The Relationship Between Journal Editors-in-Chief and Owners (formerly titled Editorial Independence)

Originally posted June 19, 2000; modified versions posted May 15, 2006 and July 25, 2009.

Editors-in-Chief and the owners of their journals both want the journals to succeed but they have different roles. The editors-in-chief’s primary responsibilities are to inform and educate readers, with attention to the accuracy and importance of journal articles, and to protect and strengthen the integrity and quality of the journal and its processes. Owners (whether professional associations or for-profit companies) support the core values and policies of their organization and are ultimately responsible for all aspects of publishing the journal, including its staff, budget, and business policies. The relationship between owners and editors-in-chief should be based on mutual respect and trust, and recognition of each other’s authority and responsibilities.  Conflicts can damage both the intellectual integrity and reputation of the journal and its financial success.

The following are guidelines for protecting the responsibility and authority of both editors-in-chief and owners:

  1. The conditions of the editors-in-chief's employment, including authority, responsibilities, term of appointment, reporting relationships, and mechanisms for resolving conflict, should be explicitly stated in writing and approved by both editor and owner before the editor is appointed. Those conditions bearing on editorial freedom should be shared with readers by publication in the journal or on its website.

  2. Editors-in-chief should have full authority over the editorial content of the journal, generally referred to as “editorial independence.” Editorial content includes original research, opinion articles and news reports, both in print or electronic format, and how and when information is published. Owners should not interfere in the evaluation, selection or editing of individual articles, either directly or by creating an environment in which editorial decisions are strongly influenced.

  3. Editorial decisions should be based mainly on the validity of the work and its importance to readers, not the policies or commercial success of the owner.  Editors should be free to publish critical but responsible views about all aspects of medicine without fear of retribution, even if these views might conflict with the policies or commercial goals of the owner.  To maintain this position, editors should seek input from a broad array of advisors such as reviewers, editorial staff, an editorial board, and readers.

  4. Editors-in-chief should establish procedures that guard against the influence of commercial, organizational, and personal self-interest on editorial decisions and should make these procedures clear and transparent to all interested parties. They should be compensated for their work on the journal in a manner that does not create a conflict of interest for the manuscripts they consider (see Conflict of Interest Policy Statement).

  5. Owners have the right to hire and fire editors-in-chief but they should dismiss them only for substantial reasons such as a pattern of bad editorial decisions, disagreement with the long-term editorial direction of the journal, or personal behavior (such as criminal acts) that are incompatible with a position of trust. It may also be appropriate to end the editor’s service if, for whatever reason, owners and editors find they are unable to work together in a spirit of mutual trust and collaboration. Termination of an editor’s appointment should be a deliberate process, involving open discussion at the highest level of the organization, and should not be precipitous, except for egregious wrongdoing.

  6. The limits of editorial freedom are difficult to define in the general case.  Editors should be receptive to articles representing all legitimate points of view and should be free to publish any responsible positions. However, owners cannot be expected to retain editors who take strong, consistent, one-sided positions against the core values and policies of their parent organization.

  7. Editors-in-chief should report to the highest governing body of the owning organization, not its administrative officers.  Major decisions regarding the editor’s employment should be made by this body with open discussion and time to hear from all interested parties. Some organizations have found it useful to establish an independent oversight committee to advise them on major decisions regarding their editor and journal. Both owners and editors should have a meaningful role in appointment of members, since both are stake-holders in the committee’s effectiveness. The work of such committees should be transparent and publicly available.

  8. Editors should resist any actions that might compromise these principles in their journals, even if it places their own position at risk.  If major transgressions do occur, all editors should participate in drawing them to the attention of the international medical, academic, and lay communities.