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Journal publishing: overcoming the challenges of one person playing multiple roles

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By AuthorAID Team | Jan. 22, 2018  |

In this blog post, Haseeb Md Irfanullah explains the downsides of blurring the roles of authors, editors, reviewers and publishers. He also gives practical suggestions for minimizing the negative effects of one individual balancing multiple roles within the journal publishing process.

In the journal publishing ecosystem, four major players interact: the author, the editor, the reviewer and the publisher. Each one has a distinct role to play.

Authors, positioned on the ‘supply’ side of the publishing chain, generate manuscripts from their research. Since peer-reviewed publications bring them recognition, funding and promotion, they get obvious career benefits from publishing their work.

Editors are the intellectual managers with decision-making powers in the publishing system. Journal editorship tends not to result in huge financial or career benefits, so editors often show an element of altruism in performing their duties.

Peer reviewers are the quality assurers of the system, helping editors to make their judgments on the various articles submitted to the journal. This function is also altruistic, as they remain anonymous in most cases.

Finally, journal publishers make publishing a reality, satisfying the demand side of the publishing chain. Unless governed by a commercial publishing entity, journal publishers tend to follow a not-for-profit approach. This is especially the case in Southern journals, which are often run by academic societies.

Blurring the roles in publishing

In most journals in Bangladesh, it is common for one person to perform all four roles outlined above. But this situation is not unique to Bangladesh – it is a pattern that occurs in many other journals situated in the global South.

Blurring the roles of editor and publisher may not have severe implications. However, combining the role of the decision-maker (the editor) with the beneficiary (the author) or with the quality assurer (the reviewer) could result in a serious conflict of interests. It can also jeopardize the essence of peer-reviewed journal publishing, as it runs the risk of publishing extremely biased articles.

Despite this, it is almost impossible to avoid the situation where one person plays multiple roles in one journal in the global South. Poor finances, a lack of staff and reviewers, and a limited understanding of publishing standards are just some notable reasons that contribute to this.

Practical suggestions for balancing multiple roles

So how can we minimize the possible negative impacts of one person playing multiple roles in the journal publishing process? Since the editor is the most powerful person in the publishing ecosystem, I have come up with the following suggestions:

  1. Editorship vs Authorship:

In a situation where an editor submits a manuscript to the journal s/he edits:

  1. S/he should switch the ‘author button’ on (i.e. switching his/her mindset from an editor to that of an author) when dealing with the reviewers’ or editors’ comments
  2. S/he should have no involvement in selecting reviewers for his/her manuscript. Other competent editorial board member(s) should do it. If there is not enough active, competent editorial board members to do this, the journal should restructure its editorial board.

  1. Editorship vs Reviewership:
  1. When an editor becomes a reviewer of a manuscript submitted to the same journal, s/he needs to switch the ‘reviewer button’ on (i.e. switching his/her mindset from editor to reviewer). S/he should remember to show compassion towards the authors as his/her peers, rather than acting as decision-makers on behalf of the journal.

Creating good publishing standards

But ensuring good standards in publishing goes beyond the roles of individuals. It is also important that the editorial board creates a good working environment in which there is harmony among its members. Mentorship from senior editors is a good approach.

Good publishing standards are also bigger than individual journals. Within the publishing ecosystem of a particular discipline, for example, it is important to promote healthy interactions between the researchers in that discipline. This serves the dual purpose of building trust between them and also widening the editor and reviewer pools, thus reducing the burden of multiple roles on one individual.

Journal publishing is expanding in many southern countries. But all too often this is not accompanied by a sufficient understanding of internationally recognized publishing standards and practices. Over the past decade, many capacity development initiatives and constructive discussions between editors have helped to develop a roadmap for improving journal publishing going forward. [The Bangladesh roadmap complements the new Journal Publishing Practices and Standards (JPPS) developed by African Journals Online and INASP.]

My hope is that these initiatives will continue to improve the publishing culture in Southern journals, and also help us to move beyond the challenge of one individual wearing many hats in the journal publishing process.

Editor’s note: In addition to Haseeb’s excellent advice, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) have also advised that in cases where a journal editor is publishing in his/her own journal, they should also “publish an accompanying commentary showing how transparent the reviewing process had been”. See this COPE case report for more details.

Haseeb Md Irfanullah is an AuthorAID mentor based at IUCN in Bangladesh. He has a keen interest in research communication, and he tweets as @hmirfanullah and is available via email at hmirfanullah@yahoo.co.uk.

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