Not so long ago, someone asked me, "What was it that made you want to be an editor?" I answered, "Well, actually I didn't--at least it wasn't planned that way". I wish I could say that I got where I am today by careful planning and setting goals, but I can't. The path that brought me here has sometimes been a difficult one: I have arrived where I am career-wise by a series of serendipitous events. But I'm not complaining, far from it; things could not have worked out any better if I had planned it. The last 5 years of my career--that is the years spent as a freelance scientific editor--have been the most rewarding of the 20 years since I graduated from university. In fact, had I planned to become an editor, I would probably have failed very early on, because I wouldn't have 15 years of knowledge and experience gained in scientific research in the UK academic system to rely on in my work.
And that's what separates the men from the boys in the world of scientific editing. Any intelligent person can learn to spell and to use good grammar (of course, it will take some more time than others). But it takes a certain insight to spot the gaps in research and academic texts--and in my case having "been there, done that" is at the root of that necessary skill.
I grew up and was educated in the UK, where we have to make some pretty hefty decisions about academic subjects at the tender age of 14. I vacillated between languages and science, and for a reason that still eludes me several decades later, opted for science. I studied for a joint honours degree in microbiology and virology at Warwick University; virology was my passion and I dreamed of a career in research, aiming eventually to become a lecturer. A PhD in molecular virology followed (after hundreds of hours toiling away at the bench, and 6 months spent writing the thesis), after which I moved to a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer studies, working on the role of human papillomaviruses in cervical cancer at a large Midlands hospital. Next came a postdoctoral fellowship in AIDS research, followed swiftly by a lectureship in a medical faculty, where I was doing research on skin disease and teaching preclinical medicine.
Part of the dream--the lectureship--had indeed come true. However, the academic system in the UK had undergone some very major changes in the 20 years since I became a part of it, and for a number of reasons I realised that the laboratory was not the place I wanted to be for the next 3 decades of my life. I started looking for an alternative, but equally "intellectual" career. I was always very good at writing; after the thesis I had written some 15 research articles that had been published in periodicals. I (unusually for someone in my position) actually enjoyed writing--in fact, I preferred it to doing the experiments (which were by this time becoming rather tiresome and repetitive). It was time for a change.
I got started in editing by first of all teaching myself the rudiments of correcting someone else's text and also when to leave enough well alone and how to point out the "whoppers" tactfully. Then I approached several British publishing houses for work. Luck was with me, as I landed my first contract in 1995 with an Oxford-based journal publisher, who was willing to give me a trial on a microbiology journal because of my background. All went well with that first job, and other contracts soon followed.
The vast majority (around 80%) of my present workload is editing periodical articles; the other 20% is textbooks and society publications. In a typical week I might edit biochemistry, virology, microbiology, dermatology, and general medicine--subjects in which I have in-depth knowledge. Depending on the client, the job can range from formatting and tidying up well-written, consistent text to (in the worst case) complete rewriting of non-English authored text or reorganising the data and questioning the validity of the conclusions. This tends to be more of a problem in non-peer-reviewed periodicals; manuscripts for journals that operate a peer-review system are generally of much higher literary and scientific quality.
Authors can get too close to their work--having spent months or even years toiling away in the laboratory they can become so familiar with their topic that they are simply unable to present it clearly to the uninitiated. It is part of my job to spot the omissions, the inconsistencies, and sometimes even the mistakes. And they do happen: I have spotted incorrect units, incorrectly spelled drug names, incorrectly spelled authors' names, incorrect figures, missing bits of methods, and in one case even an incorrect staining procedure. One publisher was aghast when I pointed out an error in a virology textbook I was working on--"We don't normally get that level of insight from our editors". Authors too, can be very appreciative, especially non-native English speakers--I have a collection of thank-you e-mails that I reread whenever the going seems to be particularly tough.
During the course of editing I also make a point of reading any manuscript from the point of view of the reader, asking the questions "What do I want to learn from this article?", "Are the conclusions justified and well presented?", and "Do the tables and figures make sense?". I could do none of this adequately without my "previous life". I would be as ignorant as the undergraduate student wanting to learn from the papers and textbooks that I am helping to produce.
The flow of work to my business has not stopped since that first tentative job in 1995. These days I am in the privileged position of being able to pick and choose my jobs. Part of the secret of my "success" is the confidence to turn away work that I doubt I can do a first-rate job on. When I think back to my time as an undergraduate student, struggling to understand original research papers and essential textbooks, I cannot help but be amazed that I am now one very small part of the process that produces them. When I left academia in 1997, a colleague said to me, "Do you think that you will be happy just reading other peoples' research papers instead of doing the research yourself?" The answer to that question is undoubtedly "Yes".