Balancing Act: Effective Strategies for Navigating Editor Ideas and Requests

Erin C. Landis
Managing Director, Origin Editorial

Take Home Points:


  1. Editors are often the driving force of innovation of a journal, ensuring that it stays at the cutting edge—this can lead to myriad new ideas and requests that editorial office staff must respond to.
  2. For many reasons, it can be challenging for editorial staff to outright reject an idea or a request from an editor—and why would you want to in the first place? But there are valid reasons for why editorial staff can’t always pursue an editor’s request or idea.
  3. Different strategies can help editorial staff persuade editors of their point of view, making the case for why an idea or request may not work, or may need to be scheduled for a different time. These strategies can empower editorial staff and help them find balance in their relationships with their editors.

Some of the most rewarding experiences in my career by far have been the close relationships I’ve established with journal editors over the years. I have found that the longer I’ve been in this business, the more these relationships have turned into partnerships—and in some cases—friendships. I still communicate with many of the editors I’ve worked with, despite not being directly tied to a journal anymore. In fact, one editor friend is someone I continue to seek out for advice on both professional and personal matters. I even owe a large part of my leadership style to some of the editors I’ve worked with; in these cases, I considered those individuals as my professional mentors. Through them, I learned the value of compassion, inclusivity, and the importance of making hard decisions with confidence. I count many of the editors as some of the people I respect most—both in my personal and professional lives.

Given the nature of these relationships, it was hard then, for me find the courage to sometimes say “no” to an editor who proposed a new idea, policy, procedure, or some other change to a journal. I am a people-pleaser by nature, and even more so toward people I really like and respect. To be fair, it did get easier to push back as I gained experience, confidence, and—dare I say—wisdom. But even so, I was still finding it challenging and uncomfortable to respond to an idea or request from an editor with outright and unwavering rejection. How can that be? I wasn’t a green editorial professional anymore and I had the knowledge to justify why I couldn’t necessarily turn their dream into a reality. Reassuringly, I suppose, I knew I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t uncommon for me to hear from colleagues—in all career stages—that they too find setting limits with editors to be a formidable task. In this post, I’ll share with you my experiences, as well as those I’ve heard about from peers, around why it’s so hard to tell an editor you can’t do something or do it right now, why you’d even want to tell them that in the first place, and thoughts on how to manage their ideas and requests. My hope is that after reading this post you’ll see you’re not alone in this conundrum, as well as empowered to set limits, leading you to have more balanced relationships with the editors you work with day-in and day-out.

Why is it Hard to Say No?

(Perceived) Hierarchy Reigns Supreme
For most of us who work with editors, while they might not technically be our boss, there is certainly a hierarchy. A common dynamic is that the editor volunteers or works for the journal, which is either owned by the society or publisher of which we are an employee or contractor. There can be the sense, therefore, that the editor is “above” us in the hierarchy. That dynamic comes with a power structure where the norm is you just don’t say “no” to someone above you. We view editors as having a position of authority—over the journal, and by default, over us. We may have even found ourselves in the unenviable situation where an editor has spoken about our performance to our real boss. This is all to say that the power dynamics of the editor-editorial professional relationship often result in the latter feeling ill-at-ease when having to push back on a request.

MDs and PhDs and MPHs, Oh My
Imposter syndrome (IS) also plays a role in why it’s hard to say no. IS is basically when, despite being a high-achieving person, you still doubt your intelligence and skills. At its most extreme, you feel like a fraud. So many of us in this industry have shared that we struggle with IS, especially in the earlier stages of our careers. When working with editors who have multiple degrees after their names, who have attended prestigious institutions of higher education, and who are often world renowned and lead large departments at research institutions, IS can be exacerbated. It’s hard to say no to someone who, on the face of things, is so much more academically accomplished than you—it can then feel as though they are also smarter than you, even in matters where you are the expert.

Type A, Anyone?
Editors also tend to be highly ambitious—they didn’t achieve their current station in life by being underachievers. Their driven personalities sometimes result in not taking “no” for an answer. In other words, they can be persistent, and in many cases, very persuasive. I worked with one editor in particular who would never retreat from a request. He was exceedingly polite in his persistence and his passion was infectious, which, although admirable, made advocating for my point of view challenging.

Lack of Support from Senior Leadership
Perhaps another reason you may not want to say no—and I’ve heard this from colleagues of mine—you don’t have the support of senior leadership at your organization. For example, you tell your editor you can’t do something and they, in turn, approach your boss, the CEO, or perhaps members of the board of directors. Those individuals then pressure you to carry out the request or pursue the idea. If you don’t feel like you have the proper support to stand your ground, you might feel it’s just easier to acquiesce.

Why Would You Want to Say No in the First Place?

There are many reasons why you might want to say no to an editor’s request or idea—or at least try to put some limits in place. Certainly, it would be easier to just say yes to everything—saying yes results in less conflict between you and the editor. And don’t most of us want to make our editors happy? But realistically, you simply cannot say “yes” every time, and for very valid reasons.

Lack of Financial and Human Resources
One of the chief reasons why you may not be able to fulfill an editor’s request or carry out their idea (at least not in the way they envision it or at the time they want it) is because of a lack of resources, whether they are personnel or financial. You simply may not have enough staff to do the work to carry out what the editor is asking of you. And if you do try to shoehorn the request in, you risk overloading your team and causing burnout, resentment, and a shift away from other high-priority tasks and projects (delaying, or even risking, their completion). Equally important, you may not have the budget to fulfill a request. For example, one year the editors of one of our journals at the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), where I worked previously, wanted to integrate plagiarism-checking software into the submission system and screen every submission—such a request was cost prohibitive and not within the means of our budget. Another example I heard about from a colleague was when a team of particularly creative editors continued to suggest new ideas before the editorial office team had even completed the list of projects from their last brainstorming session. This happened repeatedly. Soon, everyone was frustrated that nothing was getting done.

Is That in the Strategic Plan?
Your editor’s request or idea also might not align with your journal’s strategic plan, scope, or mission. These ideas are those that may seem good or even worthy of pursuing but just don’t align with the general direction of the journal. And yet because the editor has thought of it, they pursue it without consideration for the big picture.

Beyond Existing Skill Set and Expertise
Another reason why you might want to say no is that you and your team don’t have the expertise, skills, or experience to implement what the editor is asking for. This is a particularly difficult reason to admit to and one that can make all of us feel vulnerable. For many of us, we want to be perceived as the ultimate expert and partner to our editors and so when we’re faced with not knowing how to do something, we have a hard time being transparent. Instead, we might be tempted to “figure it out” and consequently become frustrated or side-tracked in the process.

It Just Won’t Work
And what if the idea is simply unrealistic or infeasible? You know as soon as they say it, that you won’t be able to accomplish what’s asked of you because it simply won’t work. This type of request is especially common when it comes to manuscript tracking systems. I can recall countless examples of our editors asking for changes in the system that we just couldn’t technically do. And yet it was common for them to persist in their requests, ignoring our explanations for why it couldn’t be done.

So, What Can You Do?

Let’s be honest. Unless you have a very close and candid relationship with your editor, you were never really going to just say “no” in the first place. And why would you want to? Editors often generate the most innovative and novel ideas for a journal—they are consumers of journals after all, so they have the benefit of seeing what other journals—competitors and non-competitors alike—are doing and how they are advancing the dissemination of research. Additionally, you don’t want to get stuck in a rut of doing things because you have always done them that way, so researching your editor’s idea and giving it fair consideration is good for the journal and the team. If you have to say no, say it with evidence behind you. Saying no to an editor without really considering their request jeopardizes your journal staying at the cutting edge.

But still, even after giving a request or an idea airtime, there will be times you have to say no. You know in your gut (and based on your experience) that this idea or request isn’t going to work, but you need to persuade your editor of your point of view. In my experience, no single approach will work with every idea or request or even across the board with different editors. Instead, you must consider both the nature of the request as well as the personality of the editor to determine which of the below suggestions are best suited for the situation. Or perhaps it’s a combination of these suggestions. Whatever the circumstance, you certainly have tools at your disposal to help make your case.

Develop a Strategic Plan (or at Least Some Clear Goals!)
Although not every journal or every portfolio of journals has a strategic plan, it certainly helps to have one when responding to a new idea from an editor. In fact, being able to address ideas and requests from editors was one of the driving forces behind the development of a strategic plan when I worked at AGA. We were finding that the editors of our five journals were really hitting their creative stride and, as a result, we experienced a deluge of ideas—and many of them, in their minds, were critically important. To manage this influx of creative energy, and to better plan for the future of our portfolio, we created a five-year strategic plan, complete with goals related to financial viability, capacity management, DEI, prominence, and open access. It was against this framework that we could hold our editors accountable, ensuring that they didn’t stray from the agreed-upon direction of the portfolio with their myriad ideas.

Sample strategic plan workflow

Data and Industry Standards are Your Friends
Aside from a strong strategic plan—or at least a few strategic goals—relying on data or industry standards and best practices to make your case is always a good bet. Our industry has become dependent on data to make evidence-based decisions and has worked hard to develop standards and guidelines for effective and successful journals. In as many cases as you can, pull data or refer to industry standards to show your editor why an idea or request won’t work—or at least won’t work in the way they envision it. In the case of data, you likely have more to point to than you even realize (think beyond the data you get out of your tracking system and consider other types such as people-hours, views, listens, downloads, citations, social media mentions, etc.) A good example of this was when our editors kept pushing to continue publishing a second annual supplement to our flagship journal. The number of staff hours we put into that supplement was exorbitant and we suspected it wasn’t having the impact our editors thought it did. Through the use of citation data, we were able to show them that the supplement was actually pulling down our impact factor. As a result, the editors dropped their request for the supplement to continue and our staff was able to focus on other higher priority and more impactful projects.

Consider Impact and Resources
Perhaps the most involved strategy for dealing with a persistent editor is to have a program evaluation matrix in place whereby your team can evaluate the merit of a request based on key factors. For example, when I worked at AGA, one of our team members designed a matrix that plotted new initiatives according to their impact and resources (the four quadrants of the matrix were high impact/low resources, high impact/high resources, low impact/low resources, and low impact/high resources). We presented this matrix to all existing editors (we had five journals) and incoming editors to ensure they were aware of its existence and that we’d be using it to help us decide which ideas and requests to pursue. A good example of the use of this tool was when the editor of our clinical journal wanted to expand our podcast program, despite its time-intensive process. We plotted the program on the matrix and were able to show them that it was very high resources with very little impact (the listens, despite our heavy promotion of the podcast, were incredibly low). Based on this use of the matrix, we were able to persuade the editor to not expand the program and we were even successful in getting them to drop the program altogether.

Sample matrix for plotting impact vs. resources of a new idea or request

Take a Step Back
Sometimes what your editor is asking for isn’t really what they’re asking for. For example, they suddenly tell you that you need to add TikTok to your social media program, but you know that’s not really necessary nor does your journal’s content lend itself to that platform. What are they really asking for here? Do they just want to be on the cutting edge of social media? Do they think your current social media program isn’t achieving what it should? Are they looking to perhaps create TikTok-like content (e.g., short videos) that might appeal to early-career readers? What I’ve found helpful when responding to an idea or a request from an editor is to take a step back to critically understand what their goal is. Then from there, consider how you can achieve that goal with existing resources and programs—perhaps repurposing something you already have in place. We had a situation at AGA where the editors of one of the journals wanted to launch a new podcast to reach early-career physician scientists. Instead of running with the idea, we paused and considered what already existed at AGA, identifying that an early-career podcast was already being produced by our education department. We were able to work out a situation whereby we could feature journal content and authors on that podcast, thereby achieving our editor’s goals while preserving our valuable human and financial resources.

Ask for Support from a Higher Authority
Finally, when you’ve tried getting your editor to stick to the journal’s strategic plan or goals, showed them compelling data or industry information, and tried approaching their idea or request with a different solution and you still aren’t able to persuade them, then consider asking for help from the higher-ups, whether that’s the person you report to in your publications department, the CEO of your organization, or perhaps even volunteer members (for example, for issues that warrant it, you could consider asking your publications committee or similar body to weigh in for support). There were many situations at AGA where the editorial staff was unsuccessful in pushing back on an editor and it required someone (or a governing body) to take a firm stance. It also helps to remind these individuals in positions of authority that you are an expert in what you do and therefore your opinion or recommendation is credible and can be trusted.

Telling an editor you can’t do something is uncomfortable—hey, telling anyone you can’t do something is uncomfortable (at least for those people-pleasers out there). But with a little skill, diplomacy, strategic thinking, and humor (yes, keeping your sense of humor intact is helpful too!), you can find ways to develop a balanced—and more satisfying—partnership with your editor. What tactics have you used with your editors and journals? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

Conflicts of Interest:

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