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Crossing the Border


I wanted to learn why the sky is sometimes blue and coke is brown, what blue and brown stand for in our brains, and to understand the rest of the world. So I studied physics and learned the language of formulae and approximations, the language of truth.

I remember very well the days I spent producing my first scientific article. I was sitting on the couch in my supervisor's office with my thesis in hand. He is an outstanding scientist as well as a very skilled scientific writer and was studying my results like jigsaw-puzzle pieces for a few minutes. Then he immediately started dictating the essentials in his Dictaphone--without any mistakes or breaks. Suddenly everything fit together, the puzzle was complete. The whole article was done before lunch. And I was sitting deeper in the couch, deeply impressed.

This was the first time that I became aware that not only are scientific essentials important but so are the right words. Words are not only wrapping paper; they can give a new quality to the scientific content.

I had a similar experience with an article I hoped to have published in a refereed journal. I thought the scientific content of the article was ready for publication, but the referees did not agree. It was determined that the referees were confused by some ambiguous words in the text. I resubmitted a lengthy response (without any formulae), and I prevailed--because of the right words and not just the right formula!

I learned that human language with its redundancies and emotion can be a much more complex and powerful system than the scientific, logical symbol language. If you have the right science you have the truth, but if you have the right words you have the power--sometimes even to define a new truth. So I prepared for a career in scientific writing and publishing.

After my Ph.D., I applied for several positions at media companies and publishing houses. After several rejections, luck came from a different, unexpected direction. The German publishing house Econ-Ullstein-List Verlag offered me an opportunity to write and publish popular scientific books. I wrote books on vision, optical illusions, and physics. This work kept both the publisher and me busy and debt-free. I was excited to be learning about the publishing business.

Shortly after, I was offered a 3-year postdoc position at the Florida Atlantic University Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences. I had a wonderful time; I saw how blue the sky can be and learned that Coke always comes with ice. After a second postdoc at Stuttgart University in theoretical engineering, I searched (for my family's sake) for a permanent position as a scientific editor. Luck was on my side, and I now work as an engineering editor with Springer-Verlag. The job requirements were a scientific Ph.D., English language experience, a global and open-minded orientation, and publishing experience, all of which I had acquired.

A Science Editors Task List

Program development: Develop strategies for new products and markets, observe the market and estimate economic success of program segments.

Product development: Select proposals, communicate with referees, search for topics and contents, hold discussions with authors.

Acquisition: Attend scientific meetings, visit authors at home or in their institutes, interact with potential new authors or editors.

Serving the community: Follow complaints of authors and customers, inform authors about the success of their product.

Product tracing: Meet with editors of periodicals, evaluate sales figures, make decisions about new editions or discontinuation.

Internal project steering: Create proposal for print run, pricing and layout of a product; plan deadlines for authors and production, organize quality control, present products in global Springer videoconferences.

Marketing: Present the products in sales meetings, write promotion and back cover texts, formulate unique selling points, define program segment and program design.

Calculate budgets: Every editorial group is organized as its own business unit and has its own budgets. The financial outcome of every project has to be calculated, as well as yearly business plans.

Springer-Verlag was founded in 1842 in Berlin by Julius Springer and is one of the most prestigious international scientific publishers today, with subsidiaries, about 1500 employees, and around 90 editors worldwide. The Springer-Verlag publishing group has about 500 science and engineering journals and 20,000 books in print.

The Springer-Verlag organization is a blue-print of the scientific world. Specialized science editors are assigned to particular topics, such as--in my case--International Engineering. Science editors cross the border between the scientific community and in-house book publishing businesses. They are generalists overlooking a major field with open ear for new developments and people. They attend key conferences, communicate and listen to experienced and new authors, and plan new books. Being part of the scientific community, they represent the authors, supporting them in all difficulties arising from the book production process. In a more structured form you can find the most important tasks of a science editor in the side bar above. Of course these tasks and their priorities redefine themselves from time to time during daily work. But that is just one of the most exciting parts of being a science editor: expecting the unexpected!

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