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The Editor’s Responsibilities 

The Editor’s Responsibilities

Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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The Editor’s Responsibilities

An editor’s primary responsibilities are to inform and educate readers and to maintain the quality and integrity of the journal.2,3 Thus, editors are obliged to make rational and consistent editorial decisions, select papers for publication that are appropriate for their readers, ensure that the content of their journal is of high quality, and maintain standards to ensure the journal’s integrity2,3,8-10 (see also 5.10, Editorial Freedom and Integrity). The editor’s duty to readers often outweighs obligations to others with vested interest in the publication and may require actions that may not appear fair or suitable to authors, reviewers, owners, publishers, advertisers, or other stakeholders.

Editors' roles may be major public positions with broad, ethically based, professional and social responsibility (eg, editors in chief of major medical or scientific journals),2-4,7,8 whereas other editors' responsibilities are more limited (eg, other decision-making editors), more focused (eg, assistant editors or section editors), or procedural or technical (eg, manuscript editors, managing editors, production editors). These responsibilities, regardless of their scope, should be clearly delineated in the editor’s position description and supported by the publication’s editorial mission statement (see 5.10, Editorial Freedom and Integrity).

Bishop,10 Morgan,11 and Riis12 have identified 5 additional requisites of an editor: competence, fairness, confidentiality, expeditiousness, and courtesy (described in greater detail below).


Editors must possess a general scientific knowledge of the fields covered in their publications and be skilled in the arts of writing, editing, critical assessment, negotiation, and diplomacy. In addition, editors should consider joining professional societies in their respective scientific fields as well as professional organizations for editors (eg, Council of Science Editors, European Association of Science Editors, World Association of Medical Editors, American Medical Writers Association, European Medical Writers Association [see 25.11, Resources, Professional Scientific Writing, Editing, and Communications Organizations and Groups]). These societies have websites, and publications, policy statements and other resources, conferences, and courses and workshops for new editors. Editors who publish original research, or reviews or interpretations of research, should be familiar with the scientific methods used, including the general principles of statistics.12 Editors should also rely on the expertise of others (eg, editorial board members, peer reviewers, statistical consultants, legal advisers) for advice and guidance, with the recognition that the editor has the ultimate authority for all editorial decisions. A competent editor will make rational editorial decisions, within a reasonable period of time, and communicate these decisions to authors in a clear and consistent manner.2,4,8,10-12 A competent editor (whether editor in chief or manuscript editor) will also be skilled in the art of rhetoric13 to recognize the tools of linguistic persuasion and identify and remove hyperbole, inconsistent arguments, and unsupported assertions and conclusions from manuscripts. Finally, as Bishop10 suggests, a sense of humor should not be regarded as a trivial characteristic for an editor, as a bit of humor can often avoid, or at least soften, potential conflicts between editors and authors, reviewers, owners, publishers, other stakeholders, and other editors.


Editors must act impartially and honestly.4,9,12 Because editors are human, they cannot avoid the influence of all biases. Using peer review and consulting other editors during the editorial process may help control some personal biases.8 Editors of peer-reviewed journals are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the peer review process, for developing policies regarding the peer review process, and for ensuring that editorial staff are properly trained in the procedures involved.2,4 Editors should document factors relevant to editorial decisions and maintain records of decisions and reviewers' recommendations and comments for a defined period so they will be prepared to deal with appeals or complaints. (See also “Record Retention Policies for Journals” in 5.6.1, Intellectual Property: Ownership, Access, Rights, and Management, Ownership and Control of Data.)


Journals should develop and maintain policies for handling appeals of decisions.2,3,5 The Lancet has published a useful review of its appeals policy and procedures.14 In 1996, the Lancet established an independent editorial ombudsman who is assigned to review unresolved allegations of editorial mismanagement.15 This individual may also be called on to handle appeals of editorial decisions not considered satisfactorily resolved by the journal’s initial response. The ombudsman publishes annual reports summarizing these disputes and their resolutions.16 In resolving disputes, editors should consider all sides of an issue and avoid favoritism toward friends and colleagues or allowing editorial decisions to be influenced by powerful or threatening external forces (see 5.10, Editorial Freedom and Integrity). Note: Editors and journals should not keep copies of rejected manuscripts for longer than necessary to deal with appropriate appeals of decisions, and journals should have record-retention policies to direct how long decision letters and reviewer recommendations and comments should be kept (see also “Record Retention Policies for Journals” in 5.6.1, Intellectual Property: Ownership, Access, Rights, and Management, Ownership and Control of Data, and 5.11.5, Editorial Responsibility for Rejection).

Conflicts of Interest.

Editors should not have financial interests in any entity that might influence editorial evaluations and decisions2,3,8 (see 5.5, Conflicts of Interest). Editors with other types of conflicts of interest with a specific manuscript or author that could impair objective decision making should recuse themselves from involvement with such papers and should delegate responsibility of the review and decision of such papers to another editor or editorial board member.2,3 For example, the Archives of General Psychiatry does not permit an editor who collaborates with an author or who is employed by the same institution as an author to make decisions about that author’s manuscript; the review and decision-making authority is delegated to an editorial board member without such a relationship.17 Some journals will not consider manuscripts from authors who also serve as editors for the journal (clearly, this does not apply to editorials). Other journals will consider such submissions, but reviews of and decisions about manuscripts for which an editor is an author or coauthor are managed independently by another editor who has complete decision-making authority (including the ability to reject a manuscript in which the editor in chief is an author). For example, the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine delegates the review and decision of such papers to an associate editor and an editorial board member,18 and the New England Journal of Medicine has an independent editor at large who is assigned to handle all original research papers that are submitted by editors.19


Editors must ensure that information about a submitted manuscript is not disclosed to anyone outside the editorial office, other than the peer reviewers and authors invited to write an editorial commenting on an accepted but not yet published manuscript (see 5.7, Confidentiality).2,4 Editors should create and maintain policies about confidentiality and ensure that all current and new staff (editorial and production), reviewers, and editorial board members are sufficiently educated about the journal’s principles of confidentiality. The following statement may be useful when handling inquiries about manuscripts under consideration or previously rejected:

We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any manuscript unless and until such manuscript is published.

Editors should also establish policies and procedures to handle breaches of confidentiality by authors, peer reviewers, and editorial staff (see 5.7, Confidentiality).


Although the length of time it takes to evaluate a manuscript depends on many factors (eg, number of submitted manuscripts, resources of the editorial office, time allocated for peer review, and availability of efficient submission and review systems, such as Web-based systems), an author has a right to expect to receive a decision within a reasonable time.11,12 Journals should publish an audit or otherwise make available to prospective authors turnaround times for manuscript decisions, peer review, and publication.2 See, for example, the annual audit published by JAMA20 and 5.11.12, Editorial Audits and Research. If the review and evaluation are delayed significantly beyond the journal’s standard turnaround times for any reason, notifying the author of the reason for the delay is appropriate. Authors have a right to contact the editorial office to inquire about the status of their manuscripts. Many journals that use Web-based manuscript submission and review systems offer authors the opportunity to check the progress of their submission online.

Editors should plan to accept papers with knowledge of the number of accepted manuscripts awaiting publication, the approximate number of pages and/or articles that can be published during a year, and the resources available to publish additional material online, if applicable. Morgan11 has commented that a journal that accepts more papers than it can publish within the time span observed by other journals in the same field is suppressing, not disseminating, information.

On occasion, an editor will receive a request from an author or a suggestion from a reviewer to expedite publication of a specific manuscript. The quickened pace of scientific discovery and heightened competition among scientists and journals have fostered an increase in requests for rapid review and publication, and technologic advances have facilitated the ability to do so.21 A number of journals have procedures for fast-track consideration. For example, JAMA has a procedure for expedited peer review and editorial consideration of manuscripts of high-quality evidence (usually randomized controlled trials) that have immediate clinical and/or public health importance.22 Some biomedical journals routinely publish accepted papers online ahead of print publication. Such online ahead of print publication should include appropriate procedures for editorial review, editing, and proofing before posting, as well as for proper identification of any versions (eg, online ahead of print version vs print version). This is especially important for journals that publish information that can affect clinical decisions and patient care. For journals that do not routinely publish all content online ahead of print, a policy should be developed to allow for rapid consideration and early online publication of appropriate accepted manuscripts (eg, those with important and urgent implications for public health) that does not compromise the peer-review and editorial decision processes or the integrity of the journal and that does not result in the premature publication of an incomplete or inaccurate article (see also 5.13, Release of Information to the Public and Journal/Author Relations With the News Media).


More than a mere extension of etiquette and convention, editorial politeness requires editors and all editorial staff to deal with authors and reviewers in a respectful, fair, professional, and courteous manner.10-12 Diplomacy, tact, empathy, and negotiation skills will help editors maintain positive relationships with authors, even those whose work the editor rejects.

Note: Sections 5.11.2 through 5.11.7 focus on the editor’s responsibility for manuscript processing, assessment, and decisions (see also 6.0, Editorial Assessment and Processing).

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