AKRON—It's only natural that Christopher Robertson ended up as editor-in-chief of Rubber Chemistry & Technology, the peer-reviewed journal published under the auspices of the ACS Rubber Division.
After all, the rubber industry veteran confides that scientific publishing is a hobby of his. He first was involved in RC&T about 20 years ago, when he served as a peer reviewer while doing post-doctoral research under C. Michael Roland, retired from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, who was the journal's editor at the time.
Robertson most recently was one of the associate editors working under his predecessor, Will Mars, owner of Endurica L.L.C. When Mars stepped down in 2020, the Rubber Division tapped Robertson to be just the 12th editor in the history of prestigious journal, first published in 1928.
Robertson currently is a principal applications scientist for Alpha Technologies, a job he moved to in August after a four-year stint at Endurica. He started his industry career in 2001 at ExxonMobil, followed by positions at Bridgestone; two years in Saudi Arabia where he was program manager for a University of Akron project to train Saudis to work in the rubber industry; and stops at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and Eastman Chemical Co.
"I have been in the industry exclusively, so I have never needed to publish anything in a journal," Robertson said. "But because I like to do research and that's been part of my fiber, scientific publishing is a hobby, so editing became part of that hobby."
And he doesn't look at the time spent on RC&T as work hours, often working on the journal over the weekend. "I enjoy getting up on a Saturday morning, getting a cup of coffee," he said. "Even though it's not a work day, I'll get up early like I would normally, and open up the editorial software and see what's been submitted. I'll move things around and get some of that going on my own time."
A publishing tradition
RC&T publishes four issues a year—about 50 papers total—in both print and online formats, with Rubber Division members getting not only a subscription but also searchable access to all the papers published since the journal started.
"I feel the responsibility of history," Robertson said. "If I look at the people who have led the journal before me, I feel fortunate and a deep responsibility at the same time to carry what has been maintained and take it to another level."
As editor-in-chief, Robertson is the recipient of papers that are submitted for consideration to be published in the journal. There is a board of associate editors—there currently are 14 serving in that capacity—who are experts in different areas themselves.
Depending on the topic, the chief editor will send it to one of the associate editors, who handle the peer review process. The anonymous peer reviewers provide feedback on the paper, suggesting whether the submission should be accepted, revised in some manner, or rejected.
The associate editors make a decision based on the reviews, and passes that back to the chief editor, who has final say. As editor, Robertson then communicates to the writer what the decision was. "When the author gets the feedback, they can use it to revise the manuscript—if that was the decision—or understand why it was rejected," he said.
About half of the papers end up getting rejected, according to Robertson. Some are turned down at the outset by the editor, either because of quality, or sometimes if it's deemed not to be a good fit for RC&T. He also may suggest another journal that may be more appropriate for the work.
There are times when authors push back on receiving a rejection, but Robertson said he tries to handle the situation in a kind way, explaining they can only publish so many pages a year, or the content wasn't right for the journal.
For papers that go for revisions, there's a lot of feedback. There are comments from the peer reviewers, as well as the associate editor. Robertson's role is as a middle man. Sometimes one reviewer may say accept as is, while another suggests a revision. "I tend to error on the side of inclusion," he said. "We'll ask for a major revision and see what they do with it, and look at the paper again after they revise it. Sometimes with a major revision, they will send it elsewhere or lose interest."
There is no formal feeder system to receive papers, and most issues—with a few exceptions—don't carry a theme. There is an online submission portal for authors to enter the information about their work, and that triggers the whole process.
Robertson emphasized that papers published in RC&T differ from papers given at industry meetings. "Meeting papers are conference proceedings," he said. "They are not peer reviewed, so anybody can write whatever they want in a meeting paper and it's going to be published."
That doesn't mean there aren't some really good meeting papers, he added, that can make the cut for the journal. "It's probably the right place for some people if they're active in the Rubber Division, and have a meeting paper. If it's a good scientific paper, it's up to the author to decide if they want to send it to the online portal."
Many of the submissions come from academia, where professors are required to publish. But some papers come from those working in the industry as well, particularly those trying to keep one foot in the business side of the rubber industry, and the other foot in research.
"We try to keep content technology related enough to be appealing to that part of our readership, but also draw on cutting edge stuff coming out of universities," Robertson said.
At times, the associate editors from RC&T will submit a paper of their own for the journal. He said those generally will trend to the higher end of the quality spectrum, but also have to go through the review process, complete with not knowing which associate or peer review editors looking at the submission.
Making his mark
As each chief editor leaves a mark on RC&T, Robertson knows that makes it more difficult for the next in line to take it to the next level.
One way he looks to do that is by pushing for the papers to reach higher quality. One metric for measuring that is known as "impact factor." That shows how often papers from a specific journal are cited in other research works.
The higher-echelon journals get an impact factor in the 2 to 3 range, which is the average number of times each paper from a publication is cited over the past two years by other peer-review journals.