Jenny Baker
/ Categories: TIP, 571

A Behind the Scenes Look at the Special Issue Editorial Process

Tracy L. Griggs, Winthrop University; Greg Thrasher, Oakland University; Charles E. Lance, Organizational Research & Development/U. of the Western Cape; Janet Barnes-Farrell, University of Connecticut; & Boris Baltes, Wayne State University


Have you ever considered submitting your work to a Special Issue (SI)? How about organizing one? If this seems like one of those experiences you wait to consider until you are a seasoned, tenured professor, we implore you to reconsider. If you are an experienced reviewer or a junior faculty member, the practice of editing a SI can be both developmental and perfectly appropriate given your expertise and experience.

What Is a SI and How Does it Differ From a Typical Issue of a Journal?

Depending on the journal and the topic, SIs may be treated differently, but in the field of psychology, a SI usually includes 5–10 articles on same topic, all published in a single issue of the journal. The purposes of SIs may include any or all of the following: (a) introduce new theories or methods to the field (e.g. see Organizational Research Methods for examples of this), (b) provide a state-of-the-science review of some topic, (c) present a coherent stance or position on some issue, (e.g., importance of null results in research; see Journal of Business and Psychology), (d) present a point–counterpoint debate on some issue (e.g., the usefulness of formative vs. reflective indicators in Structural Equation Modeling), (e) introduce new or ignored areas for research to the field (e.g., as we did in our recent SI on eldercare in the Journal of Business and Psychology), and more.

Benefits of SIs to Authors, Journals, and Editorial Teams

SIs have benefits for authors, journals and the editorial team. First, SIs give researchers and practitioners an outlet to consider publication of niche interests and to gain visibility for their research among other like-minded scholars and practitioners in the field. Benefits for the journal include greater exposure to a larger readership, potential new reviewers, and potential increased interest in the journal. And finally, there are a number of potential benefits for the editorial team. Particularly if you are a junior faculty member, this is one of the best ways to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life cycle of the scientific publication process, a chance to read the latest research on a topic, and the benefit of working with senior colleagues to produce a volume that includes high-quality research. There are many opportunities for learning and development from senior editors along the way. This is great preparation for editing a book, joining editorial boards, and stepping into associate editor (AE) and editor roles in the future.

A Chronology of How Our SI Developed

Our SI began at SIOP 2017 where our guest editorial team all met as presenters in a work–family symposium on eldercare. Although we were all presenting on eldercare that day, I do not think any of us would have labelled ourselves as “eldercare experts.” What we did all have in common was an understanding that this research is important, that people are already beginning to work on it, and that emerging research on the topic did not yet have a home. We thought, “There really needs to be a place for all of this work to come together!” Because a specific space for this topic hadn’t been established, we decided to create one through the development of a special journal issue. Based on post symposium discussions over lunch at the hotel restaurant, we decided on a few possible outlets for our SI. We pitched the idea somewhat informally to the editor and we were invited to put together a formal proposal. The written proposal was well received by both the editor and members of the journal editorial board who agreed that we were highlighting an important yet understudied area. We were off!

Over the course of the next 2 years we moved from an idea, to proposals, to revisions and resubmissions, and finally on to acceptances and a finished, published product. We ended our process where it all began, with a SIOP session. Our 2019 SIOP session brought together a selection of our accepted papers to present on their cutting-edge eldercare research. This was followed by a brief panel from our guest editors highlighting many of the lessons learned in creating the SI, also discussed in this TIP article.

Figure 1. A SI’s journey from SIOP to journal and back to SIOP.



How to Propose a SI to a Journal Editor

When presenting your idea for a SI to a journal editor, it is worthwhile to pull together a formal proposal. We prepared a 5-page proposal, which included a strong case for research in this area. We suggest that your proposal include the following:

  • the relevance of your SI topic to the journal’s targeted readership (think about the topics typically covered in the journal, and to how your topic may fit with these and other topics in the discipline)
  • important questions that need to be answered related to your topic
  • a list of known researchers and research centers conducting research on the topic (to show potential to attract quality proposals)
  • a general plan for your editorial process
  • a list of qualified reviewers from whom you will solicit help


One Model for Managing Manuscripts for a SI

1.  Develop a process or workflow with key events and a timeline for completion of each stage. You will want to discuss the general manuscript process and timeline ahead of time. This is ours:

Step Activity at this step
Time between steps
1 -- Obtain review, feedback, and approval of proposal by the Editor and Board Members
2 T1 + 2 months Contact listservs and profession organizations to distribute call, inviting 1000-word proposals
3 T2 + 1 month Build an expert review board
4 T2 + 3 months Receive 1000-word proposals
5 T4 + 1 month  Review 1000-word proposals as an editorial team. Select and invite full submissions 
6 T5 + 3 months Accept author full submissions and send to reviewers
7 T6 + 1 month SI editors to review comments from reviewers, make decisions on initial manuscripts and provide invitations for R&R or rejection letters to authors 
8 T7 + 3 months Accept revised submissions and send to reviewers
9 T8 + 2 months SI editors to review 2nd submissions along with reviewer comments and make decisions on manuscripts. Provide summary letters to authors
10 T9 + 2 months Accept final R&R submissions from accepted papers
Total time from advertisement to final submission of accepted papers 18 months At this point papers will be processed and copy edited by the journal. 
*Depending on arrangement with the editor, you may wish to write a summary or introduction to the SI, which can be submitted with the final papers in the issue.


2.  Assign roles for guest editorial team (e.g., AEs, a logistics manager)

  • We had five guest editors, so we assigned four to 2-person teams of action editors (AEs) and the fifth team member served as our logistics manager, keeping us on task, handling most of our communications with the journal editor, and with authors, regarding deadlines.


3. Develop criteria for selection of proposals

Consider the following as a potential guideline:

  • fit with the mission of the journal
  • theoretical, conceptual, and practical relevance to your topic in the context of work
  • importance and incremental contribution
  • methodological rigor
  • expectation that the project could be completed within your established timelines


4. Solicit expert reviewers for the SI (give them timeline and ask for a commitment for one to two reviews over the duration of the project). Reviewers that are invested in the topic, engaged, and knowledgeable are essential to running on a tight timeline.

5. Advertise your Call for Papers. Be sure to include individuals, groups, labs and centers working in the area, as well as SIOP and Academy divisions, special interest groups, or other conference networks that may want to publish the call on their websites or across their network email.

6. Receive proposals by email. Be sure to confirm receipt by email and keep records of submissions.

7. Review proposals. Use the criteria to rank the proposals. You may want to bucket proposals into “definites,” “maybes,” and “unlikelys” before meeting to discuss and rank as a group.

8. Invite full submission based on the proposals that show promise according to the submission criteria you set for the SI.

9. While you wait for full paper submissions, assign reviewers to manuscripts according to their expertise and background (e.g., if you anticipate a manuscript that uses a new methodological or analytical technique, make sure the reviewers assigned to review the paper are a good fit and have the expertise to fairly evaluate it).

10. Assign AE teams to groups of manuscripts. We split ours evenly between two 2-person editorial teams. Both teams included one senior faculty member and one junior faculty member. Our fifth editor served as a tie breaker and a third-eye consultant for to the two AE teams, when needed.

11. Use the journal’s online editorial system, if possible, to manage the entire submission process. This will save much time and energy and provide credibility to your process. If you are working with a journal that does not manage manuscripts online, you can accept manuscripts and assign them to reviewers manually by email. Keep records of everything, organized into folders in your email, hard drive, and so on. Records of correspondence with the editorial team, but also with authors, reviewers, and journal editors comes in handy over the long duration of this process.

12. When reviews come in, AE teams should read manuscripts and reviews and work together to make decisions about whether a paper should be invited for a revision or rejected. Then, a letter will need to be written from the AE team to the authors informing them of the decision and next steps, if applicable. Make sure to state deadlines explicitly in the letter as some online manuscript portals will leave the revision deadline set to a default (e.g., 90 days). In some cases, you can override this default manually. It’s key to be clear about due dates.

13. Receive revised manuscripts, send them out for review, and repeat the process of AE reviews on revised manuscripts. Write a letter to authors about your decision to accept, review again, or reject.

14. Once reviewers and AEs are satisfied with the state of a paper for publication, it can be sent to the journal for processing. Articles may be published online as soon as they are processed and before the SI is technically in print.

15. Prepare an editorial piece summarizing the contributions of the SI.

16. After the manuscripts are in press, consider repeating the promotional steps you took when you released the call. Consider social media marketing of the SI by announcing the SI on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or other social media outlets, by email, in newsletters, blogs, or your own personal website. If you don’t have a date for publication, you can list the month or season readers can expect it.

Lessons Learned in Creating This SI

We would like to leave readers with a few of our biggest takeaways about organizing a SI. Among these takeaways are activities that we believe contributed to a successful and valuable experience for everyone on the editorial team.

  1. Pair up junior and senior editors. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons we take from this process is the success of the mentor model for guest editors. Our editorial process paired one senior and one junior faculty together as a guest editorial team with each team responsible for approximately half of the papers being reviewed. Our fifth (senior) editor handled all communications, including updates, deadline reminders, and logistical details with both the authors and the JBP editor. This fifth editorial member also served as a third set of eyes on papers and provided input in cases where reviewers or the primary editorial team were divided in opinion. This format worked well for several reasons. First, having two guest editors on each paper gave our group a chance to consider multiple perspectives and guaranteed that four experts reviewed each paper. This lightened the editorial workload and increased the quality of the final papers in the issue. Second, junior editors were able to work under the guidance of more experienced senior editors who could provide advice and mentorship related to editorial protocol. Although many junior faculty and practitioners have experience with reviewing papers, the editorial role is relatively unfamiliar to most researchers until one is invited to serve on an editorial board. We see this pairing of junior and senior editors as a win–win for the editors, the authors, and for the journal.
  2. The most ambitious SI will take well over a year to complete. Unless you are creating a SI from conference proceedings, the process will take some time. Be ambitious but realistic about timelines, baking in time for late submissions, late reviews, and even late editorial decisions. Our timeline, from the date that our call went out until the final paper was accepted for publication, took right at 18 months. Our rule of thumb was to leave 8–2 weeks between submissions and review decisions, knowing that our reviewers would only be given 4 weeks to review but that some of them would ask for extensions. We considered due dates carefully, with other big dates like holidays, conference deadlines, and conference travel dates in mind. For instance, we built in extra time when we knew that many of our reviewers would lose over a week to the 2018 SIOP conference.
  3. Appoint someone with some personal fortitude to play logistics manager. Although it might seem obvious, assigning someone on the editorial team to play the role of logistics manager is quite important if you wish to stay on top of deadlines. We worked within the online editorial management system used by JBP, which sends out automated emails to authors and reviewers regarding agreed-upon deadlines for reviews and (re)submissions, but separate, personal emails to authors regarding upcoming deadlines were a nice way to stay in touch with authors, field questions, and handle the inevitable exceptions that authors might ask for regarding deadlines, page limits, and general concerns regarding the process. For a SI to come together, the papers must be finished at the same time. Let’s face it, life happens. Things come up which might delay authors, reviewers and editors. We are grateful to Chuck Lance for playing this role and for extending grace where it was needed but generally holding a hard line regarding deadlines, which allowed us to stay on target for the entire duration of the project.
  4. Conference calls save time, keep everyone engaged, and eliminate confusion. In the course of creating this SI, five editors logged roughly 10 hours of conference calls just for the sake of planning and decision making related to the SI. A free conference call number can be obtained from Of course, there were also many more hours devoted to reading and reviewing proposals and submissions, meeting as AE teams, crafting and writing letters and feedback to authors, and learning to use JBP’s online editorial management system to communicate officially with authors (which in retrospect was quite painless). But, we estimate that in the end, conference calls saved valuable time in planning as opposed to trying to plan and decide everything by email.
  5. Take advantage of file-sharing options. From the start of the SI, we used Dropbox cloud storage to stay organized. With folders organized by process steps, it was never difficult to find what we needed. We also appointed a note taker for every phone call to keep records of our decisions and our planning process. A long time occurs between some stages in the process and referring back to your notes about why you made decisions can be useful.
  6. Ethical considerations when editing a SI. Perhaps it goes without saying that confidentiality is important and that AEs should avoid conflicts of interest during the review process. As one example, in the case that you are proposing a SI on a topic for which you are conducting scholarship, you may wish to have your own work reviewed for possible publication in the issue. For the sake of transparency and fairness, you should not serve as AE on your own submission and your reviewers should be blindly assigned by another AE. If the reviews or the assigned editorial team are not unanimous in their decision, a fifth member of your editorial team, or a member of the journal’s AE board, should serve as a nonpartisan tiebreaker. These practices prevent team members from feeling a conflict of interest and ultimately yield a more transparent and fair process for all involved.
  7. Thank your reviewers. Perhaps the biggest take-away from this process is how much time and energy is required from multiple stakeholders to create a quality publication of high-quality scholarship. There is simply no way to calculate how many hours are spent pulling together a single issue, but you will want to extend your sincere gratitude to all the scholars who submitted their work, to the journal editor for their support, and to the ad hoc editorial board for their invaluable support of your efforts toward producing the SI.


The experience of putting together a SI has been invaluable for both our senior and junior editorial members. Our junior members are especially grateful to Chuck Lance, Janet Barnes-Farrell, and Boris Baltes for their senior leadership and support as we learned the ropes of the editorial process from them. If you are interested putting together a SI of your own, we hope you will be so lucky to find mentors like these.

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