Associate editors as shepherds, not just gatekeepers

Associate editors as shepherds, not just gatekeepers

By Kelsey Poulson-Ellestad

All scientific journals maintain editorial boards, which consist of the Editor in Chief (EiC) and associate editors who primarily solicit peer reviews and make publication recommendations to the EiC. Editors, unlike peer reviewers, are the ones ultimately making decisions about whether or not a submitted manuscript should be accepted or rejected for publication. Because of this, editors are often described as gatekeepers. This ‘gatekeeper’ narrative is not necessarily wrong - editors are indeed charged with acting as stewards of a journal’s quality and maintaining scientific standards (1) and guide the creation and shifting of scientific consensus (2) - but gatekeeping is not the only role that an editor may play. Editors also balance advocating for authors and their science while serving as stewards of the scientific content published (3), highlighting that editors are not as adversarial as they may seem.

Recently, we conducted a survey where we asked current ASLO journal editors to describe the rewards and challenges of serving as an associate editor. Our results highlighted ways in which editors serve as guides for other scientists and authors while also fulfilling their gatekeeper roles.  That is, associate editors don’t seem to think of themselves as insurmountable barriers to being published: over 45% of respondents described some aspect of guiding papers through the peer review/editorial process as being the most rewarding aspect of being as associate editor. A smaller number (18%) articulated that serving the greater scientific community was also rewarding, along with other intangible benefits such as being able to stay abreast of research in their field (4%) and providing an opportunity to improve their own writing skills (6%). Responses to our survey show that associate editors also highly value the development of quality science and scientific writing, as reflected in their responses describing the rewarding aspects of serving as an associate editor:

“Being an AE is time consuming and sometimes difficult. However, it is rewarding to see how manuscripts have improved with your help and to be at the fore-front of a specific scientific field.”

“Occasionally being able to contribute to improving manuscripts and assisting young scientists in particular in finding their legs in the publication business”

“Helping authors to improve their papers so that they have more impact.”

“Knowing that you've played a part in making papers better, and hopefully the authors have learned something about writing papers that makes them more effective on their next one.”

“Making a difference in the quality of a publication and helping authors move their science/presentation forward in a collaborative manner.”

“See how the quality of the papers improved through the review process and finally accepting a high quality paper.”

We also argue that the unique experiences of editors have allowed many of these scientists to improve their mentoring skills to early career researchers, as they’ve acquired requisite knowledge and perspectives that they might not have gained elsewhere. As one editor noted:

“I've learned how to help others write good papers. I am much better at advising my students on the manuscript preparation aspect of their training. Also, because you see the stuff that doesn't get published, it's easier to spot papers with fatal flaws versus minor issues, which also helps with student training.”

Taken together, these results demonstrate that the gatekeeper narrative is not only restrictive, but it is an inaccurate description of the role of associate editors in the publishing system.

Have you had a really great experience working with an editor to improve a manuscript? If so, let us know in the comments, or on twitter  @rcef_aslo. Be sure to also check out the upcoming ASLO Bulletin (to be published in February 2020) for further discussion on the relationship between authors and editors, as well as more insights from the complete survey.


1. Konrad A. M. 2008. Building and maintaining a strong editorial board and cadre of ad hoc reviewers, p. 3-1.. In Y. Baruch, A. M. Konrad, H. Aguinis and W. H. Starbuck [eds], Opening the Black Box of Editorship, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan

2. Hollenbeck, J. R.  2008. Building and maintaining a strong editorial board and cadre of ad hoc reviewers, p. 16-27. In Y. Baruch, A. M. Konrad, H. Aguinis and W. H. Starbuck [eds], Opening the Black Box of Editorship, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan

3. How editors edit. Nat Methods 16, 135 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41592-019-0324-z

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