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I have been invited as a special issue guest editor. The journal is genuine (I have both published and reviewed there multiple times) but not very prestigious and sometimes seen as "easy" to get into. So far the special issue has a title and a deadline, but the scope is yet to be defined by the guest editors. The title is broad enough to be its own journal. Within the fields that would fit with this title, my expertise and network range from "a little" to "none at all".

I've been a little surprised by the invitation because I thought guest editors were senior researchers in their field, and no matter how much introspection I do on the impostor syndrome, I'm not a senior researcher in this topic.

I tentatively accepted, because being a guest editor could be a great learning experience and would enhance my CV, and perhaps I don't need that much domain expertise if the other guest editors are more experienced experts and my role would be rather to carefully read papers, reviews, replies, and more reviews, before accepting a paper (or not)?

Now it turns out nobody else has accepted yet and I've been asked to find others, and I'm getting cold feet. Could people who have experience being special issue guest editors, or who are otherwise familiar with these roles, give some advice?

  • In special issues, are guest editors usually senior researchers with a lot of domain expertise and an extensive network in the field? Or do you also encounter those whose expertise is at best tangentially related?
  • How much of a handicap would it be to lack the in-depth expertise? Is this a debilitating limitation or one that can be reasonably accommodated?

The field of Earth Observation / Remote Sensing. The publisher is based in Switzerland, specialises in open access, and its journals are indexed by the usual places,

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  • If you are the only guest editor, why not change the topic to suit yourself? May 9 '20 at 9:58
  • @AnonymousPhysicist I don't know what to do with so much freedom.
    – gerrit
    May 9 '20 at 11:29
  • Why the downvote?
    – gerrit
    May 9 '20 at 11:30
  • In my experience, special issues of respectable journals are usually connected to some conference. The guest editors are the organizers or program committee (or a subset thereof), and the authors are people who either spoke at the conference or were invited to speak but couldn't attend. The situation you describe looks quite strange to me. May 9 '20 at 18:51
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    but not very prestigious and sometimes seen as "easy" to get into (Impact Factor 4.1) --- I guess it would take someone familiar with the field of Earth Observation / Remote Sensing to know what exactly what "not very prestigious" means, because 4.1 is stellar high in some fields. For example, one of the top 2 or 3 most prestigious journals in all of mathematics has an impact factor of 3.027. May 9 '20 at 19:28
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I've edited journals without holding a PhD in the past (don't ask). Doing a mediocre job is not that hard - to invite reviewers for example you just need to do a literature survey of the paper's field, which is standard Masters-level work. You can then invite reviewers even if you don't know them. The success rate is quite good - I think roughly 50% of the reviewers I invited responded to the invitation (although a substantial number decline). Doing just this, it's possible to keep the journal operating, although of course it will not do well. Since you know something about the field you should be able to do better: for example you can desk reject with more confidence, make sure every accepted paper has something interesting to say, and so on. If you can understand what the papers are saying on a high level, you should not have to worry about not being able to do a good job.

However, there are several potential problems I can see:

  • You've said it's an open access publisher based in Switzerland, which pretty much identifies which publisher it is. It doesn't have a great reputation. You could meet people who disapprove of you working with that publisher.
  • More concerningly, you are very likely to be asked to help solicit submissions. This is very different from reviewing submissions, and here a wide network will be helpful. You may also feel like the publisher is exploiting you - viewed one way, you are using your contacts to help them make money. If this troubles you, then that feeling could be exacerbated by the low response rate from other potential editors.
  • Yet another potential problem is "The title is broad enough to be its own journal". I would guess from this that the initiative for the special issue came from the publisher's staff, not the editor-in-chief. Although this isn't a red flag - there's a good chance the publisher got the editor-in-chief's approval before approaching you - it is something to keep in mind. Another issue is the broad scope could make it difficult for you to even put together a special issue since so many topics would be relevant. You could talk to the publisher and/or the editor-in-chief to narrow down the topic, if you feel it's appropriate.

One more thing probably worth mentioning is that you'll likely have a lot of scope to define what you want the special issue to look like. If the initiative really is from the publisher, chances are they will be willing to defer to your expertise, and the editor-in-chief won't object.

So, what to do now? If you don't care about doing a good job, you can go ahead. Leave the scope, invitations, marketing, etc to the publisher (they'll undoubtedly do a mediocre job at best, since they have no domain expertise) and just review any papers that actually are submitted. The special issue will not be pretty, but the amount of non-review work you need to do will be minimal. If you care about doing a good job, I'd suggest thinking it through before committing. Talk to the editor-in-chief, talk to a senior colleague, think about what you want the special issue to be about and who you might invite to contribute.

By the way: if you do go ahead, I'd recommend asking the publisher if they can offer free open access for your invited submissions.

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In my experience, the main role of a guest editor is to find reviewers for submissions—and perhaps to solicit submissions. Can you think of some interesting work you'd like to see in a special issue? Do you know who you'd ask to review it? Then you're ready.

But you don't need our help with this, and you can get much more specific and exact advice—pick up the phone and have a chat with the editor-in-chief (or whomever asked you to serve). You were invited for a reason, and you may as well find out what it is.

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  • Can the authors of the special issue serve as reviewers for each other? Oct 22 '20 at 21:42

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