Klaus F. Rabe, MD, PhD.
Editor in Chief, European Respiratory Journal
Professor, Department of Pulmonology, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands
The European Respiratory Journal, like all reputable Journals in the field publishes original research covering a broad range of topics. The categories include clinical trials, case presentations, basic research papers and state of the art reviews. The peer review process involves the two chief editors, the editorial board, the reviewers and the technical editing. At regular meetings the editors encourage their section editors to formulate their publication plans in their field and to propose series and review articles. Furthermore, the board critically assesses the volume of material published with respect to quality, citations, and the Journals performance. The overall policy for the board obviously is one of positive selection on quality of papers rather than adhering to a pre-specified technical target. Papers are uploaded electronically and further processing depends on the completeness of the submitted material, including author's statements on interest1.
Upon arrival in the editorial office all papers are assessed by the chief editors before papers are forwarded to associates. At this stage, the scope of the Journal, novelty, methodological concerns and presentation of the manuscript are assessed and results in a chief editor's priority rating and thereby rejection of a proportion of papers. Manuscripts which are forwarded to the associates will usually be seen by at least two outside reviewers. Their recommendations together with the assessment of the respective associate editor are the basis of the final decision as to acceptance or rejection of a research paper in the ERJ, and this process is similar to almost all journals in biomedical science.
The reviewing process obviously aims to be as objective as possible but the selection of reviewers may sometimes be governed by factors of availability and/or collegiate relations. Since this process may introduce some form of variability it is the editors who in the end have to decide. Clearly, for original research papers there are well defined factors that will result into rejection, including inaccurate or inadequate description of material and methods, concerns about the sample size and methodological concerns regarding the statistical analysis. It is probably underrecognised that authors play a major role in the decision whether or not to publish a trial in the first place. One of the known driving factors of authors for submission is the significance of their results2,3. Furthermore, it appears that negative study data from clinical trials are more frequently found on the website of the respective sponsors than being submitted for peer review.
In summary, there are accepted criteria that will determine the acceptability of a paper for publication in a journal but there are also strategic considerations such as the scope of the journal, and the perceived standards that can result in negative editorial decisions and which are sometimes more difficult to quantify. Eventually, a scientific journal is not just meant to handle manuscripts but needs to develop an editorial priority and "flavour" and thereby actively contributing to developments in the field. Responsible editorial policy requires at least an acceptable explanation why an editor came to a negative decision and these criteria may also vary between different publication categories. It should be borne in mind however, that authors themselves are a major factor in preventing papers to be accepted for publication since a recent study concluded that only 6 of 124 not published studies were rejected for publication by a journal3.
1. Sterk PJ, Rabe KF. Serving researchers, the impact factor and other conflicts of interest. Eur Respir J 2005;25:3-5.
2. Hartling L, Craig WR, Russel K, Stevens K, Klassen TP. Factors influencing the publication of randomized controlled trials in child health research. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2004;158:983-987.
3. Dickersin K, Min Y-I, Meinert CL. Factors influencing publication of research results. Follow-up of applications submitted to two institutional review boards. JAMA 1992;267:374-378.