Are you contemplating a career in scientific publishing--attracted by the chance to be at the forefront of scientific discourse? You may have heard that the number of openings for manuscript editors is limited, and the pool of candidates seeking this type of career can indeed be broad. But, since the job does not require a specific set of qualifications (such as a journalism background), how can you develop, during your scientific training, the skills that may set you apart from other candidates who may have no prior editorial experience?
I first considered the possibility of a career as an editor of primary research manuscripts when I was a graduate student studying the biochemical mechanisms underlying genetic recombination in bacteria. In retrospect, it was a rather uninformed idea, since I had no specific information about what the job entailed. Therefore, it's probably useful to begin by describing the activities a manuscript editor performs. The primary role of an editor is to manage the handling of a manuscript through all the decision-making stages: determining whether manuscripts are appropriate for peer review, choosing reviewers capable of assessing the scientific work, and deciding whether the manuscript is suitable for publication. This last point is often more difficult than one might imagine. Rarely are all reviewers in agreement and the decision straightforward, and there can be other considerations such as consistency with previous decisions, the scope of the journal, and the state of a field that may factor into a decision. In fact, discussions about decisions on papers are a daily fact of editorial life! Other responsibilities include commissioning articles (e.g. reviews and perspective pieces), conducting lab visits, and attending conferences. While some journals may have opportunities to write for publication, such as editorials, this will most likely not be a significant part of the job. Finally, there are business aspects of publishing that require constant attention to ensure that the journal is providing the best service to its readership.
Although I didn't consciously seek to prepare myself for this career, I did many things as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow that I can now appreciate were beneficial when I started to apply for positions in publishing as a manuscript editor. One thing I did was to actively participate in reviewing articles that my advisors received from journals. It is of course a valuable skill for any scientist to be able to read a manuscript quickly, glean the essential points from it, and assess possible flaws. Doing this frequently in my training, I received valuable feedback from my advisors as to whether my assessment were valid and constructive, and I learned to frame the response in an appropriate tone (a perhaps unappreciated, yet vital editorial skill is the ability to communicate your opinion clearly). If your advisor does not routinely give lab members papers to review, ask whether s/he would be willing to mentor you in learning how to review a paper. While this could be done using published papers, it is probably more insightful initially to have access to papers under review, where flaws may still be present. Participation in journal clubs can serve a similar function, particularly if they are small, providing opportunities to present frequently and cover a broader range of topics.
During my training I also wrote several review articles, both comprehensive and more focused. This type of article required me to critically analyze and synthesize a vast body of literature and to place it in context with the latest developments of a field. Finally, since as an editor I am required to handle manuscripts that span a broad range of topics and approaches, it pays to read the literature widely. I have the impression that the breadth of our reading of the literature has in some ways contracted since the advent of online subscriptions and PubMed. Since we can now call up papers relevant to a specific topic with a simple search, the habit of popping down to the library to flip through the table of contents of all the week's new journals is being lost, and with it, the chance to be drawn into reading an absorbing study in a different field. Signing up for electronic Table of Contents (TOC) alerts for a variety of journals may help to counteract this tendency.
For me, this type of preparation was invaluable when it came to my first interview, for an associate editor position at Nature Cell Biology . The interview process quickly focused on the practical aspects of the job: Can you effectively summarize manuscripts in fields outside your experience under considerable time pressure? Can you present a reasoned argument as to why a manuscript should or should not be reviewed? On what basis would you make a decision given a certain set of reviews, and can you argue for your viewpoint? The interviewer may be looking for potential in these analytical areas, perhaps more so than knowledge in specific fields of expertise. I can attest to this from experience; despite having no background in cell biology, I was offered the job on the basis of my ability in these core skills. Although there was a steep learning curve, I felt prepared for the job from the start and experienced a sense of achievement as I became acquainted with the issues and scientists in the fields for which I was primarily responsible. I have recently moved to Cell Press, where I am a senior editor for Cell, Molecular Cell, and Developmental Cell. This position involves many of the same editorial responsibilities, but I have greater independence in terms of decision-making.
As a career alternative to bench science, scientific publishing may seem far removed from the practical training invested in learning techniques and conducting experiments. However, if one is anticipating an academic or even an industrial position, the differences may be less noticeable than you might think--just picture the schedule of your own mentor. The majority of lab heads eventually, if not immediately, find themselves ensconced behind a computer and in meetings for most of the day, and only with difficulty do some keep their hand in bench science. What is missing from the publishing career is the opportunity to develop intellectually a project of one's own and to follow it where the studies take you. However, as an editor I am surrounded by the latest scientific breakthroughs in many areas, and there is a tremendous feeling of satisfaction in nurturing a paper from a study that has some weaknesses to one which gains strength through the review and editorial process.
Of course it is difficult to predict how this career might change in the next few years, with the current discussion of Web-based journals that are considering different models of peer review and editorial handling. Nevertheless, the breadth of experience I gain as an editor will always be a tangible asset, even if the job description may change as a new era of publishing evolves.