Editors in scholarly publishing

From guiding journal policy and making decisions on manuscripts, to correcting text and facilitating print and online publication, editors support authors at almost every stage of the publication process. How can the same title encompass so many different roles and responsibilities?

Editor definition

The proliferation of the word ‘editor’ in publishing contexts can be confusing, as it has several different meanings. Generally, there are two types of editor: those who collect or curate material to create a coherent whole; and those who correct or modify material for publication. In other words, those who work on articles before acceptance and those who work on them after acceptance.

A Journal Editor is an example of the former definition: he or she collects material by inviting or commissioning manuscripts from authors, and curates it by making editorial decisions on its suitability for publication. This includes the Editor-in-Chief and any Associate Editors who are involved in editorial decision-making. Of course, Journal Editors have many more responsibilities, but they are perhaps best known for their role in ensuring that a journal has a sufficient number of high-quality manuscripts for timely publication.

Commissioning Editors and Acquisition Editors concentrate on increasing the number of commissioned articles in a journal. They collect material by inviting manuscripts from suitable authors according to the journal’s requirements, and curate it by ensuring that the content meets the journal’s (and community’s) standards. Guest Editors, who are usually recruited for short periods to work on specific projects such as special issues, perform similar tasks.

Beyond the editorial advice that they might offer to authors on their manuscripts, this first type of editor is now rarely (if ever) involved in the actual preparation of manuscripts for publication. That task falls to the second type of editor: those who correct or modify material before it is published.

Even prior to manuscript submission, authors may choose to send their work to a Language Editor. Because a manuscript that is difficult to understand will be almost impossible to assess, it is in authors’ best interests to ensure that their manuscripts are in the best shape before they undergo peer review. Few authors are trained to write scientific manuscripts, and many write in a non-native language. The services offered by Language Editors vary, but they tend to focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax and word usage and may even include ongoing editing advice for authors.

Authors needing more support with their writing may turn to a Developmental Editor, who analyses the overall structure and logic of a manuscript, offering in-depth substantive editing.

Once a manuscript has been accepted, many journals rely on a Copy Editor to ensure that it conforms to house style – such as whether the journal uses US or British spelling, and what reference format is preferred. Automatic editing software can perform much of this document clean-up and formatting without the need for manual intervention, but copy editors may still be used if additional editing – such as ensuring that the text is clear and consistent and contains no errors in grammar or spelling – is required. The extent of a copy editor’s changes depends on the quality of the manuscript and the expectations of the journal. Some journals may skip this step entirely, relying instead on authors to ensure that their manuscripts meet the journal’s requirements.

Journals catering to a niche audience may use additional editors such as a Technical Editor or Statistical Editor to ensure that complex topics are described accurately and at the right level of complexity for readers.

Other editors can’t be as easily categorised into one of the two types described here. For example, the publishing staff member responsible for managing the process from acceptance to publication – including copy editing by in-house or external editors – is usually called the Production Editor. Other management roles with little to no direct involvement in actual editing are the Managing Editor and the Executive Editor. These position descriptions vary between publishers, but tend to be senior members of staff who oversee all aspects of journal publication. Although they aren’t usually directly involved in collecting or curating material for publication, Managing Editors and Executive Editors enable the Journal Editors to carry out those tasks.

Several publishers rely on a Publishing Editor to perform some of the tasks described here; in some cases, they are responsible for acquisitions, whereas other publishers may use the same title to describe employees who are involved in peer review, manuscript editing and proofing. An Assistant Editor may have a similarly broad range of – often entry-level – responsibilities.

All this means that in the course of taking their manuscript from preparation through to submission and eventual publication, an author may encounter as many as four or five different editors, with several more working behind the scenes. Despite their different roles and responsibilities, the editors each have a discrete skills set and carry out an important part of the publishing process.

Author: Caroline Hadley