To generate an understanding of the communication practices that might influence the peer-review process in biomedical journals. Recruitment was based on purposive maximum variation sampling. We conducted semistructured interviews. Data were analysed using thematic analysis method. 56 journal editors from general medicine (n=13) and specialty (n=43) biomedical journals. Most were editor-in-chiefs (n=39), men (n=40) and worked part time (n=50). Our analysis generated four themes (1) providing minimal guidance to peer reviewers-two subthemes described the way journal editors rationalised their behaviour: (a) peer reviewers should know without guidelines how to review and (b) detailed guidance and structure might have a negative effect; (2) communication strategies of engagement with peer reviewers-two opposing strategies that journal editors employed to handle peer reviewers: (a) use of direct and personal communication to motivate peer reviewers and (b) use of indirect communication to avoid conflict; (3) concerns about impact of review model on communication-maintenance of anonymity as a means of facilitating critical and unburdened communication and minimising biases and (4) different practices in the moderation of communication between authors and peer reviewers-some journal editors actively interjected themselves into the communication chain to guide authors through peer reviewers' comments, others remained at a distance, leaving it to the authors to work through peer reviewers' comments. These journal editors' descriptions reveal several communication practices that might have a significant impact on the peer-review process. Editorial strategies to manage miscommunication are discussed. Further research on these proposed strategies and on communication practices from the point of view of authors and peer reviewers is warranted. © Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2020. Re-use permitted under CC BY. Published by BMJ.