It dawned on me during my astronomy Ph.D. that I probably wasn't cut out for a life in research, but I was way too far in to give up, so I persevered. As my thesis took shape, I discovered an interest in science communication. I gave talks to the general public, showed groups around the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, and got involved with organising events for the Edinburgh International Science Festival. I also did a bit of popular science writing and managed to land some freelance editing work.
Towards the end of my Ph.D., I started applying for jobs in science communication and scientific publishing, and was lucky enough to land a job in the Edinburgh office of Oxford-based Blackwell Publishing, working on a large astrophysics journal.
Some years later, I am a Senior Production Editor and Team Leader, running a team of four production editors and a journal that comes out every 10 days, publishes close to 11,000 pages a year, and is one of the most prestigious journals in its field.
Production editors are responsible for overseeing all stages of the production of the journal, from receipt of accepted papers to dispatch of bound copies. It is our responsibility to ensure that everything happens as and when it should, and that the journal appears on time and as close to 100% error free as possible. My journal is somewhat unusual in that, because of its size and frequency, a team of people work on it. Much more typical is for a single production editor to work on a number of smaller journals.
We don't decide ourselves what gets published. That job is done by a team of academic editors and a system of peer reviewers. When we receive a manuscript, its scientific content has already been judged worthy of publication; it is our job to make that happen smoothly. First, the accepted paper is copy edited (usually onscreen): This is the process of going through the paper and putting it into the "house" or preferred editorial style of the journal; in addition, any grammatical errors must be corrected and ambiguities or inconsistencies resolved.
When I first started at Blackwell, all copy editing was carried out in house; nowadays, a large proportion is carried out by freelancers or even by the typesetter, and the job of the production editor is to oversee that work and ensure that standards are maintained.
The edited papers are sent for typesetting, and page proofs go to the authors for checking. The authors return any corrections to us, and the papers can then proceed through the rest of the production process. They are assigned to an issue of the journal, go back to the typesetter to have proof corrections made, and eventually go to press. Printed copies of the journal go out to libraries and individual subscribers worldwide; at the same time, the magazine goes live on the Web. The online journal is becoming increasingly important--eventually, it will be the primary means of publishing articles, with the printed journal just a byproduct.
As well as the core tasks of overseeing copyediting, proofreading, and putting issues together, a great deal of my time is spent communicating with authors, freelancers, typesetters, printers, academic editors, and internal colleagues: answering their queries, dealing with any problems that arise, supplying feedback, reporting on progress. A substantial chunk of my day is taken up with e-mail. In addition, as Team Leader, I am responsible for the day-to-day management of the other production editors in the team, from authorising days off to arranging training and conducting performance appraisals.
Are you cut out to be a production editor? A good grasp of English and an eye for detail are essential. If you would go mad having to worry about whether a word has been hyphenated consistently all the way through a 40-page manuscript, or if you struggle to put together a grammatical sentence, then the production end of publishing is probably not for you. It is also important to be a good communicator and to work well as part of a team.
You need to be well organised and able to prioritise and juggle many different tasks at once. For example, you could be working on journal A when an editor calls up about the next issue of journal B, or the printer discovers a problem with journal C (which is already running late).Or somebody from marketing wants to discuss a promotional leaflet when your boss decides she wants a report on publication time scales. Of course, they all want a reply urgently.
Depending on the journal's subject matter, a degree in a similar field can be very useful, but it is not always essential. In the office where I work, we have a fairly even mix of science and publishing degrees. Some people have done a 1-year publishing course after their degrees.
As for me, I enjoy the fact that I can combine my scientific training with my English skills, and I'm happy that, even though I chose not to carry on with astronomy research, I'm still involved in some small way with a subject that has fascinated me since childhood. Its very satisfying to receive a batch of accepted manuscripts and see them transformed from a melting pot of computer files and idiosyncratic grammar into clearly laid out, accurate, readable articles of which the authors can hopefully be proud. I enjoy liaison and communication with all of the various people involved in the production process, and I've had the opportunity to learn and develop skills that I might not have had otherwise--not just practical skills such as editing, proofreading, and information technology, but also time management and the various aspects of people management: recruitment, appraisals, managing freelancers, and running a team.
On the negative side, there are boring aspects (such as proofreading!), as there doubtless are in any job. The constant deadlines can be stressful, as can the ever-increasing workload (again, I suspect that's true of most jobs these days). There's no doubt that publishing is not the most highly paid of graduate professions (a word of warning to anyone hoping for a publishing career of glamour, money, and mixing with famous authors--journal production is not it!). However, personally, I'd rather be paid an average salary to do something I enjoy than a small fortune to do something I hate.