Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Are scientific editors reliable gatekeepers of the publication process?

Posted by Lucy Zipf

The goal of the peer-review process of journals is to make well-founded and consistent decisions and publish high-quality science. The scientific community assumes the publication process is reliable and fair, with the best papers being published only after rigorous review. Scientific editors act as “gatekeepers” in this publishing process, deciding whether a paper is even sent out for peer review, or alternatively “desk rejected”, that is returned to the author without peer review.

The Biological Conservation editorial team often acts as an editorial gatekeeper, as shown in this 2018 photo in front of an actual gate. From left to right:  Danielle Descoteaux (USA, publisher) Richard Primack (USA),Robin Pakeman (UK), Tracey Regan (Australia), Vincent Devictor (France), Richard Corlett (China), Liba Pejchar (USA), Bea Maas (Austria) and David Johns (USA). 

We recently assessed the consistency of editors’ desk decisions and published our findings in Biological Conservation. Ten editors of Biological Conservation evaluated forty manuscripts that had been previously submitted to the journal. 

Frequency of agreement among editors to send to manuscripts for review in 2018 (as a %). The green portion of a bar represents papers that editors sent out for review in 2017, while the red portion represents papers that were desk rejected in 2017. A high agreement indicates that 70-100% editors agreed in 2018 to either reject or review a manuscript. Low agreement indicates 40-60% agreement among 2018 editors. It can be seen that the decisions made in 2017 were largely supported by editors in 2018.

Overall, we found that editors are reasonably consistent in their decisions to send a paper out for review, or to desk reject it, and that they agreed with past decisions. However, disparities in agreement with decisions reveal the unsurprising subjectivity editors bring to the process.

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