Life as a Journal Editor

I (Danielle Cicka) had the honor and pleasure to sit down with Dr. Myles Axton, Chief Editor of Nature Genetics, for the SEB student blog to give students a sense of what a career as an editor looks like and in this discussion, he also touches upon the publishing of interdisciplinary subjects such as botany.

This is an abridged version of the interview. For the full interview, see the attached audio file

M: “Hi Danielle. This is Myles Axton, Chief Editor of Nature Genetics”

D: “What does being an editor entail? What does your position look like?”

M: “Well, it’s a privilege to be a professional appreciator of science. It’s the one chance you get to follow people’s research in detail, spot any potential problems in communicating the results of their research, and to try to maximize the impact of their research, and the utility of their research to other scientists. It’s also an opportunity to spot policy-ready research and to try to highlight that work and bring it to the attention of decision makers in the principle of evidence based decision making or government, so that while it’s possible for them to advertise, promote, tax or ban whatever it is that’s discovered by the scientists, in a timely way, it is also an opportunity to communicate the values and the excitement of the practice of science. Because it’s one of the only ways we have of generating anything new in our culture, it’s an excellent way of connecting countries and cultures through rational discussion, which is pretty limiting these days. And it’s also exciting to take questions from the public and turn that into new avenues of research by interpreting their needs, desires, and requirements of scientists who are positioned to take their own spin on those problems and to try to come up with new solutions to those. So editors have a role in a lot of places, very light touch, very little influence, but we do have the ability to put people in touch with each other in useful ways for science. So it’s a way of continuing your own scientific learning and training and career in a way that is useful to the practice of science…”

M: (on his career path) “So how did I get into it? I have twenty years of research experience. I published my first paper when I was an undergraduate. I spent the summer in a lab working with biochemists. I then did an undergraduate project working with geneticists and I decided I enjoyed research and did a PhD. I then did two post docs in different labs and then I was a PI for 8 years, teaching in university courses to biochemists and zoologists and carrying out grant-funded research. And for the last 15 years, I have been a full-time professional chief editor. Which means that I select and train the manuscript editors that handle the research content for Nature Genetics, which is a Nature Research journal, sister journal of Nature, publishing genetics and genomics, which is about 2/3 biomedical and an increasing quantity of agricultural genomics which is now an emerging area that overlaps the interests of the SEB. Very happy to publish the African rice genome, for example…”

D: “That’s really interesting. So, I’m kind of curious how you interact with the different manuscript editors and how your jobs differ.”

M: “…I set my Nature Genetics team up and we are currently five manuscript editors and me, chief editor, overseeing the journal as a whole, so that we read every paper that comes to the journal…We also allow the editors to develop their own interests so somebody may become the statistical genetics expert. They will take some courses or they’ll work with some scientists to gain the extra expertise that they need to handle those papers and they will become an expert for a while. But if the field moves on and we rebalance our portfolio of interest to maintain the utility of the papers to the research community by picking up areas that are hot, publishing lots of papers in that area that will be used in that area, the editors will stay fresh and they will always be looking for the next thing, they will always be looking for the things that cross boundaries….

…So, I think as my team is able to self-manage its workload, at least for a few weeks at a time, I take the opportunity to do quite a bit of the traveling, but Nature editors have to be present at conferences, even if they are not organizing those conferences they have to be seen reading posters and talking to scientists and organizing workshops and generally being enthusiastic about people’s research otherwise we’re not seen as scientists; we’re not trusted with the best research, and we’re not given the opportunity to take robust criticism from people who think we are too slow or think we are unfair or think we are imposing the wrong standards. We have to stand up to that and we need to be able to justify what we do and how we do it. Face to face with a rejected author, face to face with a critical reviewer, face to face with an angry person who can’t obtain mice from a paper that we published. People that are leveling statistical criticisms that are of quite great complexity of papers we’ve published and say we did things wrong and we missed an opportunity to impose standards. People who are angry about data access. People who are politically advocating open access or double blind peer review, we do experiments on all of those things and make sure that those are evaluated and we find out if they are better practices then we incorporate them. If they are not better practice, then we explain why they’re not better practice. We remain scientists. We remain objective.”

D: “Got it ok. So sounds like you do a lot a different things. Do you have a typical schedule or a typical couple weeks that you could describe to someone that may be interested in having a position like this?”

M: “Ya, I would say for a typical manuscript editor, and you’re on a team of 5 editors, you’re probably only going to be out of the office one week every six, but that’s a lot of traveling for a scientist. Relative to a bench scientist that may go to one or two conferences a year, an editor is on the move a lot. So a typical week, the Plants Community at Nature, a group of about 20 editors, will get together once a month, and that will be review editors from the review journals, from Nature Plants, from Nature, from Nature Communications, Nature Genetics, Nature Biotechnology, Nature Cell Biology, all interested in plant systems or agriculture. They will discuss recent conferences they have been at, recent conferences they have organized, they may go into some recently published papers in a competitor journal and have a quick journal club, discussing what was good about that paper, they may discuss a problem paper that they published. They may discuss a need for standards in reporting a metabolic experiment or something like that.

They may have an objective that they’ve set themselves as a group of editors for the year, which could be to hold a landscape workshop on how to incorporate social science research into botany, so you might, for example, take some anthropologists, some economists, and some other social scientists to get together with some other scientists and say well you’ve been publishing a lot of these scientific papers from lab-based experiments, but you’re not publishing some of the narrative based stuff from the anthropologists and the editor form Nature Human Behavior may say well actually we do publish a lot of those in Nature Human Behavior, but they are not about plants because we are a human behavior journal. So is there a place within the Nature journals where research that is part anthropology, part botany can be published. Because obviously SEB, is the normal place, JEB, is the place you might want to expect, Springer Nature, to find these articles but every now and again one will be published in Nature, one will be published in Nature plants. So why not make it clear that there is a set of editors at Nature who understand plants and a proportion of those are also interested to find boundary crossing research, which draws upon different types of scholarship and then we’ll find there are quite a few papers in that area, but that they are all going to one journal and they are very happy to take them. Then when we meet someone at a conference, we can say actually you have a range of options…

…Because the authors are also the readers of the journal, they’re also the reviewers of journal, they’re speakers at our conferences, they are all the same people. So if you think of those people as being our people, how can we present a more joined upfront to them. And I think that matters more in interdisciplinary areas than it does in genetics. Everyone knows what genetics is. Everyone knows which journals publish it, it’s a solved problem. But encouraging people from other disciplines to publish in scientific journals in a reproducible and transparent and reusable format- it’s a cultural shift for a lot of people and I get that at some of the workshops where I am teaching how to write a paper. I run into different traditions of scholarship and I have to be careful about that because I don’t want to tread on the publishing venues that are familiar to those people. But if they are presenting science, then we want to be part of it. So I think it is very interesting to be aware of those areas.

Ok, so the typical day for an editor. It is very much a 9-6 job and its 5 days a week. So unlike bench science, you are not working as an editor over the weekend. That is your own time and so people do find it’s a more stable and family friendly career than bench science. Although the travel can be heavy. So you need to be a little bit poised or at least have your own way of doing the travel. Some of them spend a lot of time on the phone or skyping with editors or with the authors, rather than by physically traveling. Or if you’re in a city like Boston where there are a lot of institutions to visit, you can do that during your work week and not be away over the weekends. So I think, in terms of being a family friendly career or, you know, a home based career, it is a reasonably flexible job and editors can work from home at the chief editor’s discretion and I find my teams go in and out of leave fairly smoothly and I find they are able to work from home responsibly once they have been trained on the team. So again it’s a quite flexible job. You’re not quite so beholden to your team as you would be doing bench science or field science where you do have to be a close knit group for a period of time and the internet has helped enormously with that. So I have editors in Boston, San Francisco, New York, and Shanghai. We communicate by internet and by database for a lot of that time. So you’d spend probably the first hour answering emails. A lot of it is being accessible to your authors or taking criticism of your papers and making sure that you’re following the procedure…

So that’s a sample of some of the things that we do. It is a reasonable workload. You’re never absolutely exhausted by it, but you can’t let things get away from you. You’ve got to have a good sense of time and people always want their work to be prioritized. They always want it yesterday and they are always anxious. They want to know that something is happening. When they are given factual explanations, they will grind on the facts rather than on you, so it’s a lot nicer than working in some disciplines when people just get upset and can’t be quieted by reason. At least we are dealing with reasonable scientists. So in my opinion it’s a really pleasant way of working. I don’t particularly like being held to tasks for slow processing or things that get lost in the system. We try to avoid that. But in the end, I leave it up to the editors to be responsible for what they want to send to review and what they want to publish and if there is something wrong with it, they’ll take the correspondence arising and they will be responsible for that too. It’s very important that people have the satisfaction of making mistakes and learning from them and choosing what they want in the journal and they have a feeling of ownership together with the authors of that journal cause if the authors feel they own it and they can impose their standards on it, then they’ll use it and I think that’s important for keeping a journal alive.”

D: “Yes, that’s definitely very important. So, we just have a couple minutes left, so I just want to end a general question of “Do you have any ideas of how the role of editor would change in the future or maybe how our publication standards might change. I you know that you deal with thinking about those things on a daily basis, but long term”

M: “I have a vision where your data and your code, and your pictures and all your information and your manuscript all live in something like OSF’s data code environment and that means that everything is there for reasons of priority as they would at a preprint archive. The collaborators can work in a private environment and then make public their work in the same place and the publishers could have a privileged corner of that if formal peer review is required. I’ve run a preprint archive for Nature, called Nature Precedings. It led to the generation of something called scientific data where we developed data descriptors and data services. I think data is the new frontier and I think that explicit, machine operable datasets that explain themselves remove a lot of the need for peer review because it can be done essentially by looking at data standards and the operation of code on data. If it’s properly formatted, has proper metadata associated with it and the code is open and properly annotated, anybody should be able to run it and get the same result. So I think in that world, scholarship will have a semantic core and a narrative along side it. And the narrative will be free text and explanatory and convince you, while the code will be the figures and tables. And those will live in an environment where a publisher is put on a different role…”

D: “Definitely. Well thank you very much. I think our time is up now. But I really appreciate your comments.”

M: “Thank you Danielle”


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