At a talk recently at Energy Policy Institute – Boise State University I got the chance to dispel a number of myths about the role and responsibilities of a scientific editor. This got me thinking about trying to wrap a lasso around the chaos that a scientific editor’s professional life can sometimes be. This blog is an attempt at that.
Nature Energy receives papers of all types and my primary job is to identify the ones that I and the editorial team feel would advance the scientific discussion most without compromising on scientific rigor. I start by reading every paper in full. Then for every single paper I do at least some literature search and review to make sure that I am aware of all the recent publications in the immediate domains the paper engages with. Then I consider how the paper advances the discussion in the literature and the significance of the findings. I look for methodological advance to see if the paper presents methodology previously not attempted and better along some metrics than the one in literature. I look for significant new findings. I look for impressive new datasets. All of the papers we decide to peer-review have at least one of these qualities. Many have more than one. But at the base of it all the work we consider must meet high standards of technical rigor and robustness.
The literature review also helps to get me started on the second important part of my job - peer-review management.
One of the first things that I learned on this job, and one that surprised me, was that peer-review management is an intense, thankless, time consuming, high effort task. From a distance it may seem that peer-review is an automatic, natural by-product of the scientific process. It really isn’t. Doing peer-review right is hard work.
Finding people who will agree to read a manuscript and write a report in a relatively short time (and for free) is understandably not easy. Making sure that those people are also the right people to review the manuscript is extremely difficult. We start by identifying all the areas; the disciplines and methods that would need to be assessed for any given manuscript. We then try to find the relevant experts in those areas. Literature review is a starting point for this search but we often also use custom database search tools designed specifically for the job. We look at authors of relevant papers and make sure they have robust experience working in the field in question. We rarely get three “yesses” in response to three requests and often have to reach out to multiple reviewers before one slot is filled. All of this is time consuming and involves dealing with a lot of rejection. The number of reviewers we engage depends on the paper and the aspects of the work that need assessment.
An important part of finding the right reviewers is eliminating potential conflict of interest. Peer-review is a social process and so by its very nature is prone to social dynamics. We try to make sure that authors and peer-reviewers have not had a working relationship in the recent past or haven’t been affiliated with the same or linked institutions. This may not completely eliminate the potential for bias, but can help significantly reduce it. If the findings of the paper are contentious we ensure there is at least one reviewer from each side of the aisle. If the paper challenges previously published findings we try to make sure that the authors of previous work are consulted.
Once the peer-reviewers submit their reports it’s my job to consider their opinions and decide whether to reject the manuscript or invite a revision. At this point I am not counting votes but analyzing the arguments put forth by the reviewers. At the risk of compartmentalizing a fluid process I would divide my decision making at this stage into three tests. The first test is whether the reviewers have pointed out one or more fatal flaws that call into question the robustness of the main findings? If the answer is no and the flaws are minor, we invite a revision but if it’s yes then the second test is, can the authors address the flaw without in essence redoing the entire analysis and producing a more or less different paper? If the answer is no the paper is rejected but if it’s yes then we ask a third question. Would the revised work still have the potential to be of interest to our audience? If at this point the answer comes out yes, we invite a revision.
Once the paper is accepted I literally edit the paper. This involves restructuring the paper to find the best way to communicate the ideas, trimming away any unjustified flourishes, and making sure that the figures meet all of our standards of scientific rigor and effective communication. I also make sure that all the information needed to replicate the work, including data, tools and methodologies, are presented as clearly and transparently as possible, and ensure compliance with our policies. I then try to get the paper the attention it deserves by writing press releases and commissioning and editing News and Views articles about the paper. This is where being an editor brings together my twin loves of using language to communicate effectively and scientific research, and I feel really lucky to be able to do what I do.
In addition to handling primary research submissions, I commission Comments, Perspectives or Reviews on topics at the cutting-edge of scientific development to make sure readers get a broad picture of advancements in a wide array of topics and disciplines related to the theme of my journal.
To do all this, I need to stay abreast of recent developments in my field. I frequently travel to conferences and stay in touch with researchers to keep on top of what’s going on.
And finally there are all the administrative tasks that come with being the mediator between authors, peer-reviewers, art departments, proof-readers and production teams. It’s a balancing act to say the least.
Being a scientific editor is a position of unique privilege but it is also hard work. I often joke that I get paid to read scientific papers, but in the thick of it I think my job is to emphasize nuance without losing impact in an increasingly noisy world of deep contrasts. I think of myself as a custodian of gray in a black and white world, and that, if I may allow myself a little bit of unedited flourish, is an at least somewhat noble pursuit.