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Ensuring a Trust Relationship Among Journal Editors, Publishers, and Owners. 

Ensuring a Trust Relationship Among Journal Editors, Publishers, and Owners.
Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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Ensuring a Trust Relationship Among Journal Editors, Publishers, and Owners.

As described by Davies and Rennie,4 the relationship between editors and publishers/owners is interdependent and must be based on mutual trust. However, there are bound to be uncertainties, concerns, and occasional conflicts that could threaten the trust relationship.4 To maintain trust, a formal agreement between the editor and owner should specify each party’s expectations and the mission of the journal (for example, see JAMA’s governance plan in Box 5.10-1 and JAMA’s Key and Critical Objectives69 reproduced in Box 5.10-2). If these expectations are not formalized in a governance plan or other document, are not mutually understood, or are intentionally disregarded (as happened in the cases described above), either party (but usually the owner) “may seek new (and possibly costly) mechanisms of accountability, reassurance, and control,”4 which would result in loss of trust and potentially serious damage to the integrity, credibility, and reputation of both the journal and the owner.

Uncertainty, concerns, and disputes are best resolved informally through reciprocally open communication between the editor and publisher/owner and by maintaining a trust relationship. However, formal procedures for conflict resolution must be in place in the event that a dispute cannot be resolved informally.4 These procedures should rely on the journal’s mission and objectives to direct the assessment of the dispute, should require measured consideration of the facts involved (with appropriate evidence), and should not result in hasty decisions that do not consider the outcomes of such decisions for the editor, owner, and journal. In the cases described in the previous section, the continued existence and reputation of each journal was suddenly and unexpectedly put at risk because there was no effective independent mechanism to help achieve resolution of conflict or, if resolution proved impossible, allow time for an orderly change of editors. Such an orderly system and buffer and, if all else fails, such an orderly transition best serves the interests of journals, owners, publishers, and editors.4 In a case of serious conflict, if a contract with term limit exists between editor and publisher/owner, then the publisher can opt to not renew the contract rather than abruptly dismiss the editor.

The following recommendations, many of which are supported by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors,27 World Association of Medical Editors,28 Council of Science Editors,29 and Committee on Publication Ethics,30 may help editors, publishers, and owners develop policies for maintaining editorial freedom for their publications. Such policies should be regularly reviewed and made publicly available to the extent possible. For example, an individual editor’s contract would not be made public, but a general description of the editor’s level of authority, responsibility, and accountability can be published along with the journal’s mission in an editorial, on the journal’s masthead, or elsewhere. These recommendations are offered to help journals protect against threats to editorial freedom and integrity, but even if all these recommendations are followed, they will not provide absolute immunity from such threats.

Complete editorial freedom is recommended for all peer-reviewed biomedical journals because it ensures the highest level of editorial quality, credibility, and integrity. However, it is recognized that not all journals operate under complete editorial freedom, and achieving all the elements necessary for complete independence may not be possible or desirable for some journals. Thus, these recommendations are provided for peer-reviewed journals with complete editorial freedom (highly preferred) and those journals with limited editorial freedom.

  • The editor should have a written contract or job description that clearly defines the editor’s duties, rights, level of authority, responsibility, accountability, term of appointment, relationship to the publication’s owner, reporting relationship, oversight and governance plan, objective criteria for evaluating the performance of the editor and journal, rights if removed from the position before term expiration, and procedures for conflict resolution. An explicit and mutually accepted definition of the editor’s authority, responsibility, and accountability before the editor accepts the position will enable the editor to make an informed decision about accepting the position. Editors should carefully consider the ramifications of signing any nondisclosure agreements that would prevent them from speaking publicly if unwillingly removed from their positions.

  • A governance plan should be in place that defines oversight and evaluation policies and procedures for the editor, conflict resolution mechanisms for the editor and owner of the journal, and the level of editorial freedom provided the editor and the journal. This plan should be published or otherwise made publicly available.

  • Ideally, as in journals with complete editorial freedom, the editor should have direct access to the highest level of management in the organization or company that owns the publication. If this is not possible, as in journals with limited editorial freedom, the editor’s line of authority and reporting relationship should be specified in a formal agreement.

  • All journals should have a published and easily accessible mission statement that clearly defines the journal’s goals and objectives; for journals with editorial freedom, the mission statement should include explicit reference to editorial freedom. The mission statement should serve as a guide for the editorial direction of the journal and should be relied on by the editor, editorial board, and members of the oversight or governance body when conflicts or disputes arise; it should be reviewed regularly by the editor and editorial board.

  • An independent editorial oversight committee may help the editor establish and maintain the specified level of editorial freedom and resolve conflicts. To be independent, this committee’s chair should not be a representative of the owner’s employed, appointed, or elected leadership, and representation of the owner’s employed, appointed, or elected leadership on the oversight committee should be limited (ideally to a single individual) or at most should have fewer voting positions on the committee than would constitute a majority. Although this may require a different appointment procedure for some societies, the importance of an independent oversight committee for helping to maintain the journal’s integrity and manage contentious conflicts cannot be overstated. Note: An oversight committee differs from an editorial board, which serves to advise the editor on editorial content and policies (see 5.11.11, Role of the Editorial Board).

  • In journals with complete editorial freedom, editors should have complete authority to hire, evaluate, and dismiss all editorial staff as well as the authority to appoint, evaluate, and dismiss editorial board members and peer reviewers (see 5.11, Editorial Responsibilities, Roles, Procedures, and Policies). If this arrangement is not possible for all editorial staff (eg, manuscript editors or other editorial staff employed, provided, or outsourced by the publisher), editors should at a minimum be able to review and evaluate their performance. For journals with limited editorial freedom in which the owner may make recommendations about editorial board members or peer reviewers, the editor should have final authority to approve their appointment, evaluate their performance, and terminate their appointment.

  • The editor should have the opportunity to interview and comment on candidates for a new publisher being considered during the editor’s term. The publisher should have the opportunity to interview and comment on candidates for a new editor being considered by the journal owner and/or search committee. For society-owned journals using outside publishers, editors should be involved in the selection and performance review of the publisher and other external commercial companies or vendors (eg, advertising, marketing, and research agencies; printers; suppliers of editorial systems; and online vendors or hosts) as well as decisions to renew or terminate publishing agreements.

  • In journals with complete editorial freedom, editors should have complete authority over use and reuse of the name, logo, and content of the journal in print, online, and other media. Content includes editorial content, covers, mastheads, design, formatting, online features and linking, and approval of advertising and sponsorship. Although the editor must not be involved in the business (ie, selling) of advertisements and sponsorship, the editor should have authority over policies on appropriate types of advertisements and their placement and over policies on sponsorship activities (see 5.12, Advertisements, Advertorials, Sponsorship, Supplements, Reprints, and e-Prints). At a minimum, for journals with limited editorial freedom, the editor’s level of authority and responsibility for content should be specified in a governance plan, contract, or other formal document.

  • Owners and publishers should not interfere in the evaluation, review, selection, or editing of editorial content that is under the authority of the editor. For journals with complete editorial freedom, this pertains to all content. All changes and corrections made to content during production and publishing and after publication should be reviewed and approved by the editor or the editorial team reporting to the editor and production staff involved in producing the content but not the journal’s owner, publisher, or sales and marketing staff.

  • ■Editors and owners should establish mutually understood policies and procedures that guard against the influence of external commercial and political interests as well as personal self-interest on editorial decisions (see 5.5, Conflicts of Interest).

  • Editors should be accountable for their editorial decisions, which should be based on the validity and credibility of the content and its relevance and importance to readers, not the commercial success of the journal or political interests of owners or other groups. Editors’ decisions and communications with stakeholders should be based on competence, fairness, confidentiality, expeditiousness, and courtesy and should be governed by a policy on management of conflicts of interest (see 5.11, Editorial Responsibilities, Roles, Procedures, and Policies, and 5.5.7, Requirements for Editors and Editorial Board Members). However, editors need to understand the requirements for financial management and sustainability of their journals and they should publish content that attracts readers, authors, peer reviewers, subscribers, advertisers, and other stakeholders. Note: This does not mean that stakeholders should determine specific editorial content to publish or not to publish. For journals to maintain editorial freedom and integrity, editors should be free to express critical but responsible views without fear of retribution, even if these views are controversial or conflict with the commercial goals of the publisher or the policies, positions, or objectives of the owner or external forces.

  • Editors should understand the business models that support their journals and should review financial operations with the publisher or journal owner. Any proposed changes to business models should be discussed with the editor.

  • For journals with complete editorial freedom, the journal should publish a statement about its editorial independence and a prominently placed disclaimer that identifies and separates a publication’s owner and sponsor from the editorial staff and content. For example, JAMA regularly publishes its objectives69 (which include “to maintain the highest standards of editorial integrity independent of any special interests”) and a statement that it is editorially independent of its owner and publisher. The following appears in the masthead of the journal:


    All articles published, including opinion articles, represent the opinions of the authors and do not reflect the official policy of JAMA, the American Medical Association, or the institutions with which the author is affiliated, unless otherwise indicated.

    For journals that have limited or no editorial authority over specific types or sections of content (eg, pages reserved for the owning society or association or other content stipulated to be out of the editor’s control), authority and responsibility for such content should be made clear to readers.

  • Owners have the right to hire and fire editors. However, except for provisions contractually stipulated (eg, term limits or contract expiration), owners should dismiss editors only for substantial reasons that are incompatible with a position of trust, such as editorial mismanagement, scientific misconduct, fiscal malfeasance, undisclosed conflicts of interest that result in biased editorial decisions, unsupported changes to the long-term editorial direction or stated mission of the journal, criminal behavior, or specific activities that violate terms of a formal agreement.

  • Editors should inform editorial board members, advisory committee members, owners, publishers, and editorial and publishing staff of the journal’s policies on editorial freedom.

  • Editors should publish articles on editorial integrity freedom when appropriate and should alert readers and the wider international community to major transgressions against editorial freedom.

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