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Editorial Boards: A Step Up the Academic Career Ladder


Adapted from an article published in the April 2001 Women in Neuroscience newsletter .

Serving as a reviewer and editor for a scholarly journal in your field is a key step in the career progression of a research scientist. It is a lot of work, and can take a toll on your lab and the time you can give to students and postdocs. The payoff comes not from financial compensation, but with the increased visibility being an editor bestows. Indeed, not only do you increase your visibility, but you also increase your knowledge of your field. "You have to get into editing to get to the top of your field," says Lisa Bero, associate professor of clinical pharmacy and health policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. "That's how you know what is going on."

Experience on an editorial board can be a significant contributing factor to career progression in the research sciences. How can you improve your chances at becoming an editor? And more specifically, how can the numbers of women and other underrepresented groups be increased to match their numbers in the ranks of research scientists? 1 In this article, current and former editors of bioscience journals comment on the editorial review process, describe how editors and reviewers are chosen, and offer concrete suggestions on how to get involved in editorial review.

The Editorial Review Process

The process of review is dependent upon the editorial structure of a given journal. Journals such as Nature, Neuron, and Science have full-time editorial staffs who handle the review process. Editors are generally assigned papers based on areas of specialization and often manage 10 manuscripts per week. These editors have the final say on whether a manuscript is accepted or rejected. Journals with part-time editors handle the review process differently. Usually a full-time managing editor sends papers to one or more members of the editorial review board, who may either provide reviews or solicit reviewers and then recommend acceptance or rejection based on reviewer comments. Board members in this model may or may not have final say in the decision to publish.

Carol Barnes, professor of psychology and neurology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, is a reviewing editor at the Journal of Neuroscience, a 3-year appointment for which she receives no compensation. In 2 years Barnes has processed almost 700 papers to peer reviewers. Based on the reviewer comments, she makes a recommendation to the senior editor that each manuscript be accepted, re-reviewed after revisions, or rejected. "Sometimes the senior editor does not agree with my recommendation. There is back-and-forth on this. It is a good process and nobody takes offense." Barnes has received funding from the university to hire an assistant to provide clerical support to assist her with the manuscript review process. She considers herself fortunate, because "without this help, I would have had to decline this position."

The Selection of Editorial Board Member

Full-time editors are routinely solicited through advertisements in journals and related publications. They are usually hired from a postdoctoral position, and their career progression follows the professorial model. "Assistant editors walk in the door as practical scientists," explains Sandra Aamodt, deputy editor at Nature Neuroscience. "They usually have some history of writing, helping others with manuscripts, but no formal training. The training is done as an apprenticeship. You get handed manuscripts and someone watches over you. As a new editor, you cannot make a final decision to accept or reject a paper. With more experience at making editorial decisions, you get more independence."

Cynthia Kuhn, professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, is one of about 15 associate editors at the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (JPET). Like Barnes and Bero, she runs a lab, teaches classes, and serves as an editor part-time. "I was asked to be associate editor when the editor of the journal changed. The editor knew of me by reputation because I often publish in JPET. For at least this journal, the editor personally selects associate editors--there is no 'application' process. I have this position until a new editor comes along or the current one wants to replace me. Remaining an associate editor is directly linked to performance, if we get reviews done in a timely way, and interact positively with authors so they are not calling the editor to yell at him, we keep our positions. The position is an honorific--I get no salary. I am compensated a fixed amount per manuscript for the costs of mailing and the like."

Word-of-mouth was equally important for Barnes and Bero, who were both invited to serve as reviewing editors by an editor-in-chief. Barnes had served as an associate editor for the Journal of Neuroscience and was recommended for the reviewing editor position by the outgoing editor. Her expertise casts a broad net over basic electrophysiology, development, aging, and learning and memory, which gave her an interdisciplinary foundation great for a reviewing editor position. Bero had previously served on the editorial board for the British Medical Journal and was well known by the editor of Tobacco Control. Both Barnes and Bero stress the significance of their prior experience as reviewers who were considered to do complete and timely reviews.

How to Be a Good Reviewer

Clearly, to progress to a part-time editorial board position, one must first have experience reviewing. "Editorial board members are chosen from the population of excellent reviewers," says Susan Koester, former senior editor at Neuron. "Journal editors are always looking for good reviewers and a great one is a rare and wonderful commodity. A great reviewer knows a lot about their field and something about the fields outside their own. They understand and can articulate the difference between an incremental advance of interest only to the cognescenti and a major leap forward of interest to the broader community. Furthermore, they are willing to do this frequently."

How do editors find reviewers? Editors seem to tailor their own criteria. Barnes considers three key factors: has the person published in the best journals, do others cite the person's work, and is there evidence the person can review manuscripts quickly and thoroughly?

For other editors, a face-to-face meeting gives a better impression of reviewer quality than papers written. The Nature journals do not maintain an editorial board, and editors find reviewers at meetings and by word of mouth. Aamodt, for example, attends over 10 meetings per year, where she spends much of her time looking for potential reviewers and encouraging people to volunteer. "If you sound sharp and enthusiastic, I'll add you to my list." Nature editors usually calibrate a new reviewer in parallel with two others they know and trust before they are added to the reviewer database.

Diversifying Editorial Boards

Increasing the proportion of women and minorities who are editors will require a concerted effort. "The big challenge is to get enough women senior enough in their fields and with enough name recognition that they become an obvious choice," said Kuhn. She has seen quotas used to increase the proportion of women in grant review panels. "Once there however, you become known for your judgement, diligence, and commitment. That is a model in which the benefits of quotas are clear. In editorships, there is no way to mandate this, because these are privately funded operations."

Koester thinks the key is increasing the number of good women reviewers. "When you suggest reviewers for your manuscripts, suggest women. You know your field better than the journal editor and they are always looking for more good reviewers. If you are asked to review too many papers one month, ask the women postdocs or graduate students in your lab to assist you with the review--and teach them how to do it effectively. This is part of good mentoring and will help develop their reputation as good reviewers. Finally, if there are women you think should be editorial board members, suggest them to the journal editor. A constructive suggestion of a good person will go a lot farther than a letter simply calling on journals to increase the number of women on their boards. Politically, if it comes from someone who is already a board member, it will go even farther." Bero agrees: "Take every opportunity to peer-review when asked. This is how editors find people. Sometimes a senior person will pass a review on to a junior colleague. You can ask the journal editor if it is ok to do a co-peer review. But if you do this, make sure the junior person gets their name on the review letter."

All the editors agreed: The bottom line is that you need to get your name out there.

1. K. Dickersin, L. Fredman, K. M. Flegal, J. D. Scott, and B. Crawley, "Is there a sex bias in choosing editors?" JAMA 280/3, 260 (1998).

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