For a lot of folks in academia, the work and lives of journal editors are a bit of a mystery. This is certainly true of graduate students, who are usually new to publishing, but may also apply to established academics.
I cannot speak to every academic publication, but there are some generalities that hold true for most scholarly journals. I could discuss my experiences as an author or my work as a copyeditor for the Alberta Journal for Educational Research. The role I am most familiar with is that of English Managing Editor of the Canadian Journal for New Scholars in Education/ Revue canadienne des jeunes chercheures et chercheurs en éducation (CJNSE/RCJCÉ).
CJNSE/RCJCÉ is a bilingual open access, non-masked, peer-reviewed journal published by graduate students for the dissemination of works by graduate students at Canadian universities. The journal is unique in that the Managing Editors, Associate Editors, Senior Copyeditors, and Associate Copyeditors are all graduate students, as are the article reviewers and Review Mentors (peer mentors). The Journal’s Senior Review Editors, established scholars who mentor authors on their submissions, provide much-needed academic oversight. The purpose of the Journal is to provide graduate students publishing opportunities and mentorship that are not otherwise available.
The focus on mentorship is truly what makes CJNSE/RCJCÉ unique. I do not know of any other education journal that provides students with the opportunity to learn these essential academic skills. Want to learn how to review an academic article? You can do that at CJNSE/RCJCÉ. Interested in being more proficient at applying the APA Style Guide? You can do that at CJNSE/RCJCÉ as a copyeditor. Think you can guide other grad students as they revise a peer reviewed manuscript? Yup, you guessed it: you can do that CJNSE/RCJCÉ as a Review Mentor. Publishing and volunteering with CJNSE/RCJCÉ will add to and diversify your skillset (i.e., a way to build up your CV) in ways that are not often available for graduate students. It can also connect you to folks outside of your department and faculty, since CJNSE/RCJCÉ serves students all over what is now called Canada.
I mean, I would know: I’m currently the English Managing Editor; I was the English Associate Editor last year; a Senior Copyeditor the year before that; and have also fulfilled the roles of Associate Copyeditor, Review Mentor, and Reviewer in the last three years. I’ve learned a LOT here and I hope other graduate students consider getting involved, too.
End of spiel. (Exit pursued by a bear)
So, getting back on topic: what does a journal editor actually do?
We read and then we email. Then we read some more, and send more emails. From there the process repeats a bajillion times; sometimes even a bajillion and one times. Okay, so I may have overemphasized a few things a little bit: we do a lot more than read and send emails.
The editor’s very first step is to read the submission to ensure it meets the basic requirements of submissions for the journal: word limit, citation style, and scope. If these things are lacking, the manuscript will receive a desk rejection.
Based on the keywords and a cursory reading of the manuscript, the editor consults the reviewer database to find folks whose research interests match the topic of the article. From there the editor emails potential reviewers. From what I understand, the first two steps are common among editors. Not knowing the interface of other journal submission platforms, however, I think the next step is more unique to CJNSE.
In order to keep myself organized, I make an Excel chart to track the author, their institution, their contact info, and the submission date. I also record who I’ve asked to review it, the date I need their acceptance or decline memo, and the date the review is due. I also record the name of the Review Mentor, the graduate student who aids the author in making changes per the reviewer comments. Finally, I note the Senior Review Editor, who is typically a faculty member with expertise in the topic area and who is willing to give guidance to the author. If known I will also write down who on the CJNSE team will be copyediting the piece once editing is completed.
In the third step, the editor reviews the reviewers’ comments and the assessments, using them to make a decision about the paper, typically accept without changes, accept pending revisions, revise and resubmit for review, or reject. The editor then advises the author(s) of the decision and provides a copy of the reviewer’s assessment.
For most journals, the editor makes sure that the reviewer’s comments are masked in the same way that the author’s identify is supposed to be masked from the reviewers. In academia the common parlance is “blind” or “blind review” rather than masked. Another way to describe this would be “made anonymous.” Following the example of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies—which does not use blind as a descriptor—CJNSE has elected to use the word masked this year in order to promote equity and inclusion.
CJNSE makes the authors and editors known to each other in order to promote accountability and respect among graduate students. It is less likely that authors will receive hostile or unhelpful comments if there all parties know each other’s names. This is another aspect that sets CJNSE apart from other Canadian education journals.
Once the authors receive the decision email, they must decide whether to revise their paper or to abandon ship. Assuming it is the former, author submits a revised submission to the editor for another decision. Here again CJNSE differs from other academic journals: if the author receives a “received pending revisions” decision, a Review Mentor and a Senior Review Editor will help them with the revision process.
The final step in the editorial process is copyediting. The editor assigns manuscripts to copyeditors who check for compliance with citation style (in education, this is usually APA), grammar, spelling, and flow. The edited version is then sent back to the author for approval. CJNSE has volunteer associate and senior copyeditors—the latter, who have some copyediting experience, are tasked with mentoring the former—who work with each other and the author to produce a clean copy of the manuscript. At other journals, graduate students may copyedit manuscripts (thank you, AJER, for helping me pay for tattoos!).
Approved articles are desktop published and paginated based on where they are to appear in the issue. Once the issue is published, the editor sends thank you emails to those involved and notifies readers and people on social media that the issue is live.
If you were following along at home, that is a whole lot of emails (I wasn’t being completely facetious!). By my count, assuming that a) all the people asked to review accept and submit their reviews on time, b) the people asked to be Review Mentors and Senior Review Editors accept, and c) I only need to send one introductory email per stage (editing and copyediting), I send a minimum of 15 emails per paper. Just shy of a bajillion, I guess.
There you have it friends, colleagues, and random folks on the internet: a-not-exactly-brief summation of what an academic journal editor actually does.
Post script: Peer-reviewing is a time-consuming process. It is also essential to academic publishing. If you are submitting papers to journals, you should be offering your time and abilities as a reviewer as well. If you are a graduate student, please check out this document on reviewing for CJNSE and consider becoming a Review Mentor as well!