Written by Anastassia Pogoutse
Many of us dream of getting published in top-tier journals. Some achieve that dream. But what determines whether your paper will even get reviewed? The gatekeepers to publication at scientific journals are journal editors. Editors read papers as they come in and decide whether they will get sent out for review. They also juggle a variety of other responsibilities, including promoting their journal at conferences, organizing lab visits, writing paper summaries, commenting on reviews, and engaging in social media.
While the editors of many journals are PIs, other publications, such as Nature, Science, Cell, and the PLoS journals, have a dedicated editorial staff who work solely in scientific publishing. (In the latter case, the journals also have an editorial board composed of PIs who act as advisors and sometimes as reviewers.)
I got a rare insider’s perspective on being a journal editor a few months ago at a Molecular Genetics career workshop. The invited speaker, Dr. Angela Andersen, spent four years as an editor at Cell. She now works at Life Science Editors, a company that she co-founded. Andersen talked about the day-to-day grind in journal editing and gave some tips on how to become a good candidate for this job.
The day-to-day of being a journal editor
In a typical day, an editor at Cell receives 2-5 new papers to look over in the morning. Editors then meet and discuss these papers, in particular whether any papers stood out and are clear candidates for review. Personally, each editor is responsible for 2-3 papers a week. For each paper, they must decide whether to send it out for review and if so, on who the reviewers will be. Editors also receive 2-3 rebuttals from authors every week. The editor assesses these point-by-point responses and decides whether the paper in question will be reviewed again.
A career in journal editing has many perks: editors get to read the best science as it comes out, travel widely, have good job security, and cultivate a diverse skill set. Furthermore, at Cell, unlike at Science or Nature, editors are not specialized, which means that they get to read manuscripts from diverse fields. The gig also has its downsides; Andersen related that rejecting papers was difficult. Editors often have to deal with upset authors and unreliable reviewers. On top of that, the work of an editor proceeds at a relentless pace, and editors can feel alienated from a research community they used to be a part of.
What does it take?
Journal editing is ideal for strong scientists who have excellent communication skills, both oral and written. Communication skills come into play when editors correspond with authors, write paper summaries, and represent their journals at conferences. Journal editors also work in a team, so having strong interpersonal skills is crucial. Furthermore, they must be decisive but flexible, and be able to keep to tight deadlines.
Because there is a limited number of positions, getting a job as an editor is highly competitive. Candidates must have a solid publication record, and postdoctoral experience is almost always required. Since journal editors have a say in what gets published and which scientific topics get the most attention, they play a large role in shaping scientific fields. It is then no wonder that the hiring process would be highly selective.
For those who are interested in a career in journal editing, Andersen suggests reading through the last six issues of a journal, choosing 4 strong papers and 4 weak papers and explaining the reasons for your choices. As a candidate for a job as a journal editor, the interview process may require you to read manuscripts, select which to review and why, and also choose potential reviewers, all in a short time frame (~ 30 minutes).
Different types of scientific editing
Although journal editors have many roles, it’s important to understand that they are not journalists. I’ve sometimes seen journal editors confused with science writers and editors of journalistic publications. Journal editors are responsible for assessing and publishing scholarly work, while editors for publications like National Geographic and the New Scientist review journalistic work. Nature Publishing Group, for example, publishes both scientific papers and news articles, and employs separate groups of editors for its journal and magazine.
Most of the above information was taken from Dr. Angela Andersen’s talk for the Molecular Genetics Career seminar. You can find a presentation covering similar material here: https://lifescienceeditors.com/workshops/
Some perspectives from Milka Kostic, Program Director, Chemical Biology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and former Senior Editor of Cell Chemical Biology and Structure:
If you’re just interested in what an editor looks for in a manuscript, see Ten simple rules for structuring papers