Meetings & Conferences

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper: A View of Working in Science from the Publishing Side of the Fence, BSB09

There were a number of workshops running in parallel – I decided to visit "Poacher Turned Gamekeeper: A View of Working in Science from the Publishing Side of the Fence", run by Chris Surridge, Nature, Scientific Editor. These are my notes of that session.

Wants to convince us that journal editors are human beings, too. Science journalism is a product we all use. We produce papers – these are generally considered the final end product. Therefore it is important to understand the process involved in scientific publishing.

About Chris Surridge: PhD in biophysics. Specifically, the x-ray crystallography, mass spectrometry, and did his PhD in microtubule assembly. He's worked at Nature for 14-15 years. How did he get there? After some postdoc work, he had a decision to make. He didn't want to be an eternal postdoc, for example. Saw an advert for a job as an editor of Nature. Got offered a job with Nature structural biology. He's also worked on PLoS, and PLoS One.

Why publish in a particular journal? Impact factor? Good fit? Right audience? Resulting status? Supervisor says so? But in general, it just comes down to limitations of resources of the journal, and not everyone who tries to get published will get published in their journal of choice. Also, many journals don't want to publish too many, and have their impact factor suffer as a result. Is it an artificial scarcity? Yes, he says, there is a degree of it in the publishing world (though it is his opinion that Nature and Science don't do this much).

So, for whatever reason, journals are limited in the number of papers they can publish each week. Nature's resources mean that they can only really publish 10-11 biological science papers per week, and they get about 150 submissions per week. So, there is quite a lot of attrition. The job of the manuscript editor is to use the peer-review system and their understanding to sift through to get the most appropriate papers for their journals.

Papers come in and are assigned to a subject area, and then an editor (either full time or academic editors who do it part time). From reading it, you try to gauge its relevance, how many questions it answers, etc. He's not really worried about how it will be picked up in the press, and he doesn't really look to closely at the names on the paper: it really *isn't* easier for big shots to get papers published. The simple answer is that there is a reason big shots became big shots (e.g. the quality of their work).

This is exactly what you do when you are given a paper to do in a journal club. Then it moves into the more formal area of the peer review. Not everything gets sent out for peer review. There is an empirical rule that, in general, a journal publishes about half the papers it sends out for peer review (holds mainly true, but not completely). The capacity of a nature editor is about 10-15 papers of his own and about 10 reading of his colleagues. In PLoS, it's very similar. If it gets rejected without review, generally it's because the editor feels that, even if true, it's not appropriate for the journal. In general, they don't make very technical decisions – that's left up to the peer reviewer. Hence, rejection letters before review tend to be bland.

Editors tend to be harder on papers where the subject area is something they are very familiar with. Chris started working in the area he knew, but quickly branched out – he says there's nothing like 10-20 papers a week in subject area to get you up to speed quickly in whole other areas.

So, back to the next step in the process: peer review. Referee comments tell you technical quality. The referees should tell the editor: whether or not the paper *true* and accurate; whether or not it is as surprising as the editor thinks it is. The technical accuracy is what you really need the referees for. Of course, people who have worked in a subject area, as much as they wish or try to be, are not completely unbiased. Therefore, it's a good idea not to rely on one referee. If you choose 2, then chances are they disagree with each other. Therefore the ideal minimal number is 3. The more referees you add, the more conflicting opinions you'll have, so you don't want too many, because it is harder to make a decision.

Some referees are better at determining technical aspects, and others are good at the knowledge of the system in question – therefore it's a balancing act to get the right sort of referees. Once accepted, there is a bit of a bargaining session between the authors and the requested changes from the referees: in this case, the editor acts as mediator. Finally, the editors have to ensure that the finished version is something that fits within the constraints of the journals.

In summary, filter (editor) -> peer review (referees) -> filter (editor)-> tweak (authors, editors, subeditors) -> publish.

Q: What does Open Access (OA) mean in publishing? They are freely-available, and copyright is retained by the author, but it is published under a license that allows reuse with attribution. What it isn't is a publishing model, and it doesn't have anything to do with editorial standards (i.e. OA doesn't say anything about the editorial policy).

These days, scientific publishing is virtually all on the internet. Did a quick straw poll: how many of you read a real paper version of a journal in the last 5 papers you read? Two, one was nature and one was Science. Other than that, no-one. This sort of thing is especially useful for methods, where you don't get the full methods in the paper version because there is no room.

2-3 years ago, Nature tried out open peer review (refereeing online). It had been pioneered by Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry (some name like that). Anyone can write a report. After a certain amount of time, the editors decide whether or not to publish. What Nature found was that no-one came and commented.

There is a different version of open peer review that is where the peer review is normal, but the referees give up their anonymity and allow their comments to be published. Some journals do this successfully.

Q: What qualifications? You need to be a scientist 🙂 But there are no exact qualifications, just reply to job advertisement. Most journal editors have to have a PhD (didn't use to be like that). Research experience is taken into consideration, but the amount is variable. However, there's no way to have editorial skills without doing the job: they look at people's potential. If you get interviews, then you're sent texts prior to the interview.

He also said that latex submissions are hard for many journals to handle. Those that are completely latex are fine, but allowing multiple types of submissions are hard. Also, the conversion from latex to the actual software used to create the print version of the journal is not easy.

Tips: give your paper some context; write for the journal audience (specific or broad); don't overreach on your broad statements of applicability; cover letters are incredibly important – it's the first thing he reads – and that cover letter is your (as the author) personal contact with the editor; use the cover letter to try to focus the editor's attention on the bits you think are important.

Q: Do journal editors shape science? Almost certainly yes – they choose what gets published (at some level).

Personal Comments: This was a very interesting and useful workshop, giving us an opportunity to know how the editing process works. Thanks!

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else's. I'm happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

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