From the LOCKNET Peer Review Research Group: European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Dr Garrow) and BMJ Publishing Group (Mr Butterfield, Ms Marshall, and Mrs Williamson), London, England.
Context.— The majority of the peer-reviewed clinical literature is edited by editors
whose training in editorial matters may be limited or nonexistent. We suspect
that editors are selected for their clinical or academic rather than editorial
Objective.— To test the hypothesis that editors of medical specialist clinical journals
were recruited from active clinicians rather than those with evident ability
or training as editors.
Design, Setting, and Subjects.— Anonymous mail survey to editors of the 262 peer-reviewed clinical journals
that had received at least 1000 citations in the 1994 Science
Main Outcome Measures.— Training and editorial practices of editors.
Results.— Replies were received from 191 editors (73%): in 1994 the journals they
edited had 6060 (27300/1000 [maximum/minimum]) citations, 234 (740/31) source
items, and an impact factor of 2.10 (18.3/0.2); nonresponders' journals had
similar characteristics. Of the responding editors, 181 (95%) were part-time,
132 (69%) treated patients, and 164 (86%) were recruited by one of the following
methods: election by a scientific society (49 [30%]), nomination by the previous
editor (41 [25%]), or response to an advertisement (29 [18%]). There was no
strong association between method of recruitment or formal editorial training
and the status of the journal. Only 9% of editors in the United States send
at least half of the papers to reviewers outside their own country, compared
with 41% of editors in the United Kingdom and 73% in other countries, and
69% do not feel bound to follow the advice they receive concerning acceptance
Conclusions.— Clinical journals are usually edited by practicing clinicians who are
self-taught part-time editors, but willing to accept further training. They
usually consult 2 reviewers, but exercise independent judgment on the acceptability
RESEARCH in biomedical peer review is largely driven by editors of large
weekly general medical journals, who work full-time in an office with many
professional colleagues. These journals have high citation rates: in 1994
there were 276000 citations to articles in the Annals of
Internal Medicine, BMJ, JAMA , The Lancet, and The New England Journal
of Medicine (the 5 big "Vancouver group" journals, hereafter called
"V5 journals"). However, these V5 citations were only a small minority of
the total: 86% of citations are to specialist clinical journals (SCJs), which
may be edited by clinicians who are relatively isolated from editorial colleagues.
We therefore investigated the recruitment, training, and use of external reviewers
by the editors of SCJs.
We also looked for differences in the selection and practice of editors
of small SCJs with low impact factor, compared with those of larger SCJs of
higher impact factor.
A clinical medical journal was defined as a
journal that included in its title a word indicating a medical specialty (a
list of the words used can be obtained from the authors). Review journals
were excluded, since we were primarily interested in editors of journals that
received original research papers relevant to clinical practice; the V5 journals
were also excluded. The Science Citation Index for
1993 was manually searched for journals meeting these criteria, but for logistic
reasons, journals that received fewer than 1000 citations in that year were
not included in the analysis. This search yielded 277 eligible journals. Those
selected for the study had a large range of high citation rates (1000-63000
per year) and impact factor (0.2-18). In late 1995, letters were sent to the
editors in chief of these journals, explaining our objectives and asking if
the editor would reply to a questionnaire of not more than 20 questions. In
May 1996 we sent a second letter to those who agreed to respond, enclosing
a questionnaire concerning their demographic characteristics, training, and
use of reviewers. Respondents were assured that the results would be published
in a manner that would not permit identification of individual journals or
editors. The final analysis is based on 262 journals that met the selection
criteria in the 1994 report.
The size of journals was ranked according to the number of source items
published per year, and the quality by the impact factor. For the purpose
of analysis, the journals were divided by tertiles into low, medium, and high
in size or quality.
The characteristics of the journals from which the editors responded
were similar to those of nonresponding editors, as shown in Table 1. The average number of sources per year and the impact factor
of nonresponding journals were slightly higher than those of responding journals,
but there is a large overlap in the range within each group.
Geographic Location of Editorial Office. Postal addresses showed that 50% of the editorial offices were in the
United States, 28% in the United Kingdom, 20% in other European countries,
and 2% elsewhere.
Characteristics of Responding Editors. Ninety-five percent of editors were part-time, 69% treated patients,
69% were 50 to 69 years old, 21% were younger than 50 years, 10% were older
than 69 years, and 96% were men.
Method by Which Editor Was Selected. Of the 191 responding editors, 164 (86%) were selected by one of the
suggested methods: recommendation from the previous editor (41 [25%]), competitive
interview after advertisement (29 [18%]), or election by a scientific society
or college (49 [30%]). However, many also checked the "other" response, so
alternative routes to the editorial chair (and the number of respondents who
report it) are selection by the publishers (12), election by the editorial
board (7), selection by a research committee (6), and having founded or revitalized
the journal (5).
The average age range for editors in chief of journals of small size
and low impact factor is 50 to 59 years; larger journals of higher impact
factor typically have editors in the 60- to 69-year-old age range.
Experience and Editorial Training. Among 188 editors who answered the question, 66 (35%) had not served
on the editorial team of the journal before becoming editor, but 122 (65%)
had done so; of these 122 editors, 65 (53%) had served for 5 years or more.
An editor with less than 5 years of experience on the editorial board, or
who reported training in editing, is associated with small, low-impact journals,
but there is no indication that long experience is associated with editors
of large, high-impact journals compared with medium-grade ones. Of the 191
responding editors, 132 (69%) thought some form of training would be helpful
to editors, but 49 thought it would not. Of the 85 respondents who said they
had no formal training in editing skills, 53 (62%) thought that some training
would be valuable, so evidently there is an unmet desire for such training.
Selection and Use of External Reviewers. Forty-six percent of respondents said they personally reviewed every
paper submitted, but 54% did not. External reviewers were used as follows:
63% of editors used 2, 25% used 3, and 4% used more than 3. Editors of larger
journals (n = 66) are more likely than those of smaller journals (n = 57)
to use 3 or more reviewers for each paper (38.0% vs 15.8%, P=.05), are more likely to blind authors to reviewers (97.0% vs 86.0%, P =.05), are less likely to blind reviewers to authors
(10.9% vs 21.0%, P=.09), and are less likely to be
bound by the majority advice of reviewers to accept or reject a manuscript
(21.0% vs 34.4%, P =.08). Differences in behavior
by impact factor did not achieve statistical significance. The proportion
of editors who sent at least half the manuscripts received to reviewers outside
their own country was 9% for editorial offices in North America, 41% in the
United Kingdom, and 73% for other countries.
The purpose of this study was to learn more about the selection, training,
and use of reviewers by "amateur" editors of SCJs who are collectively responsible
for far more articles and citations than the "professional" editors in charge
of the big weekly general medical journals. Answers to the questionnaire confirmed
our impression that SCJ editors were usually practicing clinicians with no
formal training in editorial skills—they had essentially learned the
craft of editing by apprenticeship to more experienced editors.
We expected to find major differences between the practices of editors
of small, low-impact journals (who are usually isolated, untrained, and virtually
unpaid amateurs), and the editors in chief of large, high-impact journals,
who are more nearly in the situation of the professional editor of large weekly
general journals, since they work with a group of fellow professionals whom
they can teach and from whom they can learn. In fact, we found rather small
differences in the answers to our questions when the journals were ranked
by size or impact factor.
The presumed "amateur" editors of small, low-impact journals, compared
with the editors of large, high-impact journals, are somewhat younger, more
likely to be full-time, more likely to have been selected by the recommendation
of the previous editor, and less likely to have served 5 years on the editorial
team before appointment. They use fewer external reviewers and are more likely
to consider themselves bound by the majority opinion of the reviewers.
We suggest that many "amateur" editors would welcome a system by which
it would be possible for them to make a formative assessment of their editorial
competence without taking them away from their clinical work for too long.
For example, there could be a floppy disk with interactive questions on the
problems that editors face and the pitfalls into which the novice editor regularly
falls. Publishers should take some responsibility for providing training facilities
for the editors of their journals.
Garrow J, Butterfield M, Marshall J, Williamson A. The Reported Training and Experience of Editors in Chief of Specialist
Clinical Medical Journals. JAMA. 1998;280(3):286–287. doi:10.1001/jama.280.3.286
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