Journal Owners and Editorial Freedom

1. Journal Owners

Owners and editors of medical journals share a common purpose, but they have different responsibilities, and sometimes those differences lead to conflicts.

It is the responsibility of medical journal owners to appoint and dismiss editors.

Owners should provide editors at the time of their appointment with a contract that clearly states their rights and duties, authority, the general terms of their appointment, and mechanisms for resolving conflict. The editor’s performance may be assessed using mutually agreed-upon measures, including but not necessarily limited to readership, manuscript submissions and handling times, and various journal metrics.

Owners should only dismiss editors for substantial reasons, such as scientific misconduct, disagreement with the long-term editorial direction of the journal, inadequate performance by agreed-upon performance metrics, or inappropriate behavior that is incompatible with a position of trust.

Appointments and dismissals should be based on evaluations by a panel of independent experts, rather than by a small number of executives of the owning organization. This is especially necessary in the case of dismissals because of the high value society places on freedom of speech within science and because it is often the responsibility of editors to challenge the status quo in ways that may conflict with the interests of the journal’s owners.

A medical journal should explicitly state its governance and relationship to a journal owner (eg, a sponsoring society).

2. Editorial Freedom

The ICMJE adopts the World Association of Medical Editors’ definition of editorial freedom, which holds that editors-in-chief have full authority over the entire editorial content of their journal and the timing of publication of that content. Journal owners should not interfere in the evaluation, selection, scheduling, or editing of individual articles either directly or by creating an environment that strongly influences decisions. Editors should base editorial decisions on the validity of the work and its importance to the journal’s readers, not on the commercial implications for the journal, and editors should be free to express critical but responsible views about all aspects of medicine without fear of retribution, even if these views conflict with the commercial goals of the publisher.

Editors-in-chief should also have the final say in decisions about which advertisements or sponsored content, including supplements, the journal will and will not carry, and they should have final say in use of the journal brand and in overall policy regarding commercial use of journal content.

Journals are encouraged to establish an independent editorial advisory board to help the editor establish and maintain editorial policy. Editors should seek input as needed from a broad array of advisers, such as reviewers, editorial staff, an editorial board, and readers, to support editorial decisions and potentially controversial expressions of opinion, and owners should ensure that appropriate insurance is obtained in the event of legal action against the editors, and should ensure that legal advice is available when necessary.

If legal problems arise, the editor should inform their legal adviser and their owner and/or publisher as soon as possible. Editors should defend the confidentiality of authors and peer-reviewers (names and reviewer comments) in accordance with ICMJE policy (see Section II C.2.a). Editors should take all reasonable steps to check the facts in journal commentary, including that in news sections and social media postings, and should ensure that staff working for the journal adhere to best journalistic practices including contemporaneous note-taking and seeking a response from all parties when possible before publication. Such practices in support of truth and public interest may be particularly relevant in defense against legal allegations of libel.

To secure editorial freedom in practice, the editor should have direct access to the highest level of ownership, not to a delegated manager or administrative officer.

Editors and editors’ organizations are obliged to support the concept of editorial freedom and to draw major transgressions of such freedom to the attention of the international medical, academic, and lay communities.


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