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How To Become A Scientific Journal Editor

Asu Erden

As the number of science PhDs outpaces the number of open tenure-track positions, researchers have a growing interest in careers where they can contribute to science away from the bench. Coordinating publication of scientific papers is one way to meet this goal. Learn how to break into this field...

With the scarcity of open tenure-track positions in academia, many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows consider scientific careers outside the lab. Still, many leaving bench work long to stay in science. Becoming an editor of a scientific journal offers an opportunity to broaden your knowledge to many different fields within the biological sciences, helps you form intellectual connections with researchers around the world, and enables you to continue contributing to science away from the bench.

Many roads lead to editorial positions, with paths varying widely from editor to editor. While this means you may still get there regardless of where your career has taken you so far, it may also obscure the skills necessary, making it hard to learn how to break into the field. Here we explore some requirements for obtaining that coveted editorial position and what to expect once you achieve it.

Develop a Diverse Interest in Science. “I never thought to myself during grad school or at the beginning of my postdoc that [becoming a scientific editor] was an option. I think that more than anything else, I had a diverse interest in science,” said Nathan Blow, editor-in-chief of BioTechniques. As researchers, we are naturally curious about scientific challenges and how to solve them. To be a good scientist, you need to be on top of your subject. To accomplish this, we scrutinize the literature in the many journals in our field, drilling down to the tiniest details of experimental design, findings, and interpretation of results to analyze how this affects our own studies. Sometimes this changes our hypotheses or causes us to repeat experiments as new controls are deemed necessary. By the end of graduate school, no one knows more about this particular slice of biology. Our knowledge is very deep, but also very focused and specific.

Editors, however, must have a general knowledge of the latest findings in many fields, as well as the people working in those fields. “A huge part of what editors do is try to be on that cutting edge, and to find the research and science that is important and going to influence the field,” said Blow. They must then screen the science to see if the conclusions are justified and identify reliable reviewers to provide the necessary detailed inspection of the paper. Depending on the level of specialization of the journal, knowledge of the literature and up-and-coming research areas in specific fields is exactly what you will apply daily, with breadth of knowledge taking priority over depth.

Learn to Write. Scientists must write to explain their findings, seek out funding, create posters and abstracts, and present their research; however, very few biology graduate programs offer writing courses to prepare their students for this essential responsibility. If you are interested in an editorial job, this is one area where you can really stand out.

Once papers are selected, editors must help prepare them for publication, often editing for content and clarity, and bringing the papers up to the writing standards of the journal. A track record of good publications and a reputation of providing reliable peer reviews will go a long way, especially if you are transitioning from academia. Seek out opportunities to write: volunteer to edit your lab mates’ dissertations and papers prior to submission, take charge of writing your own papers, abstracts, and poster texts, contribute to grant writing, and write up the standard operating protocols for animal or human studies. Ask others to edit your work, and learn from their suggestions. If permitted by your program, you might also look into taking science writing and journalism courses on campus.

In addition to editing scientific papers, most editors also write pieces intended for the broader audience of the journal. In this case, you will need a more journalistic style and tone, which may be particularly challenging to acquire given the academic language scientists normally use to share their findings. Journalism courses or internships will help you select topics that will interest, educate, and entertain your readers.

Develop Experimental Expertise in Different Fields of Science. Although postdoctoral experience is not an absolute prerequisite for editorial positions, you need maturity and expertise in more than one field of science. Reading will certainly catch you up on the methods that are available in other fields, but laboratory experience teaches experimental design and how influential studies are created. While you will already have developed such expertise during graduate school, a postdoctoral fellowship will hone it. “You get an additional level of independence; you begin to form connections, and you develop more relationships with colleagues,” said Blow. “It’s also a matter of gaining more confidence in science itself.”

Build a Network of Scientists. Depending on the breadth of topics published by a given journal, editors need to be familiar with the leaders in those different areas in order to ensure the quality of the peer review process. “One of the things that can be tough initially for a new editor is to say, ‘I need somebody who has expertise here and here in order to truly get a good evaluation of this manuscript,’” said Blow. After all, reviewing is a fundamental aspect of the scientific process; without it, we wouldn’t trust the content of most studies we read. This is one of the entry points into the field: starting out as a reliable and insightful reviewer. The editor may then invite you to serve as an editorial board member and possibly later to officially join the journal.

You can also start building a relationship with the broader scientific community and scientific editors during graduate school and your postdoctoral fellowship. “Meetings are very good for that too: face-to-face contact and being able to sit down and talk to somebody, learn what they’re doing, and who they’re working with. It starts to give you a feeling for the broader scientific community,” shared Blow. This will help you network with others working for the journals you are interested in, as well as provide knowledge of who might serve as good peer reviewers for manuscripts you handle as an editor.

There Is Great Mobility Both Within And Outside The Field. If you have a little expertise in editing and scientific research, you will most likely start as an assistant editor and move up the ladder to become an editor. But there are different types of editors at any given journal: editors for sub-sections of the journal (e.g. research articles, reviews, letters, and perspectives), communications editors, managing editors, and editors-in-chief. Based on the position, the responsibilities and expertise required will differ. Scientists and non-scientists alike can greatly contribute to a scientific journal.

If down the road you decide to move onto something new, there lies a world of opportunities for those with scientific editorial experience. “Following your time as an editor, most people [who wish to] will transition to positions working for large institutes or foundations doing communications or possibly doing scientific affairs,” said Blow. Some even move back to bench science. "There are many options.”

Working as an editor for a scientific journal is an extremely rewarding experience. You maintain a direct influence on research by tailoring the studies that will make it out there to be read by researchers in labs. You also keep your finger on the pulse of science and broaden your knowledge of different scientific topics. “Going into [the field] a little over a decade ago, I didn’t know what to expect. But I found it amazingly interesting. I have honestly not missed being in the lab!” shared Blow. “For those young scientists who really enjoy writing and leading and thinking critically about manuscripts, this is a strong possible career choice.”