are recruited as editors9. Are editors capable of making tough ethical decisions, or do they leave these decisions exclusively to the editor-in-chief (EIC)? Although editors generally have broad academic autonomy as to what is accepted in their journals, legal and marketing-related issues generally fall outside of this academic scope, narrowing their editorial independence10,11.
One of the critical tasks of publishers is to respect, promote and protect editorial independence by supporting business plans and by mutual and regular communication between the parties of the publishing triad, thereby ensuring the intellectual value of their journals12. Another critical task involves the development and application of clear and transparent editorial policies that correspond with the guidelines of different ethical bodies, such as COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics)13, WAME (World Association of Medical Editors)14, CSE (Council of Science Editors)11, and others15,16.
An editor’s research and publishing history should be carefully researched, an unpalatable duty, to prepare them for the social media age16. Ethical blemishes such as retractions as a result of data manipulation, duplication, or actual or perceived ethical infractions that could undermine the journal’s reputation, such as cronyism or actual or perceived conflicts of interest1,12,16, should result in the removal of an editor, unless the journal and publisher believe that the skill sets of that editor, and their ability to address past infractions, far outweigh any negative image-related damage caused by that history. The same principle applies at the post-vetting stage. If at any time any validated concerns are raised by the peer pool or public about the ethical robustness of an editor, then generally, that editor should be relieved of their position and duties. A journal that is seen as taking swift action to remedy a reputational crisis will be seen as righting its ills, thereby repositioning itself on the path to recovery of academia’s trust. A classic case that evolved in 2014 is the Serbian open access (OA) journal, Archives of Biological Sciences, which removed its entire editor board, including the EIC, after it was found that the journal had engaged in financial corruption and cronyism, replacing it with a carefully vetted new editor board and new EIC, who promptly began to clean up its erroneous literature by issuing several dozen retractions within weeks after the editorial transition17.
Similar to authors, editors have now entered the age of real-time criticism, which is possible with even just a single Tweet. A non-scientific example is the crash of Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative outspoken British gay critic of left-wing ideologies, who lost a book deal and his position as editor at Breitbart, when a 16-year old teen ousted him on Twitter by revealing his ethical inconsistencies in a YouTube video18. In the world of STEM publishing, a salient example was the 2017 crash in the public trust of Veruscript, and closure of its controversial Journal of Intelligence and Terrorism Studies, which Veruscript claimed to have been falsely accused of links with spying19. Then there is the mini French revolution attempted by a science watchdog20, Leonid Schneider, in the take down of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) Interim President, Anne Peyroche, via a coordinated Pubpeer-, blog- and Twitter-based campaign21-23. A mass resignation of editors from Springer Nature’s Journal of Molecular Medicine as a result of the publisher’s disregard of the editors’ opinion regarding the choice of a new editor in 2017 may have tainted its 150-year old reputation24. This indicates that there are ample cases at the fringe between academic publishing and social media (Twitter and blogs) that have the power to influence the actions and responsibilities of editors, as well as their legendary status.
Thus, editors are now constantly being monitored in a post-publication age, and even non-academic issues can lead to reputational damage if not carefully managed. In this 140-character Twitter age, where reputations can go from boom to bust, even in the space of days or weeks25, editors have the responsibility of working closely with publisher management to ensure that the published product is academically sound. This implies a close association with reputational managers, and also social media managers that are able to effectively and honestly promote the journal’s content and image. Editors’ roles have evolved considerably to being an ivory tower academic elite, to having to be highly sensitive to changes in social media, paying close attention to current trends and criticisms, including if they or their journals are being “monitored” by whistle-blower blogs like PubPeer26.
Editors: move forward, but stick to academic basics
A reason why some editors do not give their heart and soul to a journal is because they see themselves being exploited by high-profit STEM publishers which focus on their own market growth10,27,28. The vast majority of editors and peer reviewers serve freely as journal gate-keepers29, and superficial online badges, point-like systems, ranking as is offered by Publons30, or intangible remuneration, are both insufficient and unsustainable. Remuneration and forms of recognition of reviewers have been a main talking point between editors and other members of the scientific publishing for years31. Here, publishers have great corporate responsibility by offering financial remuneration for professional services rendered or even company stock to incentivize long-term investment.
The peer review process must change, but must not be scrapped. Peer review is, precisely what the name suggests, the review of that work by professionals in that field while avoiding an abuse of the system in place for this verification process to take place25. In addition to traditional peer review, which continues to be flawed32, some additional steps could be implemented to fortify the robustness of the process.
1. The first involves the use of preprints in which a paper is published online on a journal’s website, and not on servers like bioRxiv33. Since such material is unsafe to cite, because its claims have not been independently tested or verified, a preprint serves simply to demarcate an intellectual claim, but not to prove its academic worth, which must be verified by traditional peer review34. So, a three-phase peer review process is suggested: a preprint phase, a defined period of traditional peer review35, and a post-publication peer review phase.
2. These three phases of peer-review could involve open peer review and the requirement for open data to gain greater trust in the unbiased transparency of the process6,36. These three steps are likely good enough to ensure that a paper is able to survive a wide range of critique, and thus good enough to be released to the public as veritable “peer reviewed” work. This may imply that less volume per year is published, or that the publishing process takes a little longer. However, quality cannot and should never be replaced by increasing volumes, i.e. by quantity2. In the long run this may be not contradictory to market growth and sharing demands of STEM publishers27 because only high quality science and scientific publishing will be able to serve society and thus survive competition on the market. Some believe that the current peer model may be heading for the archives because it is not built to deal with the fast-paced evolution of this social media-affected age of publishing7,10.
3. Ultimately, editors play a key role in creating, and sustaining trust, in close coordination with the publisher, and transparent interaction with the peer pool on social media3,7, such as post-publication peer review platforms, Twitter, or Facebook, seeking to promote the fruits of their hard work through alternative metrics, and not relying on artificial metrics to claim the quality of their journal37. All of this, while keeping a watchful eye on competing “predatory” OA publishers that might violate basic ethical and editorial codes, and risks that face their own journal such as hijackings38.
4. There needs to be a greater focus on what is published, and its reproducibility, rather than on where it is published39.
Conflicts of interest: the authors declare no conflicts of interest.
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