Tips for Serving as an Action Editor for a Peer-Reviewed Journal

Sally L. Grapin, Montclair State University, and Courtenay Barrett, Michigan State University

As an early career scholar, you may be interested in serving as an action editor for peer-reviewed journals. Action editors (AEs), also known as handling or managing editors, are scholars who are responsible for coordinating the peer review process, including selecting reviewers, synthesizing reviewer feedback, and crafting decision letters. Some early career scholars perform this responsibility on a regular basis as associate editors or as editorial fellows, whereas others might engage in this activity on a temporary basis as special issue guest editors. In this blog, we offer tips for early career scholars who are interested in becoming AEs. This blog post may also shed light on the peer review process for those who are new to publishing in academic journals. It can also be used in conjunction with other articles and guidance documents on peer review.

Initial Review of the Manuscript

Generally, the Editor-in-Chief (EIC) of a journal will determine whether a submitted manuscript should be sent out for the peer review process, also known as full review. In some instances, manuscripts may be incomplete, misaligned with the journal’s aims and scope, and/or not meet journal quality standards; when this occurs, the EIC may deem full review to be unnecessary and thus issue a “desk rejection” (i.e., a decision of reject without peer review). Alternatively, if the EIC decides that full review is warranted, they will assign the manuscript to an AE with expertise aligned with the manuscript. If you are guest editing a special issue, the EIC may forward all manuscripts received for your issue so that you can decide which ones should be sent for full review. Such procedures should be discussed with the EIC before you begin sending manuscripts out for review.

As an AE receiving a new manuscript, you should first consider whether you have any concerns or conflicts of interest that need to be discussed with the EIC. Such concerns or conflicts may include: (a) close personal relations with any member of the author team; (b) prior interaction with the manuscript (e.g., you previously provided feedback to the authors on the manuscript); (c) financial conflicts (e.g., you have financial ties to a product described in the paper); or (d) theoretical conflicts (e.g., you have concerns about coordinating a fair review process due to personal or professional biases or beliefs). If the EIC deems the concern to be a potential conflict of interest, they will reassign the manuscript to a different AE.

Before selecting reviewers, you should read the manuscript in its entirety to gain your own independent perspective on it. As you read, it can be helpful to note specific areas of expertise that will be needed to evaluate the manuscript as well as your own preliminary thoughts about the paper’s strengths and weaknesses.

Selecting Reviewers

After your preliminary review of the manuscript, you will need to select reviewers who can competently evaluate it. It is likely that multiple areas or types of expertise will be necessary, and you may wish to select reviewers with complementary skillsets. For example, you might invite one reviewer with content expertise (e.g., reading skill acquisition, social-emotional learning, trauma-informed care) and another with methodological expertise (e.g., qualitative methods, single case research design, meta-analyses). You might also invite reviewers whose expertise complements your own, as you may feel more or less comfortable evaluating certain aspects of the manuscript.

Most often, AEs first look to members of the editorial board, who have committed to reviewing a certain number of manuscripts per year; are familiar with the aims, scope, and procedures of the journal; and were appointed for their expertise in relevant areas. Reaching out to board members first may increase your likelihood of securing reviewer commitments in a timely manner. However, you might also consider inviting reviewers outside of the board (i.e., ad hoc reviewers), particularly if the manuscript calls for specialized expertise that is not currently represented on the board. Doing so can also help the journal connect with new ad hoc reviewers or potential new board members. Additionally, you may wish to consult methodological advisors, who are appointed for their expertise in specific methodologies and/or analytical approaches. You can discuss with the EIC when it is appropriate or advisable to engage methodological advisors.

Many AEs aim to secure commitments from three reviewers to ensure a well-rounded and comprehensive review process, although sometimes more or fewer reviewers will be asked to provide input. After you invite three reviewers, be sure to monitor if and when they accept your invitations and submit their comments so as not to delay the review process. If the reviewers do not respond, follow up as needed. Notably, authors can often see the status of their manuscript in the journal’s online portal and may be eagerly awaiting a decision.

Crafting the Decision Letter

When the required reviews have been returned, you might first re-read the manuscript without looking at the reviewer feedback, which will allow you to gain an independent perspective on the paper before synthesizing comments across reviewers. Subsequently, you should review the manuscript again with the reviewers’ feedback in hand to identify strengths and potential areas for improvement.

When crafting decision letters, it is often helpful to have examples of good letters. Consider requesting samples from the EIC, as the journal likely has template language for standard procedures, such as instructions for resubmission. You can also look at decision letters you have received for your own work or request samples from a mentor. Using multiple examples, you can then construct templates that reflect your own style while also incorporating the journal’s requirements and procedures. For instance, you can craft templates for various types of decisions (e.g., minor revision, major revision, rejection). These templates should be tailored for individual manuscripts but may also save you time and ensure that all necessary details and instructions are included.

In crafting decision letters, be direct about the editorial decision you are recommending and what it means. For example, if a decision of major revision is indicated, clearly state that publication of the revised manuscript cannot be guaranteed and is contingent on the author’s satisfactory response to reviewer and editor comments either in a reviewer response letter or the manuscript itself. Although it can be disheartening and uncomfortable to reject an author’s work, especially given that your identity will likely be known to the authors, decisions of major or minor revision should only be rendered when you believe there is a strong possibility of the manuscript ultimately meeting publication standards. In other words, it is important not to encourage a resubmission if there is little chance for eventual publication so that the authors can submit their work elsewhere.

Decision letters should provide constructive and thorough, yet concise feedback. Typically, there is no need to recapitulate all of the reviewers’ comments; rather, you can summarize key points for revision. Even for manuscripts that are rejected, an important goal of the peer review process is to provide constructive, timely feedback to authors to improve their work. You should also bear in mind that authors typically have invested substantial time and effort in developing their submissions. Thus, your decision letters should highlight strengths of the manuscript (often early in the letter) in addition to areas for improvement.

Ensuring a Rigorous and Inclusive Review

Historically, publishing in peer-reviewed journals has been a form of gatekeeping and exclusion for scholars who identify as members of marginalized groups and/or who apply traditionally marginalized research paradigms in their work. Thus, editorial board members and leaders (including AEs) hold power in shaping research and publication norms. As an AE, you should educate yourself about how oppression has been enacted in academic scholarship and publishing as well as how researchers can promote equity through their work.

AEs and all members of the editorial board must work toward promoting rigorous, equitable, and inclusive review processes. In particular, it is your responsibility as AE to coordinate peer review processes that lead to the publication of sound, informative, and innovative work that moves the field forward. Rigorous empirical inquiry can assume a variety of forms, many of which have been historically excluded in school psychology research. It is important to be mindful of exclusionary norms in the field and ways to uproot them in the peer review process.

It is also important to be mindful of harmful narratives or approaches embedded in seemingly “neutral” or “normative” work. For instance, Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva (2008) cautioned against the acceptance of “white logic” and “white methods.” White logic and methods refer to research practices (e.g., scientific reasoning and analytical approaches) that center whiteness as normative and marginalize People of Color (Zuberi & Bonilla-Silva, 2008). Holland (2008) noted that an example of white logic and methods is the framing of race, rather than racism, as a causal variable in predicting students’ academic, social, and behavioral outcomes. Additionally, it is often just as important to consider what is not discussed in a manuscript as much as what is. For example, it would be problematic for an article to discuss the overrepresentation of Black youth in some special education eligibility categories without also discussing institutionalized racism.

Sometimes solutions and/or concerns may lie within the reviewers’ feedback to the authors. It is your job as AE to determine which reviewer comments need to be addressed and which do not, and to subsequently communicate these expectations to authors. For example, if a reviewer notes that the manuscript does not adequately account for issues of privilege and marginalization, you might explicitly highlight this comment in your decision letter and ask the authors to clearly address it in their next submission. Alternatively, if a reviewer recommends using a white comparison group to contextualize the lived experiences of Youth of Color, you might explicitly note in your letter that you disagree with this approach because it would reinforce the centering of whiteness. This may create some discomfort for both you and the reviewer who offered the feedback, as reviewers often see the decision letters that are sent to the authors. However, the peer review process is a critical venue for scholarly dialogue and thus also a space for advocacy. Enacting justice-oriented advocacy in the review process ultimately benefits all those involved including our larger scholarly communities.

Resources for Further Reading

Below are some resources that can assist you in effectively coordinating rigorous and inclusive peer review processes. The references for this blog post are also helpful resources.

  • Arora, P. G., Sullivan, A. L., & Song, S. Y. (2023). On the imperative for reflexivity in school psychology scholarship. School Psychology Review52(5), 665-677.
  • Buchanan, N. T., Perez, M., Prinstein, M. J., & Thurston, I. B. (2021). Upending racism in psychological science: Strategies to change how science is conducted, reported, reviewed, and disseminated. American Psychologist76(7), 1097.
  • Noltemeyer, A., Newman, D. S., Grapin, S., & Fallon, L. (2023). Promoting Equity and Social Justice in Manuscript Writing: Tips for Authors. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation33(2), 139-148.
  • Sabnis, S. V., & Proctor, S. L. (2022). Use of critical theory to develop a conceptual framework for critical school psychology. School Psychology Review51(6), 661-675.
  • Sabnis, S. V., & Newman, D. S. (2023). Epistemological diversity, constructionism, and social justice research in school psychology. School Psychology Review52(5), 625-638.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *