From the Editor’s Desk: What are the key responsibilities of a journal editor?

This week, as part of our continuing series on academic journal publishing, we are featuring five Q&A’s with journal editors. In today’s edition, we asked the contributors to offer their insight into the key responsibilities of a journal editor. Read their responses to this question below and follow along with our Journal Publishing Series for additional resources on journal publishing. Previous posts detail how the contributors became journal editorswhat skills a journal editor uses the most, and their proudest moment as editors.

What are the key responsibilities of a journal editor?

My key responsibility is to make sure we have leading authorities as our peer reviewers. Ethnohistory has a double-blind peer review process, and [editorial assistant] Jeff and I work diligently to acquire the best readers we can for each manuscript. This can sometimes be challenging. For one, we have to identify the best people qualified to review a manuscript, which can take us outside of our comfort zones in terms of contacts, base knowledge, and so on. So, Jeff and I do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to find and vet potential readers. Another challenge is that oftentimes our top choices are unavailable. Therefore, we usually first compile a list of several names, in order of preference, and work our way down that list. My second most important responsibility is to help guide authors through any revisions recommended by the readers. I see the readers, not me, as the experts on a particular topic, and their concerns must be addressed by the author (although we do give the authors an opportunity to write a written response to any concerns the author does not wish to address or to address differently than what is suggested by the reader). Finally, one big responsibility is just keeping up with the manuscripts and where they are in the process and keeping the authors informed about the process. I myself have submitted manuscripts where they seem to have fallen into some sort of black hole—you don’t hear anything for months. Jeff and I, though, try to keep the authors informed about each step of the process. Also, the process can stretch out for months and even years. For instance, if our publication queue is crowded, it could be a year before a final manuscript gets into print. Conversely, if an author gets a “revise and resubmit,” it could be quite some times before they resubmit. Other times, an author turns it around in a few weeks.” – Robbie Ethridge, co-editor of Ethnohistory and Professor of Anthropology at University of Mississippi


I would say that among the many responsibilities one has as a journal editor, the key one is this: to make sure that nothing slips between the cracks; that no single article manuscript (or version of it, or anonymous report on it) gets stuck in cyberspace or lost in a Gmail folder; and that no author ever has to wait longer than necessary because of such a slip.” – Matthew Restall, co-editor of Ethnohistory and Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Colonial  Latin American History, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University


“To guard the interests of the journal. These include the financial responsibility for negotiating terms of support with the universities where I work. Independent scholarly journals are increasingly rare. I would like to thank the Rice University Chao Center for Asian Studies, for its current support and University of Washington for past generosity. Another interest of the journal that I guard is autonomy. positions has a double blind review system. That insures we are never captive of any one scholarly group. I have been ritually condemned and reviled any number of times by any number of groups because I am a visible target; my response is always the same. Journals are voracious so if you do not like what you read last year, propose an issue and two years from now you can read the truth, your truth, the real truth of the matter! As one of the signatories and as the founding editor, my responsibility is to maintain the criteria set out in our mission statement, primarily to insure that criticism of the other goes hand in hand with criticism of oneself, and that we work with our peers, not on our peers. This is easier and easier to insure because the scholarly world has become polylingual and infinitely more collaborative than twenty five years ago. Most importantly in my view is the responsibility to say “yes.” Though I cannot agree with every issue or every paper that the journal publishes, I can say “yes” to the wide range of scholarly projects that we accept for review. There are some things we will not consider as “positions projects” but for the most part our scholars self-select and my responsibility as editor is to extend the viable lifespan of the journal by saying yes to change.” – Tani Barlow, founding editor of positions and T.T. and W.F. Chao Professor of Asian History and founding director of the Chao Center for Asian Studies at Rice University


“I suppose the most important responsibilities are determining what projects we’re going to undertake and finding the right authors, guest editors, and other collaborators to make it happen. I also appoint and supervise a team of talented graduate students who rotate every year. I also have to balance the needs and priorities of the staff at Duke Press with the goals and visions of our creative contributors; they don’t always speak the same language, so I have to mediate to keep everything on track. I also feel a responsibility to get out into the field, both to publicize the journal’s activities and to figure out how our publication can contribute to contemporary discourse. That’s always exciting to do.” – Tom Sellar, editor of Theater, Professor of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale University, and Chief Theater Critic for the Village Voice

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