This may be the September 2012 issue of SPE Journal, but as I write this summary we are still in the "dog days" of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, commonly 24 July to 24 August. Before the age of air conditioning, the "dog days" were a period of time when labor was difficult and people were often uncomfortable because of the heat. Perhaps it is the image of people toiling that reminds me of the work that Associate Editors (AEs) perform on behalf of SPE Journal. In the June issue, I took up the topic of the importance of peer review. One of the practical aspects of peer review is the system used to actually obtain reviews and recommendations. Accordingly, I would like to extend the theme of peer review and discuss the role that AEs play.
The AEs are central to the processing of manuscripts and the conduct of peer reviews for this journal. Their names and affiliations can be found online on the main SPE Journal page or within the front cover of the print edition. It is a diverse group of approximately 45 people. SPE Journal has been publishing roughly 100 papers per year over the past few years, and we process about three to four times as many manuscripts annually. Hence, the AE team addresses a significant volume of manuscripts. Other than having their names mentioned in every issue, the AEs toil mostly in anonymity. Because it is largely a thankless job, I would like to tell you now a little more about the work and acknowledge the function that they carry out.
Manuscripts are first screened for complete and proper submission by SPE staff, and then additional topical and technical screens are conducted by the Executive Editor (EE) to ensure that the manuscript fits the thematic profiles of the journal. Then, based on the manuscript topic and the workload shared by the AEs, the EE invites a particular AE to shepherd the manuscript through the review process. This step can be inexact, because sometimes the most logical choice of an AE already has a full workload and (less frequently) a manuscript might not quite fit the expertise of any of the AEs. Thankfully, AEs accept the vast majority of invitations to serve.
Once the AE has accepted an invitation to coordinate the peer review of a manuscript, s/he is responsible for selecting qualified reviewers and for ensuring that the reviews obtained meet or exceed the quality standards of SPE Journal. An AE also has the option of making a recommendation without soliciting reviews. This option is not followed often and requires very strong reasoning and documentation to support the recommendation.
The AE's goals for peer review are to obtain a minimum of three reviews for any particular article that they are managing so that a consensus opinion is reached about publication. A key function of the AE is then to sift through the reviews to synthesize the common opinions and a recommended course of action to follow for the paper. That is, they must build the case for potential publication or for rejection of the manuscript. Our expectation is that the elapsed time from assignment to AE recommendation is 45 to 60 days. This is an ambitious expectation that requires the AE to manage the process actively, and some cajoling of potential referees is often needed to move the process forward. Frequently, AEs need to review the manuscript in detail themselves in order to meet the expectations of timely and meaningful reviews.
For manuscripts that have been revised and submitted for re-evaluation, the AE who coordinated the original reviews generally handles the revised manuscript. In the case of revised manuscripts, the course of action is based upon the reviewer’s comments about the original paper and the level of detail provided by authors about modifications to a manuscript. The AE may ask the same reviewers to give their opinion about the revised manuscript, seek additional new reviews, or the AE may judge on their own that the revisions are sufficient (or insufficient!) and return a recommendation.
At any given time, an AE may have one to five manuscripts under consideration and at various stages of the review process. The EE tries to spread the work across the AE team and to obtain some diversity of opinion; however, the unwritten rule seems to come into play that if you do your job well, you will be given more papers.
After nearly 3 years as EE of SPE Journal, I recognize even more keenly than when I began that the EE function is unworkable without a team of knowledgeable and committed AEs. I hope that they find enjoyment in what they do and do not often feel that they are toiling through the "dog days" of review. Annually, the EE is asked to nominate a few of the AEs to be recognized for making outstanding contributions. For me, the list of awardees is always too short, because I would like to commend the entire team.