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Meet Neurology Editor-in-Chief José G. Merino, MD, FAAN

Article In Brief

José G. Merino, MD, MPhil, FAHA, FAAN, the new editor-in-chief of Neurology discusses his vision for the journal, his plans for the future, and the response to COVID-19.

José G. Merino, MD, MPhil, FAHA, FAAN, professor of neurology at Georgetown University School of Medicine, has been named editor-in-chief of the AAN's premier journal, Neurology. Dr. Merino, who will become the journal's seventh editor-in-chief since it first began publishing in 1951, succeeds Robert A. Gross, MD, PhD, FAAN, who will complete his 10-year term in April 2020. Dr. Merino received his medical degree from Universidad Anáhuac in Mexico City and a master's of philosophy degree on the history of medicine from the University of Cambridge in England. He completed his neurology and psychiatry residency at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a stroke fellowship at the University of Western Ontario.

Dr. Merino has taught fellows, residents, and medical students and participated in clinical and research programs at the Section of Stroke Diagnosis and Therapeutics of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Johns Hopkins Medicine, the University of Florida, and the University of Maryland. He served as US research editor of The BMJ between 2012 and 2019, when he started the transition into his new role as editor-in-chief of Neurology.

Neurology Today first interviewed Dr. Merino in the weeks before the advent of COVID-19. But given the vast changes in play since the novel coronavirus became a pandemic, we returned to ask him about the response of Neurology.

How is Neurology responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?

We are implementing several initiatives. First, we put out a call for research papers related to the neurological effects of COVID-19. We instituted a process to allow us to process these papers quickly and we are confident that we can post them online within a couple of weeks from the time we receive them. These papers undergo the same rigorous peer-review process as all other papers in Neurology because we want to be confident about the papers that we publish. But we are asking our reviewers to expedite the process and send us their comments within a few days. In addition, we make our editorial decisions and send them to the publisher within a few days.

Second, to inform our readers about the pandemic and how it will affect neurologists and their patients, we solicited several special editorials. We have been posting these online within a few days of receipt, and the Neurology podcast team has interviewed some of these authors.

Third, we have invited commentaries from neurologists working in the frontline because we believe that we can benefit from the experience from our colleagues throughout the country and the world. Dr. Gretchen Birbeck, editor of the Without Borders site of the journal, has played an important role in this initiative. Finally, we will also link all these resources to the AAN's COVID-19 page.

What is your vision for the journal?

I am fortunate that Neurology is in a strong position. Under the leadership of Dr. Gross and a great team of editors and editorial staff, Neurology has become the most widely read clinical neurology journal in the world, with the highest number of citations. We have a very strong reputation. Over the next 10 years, I want to make sure that Neurology remains the world's most influential clinical neurology journal, attracting the most relevant research with the greatest potential impact on the field. We must continue to be an innovative journal. My goal is to publish the most relevant research that addresses the needs of clinical neurologists—whether in practice, research, academia, public health, or anywhere else. I have a great team of associate editors, all experts in their fields, to help me achieve this goal.

What are some of the areas you want to focus on?

We'd like to promote greater diversity and inclusivity among our editors and reviewers. We know that conscious and unconscious biases are at play when making decisions about manuscripts, so it's important to have representation of neurologists from different backgrounds making decisions at the journal. I am very excited by the fact that half of our incoming associate editors (and also our deputy editor) are women. It will take us a little longer to achieve gender parity in the editorial board, but I will work with the associate editors to achieve this goal over the coming months. We will also increase the number of editors from other under-represented groups in the editorial board and among peer reviewers.

What services will you provide to authors and readers?

We want to enhance the services provided to authors and readers. I will work with the editorial staff to simplify the submission process to make it easier for authors to submit their work to us, and to find ways to increase the visibility of their work published in the journal, including through our excellent podcasts, infographics, press releases, and short summaries. Because the online version is the canonical version, I will look for ways to harness the medium to help authors get their message across. In addition, with the associate editors and editorial staff, we are seeking to expand existing sections of the journal and considering new ones. Among others, I would like to increase the number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses, translational research papers, studies on health disparities, and studies that help clinicians and patients make decisions together.

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“My goal is to publish the most relevant research that addresses the needs of clinical neurologists—whether in practice, research, academia, public health, or anywhere else. I have a great team of associate editors, all experts in their fields, to help me achieve this goal.”—DR. JOSÉ G. MERINO

What about the next generation of journal editors and peer reviewers?

I believe that the journal must educate and engage neurologists interested in pursuing editorial work throughout their career. Dr. Bradford Worrall, the deputy editor for editorial education, will play a leadership role developing these initiatives. Starting this year, he will mentor two assistant editors who will learn about all aspects of the editorial process, from appraising manuscripts, selecting reviewers, evaluating their reviews, and making editorial decisions. We are also developing methods to teach editors, board members, and peer reviewers about the basic competencies of journal editors.

We'd like to lead rather than follow when responding to innovations in research dissemination and funders' mandates. Researchers have many options to disseminate their work, and funders have specific mandates as to how they can do it. We must be proactive when addressing these challenges.

That brings us to the question of major challenges to Neurology and to scientific publishing in general. What do you see as the greatest challenges the journal faces?

I believe that medical journals play a critical role in the research enterprise by disseminating research findings to a broad audience and, through the peer-review process, help authors improve their manuscripts and reassure other researchers, clinicians, policy makers, and the public that the work is relevant and of quality. But we must recognize researchers now have many options besides journals to disseminate their findings. Authors can, and sometimes are required to, register protocols (and often results) in public or funders' registries; submit manuscripts to preprint servers; and store them in institutional or personal repositories, many of which are searchable. We have to be mindful of what value we add as journals to the finished product—be it the imprimatur, peer review, production, additional resources and services—and continually improve what we offer, so that we remain an integral part of the dissemination of science as journals have been for over 300 years.

In addition, researchers in neurology have many journals to choose from when deciding where to submit their work. In order to differentiate ourselves and remain a top choice for authors, when making editorial decisions, we have to be mindful of our core audience (clinical neurologists) and prioritize translational and clinical research that is relevant or, in the case of preliminary findings, has the potential to become relevant to patients with neurological disease and those treating them. We must also continue to strengthen the methodological rigor of studies published in the journal, and always work to improve our service to authors and readers. Because of our focus, audience, and influence, Neurology is a great place for disseminating neurology research.

Some of the biggest challenges we face have to do with funding mandates, and that is an issue not just for Neurology but for every major medical journal. We will have to respond to new proposals and mandates by funders and society. There is demand for journals to provide greater access to information for researchers and the public, which is of course very important. We can't just close ranks and say this can't be done. But we need to develop models that take into account the needs of journals and society. This has to be a collaborative approach.

How has your past experience has prepared you for the position?

I have been interested in medical journals for a long time. As a medical student I enjoyed reading, or at least perusing, them. When I was a vascular neurology fellow at the University of Western Ontario, my mentor, Dr. Vladimir Hachinski, was the editor of Stroke and he introduced me to peer reviewing and, when I finished my fellowship, invited me to join the editorial board. That was my first introduction to editorial work. Later, in 2009, Dr. Orly Avitzur, now president-elect of the AAN, then editor-in-chief of AAN.com, invited me to work as the science editor of the academy's website. In that role I curated the science-related material on the website, conducted interviews with authors published in Neurology, and started my engagement with AAN committees.

Then in 2012, I applied for, and became, the US research editor for The BMJ, one of the leading and most innovative general medical journals in the world. I was involved in all the editorial aspects of the research section of the journal: appraising research papers, making editorial decisions, responding to appeals, and handling requests for retraction and other editorial controversies. I was in that role from 2012-2019, and it really prepared me for my current position because I gained a very broad understanding of editorial competencies, controversies, and best practices.

What is it that appeals to you about the role of editor-in-chief?

I am very excited that, working with the editorial team, as editor-in-chief I will have the opportunity to shape the direction of the journal, setting editorial policies, priorities, and practices; and in that way, indirectly contributing to the advancement of the discipline by identifying the most relevant papers for our audience, helping authors improve their work, and widely disseminating neurological discoveries. I acknowledge that publication of a research study in a journal is the culmination of a long process to which many individuals have contributed. As journal editor, I will be able to be part of this process. Because of the scope of the journal, I will contribute, in a small way, to enhancing our understanding of many neurological diseases. In addition, one of the things I am most looking forward to is the opportunity to work with, and learn from, my colleagues in the journal and the wider neurological community. Being an editor allows me to witness and contribute to scientific, practice, and policy aspects of our discipline.

Will there be any changes in the organization of the journal?

Neurology is a very successful and well-managed enterprise. It has an outstanding staff, and over the past couple of months, they have been teaching me about the editorial processes. Before I make any changes, I want to understand in detail what works well and where there are opportunities to improve. Over the coming months, there may be changes, to align with the priorities I mentioned above. I will let authors and readers know about them in due time. This will be an exciting new career stage for me and I look forward to leading a new chapter for the journal.