A few times since I have been a journal editor or guest editor, authors of rejected manuscripts have written angry e-mails railing against the injustice of the negative decision by me or by one of my fellow editors. I have written about various aspects of this before, but today I was thinking about one of the reasons that some rejected authors focus on as evidence that their article was misjudged/mishandled: the editor also acted as a reviewer.
In most cases, this particular reason should not be a cause for anger. In fact, in some cases, you may be lucky that an editor also acted as a reviewer.
Common reasons why an editor would also act as reviewer are: (1) it was impossible to get enough reviewers to commit to a review owing to (a) random bad luck/timing, (b) the topic of the paper was so highly specialized that the reviewer pool was small; or (2) one or more agreed reviewers didn't return a review and an editor decided not to hold the review process up any longer. In the case of having an insufficient number of reviews, an editor can make a decision based on the review(s) in hand, but can also decide to act as an additional reviewer.
How does this work? What are the implications of having a review by someone who acts as reviewer and editor?
I can only speak about my own experiences, but from what I've seen and done, this means that the editor provides more detailed and substantive comments on the article, rather than mostly providing context and guidance based on the reviews provided by others. Of course, some editors routinely act as a reviewer in this way as well, no matter how many reviews were received.
When my editor-colleagues and I act as reviewers in addition to our editorial roles, we inform the author that we are doing this and sign the review that is ours. It would make no sense to provide an anonymous review and then agree with it as editor. We also inform the author as to the reason for our "reviewing" the manuscript -- again, this is typically because we couldn't get a sufficient number of reviews in a reasonable amount of time.
Understandably, some authors may blame an editor for a rejection, so the fact that the editor was reviewer and ultimate decider makes it seem like the deck was stacked. In fact, from what I've seen in journals with which I have been associated, manuscripts that are reviewed by editors are not rejected at a higher rate than those in which there are multiple reviews by non-editors.
I doubt if editors act as reviewers to make sure that a particular paper is rejected. If an editor wanted to sink a paper, there are much more efficient ways to do this than to spend the extra time required to expand editorial comments into a review.
Speaking again from my own experience, editor-reviewers are likely to provide useful reviews because we know what constitutes a constructive review. And if you don't get a detailed, substantive review from an editor/reviewer, the manuscript probably didn't have much of a chance to be accepted anyway.
The most recent incident involving an angry almost-author was not directed at me, but at one of my hardest-working, most diligent, and most thorough fellow editors. If this particular editor takes the time to act as a reviewer and editor, the author is actually lucky to get the extra attention. The author is assured of a fair and thoughtful review from this editor.
The fact that it didn't turn out well for the author in this case is unfortunate, but I would advise authors to wait a little while and calm down before firing off a rude e-mail accusing an editor of incompetence because s/he was unable to find enough reviewers for a manuscript. It would be better to consider carefully other possible reasons for the rejection of the manuscript (and difficulty in finding reviewers) before focusing on the dual editor/reviewer role as the favored explanation for the rejection.
9 years ago