Bench to Page: An Editor's View of Science Publishing


Before joining the editorial team at Science , I had endured the anguish of submitting my own research for publication many times. The endless tweaking, the trepidation of pitching to the right journal, the ritual encasement in the FedEx package, and then, of course, the agonising wait. For me, journals sometimes seemed like 'black holes', capturing precious cargo and later ejecting it with an apologetic letter of 'no-hope' attached. Or perhaps, there would be a laundry-list of seemingly impossible experiments, suggested by a referee who appeared to have missed the point of the study. Such is the frustration of getting one's work published. Occasionally, though, a paper would meet with approval of the referees and be accepted for publication: days I think most scientists work for!

But now that I'm on the other side of the fence, what exactly is my role in the mysterious publication process?

Well, of course, Science editors do just that, they edit. I spend about 15% of my time reworking manuscripts. Frequently, I have to guide authors as they revise vast tracts of script down to three, or so, relatively intelligible magazine pages. Ultimately, there is great satisfaction when a report is revealed in print, and I always look forward to seeing papers I've worked on appear in the magazine. Even so, this is only the final stage of an intensive review process, which takes up a large part of my daily routine.

With every paper, my first task is to carry out an initial assessment of the work. As part of this process, I usually pass papers to members of Science's Board of Reviewing Editors, who help us evaluate many of the manuscripts we receive. The criteria we use when deciding whether to send a paper for in-depth review is whether the work seems to represent a significant advance and whether it is likely to be of interest to the general readership of the magazine. Because Science represents all disciplines, there is very limited space in the journal for each subject, and competition is always stiff. Consequently, almost three-quarters of papers submitted to Science fail to make it over this first hurdle.

Obtaining reviews of a manuscript involves approaching two or three experts in the field, some of whom may be suggested by the board and others by the authors themselves. I try as much as possible to use referees who I know from past experience will offer constructive evaluations. Once a paper comes back from review, I consider the referees' evaluations and circulate the manuscript to garner further comments from other colleagues. Then it's decision time. Should we consider publishing the paper? For me, this is a large appeal of the job; while every paper receives vital input from various directions, it is the editor dealing with that paper who ultimately makes the publication decision. In this respect, I keep in mind that research printed in the pages of a journal such as Science can have considerable influence in its field. I'm always aware of this position of responsibility when deciding on the 10% or so of submitted papers that will make it to publication.

After making up my own mind about a paper, my next task is to present it to my colleagues at the weekly editor's meeting, which is held between Science's two main offices in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, UK, via video conference. This gathering, affectionately known as the 'space meeting', allows each editor to explain the science in a paper that has made it through review and detail what the board and reviewers thought of it, ultimately justifying why it deserves space in the journal. For me this meeting is absorbing because of the wide range of disciplines the editors bring to the table: On any given week one can hear about topics as diverse as the life of a neutrino, evidence for water on Mars, how elephants remember, or how a nerve cell 'knows' which direction to grow.

So, what makes an editor at Science? Firstly, we all have higher degrees, mostly doctorates, and come from research environments where we have published our own work. As an immunologist, my own research focused on the biology of T lymphocytes--key players in fighting infection, destroying tumours, and rejecting transplants. My fascination with this subject started during my undergraduate studies in zoology at the University of Nottingham. After doing a bit of travelling, I went on to do a PhD at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, North London. From there I went to the States, where I stayed for over 5 years doing research in one of the Harvard Medical School hospitals in Boston. After brief postdoc spells in Dublin and the UK, I moved to Science, as editor in charge of immunology. During this time, I had developed an interest in communicating science and had always kept in mind the idea of looking for positions that allowed me to pursue this vocation, while staying involved in cutting-edge research. I'm certainly lucky that my current role offers a unique mixture of these things.

A crucial part of the job is keeping up with important developments in one's own field. Aside from scanning the literature, a useful way to do this is by visiting labs and attending meetings worldwide. This offers a great opportunity to enjoy travel to new places, while exercising my brain and acquiring fresh ideas! Combined with previous research experience, keeping up with the field is important because I need to be able to grasp, in quite a lot of detail, the science presented in the papers I read and in the conversations I have with scientists.

Of course, this does not mean that all papers (or all scientists for that matter!) are inherently comprehensible--some are not, and it is therefore also important to exercise patience. This is equally true in other aspects of the job. For example, I often have to impart news of a paper's rejection to people who, sometimes understandably, disagree with the decision, or at least experience natural disappointment. I think it is important to listen to those authors and to think over and discuss their concerns--perhaps it is here that my own experiences of rejection and dejection come into play!

The role of an editor is considerably more varied than I'd ever imagined it might be and I've been inspired in my first year and a half at Science by the numerous opportunities I've had for contributing to the delivery of the scientific discoveries we publish. These experiences as an editor have enabled me to continue learning, not just in developing a much broader understanding of my own subject of immunology, but also about the importance of clear communication, consideration of human nature, and good public relations.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers