Who oversees journal editors?

Academic publishing needs more transparency, clearer appeals processes and more safeguards against citation fraud, says Afroz Ahmad Shah

February 16, 2020
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Editors and reviewers are the most important authorities in academic publishing because they read, examine and ultimately decide the fate of a submitted paper.

This work is often not paid, making the commitment to it even more admirable. However, this fascinating process becomes suspicious when the editorial board of a journal refuses to publish a paper for unfounded reasons or when one of its members appears to benefit from multiple citations in the publication.

Editorial boards are human and undoubtedly have their own biases. But authors who wish to appeal against a decision face a complaints procedure that is time-consuming and often fruitless because appeals are made to established professional networks that often come down on the side of the editor.

I am writing this based on one of my own submission rejections; it is a case where I strongly felt that the journal editors were biased because my paper was turned down immediately with scant explanation as to why.

Rejections can often be more helpful than acceptances because they provide scholars with a rare opportunity to reflect on and improve their work. I greatly appreciate rejections precisely for this reason, but the quick dismissal accompanied by “I find that the manuscript does not break new ground or offer insightful new methodology” puts a question mark on the role of editing for the purpose of providing helpful criticism.

I contested the decision for my rejection and sought further explanation from both the associate editor and the editor-in-chief, but I didn’t receive a satisfactory reply. This raises an important question as to who should oversee the credibility, accountability and ethics of journal editors.

What’s more, when I researched this particular editor, I was surprised to discover that a number of his own papers had been published in the same journal that he edits and manages. This revelation is quite suspicious. The entire process should be made more transparent – any papers that are authored or co-authored by editors published in the same journal where they work must thoroughly be reviewed.

In another strange occurrence, an associate editor of a respected earth sciences journal asked me to cite his many papers when he was reviewing my submission. When I looked him up, I found heaps of publications in the same journal that he edits – and shockingly, his citations skyrocketed after he became editor. I found one paper that he had reviewed in which 13 of his publications were cited. This type of citation fraud demands a solution.

Some editorial board members will always use various ways to influence the publication system and use their power to inflate their own research. But there is no overarching regulator that can look into complaints of bias and take legal action where necessary. This exposes serious problems in the world of research ethics and is also the possible reason for the growth of predatory journals worldwide.

The first step towards a more transparent editorial process would be to build a group of external review experts who will look into the decisions that are routinely made by editorial boards. This could be done formally in collaboration with publishers.

Another step would be to establish an independent organisation to evaluate the decisions of editorial teams on a case-by-case basis. Included in this would be a web portal where authors could upload and see editorial decision letters and reviews for free. Such a portal could also feed in to a database that could be examined, scrutinised and possibly used to monitor patterns of biases or take action on any decisions that are made.

And since the problems are most probably related to the unethical behaviour of certain individuals in editorial teams, university-level ethics groups could go a long way towards keeping an eye on researchers’ activity as editors and their citations records.

It might go against the great traditions of academic publishing, but procedures that target citation fraud and create greater transparency can help make it a more merit-based decision process.

Afroz Ahmad Shah is an assistant professor of structural geology in the department of physical and geological sciences at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam.

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Reader's comments (4)

This is absolutely correct. A higher education journal in Hong Kong I have previously published with rejected my latest article with only the comment, "There is no comparative analysis." Startling since the entire article is ONLY a comparative analysis from start to finish! No response to my reply, no other information, just a flatout rejection. But, this is indicative of the way most editors are doing these days. No real comments on why it is being rejected. There is a bias that exists that is seemingly based on whether the article cites previous works from the journal in question (literally ehat I have been told), or if the journal is attached to an institution and editors are pressured to have a certain quota of internal articles published (also what I have been told face-to-face). Whatever the case, legititmate studies are being rejected due to a corrupt editorial procedure, and an oversight AND judicial system is needed to certify editors and enforce regulations that help to decriminalize the editing procedure. It is vile in its current state, and editors should be held accountable.
I have an article that I have been trying to publish since end 2017. Each time I submit the article I wait 4 to 8 months before the article is rejected, with words like it is not in the scope of the journal, even thought there are simpler articles in the journal. An other reason they give is that the article is poorly written. It take so long for a response, then have a short nothing saying statement for the rejection is very demotivating for young researchers, these kinds of responses is killing research. I agree there need to be more control in the industry.
Prof.Afroz Ahmad Shah I am an academic research scholar, after reading your Coloumn, I agree with all your valid expalinations. It is a fact and 100% truth, whether you mentioned in your Coloumn. I would like to share my recent experience with you, I submitted my manuscript to few journals, but to due some indexing issues and higher publication charges, I requested the jeditor to withdraw it. I thought that is all my paper is not withdraw and sent it to the journal , Which found to satisfactory. graceful after some time, my manuscript was accepted for submission but not yet published. In Jan 2020, what I am seeing that my manuscript has been published in a special issues of a journal, Idon't want to mention its name here. After I reached, the editors of the journal from where I withdraw it, as they assured me that, the 100% security of authors data, withdrawn papers are always safe, . I then reached the editors of the journal where my manuscript has been illigitimately published and informed them about the issue, and ask me to provide the facts and proofs not merely accusations. I send them all the valid proofs but hardly they agreed. Still, I am on it trying to get the justice and retracting my manuscript and take necessary actions against the author's and the people involved in this fraud. We can not easily trust these editors and reviewers. I think, more then the editors, reviewers must be honest as as per my perception, maybe the reviewers of these journals had violated research ethics
Anyone with concerns about how a journal is being managed should raise them with the Publisher. A reputable publishing house will take and compliant seriously, especially where there are allegations of ethical misconduct. I’d recommend taking a look at the Committee of Publication Ethics, they do some fabulous work in this area and journals and publishers can sign up to be members, which means they have to follow a transparent code of conduct.