There are many different ways that one can be involved in the editorial aspects of scholarly journals, and one's experience with the editorial universe can also vary considerably depending on whether a journal is published by a professional society or by a for-profit company.
Some variations on the wonderful world of editing a journal include:
1. being on an editorial board that essentially serves as a pool of reviewers (i.e., if you agree to be on the editorial board, you agree to review most manuscripts that are sent to you);
2. being on an editorial board that exists only as a list of names on a journal to show.. actually, I don't know what it shows. When I agreed to be on the EB for one particular journal, I assumed that I would actually do more than just have my name listed, but so far I haven't done anything. Does my Distinguished Name add luster to this journal, inspiring more people to read it? No way. The only people who would read this journal already have an intense interest in this very specific aspect of Science. Perhaps the in-name-only EB is like having a list of "fans" or "friends" of the journal.
3. being an associate editor for journals that have an extra editorial layer between the reviewers and the editor(s). I have been an AE at various times in the past. This type of editorial organization can be a bit inefficient, but this type of structure makes sense for some journals that have a somewhat broad scope. The editors need a pool of experts who are better qualified to select reviewers and provide their own comments on the manuscript and the reviews, but the editor or editors make the final decisions.
4. being the editor of a journal. Variations on this include: (a) being the one and only chief editor of a journal, and (b) being one of 2 or more other editors who are autonomous in their decision-making. And of course these editors can either be part of a system that has associate editors or an active editorial board, or may themselves be directly involved in selecting reviewers.
I have been or currently am involved in one or more of each of the above except 4a.
Somewhere in the blogosphere recently -- I am sorry I don't remember the blog, as I was roaming somewhat indiscriminately at the time -- I read someone's opinion that editors should be eliminated so that reviewers and authors could communicate more directly. I don't remember if the person holding this opinion has ever been an editor, but I'm inclined to think not.
As anyone who has received reviews for their own manuscripts likely knows, reviews vary a lot in terms of constructiveness, thoroughness, usefulness, and politeness. Part of an editor's job is to even out some of the roughness of the reviews, to provide more substance if the reviews lack it (in some cases by finding additional reviewers), to guide authors regarding revisions, and to reconcile disparate reviews or choose one review over another as being more instructive. In rare cases, editors rescind reviews or reviewer comments that are offensive. We keep the system running despite the vagaries of the reviewers (and authors).
Being an editor of a journal that covers a broad range of topics is difficult because you have to rely so much on the expertise of others, but it is also difficult editing a more specialized journal in which you know many of the authors and reviewers. In that situation, your own professional interactions with specific individuals are at stake and may be influenced by your editorial work.
In my work as an editor, I have found it essential to have a good online editing system that keeps track of reviewer data such as: time since last review for this journal (so I don't overload anyone with too many reviews), average time it takes a reviewer to submit a review, and information about the reviewing habits of an individual (e.g., do they routinely return thorough and useful reviews or are their reviews shallow and useless?). If someone is known to me in advance to be a not-so-great reviewer but is nevertheless someone who can provide an important point of view, I might try to get an additional reviewer for the manuscript in question.
I try to keep the system moving as rapidly as possibly, but of course I am somewhat at the mercy of the reviewers for this. Even so, when reviewing time becomes too prolonged, I have several contingency plans: (1) I have a small group of willing "emergency reviewers" who might be able to provide a rapid review; I try not to use this group if at all possible, but they have saved the day on a number of occasions; (2) I act as a reviewer myself, if I feel qualified to comment on the manuscript's topic; or (3) If I have one thorough review in hand, I will just use that and add my own comments (not as a reviewer, but just to make note of anything I think the one reviewer missed). In some cases a delinquent review is submitted in time to be of use during the revision process. So far I have not had any situations in which a late review contained information that would have changed my editorial decision on a manuscript if I had the review earlier, but perhaps I have just been lucky.
It has been important for me to find the right balance in terms of time I spend on editing tasks and the types of editing activities that I do. At the moment, I am quite content with my editing experiences both in terms of types and the time involved. Perhaps in the future I will want to branch out to other editorial experiences, for the challenge or for variety, but right now, things are good the way they are.
I have also served on a search committee that evaluated candidates to be editor of a journal, and this was kind of interesting because each candidate had a different combination of skills. But which was the right combination?
Some of the candidates were excellent scientists and would have added prestige to the journal, but it was clear (in some cases by their own admission) that they did not have the organizational skills or the time to do a good job. Other candidates seemed to have excellent organizational skills and editorial experience, but they were not well respected as scientists. We didn't want someone whose major qualifications were clerical skills. And other candidates had other liabilities (e.g., a candidate who had lots of editorial experience but who had been sanctioned for plagiarism). And what if someone is an excellent scientist and quite organized, but is a polarizing figure, well known for being involved in disputes that at times involved unprofessional behavior? Is that relevant to an individual's qualifications to be an editor? In fact, it probably is quite relevant.
But why be so picky? These people were interested in spending vast amounts of time for no/low pay as a professional service. Shouldn't a journal be happy just to find someone willing to do the "job"?
Fortunately, amazingly, we eventually found a person who was excellent in all respects for this particular position. I guess as long as there are people like that who have the energy, skills, and personality to succeed in the job, the system will continue to function.
I don't know what it's like in other fields, but as an editor of a journal in my field of the physical sciences, I have been impressed with the dedication and care that many reviewers take with their reviews. Therefore, despite the peer reviewing system's flaws -- and colleagues and I recently encountered a rather shocking example of one of these flaws (perhaps more on that some other time) -- my experience has shown that it is mostly a good system that involves a lot of conscientious reviewers and editors who give their time and share their expertise to make it work.
[I haven't decided yet about Monday's topic, but I have a few more things to say on the topic of being an Editor. Also, perhaps we can all share our most disturbing experiences with reviewers and editors next week, to balance out today's mostly-positive view of the peer review system. So save your stories of that sort for next week!]
1 month ago