Lessons from an Editorial Term

5. July 2012

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal recently finished his second and final term as a topical editor of the Journal of the Optical Society of America A. Here, he shares his advice to authors and reviewers based on his six years of experience.

For scientists, writing is as vital as planning and executing experiments. Soon after a researcher has published a few articles in a field, it is typical for him or her to be asked to serve as a reviewer. This can be looked at as both a responsibility to the community and a career-development tool for yourself.

When I became an editor, I gained a whole new perspective. For those authors and reviewers who have not yet served as an editor, perhaps you can learn something from my experiences.

Be thorough and professional. I believe that a research area’s strength is related to the quality of the reviewers for its journals. Good reviewers behave like invisible mentors—combing through the data, suggesting additional experiments and giving specific, actionable feedback.

Expect to be treated equal to your colleagues. If you are an editor for long enough, you may have to reject a paper submitted by a friend or close colleague. A fundamental principle for editing and reviewing is that every author should be treated equally. If you can’t do this, you should not edit the paper. Real friends understand that you have to follow the same rules for everybody.  

Be generous with citations. Most authors are very gracious about citing the work of others. Of course, there are some who avoiding citing other groups in favor of noting their own previous work. Self-citations are in many cases necessary. However, when relevant papers from others are missing, it can signal a low-quality paper to an editor. So be generous; it’s good for others and good for you.

Be alert for plagiarism. A fundamental task for editors is to detect and reject articles that are either clearly wrong or direct copies of previously published articles (plagiarism). More sophisticated forms of plagiarism, including self-plagiarism, can be difficult to find. I realized that many cases occur due to lack of author education or differing norms. For example, some researchers do not view it as wrong to duplicate their own research. Part of the editor’s job is to clearly communicate what is acceptable, what is not, and why. 

Clearly articulate the purpose of your paper. Sometimes a paper receives reviews indicating that it seems to be correct, but the point of the research is not clear. In a good journal, these papers are often rejected. Before submitting an article, be honest with yourself: Is this a paper I would like to read myself? Does it advance the field?

Don’t assume friends make the best reviewers. Most journals, including JOSA A, ask the author for reviewer recommendations. Usually, authors tend to suggest someone they know well. I was initially surprised in cases when I followed an author’s recommendation and received reviews that were perhaps unduly negative. Surprisingly, the most critical reviews can come from close colleagues—possibly because they are the ones who are closest to the details of your research area. Be aware of the possibility of bias, both positive and negative.

Review as you would like to be reviewed. OSA journals would not be possible without the tireless work of devoted volunteers. However, there are a few people who consistently refuse to review papers. It is not acceptable to systematically avoid this duty if you are an active scientist. Think twice when you are asked to review a paper, remembering the Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.

Get it right. As an editor, I was worried about the possibility that I would accept a paper that was completely wrong. A paper whose conclusions miss the mark is not necessarily a problem; there are many of those out there and they are consubstantial with scientific development. However, if a published paper contains simple and fundamental mistakes, the editor is to blame, so be careful.

Serving as an editor was a great experience that I would highly recommend. You learn more about your field and human nature. Hopefully it will make you a better scientist and person.

Pablo Artal (pablo@um.es) is an OSA fellow and professor of Optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. His blog covers optical research and related aspects (http://pabloartal.blogspot.com/).

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