My first 12 months as a journal editor

After my first year as an Academic Editor at PLOS One, I’ve learned a lot about the peer review process, including what happens to my own papers when I submit them for review, and why sometimes it takes longer than you expect to get reviews back.

Getting editorial experience. How do early-mid career researchers find access to editorial experience? I have no idea what the norm is. But I think access to mentorship in this process is a critical gap for early career researchers. Not only does it enable early career researchers to contribute a vital service to their research community, it also gives us an opportunity to gain some perspective on the editorial process when we submit our own papers for review.

I’ve been reviewing papers for about 6 years, across more than 30 journals, but the editorial process was a mystery to me. I’d applied numerous times to the open calls for associate editors from British Ecological Society journals without luck, and very few other journals advertise for editorial roles.

A year ago, PLOS invited me to handle a revised paper as a ‘guest editor’ because, as one of the peer reviewers, I had done a thorough review of the original version and the previous handling editor was no longer available. After handling this one-off paper, I was then invited to join permanently as an academic editor. I’m so grateful for the experience!

In the 12 months I’ve been an editor, I’ve handled 14 papers (two still under review). These come to me as invitations from the admin office, similar to how peer review invitations work. I declined more than 30 other papers because I didn’t have the time or expertise to handle them. All stats below are from my own editorial record, and are not indicative of the journal overall.

When the author submits their paper, it goes to the admin office for preliminary checks, who then invite suitable editors to handle the paper. Whichever editor accepts first, gets the paper to handle – but this can drag on for a while until an invited editor responds. This is good to know, next time you’re wondering why your manuscript is taking so long to be reviewed.

  • Average days until manuscript assigned to me as editor: 14
  • Average number of editors invited before me: 22
  • Record number of editors invited before me: 60
  • Record number of days until assigned to me: 34

Inviting reviewers can take a while. Once I’ve accepted the handling invitation, I then start inviting peer reviewers. This takes me a couple of days, as I need to have a quick read of the paper first: (a) to determine if it’s suitable to send for review and (b) to identify the most appropriate reviewers.

Reviewers are given 6 days to reply to the invitation, so I wait until they decline or the 6 days is up (whatever comes first) before I invite the next potential reviewer. As a reviewer, I accept or decline a peer review invitation within ~24 hours of when I get it, so I was surprised at how long this process took as an editor.

  • Total reviewers invited across all papers: 49
  • Average number of reviewers invited per paper: 4
  • Record number of reviewers invited: 10
  • Decline rate: 33%
  • Accept rate: 49%
  • No response rate: 18%
  • Average time to respond to invitation: 2.6 days

It is totally fine to decline a review invitation! But do it quickly so the editor can move on to inviting others. I’ve heard some academics gloat proudly that they delete all journal invitations without reading them because they are too busy. Please don’t do this. It takes an extra 5 seconds of your life to click on ‘Decline invitation’…but those 5 seconds of your time are worth a thousand times more in service to your research community.

If you can, please also suggest an alternative reviewer. You don’t have to do this, but I do appreciate people who decline with an explanation, i.e. on holidays, parental leave etc. (I am more likely to invite those people again in future, compared to no response/declines without explanation). I also appreciate when they suggest an alternate reviewer (only four reviewers out of 16 did this).

As an editor, I don’t care how long you take to review, as long as it is thorough and reasonable. PLOS has a default review deadline of 10 days. I don’t think this is enough incentive to get good reviewers to accept, so I extend all my invitations to 14 days. In reality, I don’t care if you take longer…just let us know! Some reviewers go AWOL, despite constant reminders from the journal office, which just holds up the process for everyone. If you are already registered to review a manuscript, you will not be kicked off for a reasonable extension request. Life happens, and we are all human – please tell us if you need more time.

  • Average days to submit review: 14

Who are the reviewers? My priority as an editor is always to find the ‘most appropriate’ reviewer for the subject matter. But I’m also very conscious of seeking female and early career researchers that fit that criteria in the first instance. With this goal in the forefront of my mind, I’m happy to find that I’ve ended up with equal gender distribution for the completed reviews I’ve received. The number of high-quality non-tenured reviewers is great to see too.

  • Number of male invited reviewers: 24
  • Number of female invited reviewers: 25
  • Number of tenured invited reviewers: 16
  • Number of non-tenured invited reviewers: 33

This context is also interesting when considering who accepts and who declines. Female invitees were the most common non-responders; and non-tenured researchers were the most common accepters of review invitations. Otherwise, distributions were pretty even.

  • No response: 6 female, 3 male; 3 tenure, 6 non-tenure
  • Decline invitation: 7 female, 9 male; 8 tenure, 8 non-tenure
  • Accept invitation: 12 female, 12 male; 5 tenure, 19 non-tenure

Thank you to all the awesome reviewers who have accepted and contributed awesome reviews, and the wonderful journal staff who have assisted me along the way! I’m looking forward to seeing how my stats evolve over the next year.


© Manu Saunders 2019

14 thoughts on “My first 12 months as a journal editor

  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel January 20, 2019 / 9:51 PM

    Manu, I’m so glad you posted this! And it’s clear you’re doing a good, thoughtful job (BES missed out!). Your experience is broadly consistent with my own, with the expected variation in process among journals.

    One thing surprised me – “Average number of editors invited before me: 22”. Can you say more about that? That seems like a remarkable number, but of course I’m comparing it to my own experience at FACETS and at the American Naturalist, where I suspect that number is <1 and likely <<1. (Although I don’t actually have access to it, so I’m extrapolating from how often I turn one down, and a few other clues). How does the editor-invitation process work at PLOS One, and can you speculate as to how so many editors are declining to handle? (It just occurred to me – is 22 maybe a typo for 2.2?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders January 21, 2019 / 7:50 AM

      Thanks Steve. No, that’s not a typo. Essentially, the submitted paper goes to the office, which then invites suitable editors on the books that fit that subject area (I suppose this is similar to most journals). I’m not sure why some papers go through more invitations than others, I guess similar to peer review invitations! The minimum number of editors before me was 3, the max was 60, as I wrote above, most papers were 9 or more.


  2. Bartosz Bartkowski January 20, 2019 / 10:02 PM

    Thanks for the very interesting post (given that for non-editors this is usually essentially a black box). I’ve always wondered though whether journals/publishers provide editors with any sophisticated databases to help with finding reviewers – including info on expertise, response time etc, but also your own criteria such as gender, tenure or nationality (e.g. if one would like to support non-“Northern”/”Western” researchers).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders January 21, 2019 / 7:55 AM

      Thanks Bartosz, great comment. I wasn’t given any databases, I invite reviewers based on people who have published in a similar topic and are likely to provide the most thorough review. So I search recent literature in the field, and sometimes use the Early Career review database here: I always try to find people outside North America, but my first priority is to find someone who has the knowledge & skills to provide a thorough review.


  3. Omotuyole Ambali January 21, 2019 / 4:19 PM

    What an interesting story to read! I specifically appreciate the writer, PLOS editor, for informing young researchers about the challenges in the editorial process


  4. Marco Mello January 23, 2019 / 2:03 AM

    Thank you very much for this post! We don’t find this kind of backstage information so often. By the way, what is the difference between “decline” and “unavailable”? In some journals, there are those two options to decline a review through the online system.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders January 23, 2019 / 6:59 AM

      Thanks Marco. I think unavailable is generally used if the paper is in your field but you are not available at the time to review. But I don’t really know how much difference there is between the two! As an editor, I just get notified that the reviewer has declined or accepted, with explanation for decline if they have provided one.


  5. Chris Mebane January 23, 2019 / 7:48 AM

    Very nice post! One thing that is quite different for PLOS from smaller, society journals is the hunt for an academic editor. I was quite surprised to learn that in your case, on the average PLOS invited 22 editors before you bit, and as many as 60. And in a year you turned down handling 30 papers because they were poor fits or bad timing. Do you get a sense that these handling requests are from people or algorithm driven? With ~>30,000 submissions per year and >6000 academic editors, I have to think at least the first cut is automated, presumably in part from author suggestions. Also, I presume the journal doesn’t let handling editor requests sit long, otherwise it could take a couple of months just to assign an editor. Quite different from how the handling editor requests are made at a much smaller, society journal. Other than conflicts of interests, an AE who habitually turns down handling requests will soon get a nice letter from the EIC thanking them for their services which are no longer needed.

    Reading your post, I wonder why more early/mid career scientists aren’t tapped as AEs once they have a solid record or publishing and reviewing. (After all, law journals are mostly run by law students, at least for a lot of journals in the US). In my last editorial board meeting, one of graybeards sounded off on the further decline of science standards because of slacker AEs such as yours truly who admitted to asking PhD students to review papers. Students, have you! Well Graybeard, by the time they are well advanced into their research and have a publication or two under their belt, PhD students are among the world experts on their particular topic, so tell it to someone else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders January 23, 2019 / 12:44 PM

      Thanks Chris! The invites are from people, but there might be an algorithm influence in how the find editors. I have noticed that I am getting more relevant invites now, compared to when I first started, so perhaps they weren’t quite sure what my expertise was at first. The categories you can select to define your areas are quite general. Obviously the variation in number of editors is important too – they don’t all take 60 invites to find someone! But it was helpful for me to understand the process, after only having author experiences. I published in PLOS once a few years ago, and my paper took a couple of months to get sent for review because they had trouble finding an editor willing to handle it. Now I understand what that means.

      Great point about early career, completely agree!


  6. cinnabarreflections January 25, 2019 / 4:21 AM

    Excellent post as always! I was subject editor for Environmental Entomology for 10 years, and have also served for The Canadian Entomologist and our regional Journal of the Entomological Society of BC. In all cases I was recommended by someone, or recruited by the sitting EiC. I believe that providing timely, thorough and fair reviews is the best way to get invited to an editorial post. The selection of editors at PLOS One may be a function of the broad scope of that journal. Entomology journals tend to have editors responsible for specific subdisciplines, so the selection is a bit more straightforward than what you describe above. I agree with virtually everything you state, but I can add that by far, the most significant delay in the process is due to non-responses. It is important to remember that this is on occasion caused by spam filters, because the requests nowadays are generated by the online system. Therefore, I try to send a reminder directly to make sure that the req

    Liked by 1 person

  7. cinnabarreflections January 25, 2019 / 4:28 AM

    Sorry – accidental submission. Continued: Therefore, I try to send a reminder directly to make sure that the request was received in the first place. The second most significant delay was due to slow reviewers, but like you, I was quite flexible with the timing. We have to rememvber that reviewers are volunteers. In terms of the people who habitually decline or ignore requests, it should be said that 10% of the reviewers provide a disproportionate portion of the reviews. Interestingly, my favourite go-to reviewers were often among the busiest and most productive one (shout-out to Simon Leather, who almost never declined!). Finally, the journals I served for have databases (Env Ent an extensive one), but they are only as useful as the information the reviewer has entered. Anyway, great blog – thanks for that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris Mebane January 25, 2019 / 7:10 AM

      Good point about the spam filters! They probably are picking off invites, and there have to be a lot of people like me who seldom remember to look there.

      Uh oh, something tells me Simon Leather might might have to start declining invites after being outed. That’s like divulging your favorite collecting sites.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Manu Saunders January 25, 2019 / 7:29 AM

        Thank you Staffan! Great points. Yes, I’ve wondered about spam filters. At PLOS the reviewer gets daily automated reminders about the invitation if they don’t respond straight away, so some of these might get through. The other potential issue is old email addresses – I always search for a potential reviewer online first to check their current email address & sometimes it’s not the same address that is in the system. But I do always make an effort to use their most current address to ensure it gets to them.


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