Managing People, Managing Change, Managing Editor!


Thinking about leaving the bench but still want to keep up with your science? Do you have good communication skills and a diplomatic edge? Are you a natural multitasker? If you can reply with a resounding 'yes' to all three, then running a scientific journal could be the ideal career for you.

After almost 10 years at the bench--yes, 10--I made the leap to the 'other side' and took up the position of managing editor of the journal Immunology . Having had papers accepted and rejected by the very same journal was an advantage in securing the position but was by no means the only qualification for my 'perfect job'. Although I was very familiar with the science and capable of writing an acceptable manuscript for publication, I also had to highlight any transferable skills I had picked up along my way.

The role of managing editor encompasses a huge variety of responsibilities and can mean an entirely different job when applied to another publication. In my case it means managing, in its entirety, the smooth running of the journal, from reviewing new submissions and assigning editors and referees to manuscripts as they appear on my desk, to ensuring that the publication dates of the journal are adhered to. Believe me, a lot goes on in between.

The word 'manage' was not really part of my vocabulary during my career as a researcher. I always thought I was more of a 'muddler' than a 'manager', and I suppose the unpredictable nature of scientific research contributed to this feeling. The uncertainty surrounding research is what made it exciting to me. But after 10 years I felt I'd had enough excitement and it was time for me to take more control not only of my work but also of my career. Of course, with that control came more responsibility. But so far I can safely say that I have found the responsibility and control very satisfying.

So what is 'a day in the life of the managing editor of Immunology' like?

There really is no such thing as a typical day for me, which I find very stimulating. I'm often beholden to what pours into various inboxes. However, most days involve the following tasks, in varying proportions: checking through what always seems like hundreds of e-mails (e-mail now being my preferred method of communication--long gone are the days when I used it only to sort out my social life!); allocating new submissions to editors based on their interests and expertise; dealing with decisions about manuscripts taken by the editors; prioritising the hundreds of queries I get from authors, referees, editors, publishers, and advertisers; and editing manuscripts. Any remaining time is spent on strategy and reporting on developments in finances, marketing, and statistics to the academics serving as the editor-in-chief and editors.

Describing the job in black and white really does not do it justice. Reading this you may think that it sounds fairly routine. What brings the job alive for me is the constant people contact, something I felt was sorely lacking from life at the bench. I deal with many people--not only scientists as editors, authors, and referees, but others in the publishing sector: production editors; Web masters; those involved in marketing and exhibitions; designers; experts in finance; secretaries. Although I don't work face to face with anyone else on the team, I have successfully built up many close working relationships with those in the immunology community and within publishing, something that I think is particularly important for this type of work. Diplomacy features highly as, when dealing with authors, it is particularly important to treat their work with the respect that it deserves. If I had not struggled to publish in the past myself, I think it would probably be easy to forget how much work is involved in producing a manuscript that can withstand the scrutiny of the peer-review process.

This job has given me a wonderful insight into how science works. As it stands scientists are measured, rightly or wrongly, by their publication records. I feel very privileged to be able to work with some of the leaders in the field. I get a real buzz when a big player sends us a manuscript or agrees to write a review article. Even if they simply agree to referee a paper I can get quite excited. Because journals such as Immunology rely so heavily on the good will of scientists to co-operate in the peer-review system, sometimes dragging a report out of a referee within the allocated time frame can be a real challenge. Persistence is the name of the game, and I've learned that even the biggies respond well to a bit of gentle nagging!

Conferences provide me opportunities to meet with members of the editorial team, as well as allowing me to stay abreast of hot developments in the field. Even at conferences, diplomacy comes into play. Although it has never happened, there's always the possibility of a confrontation with an author whose work has recently been rejected! I have been asked to disclose who has reviewed an author's work, a disclosure that would violate our rules for peer review. Admittedly this has only happened during more social events, and I blame conference wine for that!

I have been lucky to pick up the journal in a period of change, and with change comes opportunity. Many of the changes that I've introduced focus on marketing strategies. I had no prior experience in this area and have relished the challenge of marketing the journal more effectively. It has also been a privilege to work alongside people with real talent in this area. This experience is something I'll value in all my future endeavours.

My knowledge in the field, my training in science communication, and the good working relationships I built up with colleagues during my time at the bench have all contributed to my successes to date. However, I've also had to work hard to keep many projects running simultaneously, to the extent that there really is little time to draw breath. It's certain that as long as data are being churned out in research labs I'll never have time to worry about standing still.

Allison is a former Next Wave columnist - you can read about her transition into science editing in a column she wrote under the pseudonym Jemima Jobhunter.

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