When journal editors are unprofessional

I recently read a NY times article highlighting an obvious conflict, when stock analysts own stock or options in the companies they are evaluating, or retain close ties with  those companies. It’s kind of horrifying to think that what is regarded as objective, unsolicited advice, may really be individuals trying to ‘game’ the system, by pushing up the price of their options for personal gain. Of course, that’s Wall Street, we’ve seen it before, and I’m sure we’ll see it again. But it got me thinking – what about journal editors?

Journal editors make decisions, often with considerable career implications, but their relationships – with the persons they evaluate, or the way they make decisions – is entirely opaque. It’s not like there’s some sort of appeals board one can go to if one thinks they have been slighted by an editor who bears a grudge against an author, their university, or even the theoretical or methodological paradigm they are writing about. This opens up not only questions of abuse of power and self interest, but also of due process.

We all want to think that the blind review process is objective – but what about the reviewer selection?  What about other practices? I don’t have to go far to find a litany of editor’s abusive activities. Just scratching the surface, we find the ‘tit for tat’ exchange – “ I will publish your paper in my journal, with the expectation that you will reciprocate with a publication your journal”. The special issue editor, that always seems to publish good friends and colleagues from their particular sphere of influence. Special issue editors are a particular problem, as they seem to go relatively unregulated. These practices effectively reduce the probability of a general submission being accepted, as there are few slots allocated to the genuine public of scholars. We also have coercive citations abuse, whereby the editor informs the author that they need to cite their journal (to improve the impact factor) in the editor’s R&R letter.  And, of course, we have the form letter rejection, sometimes not even reflecting the contents of the paper submitted, or addressing the material in a way demonstrating that the editor actually read anything.

What I find particularly surprising is that there is virtually no recourse. Many of us have experienced egregious editorial injustice, yet we simply grin and bear it. Students, on the other hand, seem to have figured out a way to vent their frustrations is a way that might, perhaps, temper the worst of academic injustice. Sites like ‘rate my professor’ allow students to voice their anger and frustration at what they view to be unjust or unprofessional activities. While I am the first to acknowledge that the site is relatively un-monitored and subject to potential biases and abuse – at least it provides a forum.

Academy of Management journals maintain a fairly transparent editorial policy, limiting the tenure of editors, and opening up nominations to our membership. This is good practice. Why don’t ALL journals publish a code of editorial ethics? Why don’t they ALL consider grievance procedures? Where is our academic forum? Why is it that we academics, have not devised a site to discuss perceived biases, unprofessional behavior, and irresponsible editing? I know, from talking with colleagues, that most of us have experienced unprofessional and sometimes outright unethical practices. Yet, we sit silently, submitting our papers to yet another journal, hoping for a fair evaluation at another venue. Meanwhile, some editors, even those demonstrating deeply abusive practices, are professionally rewarded.

Is there something we can do?  Does anyone have a suggestion? Or, are we all ‘happy campers”?

14 thoughts on “When journal editors are unprofessional”

  1. Hi Benson. I certainly don’t think we’re all “happy campers.” Perhaps we are just too busy, and feel like to succeed we need to just continue throwing ourselves under the publication bus and hope we prevail at least sometimes.

    You’re making excellent points – I remember sitting on a committee for a professional association awarding grants without a “blind” process. Essentially they were awarded based on the researcher’s institution. A proposal from a non-Ivy-League but solid research university was actually to responded to with giggling and condescending remarks. It looked like decent research to me. Most of the folks on the committee were (or had been) journal editors. This attitude makes it very hard to expect fair treatment at the top.

  2. Thanks for your interesting comment, Nancy. What ‘kills me’ is that so many of us – possibly a majority – have stories like yours, or worse. I could probably assemble a best selling book cataloging them. Yet, the majority of us are not at top 10 schools (an observation Jim Walsh made in his AOM presidential speech). I don’t understand why we don’t collectively demand professional accountability. What does it mean to be an editor – or a journal board member, or advisory board member? What are the responsibilities associated with those titles? Further – and directly to your point – those of us who get tenure, or even become professors – we still sit quietly chewing our cud. I just don’t get it. Why are we not professionally outraged? Or are we all just complicit beneficiaries? By the way, for those reading this string, I recommend Nancy’s “The Silent Majority” article in AMLE dealing with rejection and some of these issues here: http://amle.aom.org/content/10/4/704.full.pdf

  3. One of my first ever desk rejections from a management journal (not an AoM journal) came with the explanation that I had not cited enough of the journal’s articles in my manuscript. Needless to say, I have never submitted anything to that journal again. Another unethical practice from journal editors is the gaming of journal impact factors. In the age on online journal access it is fairly easy for a paper to be made available online years before it gets formally published. The paper can then start accumulating citations (and a reputation) so that when it finally does get formally published there are already plenty of papers in the publication pipeline that are citing that article. Since most impact factor metrics are based on citations after formal publication a journal can easily increase it’s formal impact factor by simply sitting on its papers for a couple of years but making them available online. At least one of our disciplines top journals now keeps papers unpublished (but available to be cited) for 2-3 years.

  4. Andrew, I fully agree. Unfortunately, there are few non-game playing journals around (I would applaud the AOM journals as being exceptions to the rule, here). An excellent article in PLOS by Tort, Targino and Amaral (2012) makes precisely this point. What I find particularly amazing is that when I have confronted editors suggesting they may be intentionally manipulating impact factor measures, either by encouraging self citation, or by delaying publication, they tend to plead innocence. Yet, in every annual discussion I have attended, impact factor is one of the major themes of the report to the editorial board. Journals face two realities – either they stay ‘honest’ to their goals, don’t play the game, and IF’s drop, or they play the game and advance. It is a terrible dilemma, and we have brought this upon ourselves.


    Tort, A. B., Targino, Z. H., & Amaral, O. B. (2012). Rising publication delays inflate journal impact factors. PLoS One, 7(12), e53374.

  5. That might explain why published papers that are known to report incorrect results are never retracted – because the editor would then have to explain why the impact factor for the journal suddenly decreased. Much easier to issue to “corrigendum” or “expression of concern”.

  6. Sadly, even retracted articles are often cited – enhancing journal’s reputations in the strangest way. Thompson publishes an IF that ignores self citations – which ought to be utilized widely – but sadly nothing regarding retractions. Having said that, there are not all that many retractions anyway. However, you raise an important point. We should actively discuss and promote the discovery of errors and retractions when they occur, so that scholars don’t follow the same misguided trail. My own experience is that editors are not interested in doing this – perhaps out of fear of harming their reputations and eventual IF’s.

  7. One way of capturing this issue empirically might to be examine the citation rates for articles published by authors that are in some way affiliated with the editor (same institution, same graduate school, co-authors on past papers). If editors really are letting weaker work get published if it is submitted by someone that they have a relationship with then this might be reflected in below average citation rates for those articles. Of course, citation rates are a pretty horrible way of judging the quality of a manuscript but it might add some level of objectivity to the concerns expressed here.

  8. dear Benson:
    the job of an editor clearly has attached to it the notion that a significant number of people will be unhappy with the results. So a site like rate my professor would probably be the worst solution to this problem. The ethical code of the academy clearly states that members of the academy can be brought to ethical processes by ethical violations within academy activities and programs, and the editorship of a journal falls within those parameters. So for ethical violations there is remedy. The problem is that for most of the issues you discuss in the articles there is no clear evidence of ethical violations and it is a matter of perceptions/interpretations. For that there is no clear solution.
    best regards

  9. Julio, thanks very much for your comments.
    I am not referring to unhappy authors – I have held many editorial positions and my point was not to deal with sour grapes authors. I believe all leadership activities should have some sort of accountability venue – transparency should be our goal (Panama Papers, eh?!). This is particularly true of a position of gate-keeping influence as critical to professional careers as an editorial position. Unfortunately, many editors have complete unchallenged control – and we have seen some instances of wild unethical conduct (for example, the citation cartel “innovation” to name just one). Actually, you are mistaken about AOM as a remedy. AOM’s onbuds only has jurisdiction over ACADEMY publications. So, if someone has done something unethical in a non-academy journal, there’s not much the offended person can do (something like this recently occurred). Perhaps editorial boards can actually do something besides just the odd review – and serve on an ethical appeals panel. Such a panel would not involve themselves in basic rejection issues, rather, only with ethical problems associated with the journal. That way, there might be some accountability. But right now – with the exception of AOM and a few organizational journals where the organizations themselves have an ethics procedure – well – you’re kind of up the creek. I grant you that I have no idea how often serious ethical issues take place – but I have heard myself of many (that I cannot disclose) suggesting that serious violations do occur. Do you have a better suggestion?

  10. One of the challenges moving forward is to convince editors that some of their conduct is unethical because I don’t think that they see themselves that way. Similarly, some journal editors don’t seem to appreciate the seriousness of some of the questionable research practices that we see in our field. I am reminded of a very depressing panel discussion at a recent conference in which top journal editors and other senior researchers were asked to weigh on what to do about the behaviors that had led to the spate of retractions in journals like Leadership Quarterly. Without exception the panel members seemed to indicate that these behaviors were not an issue with the editor of probably the most prestigious journal arguing that fraudulent data was not something that the field had to worry about because future meta-analyses would reveal that data to have been problematic. Putting aside for a moment the strange faith in our field’s ability to discard failed theories I cannot see how misleading researchers and side-tracking entire research programs is not something that we should worry about.

  11. I’m in full agreement, Andrew. I heard some very disheartening reports on such panels. Perhaps the most severe was when Bill Starbuck pointed out ‘we have got to stop lying to each other’. Indeed.
    There is a tremendous sense of myopia about. Perhaps it stems from “I made it, so can you, and so can anyone who works hard and is as smart as me”. The world we are in is far more competitive, and in any case, there are many skeletons in various closets. As to meta-analyses identifying fraudulent data – I remain terribly skeptical. Besides obvious issues such as the file drawer problem, and GIGO, the variables we study are so widely different between studies that I question the accuracy of the effort. It also avoids confronting the ethical and professional dimensions of the problem. They are like a cancer.
    In any case, I fully agree that we have good cause to be concerned. Thanks again for your contributions.

  12. it is true that the academy can only address those concerns that deal with academy journals, but that is a start. 15 years ago we did not even have that, so we have advanced. Obviously the academy can not police other organizations,but it can for example suggest the implementation of similar policies in other organizations that have journals. Many of us are also members of those organizations, for example those of us doing research in entrepreneurship and small business, also participate in activities in other organizations (SMS, USASBE, Babson) that manage conferences and journals and press for similar policies. Even in the cases of Journals that belong to universities and schools, of which there is a large number, we can press for ethics policies that help address these concerns. But we have to do it, not wait for these issues to be addressed by themselves.

    there go my 2 cents

  13. Thank you for reminding us that the glass is half full, Julio. Yes, the onus is on us as professionals – and more importantly, those of us with tenure and positions of authority and responsibility. AOM is due for a refreshment of our ethics efforts – as good as they are, they still don’t address a number of issues, including doctoral education and your points about professional publication policies. I agree with you, it would be great if AOM codified the many ethical leadership practices as recommendations for other journals. One thing we seem to lack, that other professions have, is an active reflexive component such as sociology anthropology medicine and law*. We really need a journal that examines ourselves, as a profession.

    See http://link.springer.com/journal/12108

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