Scientific journals: a proposal

There are professions that are not particularly conducive to making friends. One of them is doubtless Editor of a peer-reviewed scientific journal, especially one of those with the highest impact factor. For each submitted manuscript, the Editor must make a number of decisions, each fraught with potential for conflict and controversy; from whether or not to seek a review at all (i.e., early rejection), to the selection of anonymous reviewers, to the number of rounds of reviews (and how many reports to seek per round), each followed by a rebuttal from the author(s), to the weight to assign to each opinion, and of course to the eventual acceptance or rejection, based on an inevitably subjective assessment of the manuscript, as well as of the arguments furnished by both author(s) and reviewers.

While most scientists are quite used to harsh comments on their work made by colleagues (especially anonymous ones), Editors are constantly under the microscope, their deliberations scrutinized for fairness, even-handedness, firmness and accuracy.
They must come across as independently minded, unwilling to be pushed around by prominent scientists on either side, as well as competent, knowledgeable of the literature in rather vast subfields of science (e.g., electronic properties of condensed matter), capable of discerning the validity of complex and subtle reasonings, judging the reliability of experimental procedures and of making accurate assessments of “novelty and priority”. They are also expected to work very hard, reviewing dozens of papers a day, always maintaining a professional, courteous and respectful tone toward authors who may not be particularly professional, courteous nor respectful. That is a lot of ask of a single person, admittedly.

While an excellent case can be made that Editors should be full-time professionals (as they generally are), this clearly also poses problems. The most obvious is that a full-time, professional Editor cannot realistically be expected to know the literature, much less keep abreast of developments taking place at a breakneck pace, in rather wide fields of inquiry. Perhaps more importantly, (s)he will typically lack the type of “field information” possessed by someone actively engaged in research (i.e., regularly traveling to conferences, attending seminars, reading preprints etc.). In practical terms this means that an Editor, among other things, may not
i) be in the position of identifying the best qualified reviewers for each manuscript;
ii) be always aware of competition (or even animosity) existing between individuals, or groups;
iii) fully appreciate the level of controversy surrounding a particular new idea, and the resistance to it on the part of the establishment;
iv) have access to sufficiently large a pool of reviewers in all sub-fields, from which to pick consistently some who can be safely assumed not to have an agenda, i.e., some personal stake in the acceptance or rejection of a manuscript.

I am not advocating here any overhaul of a system which I regard as fundamentally sound. For all of the reasons listed above, however, I feel that it may be a good idea to have the resident, full-time Editor joined in his/her daily activity by a number of adjunct Editors, selected on a voluntary, rotation basis among currently active researchers. I am specifically thinking of, e.g., mid-career scientists, faculty spending their sabbatical leave, or taking a leave of absence, specifically to offer their service to the community in the form of helping with the refereeing process.
Note that this is not a novel concept. For example, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has for a long time adopted the policy of appointing several visiting scientists as co-directors of the various research programs, with the aim of advising the full-time, resident program directors with annual funding decisions (see, for instance, this announcement). This is done on a rotation basis, precisely with the aim of allowing scientists with diverse backgrounds and from different institutions, to provide their input to an operation which bears considerable resemblance to manuscript review (and has arguably at least as important consequences for the applicant).
Much like serving as a program co-director for NSF is widely regarded as a prestigious appointment, a respectable and highly regarded way to spend a sabbatical, one could see having served as co-Editor of, say, Physical Review Letters (PRL) as a mark of distinction in a scientist’s career.

To some extent such a structure is in place already, at least in some journals. PRL, for example, has a series of Divisional Associate Editors, whose overriding recommendation is sought by Editors in contested cases, if authors elect to appeal a rejection. These are generally senior scientists, still active in research at universities or national laboratories, who join the Editorial Board of a journal permanently, and whose involvement in the review of a manuscript is limited to the situation described. My suggestion would be to have actively practicing scientists involved in the review of a manuscript from the start, providing input at each stage thereof.
Aside from the benefit that the involvement of a practicing scientist would bring to the review process, as it would at least in part address the issues mentioned above, it is my sense that having them spend time “in the trench”, would perhaps bridge the gap between authors and Editors, diffuse some of the tension, and raise awareness among scientists of the great challenges posed by serving as Editor of a reputable journal (to which, I sense, many of us can not relate). I also feel that scientists may be less inclined to indulge into arrogant, condescending behavior with one of their own… some of this behavior was related to me first hand, when I interviewed for a job with PRL over a decade ago.
(I was not offered the position, eventually — who knows, maybe I did not come across as respectful and courteous…)

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