Editorial Responsibilities, Roles, Procedures, and Policies - Ethical and Legal Considerations

AMA Manual of Style - Stacy L. Christiansen, Cheryl Iverson 2020

Editorial Responsibilities, Roles, Procedures, and Policies
Ethical and Legal Considerations

I believe the editor is the primary source for ethical responsibility among professional publications.

George D. Lundberg, MD1

Along with the autonomy and authority that come with editorial freedom are responsibility and accountability (see 5.10, Editorial Freedom and Integrity).2,3,4,5 Editors are responsible for determining journal content, ensuring the quality of the journal, directing editorial staff and board members, developing and improving procedures, encouraging new ideas and innovation, following standards and best practices, and creating and enforcing policies that allow the publication to meet its mission and goals effectively, efficiently, and ethically and in a fiscally responsible manner.2,3,4,5,6,7 This section focuses primarily on decision-making editors (ie, editors in chief and other editors, such as deputy, associate, assistant, contributing, section, and guest editors) who make decisions to review, reject, request revision of, and accept content for publication.

5.11.1 The Editor’s Responsibilities.

An editor’s primary responsibilities are to inform and educate readers and to maintain the quality and integrity of the journal.2,3 Thus, editors are obligated to make rational and consistent editorial decisions, select manuscripts for publication that are appropriate for their readers, ensure that the content of their journal is of high quality, and maintain standards to ensure the journal’s integrity2,3,8,9,10 (see 5.10, Editorial Freedom and Integrity). The editor’s duty to readers often outweighs obligations to others with vested interest in the publication and may require actions that may not appear fair or suitable to authors, reviewers, owners, publishers, advertisers, or other stakeholders.

Some editors’ roles may be major public positions with broad, ethically based, professional and social responsibility (eg, editors in chief of major medical or scientific journals),2,3,4,7,8 whereas other editors’ responsibilities are more limited (eg, other decision-making editors), more focused (eg, assistant editors or section editors), or procedural or technical (eg, manuscript editors, managing editors, production editors). These responsibilities, regardless of scope, should be clearly delineated in the editor’s position description and supported by the publication’s editorial mission statement (see 5.10, Editorial Freedom and Integrity).

The Council of Science Editors,2 the Committee on Publication Ethics,5 and the World Association of Medical Editors3,4 have useful guides that outline best practices and responsibilities for journal editors regarding authors, reviewers, readers, and other stakeholders. Bishop,10 Morgan,11 and Riis12 identified additional requisites of an editor: competence, fairness, confidentiality, expeditiousness, and courtesy. Competence.

Editors must possess a general scientific knowledge of the fields covered in their publications and be skilled in the arts of writing, editing, critical assessment, negotiation, and diplomacy. In addition, editors should consider joining professional societies in their respective scientific fields as well as professional organizations for editors (eg, Council of Science Editors, European Association of Science Editors, World Association of Medical Editors, International Society of Managing & Technical Editors, American Medical Writers Association, European Medical Writers Association, Society for Scholarly Publishing, and Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers [see 23.11, Professional Scientific Writing, Editing, and Communications Organizations and Groups]). These societies have websites, publications, policy statements, and other resources, conferences, and courses and workshops for new editors. Editors who publish original research, or reviews or interpretations of research, should be familiar with the scientific methods used, including the general principles of statistics.12 They should encourage complete, accurate, and full reporting and advise authors to follow established reporting guidelines, such as those available from the EQUATOR (Enhancing the Quality and Transparency of Health Research) Network.13 Editors should also rely on the expertise of others (eg, other editors associated with the journal, editorial board members, peer reviewers, statistical consultants, legal advisers) for advice and guidance, with the recognition that the editor has the ultimate authority for all editorial decisions. A competent editor will make rational editorial decisions, within a reasonable period of time, and communicate these decisions to authors in a clear and consistent manner.2,4,8,10,11,12 A competent editor (whether editor in chief or manuscript editor) will also be skilled in the art of rhetoric14 to recognize the tools of linguistic persuasion and identify and remove bias, hyperbole, inconsistent arguments, and unsupported assertions and conclusions from manuscripts. In addition, a competent editor will encourage and adapt to creativity and innovation to help improve the process and outcome of scholarly publication as well as the dissemination of and access to published content. Finally, as Bishop10 suggests, a sense of humor should not be regarded as a trivial characteristic for an editor because a bit of humor can often avoid, or at least soften, potential conflicts between editors and authors, reviewers, owners, publishers, other stakeholders, and other editors. Fairness.

Editors must act impartially and honestly,4,5,9,12 even though they cannot always avoid the influence of all biases. Using peer review and consulting other editors during the editorial process may help control some personal biases.8 Editors of peer-reviewed journals are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the editorial and peer review processes, developing editorial policies, and ensuring that editorial staff are properly trained in the policies and procedures involved.2,4 Editors should document factors relevant to editorial decisions and maintain records of decisions and reviewers’ recommendations and comments for a defined period so they will be prepared to deal with appeals or complaints (see, Record Retention Policies for Journals). Appeals.

Journals should develop and maintain policies for handling appeals of decisions.2,3,5 The Council of Science Editors has noted the following in this regard: “Despite editors’ best efforts to solicit fair and unbiased reviews to evaluate manuscripts fairly, and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the journal and its readers, authors may still want to challenge editorial decisions. Often such appeals follow the rejection of a manuscript and may be based on authors’ views that they can address reviewers’ comments or that a reviewer did not understand or provided an inaccurate review. Editors should have a policy in place to address such appeals and complaints about editorial decisions and help resolve these issues.”15(p14) As part of this process, editors may need to remind authors that reviewers do not make editorial decisions; they are advisers. Editorial decisions are made by the editors (see 5.11.3, Editorial Responsibility for Manuscript Assessment).

The Lancet has published a useful review of its appeals policy and procedures.16 The Lancet has also established an independent editorial ombudsman who is assigned to review unresolved allegations of editorial mismanagement, such as delays, discourtesy, failure to follow established procedures as outlined in instructions for authors, and accusations of editorial dishonesty, conflicts of interest, or failure to handle complaints about author misconduct.17,18 This ombudsman does not consider complaints about the substance of editorial decisions (vs the process of decisions) or editorial content or complaints about other journals. The ombudsman publishes reports that summarize these disputes and their resolutions.18 Journals should include a description of the appeals process in their instructions for authors.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) offers services to editors of member journals and a forum to discuss specific cases, including author appeals and concerns about editorial conduct.19 Other journals and publishing groups have independent oversight committees for which serious unresolved complaints about a journal’s editor in chief can be brought. For example, the JAMA Network journals are governed by a Journal Oversight Committee, and the New England Journal of Medicine has a Committee on Publications Ethics. The editors in chief of JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine report to these bodies for editorial matters (see 5.10, Ethical and Legal Considerations, Editorial Freedom and Integrity).

In resolving disputes, editors should consider all sides of an issue and avoid favoritism toward friends and colleagues or allowing editorial decisions to be influenced by powerful or threatening external forces (see 5.10, Editorial Freedom and Integrity). Conflicts of Interest.

Editors should not have financial interests in any entity that might influence editorial evaluations and decisions and should have a formal recusal process in place if they have financial or other conflicts of interest with specific manuscripts2,3,8,9 (see 5.5, Conflicts of Interest). Editors with other types of conflicts of interest with a specific manuscript or author that could impair objective decision-making should recuse themselves from involvement with such manuscripts and should delegate responsibility for the review and decision of such manuscripts to another editor or editorial board member.2,3 For example, the JAMA Network journals do not permit an editor who collaborates with an author or who is employed by the same institution as an author to make decisions about that author’s manuscript; the review and decision-making authority are delegated to another editor or an editorial board member without such a relationship.9 Some journals will not consider manuscripts from authors who also serve as editors for the journal (this does not apply to editorials). Other journals will consider such submissions, but reviews of and decisions about manuscripts for which an editor is an author or coauthor are managed independently by another editor who has complete decision-making authority (including the ability to reject a manuscript in which the editor in chief is an author). In such cases, if a manuscript by an author who is also an editor for the journal is accepted for publication, a disclaimer indicating that the editor-author was not involved in the review and editorial decision should be published with the article.

Example of Editor Recusal Statement Published With an Article

Dr Jagger, editor in chief of the journal, had no role in the editorial review of or decision to publish this article. Confidentiality.

Most journals maintain some form of confidentiality with manuscripts under consideration (exceptions would include journals that use public open review). Editors should ensure that the journal’s policies on confidentiality are made public (eg, via instructions for authors and in communications with authors and peer reviewers). For journals that use traditional forms of peer review (ie, not open to the public during review), editors must ensure that information about a submitted manuscript is not disclosed to anyone outside the editorial office, other than the peer reviewers and authors invited to write an editorial commenting on an accepted but not yet published manuscript (see 5.7, Confidentiality).2,4 Editors should create and maintain policies about confidentiality and ensure that all current and new staff (editorial and production), authors, reviewers, and editorial board members are sufficiently educated about the journal’s principles of confidentiality. The following statement may be useful when handling inquiries about manuscripts under consideration or previously rejected:

We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any manuscript unless and until such manuscript is published.

Editors should also establish policies and procedures to handle breaches of confidentiality by authors, peer reviewers, and editorial staff (see 5.7, Confidentiality). Expeditiousness.

Although the time required to evaluate a manuscript depends on many factors (eg, complexity of a specific manuscript, overall number of submitted manuscripts, resources of the editorial office, time allocated for peer review, and availability of efficient submission and review systems), an author has a right to expect to receive a decision within a reasonable time.11,12 Journals should publish an audit or otherwise make available to prospective authors turnaround times for manuscript decisions, peer review, and publication.2 See, for example, the annual audit published by JAMA 20 and 5.11.13, Editorial Audits and Research. If the review and evaluation of a manuscript are delayed significantly beyond the journal’s standard turnaround times for any reason, notifying the author of the reason for the delay is appropriate. Authors have a right to contact the editorial office to inquire about the status of their manuscripts. Many journals also offer authors the opportunity to check the progress of their submission online.

Editors should plan to accept manuscripts with knowledge of the number of accepted manuscripts awaiting publication, the number of pages allocated to the journal per year (for journals with print issues) or the number and types of articles that can be published during a year (in print, online, or both), the business model of the journal, and the resources available to evaluate, edit, and publish these articles and related content. Editors or their managers should monitor inventories of submitted and accepted manuscripts, manuscripts scheduled but not yet published, typical turnaround times for all stages of editorial processing and publication, and allocated resources (financial and human) to manage and publish the journal.

On occasion, an editor will receive a request from an author or a suggestion from a reviewer to expedite publication of a specific manuscript. The quickened pace of scientific discovery and heightened competition among scientists and journals have fostered an increase in requests for rapid review and publication, and technologic advances have facilitated the ability to do so.21,22,23,24 Many journals have procedures for accelerated consideration and publication. For example, JAMA and the JAMA Network journals have procedures for expedited peer review and editorial consideration of manuscripts reporting high-quality evidence (usually randomized clinical trials) that have immediate clinical or public health importance or perhaps research that is scheduled to be presented at a major meeting.22 Many journals routinely publish accepted manuscripts online ahead of print publication or publish articles online only. For the JAMA Network journals, such online-first and online-only publication includes appropriate procedures for editorial review and revision, editing, and proofing before online publication, as well as identification of the online publication date. This is especially important for journals that publish information that can affect clinical decisions and patient care. Other journals routinely release unedited copies of manuscripts while editing occurs and post the edited versions later. Readers should be informed whether a published manuscript has not yet been edited, and all versions should be properly identified and date stamped. For journals that do not routinely publish all content online ahead of print, a policy should be developed to allow for rapid consideration and early online publication of appropriate accepted manuscripts (eg, those with important and urgent implications for public health) that does not compromise the peer review and editorial decision processes or the integrity of the journal and does not result in the premature publication of an incomplete or inaccurate article (see 5.13, Release of Information to the Public and Relations With the News Media). Courtesy.

More than a mere extension of etiquette and convention, editorial politeness requires editors and all editorial staff to deal with authors and reviewers in a respectful, fair, professional, and courteous manner.10,11,12 Diplomacy, tact, empathy, and negotiation skills will help editors maintain positive relationships with authors, whether their work is accepted for publication or rejected. Note: Sections 5.11.2 through 5.11.7 focus on the editor’s responsibility for manuscript processing, assessment, and decisions (see 6.0, Editorial Assessment and Processing).

5.11.2 Acknowledging Manuscript Receipt.

Journals should send a notice to authors to acknowledge receipt of their manuscripts and provide names and contact information of relevant editorial staff. Acknowledgment letters may be sent automatically from manuscript submission systems, usually after an author has viewed the submission and confirmed that it is complete.

5.11.3 Editorial Responsibility for Manuscript Assessment.

The editor should establish and maintain procedures and policies for appropriate editorial assessment and decisions to accept, request revision of, and reject manuscripts (see 6.0, Editorial Assessment and Processing).4 The editor also establishes whether such decisions will be made unilaterally or by other editors (eg, deputy, associate, assistant, contributing, section, or guest editor) or in collaboration. However, the editor in chief has the ultimate responsibility for all editorial decisions, unless she or he is recused from the editorial process because of a conflict of interest (see, Conflicts of Interest, and 5.5.7, Requirements for Editors and Editorial Board Members).

Factors used to determine decisions should be made available to authors and reviewers. For example, JAMA Network journal editors use the following general criteria to evaluate manuscripts: material is original, writing is clear, study methods are appropriate, data are valid, conclusions are reasonable and supported by the data, information is important, and topic has general medical interest.25 Through instructions for authors and online peer reviewer forms, JAMA Network journal authors and reviewers are informed that these basic criteria are used to assess a manuscript’s eligibility for publication.

Depending on a journal’s business model and editorial resources and the number of manuscripts received, the editor may rely on a triage process to evaluate all manuscripts before peer review. Not all manuscripts will be appropriate for the journal, and after an initial assessment the editor may decide to reject some manuscripts without sending them for external peer review. For example, JAMA editors reject more than 70% of the approximately 7000 major manuscripts received annually without obtaining external peer review.20 In such cases, the editor’s duty to provide a detailed review to the author of each manuscript is outweighed by the duty to reviewers (by not requesting their time to review a manuscript that has no chance of publication), owners (by not consuming resources needlessly), and other authors who have submitted manuscripts to the journal (by maintaining efficient processes) (see 6.0, Editorial Assessment and Processing). In addition, the author may be best served by a prompt notification of a rejection decision if the manuscript is unlikely to make it through the journal’s review process and be considered for acceptance, thereby allowing the author to submit the manuscript to another journal without additional delay. Many journals also offer authors options to request that rejected manuscripts, with or without review, to be transferred quickly to other journals in a group (see, Journals With Cascading/Referral Systems for Rejected Manuscripts).

For manuscripts determined to be eligible for external review and additional consideration, all components of the submission should receive proper review and editorial assessment, including the manuscript text, tables, figures, and references, as well as relevant supplementary materials, documents, and multimedia files.

5.11.4 Editorial Responsibility for Peer Review.

Decisions about manuscripts are made by editors, not peer reviewers. Reviewers offer valuable advice, serve as consultants to the editor, and may make recommendations about the suitability of a manuscript for publication, but all editorial decisions should be made by the editors. Editors are obliged to be courteous to peer reviewers, provide them with guidance and explicit instructions (especially on the type of peer review or options used by the journal), assign only those manuscripts that are appropriate to specific reviewers (in terms of reviewer expertise and interest), maintain confidentiality if using blind or anonymous review, provide reviewers with sufficient time to conduct their review, and avoid overworking them.2,4 Editors should ask reviewers in advance whether they are available for and interested in reviewing a specific manuscript, unless they have a prior agreement to assign manuscripts to reviewers without advanced consent (see 5.5.6, Requirements for Peer Reviewers, and 5.7.1, Confidentiality During Editorial Evaluation and Peer Review and After Publication).

Many journals publish lists of reviewers’ names to acknowledge, credit, and thank them publicly for their work. Some journals offer qualifying reviewers continuing education credit, a letter of commendation that can be shared with supervisors or promotion committees, or complimentary subscriptions to the journal. Few journals offer financial compensation to peer reviewers, except perhaps those who may review a substantial number of manuscripts or perform specialized reviews (eg, statistical review). Editors should provide feedback to reviewers, such as notifying reviewers of the manuscript’s final disposition, sharing copies of other reviewer comments of the same manuscript, and providing regular assessments of the quality of the reviewer’s work.2,4 As a means to promote academic credit for peer reviews, some journals and postpublication services post or permit reviewers to post their reviews online, citations to reviews, or redacted indications that reviews were completed for specific journals during specific years, often with the inclusion of reviewer’s personal identifiers.

Editors should not share a specific review of a manuscript with anyone outside the editorial office, other than the authors and other reviewers, unless the journal operates a prepublication collaborative peer review system or an open peer review system that includes publication of reviewer recommendations and comments and reviewers are informed of this in advance. Editors should develop a specific policy regarding who has access to copies of a review, and this policy should be clearly communicated to all persons involved in the review process (see 6.0, Editorial Assessment and Processing, and 5.7.1, Confidentiality During Editorial Evaluation and Peer Review and After Publication).

Many journals develop databases of reviewers, including their addresses and affiliations, areas of expertise, turnaround times, and quality ratings for each manuscript review. Editors and publishers are obligated not to make secondary use of the information in the database without the prior consent of the reviewers and should never exploit the information for personal use, benefit, or profit (eg, selling a list of peer reviewers’ names and contact information for promotional purposes). For example, the JAMA Network journals offer peer reviewers the option to receive email alerts with new articles published by the journal for which they are reviewing, and the reviewers can indicate before they submit their review if they do not wish to receive these alerts.

5.11.5 Editorial Responsibility for Rejection.

Rejecting manuscripts may be one of the most important responsibilities of an editor. By rejecting manuscripts appropriately, an editor sets standards and defines the editorial content for the journal.11 Decisions to reject a manuscript may be based on a wide range of factors, such as lack of originality, lack of importance or relevance to the journal’s readers, poor writing, flawed methods, scientific weakness, invalid data, biased interpretations and/or conclusions, timeliness, or the specific publishing priorities of the journal.4 A rejection letter must be carefully worded to avoid offending the author and could express regret for the outcome but also must not raise false hopes about the merits of an unsuitable manuscript. Many editors avoid use of the word rejection in any letters, opting instead for phrases such as “we are unable to accept” or “your paper is not acceptable for publication.” However, editors should be certain that the intent of a letter of rejection is clear. If the letter sounds too much like a request for revision, the author may subsequently resubmit an irrevocably flawed manuscript, or worse, the author may resubmit a rejected manuscript, essentially unchanged, with the hope that the editor will not notice.11

An editor should determine on a case-by-case basis whether a standard rejection letter (form letter) or an individualized letter that explains the specific deficiencies of the manuscript should be sent to the author. Some editors recommend that for a manuscript rejected for “reasons of editorial choice (usually without outside editorial peer review), the editor has no obligation to provide the author any explanation beyond the statement that the manuscript was not considered appropriate.”8 Other editors suggest that all authors be provided a specific reason for rejection of their manuscript.4 However, a standardized (form) rejection letter that includes an explanation for rejection based on editorial priority (especially for large journals that receive large numbers of submissions or that have very low acceptance rates) or that is accompanied by copies of detailed reviewer comments is sufficient for many manuscripts that are rejected.

Editors should develop specific policies for the rejection process, including how to handle previously rejected manuscripts resubmitted with an appeal for reconsideration (see, Appeals).5,15,16 If the author’s appeal provides reasonable justification, the editor should carefully consider the appeal (see 6.1.5, Appealing an Editorial Decision).

Because journals do not own unpublished works (ie, copyright or a publication license is typically transmitted in the event of publication), journal offices should not keep print or electronic copies of rejected manuscripts for any period longer than that required to deal with appeals of decisions; they should be destroyed or deleted. JAMA Network journals retain copies of rejected manuscripts for 1 year (see, Record Retention Policies for Journals, and 5.6.5, Copyright Assignment or License).

Journals with low rejection rates may be new and building an inventory of publishable articles, may be associated with a discipline/specialty that encourages barrier-free publication, or may have an author-pay business model that requires publication of a large number of articles based solely on technical soundness. However, editors of these journals also have a responsibility to review and make careful decisions about publication of manuscripts that are incomprehensible, seriously flawed, covertly duplicate, associated with research misconduct, or otherwise do not meet the standards of the journal.26,27 Journals With Cascading/Referral Systems for Rejected Manuscripts.

Some journals and publishers have developed systems to refer rejected manuscripts to other journals within the same publishing group or consortium in a specific field to improve efficiency and reduce time to eventual publication. Authors should be informed in advance if such options are available and if manuscripts, related content, reviews, correspondence, and decisions will be shared with other specific journals. Authors should be permitted to accept or decline such options (see 5.7.1, Confidentiality During Editorial Evaluation and Peer Review and After Publication).

5.11.6 Editorial Responsibility for Revision.

The editor’s impartial focus on improving a manuscript facilitates the process of revision. According to Morgan,11 “in letters requesting revision the editor should use an impersonal tone in criticizing.” All such communication is best if the tone is objective and constructive. Editors should clearly communicate to authors what is expected in a revision; it may be helpful for editors to request that authors submit revised manuscripts with changes, additions, and deletions indicated and a cover letter that itemizes the changes made in response to each of the editor’s and reviewers’ comments and suggestions.

Editors are obligated to use sound editorial reasoning in requesting a revision. Editors must be skilled in arbitrating reviewer disagreements and reconciling contradictory recommendations, which may result from reviewers having diverse backgrounds, different expectations of the journal, and variable levels of expertise, diligence, or interest in the subject of the manuscript.11 Authors object to receiving inconsistent or contradictory comments from reviewers and editors and may object to new and different criticisms of the revised manuscript submitted in response to the initial review. Although editors can never be certain that new issues will not surface at the time of resubmission, they are obligated to evaluate all reviewer comments, address any inconsistencies or unreasonable criticisms, censor any inappropriate criticisms, and guide authors in preparing their revisions.4,8 Editors should also ensure that reviewers’ recommendations do not contradict the guidance in the journal’s instructions for authors, and if they do, this should be addressed in any request for revision; such direction can help prevent author confusion and frustration. Editors who make decisions about publication should not simply pass on reviewer comments without direction for the revision or by permitting reviewers’ recommendations to serve as the editor’s decision.

Some editors may be uncomfortable asking an author to revise a manuscript if there is a possibility that the revision will not be published. However, a revision may be needed to permit an author to provide missing data or information or to more clearly describe the study or work being reported so that the editor can properly evaluate the manuscript. The revision may also expose important weaknesses, limitations, or flaws that were not apparent in the original submission and that necessitate a decision to reject. Alternatively, a revision may introduce new issues or concerns or simply may not be satisfactory. In each of these cases, the editor’s responsibility to readers outweighs any obligation to publish the author’s revised manuscript. Editors should develop specific policies regarding requests for revisions, and the revision letter should state explicitly whether the author should or should not expect publication of a satisfactorily revised manuscript.4 For example, JAMA Network journal editors include language similar to the following in their revision letters:

If you decide to revise your manuscript along these lines, there is no guarantee that it will be accepted for publication. That decision will be based on our editorial priorities at the time, the quality of your revision, and perhaps additional peer review.

The rejection of a revised manuscript is probably best handled with a letter that tactfully explains why the revision was not acceptable. Although editors may need to ask for multiple revisions of a manuscript, such requests should include a detailed explanation to the authors. In most cases, these efforts serve to give the authors the best chance for their manuscript to reach a level of quality that is appropriate for acceptance and publication.

5.11.7 Editorial Responsibility for Acceptance.

Editors should follow consistent procedures to evaluate papers and make decisions regarding acceptance (see 5.11.3, Editorial Responsibility for Manuscript Assessment). Editors should inform authors of acceptance of their manuscripts in a letter that describes the subsequent process of publication, including substantive editing and any remaining queries; editing of the manuscript, tables, and figures and other content for accuracy, consistency, clarity, style, grammar, and formatting; and what material the author will be expected to review and approve before publication. Editors may also provide an approximate timetable for the publication process. If authors are given an expected date of publication, they should be informed of the likelihood of the date changing and, for journals with print versions, if the article will be published online first or online only. The acceptance letter should also remind authors of any policies regarding duplicate publication, disclosure of conflicts of interest, and restrictions on prepublication release of information to the public or the news media (see 5.3, Duplicate Publication and Submission; 5.5, Conflicts of Interest; and 5.13, Release of Information to the Public and Relations With the News Media).

Authors should avoid making substantial changes to the manuscript after acceptance, unless correcting an error, answering an editor’s request for missing information, responding to an editor’s or a proofreader’s query, or providing an essential update. Likewise, editors should review manuscripts before acceptance and avoid asking authors for substantial changes after final acceptance.

If circumstances (eg, change in editorial strategy or clustering of certain papers for simultaneous publication or a special issue) cause a delay in publishing an accepted manuscript beyond the typical time between acceptance and publication, editors should inform the corresponding author of the reason for the delay.

Editors should not reverse decisions to accept manuscripts after the authors have been notified unless serious problems are subsequently identified with the content of the manuscript (eg, flawed methods, inconsistent or invalid data, allegations of misconduct) or the author has failed to meet the journal’s publication requirements (eg, disclosure of duplicate submissions or publications, disclosure of conflicts of interest, transfer of copyright or a publication license).5 An example of editorial discourtesy in handling accepted manuscripts occurred when an editor “unaccepted” a manuscript that his journal had accepted unconditionally 20 months earlier. The reason provided to the authors for this change of decision was that the journal’s inventory of accepted manuscripts had become too large.28 However, if a new editor inherits from the journal’s previous editor a large inventory of accepted manuscripts deemed outdated or inappropriate, the new editor may have to find ways to deal with these manuscripts appropriately.5 In such a case, the editor may request a one-time or temporary increase in journal pages or resources from the publisher. If this is not a viable option, for financial or other reasons, the editor may choose to contact the authors of accepted manuscripts that have not yet been scheduled for publication and explain that too many manuscripts had been accepted to allow publication within a reasonable period. The editor may offer the authors options to withdraw their manuscript and send it to another journal, reduce the length of their manuscript to allow it to be published in the limited number of pages allocated to the print journal, or publish their manuscript online only. However, any decisions not to publish previously accepted manuscripts should be made carefully and perhaps with the consultation of the journal’s editorial board or legal adviser. Provisional Acceptance.

Some editors will grant authors a provisional acceptance, offering to publish their manuscripts if certain revisions, conditions, or minor requirements are met. Some journals use provisional or conditional acceptance for revision requests when they are fairly certain that the revision will be accepted for publication. However, use of a provisional acceptance as a request for revision can cause problems if the revised manuscript is not suitable for publication. To avoid such problems, provisional acceptance decision letters should clearly communicate that acceptance is contingent on specific conditions that are clearly described for the author. If a new editorial policy requires a new condition for publication to be met by authors who submitted manuscripts before the policy took effect, a provisional acceptance can be used to permit these manuscripts to move forward without unnecessary delay.

5.11.8 Correspondence (Letters to the Editor).

A scholarly journal should provide a forum for readers and authors to participate in postpublication peer review and scientific dialogue and to exchange important information, responsible debate, and critical assessment, especially with regard to articles published in the journal.2,3,24,29 A common forum for such exchange is the correspondence, or letters to the editor, section (see 1.5, Correspondence). Such letters become part of the published record and, like articles, are indexed by bibliographic databases. In the correspondence section, journal readers have the opportunity to offer relevant comments, query authors, and provide objective and scholarly criticism of published articles. Authors of articles to which the letters pertain should always be given the opportunity to respond, and editors should encourage authors to submit letters in reply and to address all criticisms. A study of 8 leading general medical journals found that the proportion of author replies to letters increased from 47% in 2002 to 63% in 2007.30 Another study of electronic letters published in the BMJ between 2005 and 2007 found that authors did not respond to 45% of criticisms in these letters.31 For journals that publish formal letters in a dedicated journal department, the letter author’s comments and criticisms and the author’s reply should be published in the same issue or online release to enable readers to evaluate the arguments presented. If an author chooses not to submit a reply for publication, the journal may publish a statement indicating that the author was shown the letter but declined to comment. Follow-up or later work that clarifies or amplifies a previous publication (other than a correction of an error or omission or retraction of fraud) may also be considered for publication as a letter4 (see 5.11.10, Corrections [Errata], and 5.4, Scientific Misconduct).

Editors should establish policies and procedures for processing and evaluating letters just as they have done for handling manuscripts, and these should be published in the journal’s instructions for authors or as part of the regular correspondence section. Like authors of manuscripts, authors of letters are expected to follow the same policies and procedures for authorship responsibility, disclosure of duplicate publication and submissions, disclosure of conflicts of interest, copyright or publication license transfer, research ethics, and protection of patients’ rights to privacy in publication.

Journals prefer to publish letters that objectively comment on or critically assess previously published articles, offer scholarly opinion or commentary on journal content or the journal itself, or include important announcements or other information relevant to the journal’s readers (although journals may have separate sections for announcements, meetings, and events). Letters that merely praise authors, the editor, or the journal rarely provide any meaningful or useful information. Likewise, ad hominem attacks should not be published. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) offers this guidance29: “responsible debate, critique and disagreement are important features of science, and journal editors should encourage such discourse ideally within their own journals about the material they have published. Editors, however, have the prerogative to reject correspondence that is irrelevant, uninteresting, or lacking cogency, but they also have a responsibility to allow a range of opinions to be expressed and to promote debate.”

Some journals also publish short reports (eg, <500-600 words) of original research, technical comments, or novel case reports in the correspondence column. For example, the JAMA Network journals publish these as Research Letters,32 and some of the JAMA Network journals publish short case reports as Observations in the Correspondence section. These reports should be handled as regular manuscripts, with peer review and revision, as necessary, and should follow all other editorial policies.

Many journals set limits on the length of letters that will be considered for publication (eg, ≤500 words and ≤5 references). Some journals will publish small tables or figures in letters, space permitting. To maintain timeliness, some journals also set a limit on the amount of time in which a letter sent in response to a published article must be received. For example, JAMA generally allows readers 4 weeks to submit a letter in response to a published article. Journals with time limits may allow exceptions for important letters that are submitted after the recommended deadline, especially for letters that identify important errors. Journals with space and time limits have been criticized for limiting postpublication scientific exchange and debate,33,34 but such criticism does not recognize the resource limitations of journals and their editorial and production staff or the practical concerns associated with gathering all relevant submitted letters on a specific article and sending them to the author for a reply and publishing these in a timely manner.

Many journals have addressed this criticism by permitting online-only correspondence or comments to be posted without such restrictions on length and timeliness. For instance, in 1998, the BMJ began an experiment with an unrestricted policy for online-only response letters that included no limitations on length, timeliness, or number of online postings.35 By 2002, the 20  000 online letters represented one-third of the journal’s total online content.36 After posting the 50  000th online-only letter in 2005, the BMJ recognized that the quality of some of these responses was low and commented that “the bores are threatening to take over. Some respondents feel the urge to opine on any given topic, and pile in early and often, despite having little of interest to say.”37 As a result, the BMJ added a maximum length requirement and raised the bar for acceptance of online letters to those that contribute “substantially to the topic under discussion.”37 Today, the BMJ requires all letters to the editor to first be submitted as online rapid responses, a selection of which will also be published as formal letters in the journal.38

Typically, a submitted letter undergoes an initial assessment, at which point it may be rejected, revised, or accepted. Some letters may be sent for peer review or accepted without external peer review. Letters on the same topic or in response to the same article should be grouped, sent to the author of the original article for reply (if necessary), and published in the same issue under one general title. Journals should cross-reference, and reciprocally link online, the original article and related letters to allow readers to identify and read the original articles and all related letters. Authors of letters should complete authorship forms, disclose conflicts of interest, and complete publishing agreements. Journals may edit accepted letters for content, length, clarity, grammar, style, and format. Authors should review and approve changes that alter the substance or tone of a letter or response.

For journals that publish online-only letters or comments, these postings may be reviewed to verify that they meet the journal’s guidelines and requirements for such postings, determine that they contribute substantially to the previous publication and/or the discussion under way, and check for libel, error, and gratuitousness. If accepted, these postings may require minimal or no editing. Journals that publish online-only letters or comments should require authors of these comments to report conflicts of interest. Note: Online-only letters and comments may not be indexed by bibliographic databases.

5.11.9 Social Media.

Journals and editors that use social media to promote journal content or to encourage public dialogue about published articles should follow the same ethical norms, standards, and responsibilities outlined in this section and others in chapter 5. Blog posts should be managed as are traditional journal opinion pieces and letters and should follow the guidelines on authorship, duplicate publication, conflicts of interest, intellectual property, confidentiality, protecting patients’ rights to privacy, and libel. Journals should review social media posts to ensure that text, images, and multimedia in posts adhere to the policies of the social media provider.

5.11.10 Corrections (Errata).

Journals should publish corrections (or errata) following errors or important omissions made by authors or introduced by editors, manuscript editors, production staff, printers, or online journal platform hosts.2,4,29,39According to the ICMJE, journal editors have a duty to publish corrections in a timely manner29; however, the age of the original article in which the error was made should not be used as a reason not to publish a correction. Corrections to print publications should be published on a numbered editorial page and listed in the journal’s table of contents. It is preferable to publish Correction notices in a consistent place in the journal, such as at the end of the correspondence section. If this is not possible or if corrections are routinely published in available white space in print versions of journals, these should still be listed in the journal’s table of contents. Correction notices should have titles and DOIs. If easily identified, Correction notices will then be included in literature databases, such as MEDLINE, and appended to online citations to the original article that contains the error.40 Substantive corrections made to online-only content and publications should be summarized in a Correction notice, which should also be properly labeled and identified (eg, listed in the online table of contents) and reciprocally linked to the original content. On occasion, an error may be so serious (eg, error in drug dosage) or important to the author (eg, misspelling of author’s name) to warrant immediate correction online. In this case, it should be made clear in the online article that a correction has been made, and a formal Correction notice should follow. An error may be deemed appropriate to correct online (eg, a typographical error or an error in XML tagging that affects display of an article or a formatting or linking error) that does not warrant a formal Correction notice.

For all corrected articles, it should also be made clear in the online article that a correction has been made, including a brief description of what was corrected (this note can be placed in the Article Information section). The ICMJE recommends that journals post a new corrected version of the article, indicating that this is a corrected article, with details of the changes from the original version and the date(s) on which the changes were made.29

Example of Correction notes in Article Information of corrected articles:

Correction: This article was corrected on July 24, 2018, to correct title errors in Figure 3 and Figure 4.

Correction: This article was corrected on February 1, 2019, to correct typographical errors.

In online publications and online versions of print journals, corrections should reciprocally link to and from the original article. Corrections should also be appended to all derivative publications (eg, reprints). If major errors are corrected in derivative publications, a note should be included that indicates that a correction has been made and/or links to a correction.

Corrections (or errata) should not be used for Retraction notices of fraudulent articles that result from fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism (see 5.4.5, Retractions and Expressions of Concern). However, articles with pervasive errors could require a retraction and replacement of the published article.41 For example, a pervasive error could result from miscoding of data or a miscalculation that caused extensive inaccuracies throughout an article (eg, Abstract, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusions, Tables, Figures, and Supplementary content). Correction of pervasive errors that result in major changes in the direction or significance of the originally published results, interpretations, and conclusions is a serious matter.41 However, if the errors were inadvertent and the underlying science is still considered valid after subsequent review, the original article can be retracted and replaced. This can be done with a letter of explanation from the authors that is published with the retracted and replaced article and a supplement that contains a copy of the original article with the errors highlighted and a copy of the replaced article with the corrections highlighted41 (see 5.4.6, Retraction and Replacement for Articles With Pervasive Errors).

See Table 5.11-1 for a list of types, definitions, and publication responses for errors, corrections, and retractions.

Table 5.11-1. JAMA Network Journal Policy on Corrections, Pervasive Errors, and Retractionsa



Publication response

Minor errors

Inconsequential errors (eg, typographical error that could result in misunderstanding)

Article corrected online: An indication of correction and date of correction are added to the article information (HTML and PDF versions).

Substantive errors

Errors that require a Correction notice (eg, author name misspelled, incorrect numbers, important missing information)

Correction notice published: The article is corrected online with indication of correction and date of correction added to the article information (HTML and PDF versions). The Correction notice and corrected article are reciprocally linked.

Pervasive errors

Inadvertent errors that result in the need to correct important or numerous data in the abstract, text, tables, and figures (eg, a coding error)

A.Letter and Correction: If none of the conclusions or interpretations are affected and there are no statistically significant changes in the primary results, a Letter of explanation from the authors and a Correction notice are published; the article is corrected online with indication of correction and date added to article information (HTML and PDF versions). The Letter, Correction notice, and corrected article are linked to each other.

B.Retraction and Replacement: If the direction or significance of the results, interpretations, and conclusions change—and the science is still valid—a Letter of explanation from the authors is published as a Notice of Retraction and Replacement; the corrected article is replaced online with indication of correction and date added to article (HTML and PDF versions); a PDF copy of the original article with the errors highlighted and a PDF copy of the replacement article with the corrections highlighted are published in an online supplement to the corrected, replaced article; the replacement article includes a prominent note: “This article has been retracted and replaced with a corrected version.” The Letter and replacement article are reciprocally linked.

C.Retraction: If the results, interpretations, and conclusions change—and the science is no longer valid—a Notice of Retraction is published (see below).

Scientific or research misconduct or  Pervasive errors that should not be corrected or replaced

Fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism  or  Pervasive errors that invalidate the results, interpretations, conclusions, and the underlying science

A.Retraction: If confirmed, a Notice of Retraction as a Letter from the authors or an Editorial from the editors is published. A prominent note and watermark are added to the retracted article (HTML and PDF versions): “This article has been retracted.” The Notice of Retraction and the retracted article are reciprocally linked.

B.Expression of Concern: If not officially confirmed by the authors or authors’ institution or funders, but evidence of scientific or research misconduct is substantial, a Notice of Expression of Concern may be published as an Editorial from the editors. A prominent note is added to the HTML and the PDF versions of the article: “An Expression of Concern has been published about this article.” The Notice of Expression of Concern and the article of concern are reciprocally linked.

a Reproduced from JAMA. 2017;318(9):804-805.39

5.11.11 Role of the Editorial Board.

Editorial boards comprise leaders and experts in the subject area(s) represented by a journal. Editorial board members provide various functions, including representing the journal and providing outreach to the community of readers and authors served by the journal; advising the editor on policies, editorial content, and editorial direction of the journal; serving as peer reviewers; writing and recruiting manuscripts; and assisting the editor on editorial decisions (ie, handling manuscripts with which the editor has a conflict, serving as guest editor, or serving as section editor or editor for specific types of manuscripts). For some journals, editorial board members serve as decision-making editors who conduct initial triage of the quality and suitability of manuscripts or assign manuscripts to peer reviewers. Journals without independent oversight committees may wish to position the editorial board with the ability to help maintain the editorial freedom and integrity of the editor and journal (see 5.10, Editorial Freedom and Integrity). For some journals, the editorial board may serve as the official governing body that appoints the editor in chief; however, in such cases, lines of authority for editorial management and decisions may become challenging. Editorial boards should be working functional boards with specific roles, responsibilities, direction, a clear reporting relationship, and term limits.10,42 Although nonworking figurehead boards may help the image or marketing of a journal, they will not provide reliable and consistent advice and assistance to the editor.

An editorial board should be independent of the publisher, owner, or other external forces, and the journal’s editor in chief should serve as the chair of the editorial board. Editorial board members should be selected and appointed by the journal’s editor, not the publisher or the owner.10 However, if the editor has an agreement with the publisher or owner that permits an external group (eg, a professional society or university that owns or has a formal relationship with the journal) to nominate board members, the editor should have the final authority to appoint these individuals and to review their performance, and the number of editorial board members identified by the owner or an external group should be limited to a minority of the total board membership. Editors should maintain confidentiality and fairness when making decisions to renew or not renew a specific board member’s appointment.

Editors should inform new editorial board members of their duties, responsibilities, and terms of service.5 Editors should develop, review, and update as necessary an editorial board member position description that clearly lists roles, responsibilities, requirements, and term limits. For example, see the position description for an editorial board member for JAMA (Box 5.11-1).

Box 5.11-1. Editorial Board Member Position Description

1.Attend annual meetings of their respective editorial board.

2.Permit their name to be placed on the masthead of the journal and their photo and profile to be used in marketing the journal.

3.Serve as an advisor for the editor.

4.Serve as reviewers/consultants for the journal, reviewing manuscripts as mutually agreed.

5.Serve as ambassadors to their scientific, clinical, and academic disciplines.

6.Assist in recruitment of authors, manuscripts, and reviews for the journal and help to promote the journal.

7.Write editorials, viewpoints, and other articles as mutually agreed.

8.Perform other duties as mutually agreed.

9.Not serve as a decision-making editor or editorial board member of a competing journal without the approval of the EIC.

10.Annually discloses to the editor in chief all financial interests and affiliations that could pose a conflict of interest, and promptly notifies the editor about any new potential conflicts of interest.

11.Comply with the recusal policy of the journal and promptly notify the editor in chief if a potential conflict arises.

12.Remain in good standing at their institutions and promptly notify the editor in chief if their status changes or comes under administrative review.

Board members are appointed for 2-year terms with a maximum tenure of ten (10) years, assuming consistent service and compliance with these responsibilities and expectations.

A conflict of interest policy should also be established for editorial board members (see 5.5.7, Requirements for Editors and Editorial Board Members). Editorial board members should disclose all relevant conflicts of interest (financial and nonfinancial) to the editor; they should not participate in the review of or decisions on any manuscripts in which they may have a conflict of interest; and they should never use information obtained during the review process, editorial consultation, or an editorial board meeting for personal or professional gain. Editorial board members may be asked to serve multiple journals, which may pose a conflict of interest, especially for journals that represent a small community or the same field or specialty. The following questions may help editorial board members and editors decide whether holding positions with 2 journals poses a conflict of interest: Are both journals competing for the same readership, subject matter, and authors? Are the editorial positions and responsibilities similar? Can the editorial board member meet this journal’s requirements as listed in the position description?

Journal editors should hold regular meetings of the editorial board, with an in-person meeting at least annually10 and conduct regular meetings via conference call or the internet as needed. In any case, the editor should communicate frequently with the editorial board members, ensure that board members understand their responsibilities and terms, and review the performance of each board member on a regular basis and before renewing a term.

5.11.12 Disclosure of Editorial Practices, Procedures, and Policies.

Underlying the ethics of editorial responsibility is the need for disclosure of editorial procedures and policies to authors, reviewers, and readers.5 Typically, these are listed, and explained as necessary, in the publication’s instructions for authors, which should be published and readily available on the journal’s website (if published online). Items that should be considered for inclusion in a journal’s instructions for authors or related resources for authors are listed in Box 5.11-2.

Box 5.11-2. Items That Should Be Considered for Inclusion in a Journal’s Instructions for Authors

Information About the Journal

✵Name, address, telephone number, email address, and URLs of the journal’s website and online submission system

✵List of editors and other staff and editorial board or link to this information

✵Journal’s mission, goals, and objectives or link to this information

✵Policies and procedures on editorial assessment, review, and processing (eg, turnaround times for reviews and decisions, type of peer review process, acknowledging receipt of submissions, editing and review of accepted manuscripts, postacceptance editing and production, appeals)

✵Journal editorial and publication policies or links to these policies

✵Types of manuscripts and topics or disciplines suitable for submission

✵General information about the journal (ownership, affiliations)

Requirements for Manuscript Submission

✵Name, address, telephone number, and email address of corresponding author and complete names of all coauthors, their email addresses, and institutional affiliations

✵Methods and requirements for submitting manuscripts, tables, figures, multimedia, supplemental files, and cover letters

✵Style and format of manuscript text, tables, figures, references, abstracts, multimedia, and supplementary material

✵Specific requirements for categories of manuscripts (eg, reports of original research, reviews, letters, editorials, or journal-specific features) and any reporting guidelines

✵Technical submission information (eg, figure file types and sizes, video format and sizes)

Requirements for Manuscript Consideration and Publication

✵Policies on authorship, contributions of authors, access to data, and acknowledging assistance

✵Policy on expectation of originality of submitted manuscript and notification of duplicate or closely related manuscripts or preprints

✵Policy on disclosure of conflicts of interest

✵Policy on disclosure of funding and the role of the sponsor

✵Policies for registration of studies and data sharing

✵For experimental investigations that involve human or animal participants, policy on approval by ethics committee or institutional review board and informed consent or appropriate animal care and use

✵Policy on including identifiable descriptions, photographs, audio, or video of patients and relevant permissions

✵Policies on obtaining permission for republishing or adapting previously published material

✵Policies on embargos and prepublication release of information

✵Policies on publishing agreement, transfer of copyright, or publication license

✵Policies on public access and/or open access and any fees

When an important editorial policy is first created or undergoes a major revision, it should be announced to prospective authors, reviewers, and readers. The easiest way to accomplish this is to publish an editorial note or an editorial. Editors should also draw attention to major changes in policy and procedures in the journal’s instructions for authors and correspondence with authors.

Editors should also ensure that all individuals responsible for contributing to the publication are properly identified, typically in the masthead (eg, editorial and publishing staff, editorial board members, advisers, oversight bodies or publication committees, and owners). Other items that should be disclosed include any sources of financial support or other sponsorship that supports the publication.

5.11.13 Editorial Audits and Research.

Many journals conduct internal assessments, audits, and research into various aspects of the editorial process. For example, a journal may produce monthly or annual reports from its database of manuscripts, authors, peer reviewers, and decision-making editors to track inventory, workflow, and efficiency.2 Editors may also rely on regular reports of article and journal key performance metrics, such as article views/downloads, citations, and news and social media coverage. Trends from these reports can help editors determine the number and types of manuscripts to accept for publication, assess the performance of specific types of articles and topics, assess staffing needs, track reviewer performance, and determine when to institute corrective action or a change in editorial strategy. For example, JAMA publishes an annual editorial audit that includes many performance metrics as well as the number of manuscripts received the previous year, acceptance rates, and the turnaround time for manuscripts that are reviewed, accepted or rejected, and published.20 Many journals also publish dates of acceptance and key usage metrics with each article.

In addition, some journals systematically analyze information from submitted manuscripts as part of research to improve the quality of the editorial or peer review processes. All identifying information should remain confidential during such assessments, and any research conducted should not interfere with the review process or the ultimate editorial decision. For example, JAMA’s Instructions for Authors inform prospective authors that information related to their submissions may be subject to such analysis and that confidentiality will be maintained.25 If a research project involves change in the journal’s usual review process (eg, random assignment to a different review procedure), authors should be informed and given the opportunity to choose whether they want their manuscripts to be included in the study. Their decision to participate or not should not adversely affect the editorial consideration of their manuscript in any way.

5.11.14 Editorial Quality Review.

Quality review should be included in every journal’s operations. Before and after publication, editorial and production staff and advisers should review each issue, online release, or a selection of articles and other content for errors (which, if detected, should be considered for publication as corrections), problems in presentation and format, and general appearance. All editorial and publishing staff should have the opportunity to participate in the quality review process, and all errors, problems, and suggestions for improvement should be communicated to the editor as well as those directly involved in editing and producing the publication.

Principal Author: Annette Flanagin, RN, MA


I thank the following for review and helpful comments: Helene Cole, MD, formerly associate editor at JAMA, Clive, Iowa; Carissa Gilman, American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Georgia; Timothy Gray, PhD, JAMA Network; Iris Y. Lo, JAMA Network; Fred Rivara, MD, MPH, JAMA Network Open and University of Washington, Seattle; and Jody Zylke, MD, JAMA.


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