Greatest Hits I

Published in Microbiology
Greatest Hits I

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Trying to capture all of my experiences during 11 ¼ years as an editor at Nature would be a daunting task, and it would almost certainly drive readers of this post to distraction before they quickly departed the page. So as I replay my months and years in Crinan Street, I will be kind and skip through most of the hits, album fillers, and b-sides, the reviews edited, papers handled and conferences attended, pausing only to dwell on a few ‘tracks’ that may be of some interest.

Before hitting play though, it’s worth briefly just recapping my route to this point. I joined in 2007 as a Locum editor at Nature Cell Biology, before moving [about 10 feet] to join the Nature Reviews Microbiology team in 2008, just as the original line up broke up for the first time. At the beginning of 2013 I moved upstairs [both figuratively and literally] to join the Nature team as microbiology editor, and then in 2015 left Nature, perhaps prematurely, as I was giving the honour of launching Nature Microbiology as Chief Editor. Throughout this time I worked with colleagues and friends that are deeply knowledgeable, dedicated to science, invariably hard-working, often underappreciated and under-rewarded, occasionally hilarious, and generally huge fun to be around. I’ve been lucky in this regard.

 Anyway, on with volume I

1. Imposter 

It amazes me, even after well over a decade as a microbiology editor at Nature, both that they picked me do this job in the first place and do not seem to have twigged that I am unqualified and that I have been winging it. By comparison to most of the colleagues around me during all of my roles at Nature, who have an encyclopaedic understanding of their particular beat, know everyone [and are known by everyone] in their fields, can pen beautiful and grammatically accurate prose without breaking a sweat and can take a lumpen piece of coal delivered by an overworked author then polish it into the brightest of diamonds, I feel to be unskilled and uninformed. This is felt even more keenly whenever I step out into the community of still-practising researchers at conferences. I have oft paraphrased an idea that I first heard articulated by Bernd Pulverer [the Chief Editor who first recruited me at Nature Cell Biology and now head of EMBO press] that researchers have to know everything about a very little part of a field, whereas editors need to know a little about every part of a field. Of course this cannot be the case when editors’ first step out of the lab and plonk down behind a desk, but the learning curve is steep and has to be traversed rapidly. The shallow knowledge across a field must be gained quickly to be able to take part in discussions with researchers in areas in which one didn’t work directly, and can then deepen over time. What I have found to be increasingly true, however, is that researchers [particularly younger ones] have a great depth of knowledge that extends well beyond the boundaries of their particular speciality or sub-discipline. I do not know whether this is a symptom of greater access to the literature in the digital age, the spread of ideas through social media, greater scholarship among early career scientists or just a change in the way that I interact with researchers, but it astounds me to see. It appals me also, for I find myself an imposter even among the kids who by rights should know less than the little I have managed to pick up by now, surely.

 Anyway, from when I convinced Bernd that I knew not just about a few bits of protein trafficking, secretion and cell division but other aspect of cell biology as well, to when I convinced Susan and Sheilagh that I was a card carrying microbiologist having spent a PhD and postdoctoral work culturing S. cerevisiae and E. coli, to when I convinced Ritu first that I then had a handle on the entire field of microbiology and second that I was responsible enough to launch and run a new Nature journal, the feeling that I am about to get caught out as an imposter has never totally gone away. Looks like I got away with it all the way to the end though. Sssshhh don’t tell anyone!

2. Tweetlebum

It’s November 2009. You’ve set up a new home, proposed to, and married your spouse [keep an eye out for Greatest Hits volume II for more on both]. You are getting the hang of your new career and thinking about kids is a little way off just yet. Things are getting easier, and there is time in your life going spare that needs to be occupied. Perhaps I should have taken up golf, or cross-stitch, or learned to play the piano – something useful. But no, I decided to follow in the footsteps of Tanita Casci, a former editor for Nature Reviews Genetics, and launch a journal Twitter account for Nature Reviews Microbiology. Goodbye uneventful evenings, farewell offline weekends. Hello never ending and mainly unedited stream of thoughts and news; informative, useful, addictive, increasingly angry and often annoying.

I do not claim to be a twitter OG, although 2009 was pretty early days for science twitter. Yet someone [I forget who] did an analysis of the most connected/retweeted science twitter accounts for a particular week in those early days and @NatureRevMicro came a close runner up behind @phylogenomics and one or two other true science twitter luminaries. This was early days then; #hashtags were still a thing that people used enthusiastically rather than ignored or sneered at; people did #ff’s to help give their preferred tweeters a bump in prominence; the chamber was smaller yet not so crowded that all you could hear were the echoes. I had worked out that we had a waste product on the journal that we could potentially recycle through the twittersphere. You see, NRMicro editors scan the literature [not all, but certainly most quality outlets] looking for interesting papers to write Highlights and In Briefs about. We would circulate a list of potential papers and then discuss which ones to cover, but a lot of papers that originally caught our eye when scanning journal ToCs and RSS feeds [oh how I miss you Google Reader] did not end up getting covered. Instead of letting these studies languish in the nearly pile, we began to tweet them out thrice weekly as #mondaymicro, #midweekmicro and #weekendreading, building up something of a cult following. Indeed this service became so entrenched in some people’s routines that if we missed a day people would call us out on it and demand their fix. We also had some occasional fun creating memes such #sciencecollectivenouns, generally towards the end of the week when that Friday afternoon feeling kicked in.

If I remember correctly, by the time I handed over the account and passwords for @NatureRevMicro in 2012 we were somewhere near 8K followers, which felt huge. Today that account has 39.1K followers, which is just astounding and shows the normalization of the use of social media in science over the past decade. In 2015 while attending the IHMC conference in Luxemburg, I kick-started the @NatureMicrobiol account [now up to 23K followers] to announce the launch of the journal. I co-opted the hashtag of the Microbiology Society meeting running concurrently in the UK to spread the word of our launch, yet little did I know that the society was set to announce the launch of their own new journal, Microbial Genomics, and that I was stealing some [most?] of their thunder. Ooops! No hard feelings, I hope.

3. Olympian

To be in the UK during the lead up to the London Olympics of 2012 gave a glimpse into part of what I think it the true soul of the British; ambitious and global in outlook but with a strong expectance of dramatic failure [of infrastructure and planning], followed by surprise and delight when the worst case scenario does not materialize. The country got caught in the grip of the pageantry, ceremony and party, hosting a highly successful and polished international event. Not being immune to the growing excitement around all things Olympic, in 2011 it occurred to me that Nature Reviews Microbiology should get in on the act and host our own microbial tribute to the games. I recall going into a weekly commissioning meeting bereft of good ideas [as was usually the case] and so having to fall back on a half-baked plan for a pop science piece to coincide with the Olympics. Expecting to get laughed out of the room for playing such a joker, I was caught off-guard when the rest of the team were unexpectedly enthusiastic for the idea [apparently they had been drinking the 2012 kool aid also].

We then came up with a list of events, matched potential authors to each event and crafted the guidance that we would provide while allowing them freehand to run with the idea and have some fun. Some people approached got what we were looking for and signed up instantly, some agreed but only really understood once the full piece was assembled, others thought me crazy, did not understand what a reputable journal was doing with such trivial frivolity and declined involvement. I was nervous about whether the pieces would be able to strike the right balance of being humorous, interesting, educational and scientifically accurate, yet I needn’t have been. I had only scanned each piece quickly when they came in during the months preceding the deadline, and thus when I found myself sat stitching them together in a hotel room on the outskirts of Boston after attending a conference, the realization that with relatively little in the way of editing they combined to deliver something new and energetic was thrilling indeed.  

The final piece [which you can read here:], garnered a great deal of attention at the time on social media and with coverage in the press. But beyond this it also showed me that scientific journals can and should occasionally have some fun. We thus ran a follow up in Nature Microbiology in 2016, with a new set of authors and a new set of events, which you can read here: The baton is there to be picked up for 2020… 

4. Hocus potus

**Warning – crass name-drop imminent – Warning**

I wont beat around the bush on this one to try and pretend that I can be cool about it, when I still can’t. Indeed I had to pick my jaw up off the desk one August afternoon in 2015, when I opened an email from the Office of Science and Technology Policy inviting me to join a workshop event at The White House **CLANG** [I did warn you]. The event was one of the last in a series of microbiome discussion events held in the lead up to the [ultimately somewhat disappointing] National Microbiome Initiative and I had been invited to take part, along with a two other Nature editors, Francesca Cesari and Christina Tobin Kahrstrom. Having a email account does occasionally open a few doors, but in this case the invitation was built on contacts made while I was volunteering for the ASM general meeting planning committee.

Having shamelessly bragged to friends and family about the invite, a few weeks later I found myself travelling to Washington DC, for the first time ever using air miles to upgrade to premium economy [it was the only time I am going to go to The White House after all, may as well try and make it a little special]. While still on the tarmac at Heathrow airport, a stewardess accidentally spilt an entire glass of Prosecco into my lap. Accidents happen of course, and it turns out that if you take such a spill with humour, the stewardess in question will spend the rest of the flight apologetically topping up your glass and giving personal and prioritized attention. By the time we touched down in DC I was quite merry, which may or may not be reflected in the book review I wrote for Nature while en route.  

In 2015 it took two separate passport checks and clearing a metal detector to get into The White House [some might say they have become significantly less stringent about who they let in there in recent years]. Despite such security measures, being a non US citizen I still required an escort to accompany me wherever I went, bathroom trips included, just in case I decided to run amok in the stalls of power. The event was actually in the Eisenhower building just next door to The White House proper, and while interesting and useful to take part, the theatre of the whole trip is probably more memorable. Just prior to our visit the Obama’s had welcomed the Pope, and just after we left came the president of China. I’m unlikely to find myself bookended by such eminence again.  

5. Shipbuilding

Nature Microbiology is not my idea and I was by no means the first editor to push for its launch - I believe that honour goes to the first Chief Editor of Nature Reviews Microbiology, Dave O’Connell, although it may have been mooted earlier by others. I did, however, have strong ideas about why such a journal was wanted and needed by the microbiology field and what the journal should be. As such, when joining Nature at the beginning of 2013, I began to advocate for Nature Microbiology to become a reality whenever I got the opportunity. A pitch myself and others provided advice for lost out to Nature Plants when the decision was made for launches in 2015, but when it came time to decide on 2016 launches we were clear favourites and had the momentum. I therefore found myself in the right place at the right time, banging the drum for Nature Microbiology when the rest of the pieces fell into place. So with launch assured, it came time to decide who should lead the effort as Chief Editor, and I was probably in pole position, although I hadn’t yet decided whether or not to apply. Having recently moved to a new town, Mrs Jermy and I were enjoying a midweek meal out thanks to some grandparental babysitting of Jermy Minor, who was new on the scene. The venue was a gastro pub on the outskirts of town, and we were they only diners present, not due to the quality of the food, which was more than decent. Over the course of the meal we discussed whether or not I should apply since leaving Nature after what would be only 2 ½ years was not a straight forward choice; I greatly enjoyed the job and being an editor at Nature itself is arguably the pinnacle of a career in editorial. In the end discussions with Mrs Jermy helped me to the conclusion that if someone else got the post and didn’t fulfil the vision for Nature Microbiology that I held, in the end I would regret not having taken a shot. So I applied, of course.

I was initially scheduled to interview for the post one afternoon in January 2015, following on from my annual appraisal as a Nature editor that morning. However, when I emerged well-appraised from the meeting room, it became apparent that all senior management had been called into emergency meetings owing to the news breaking of an impending merger with Springer, and my first round interview was postponed. Once the dust settled, the rescheduled interviews took place in early February and I apparently avoided any bear-traps since I was offered the role shortly after. Building and launching a journal, even in the shipyard that is a large publishing group like Nature, is not an easy task. Starting from scratch in April 2015, I had just seven months before the first content had to be signed off with production ahead of publication of the inaugural issue in January 2016. Seven months in which to recruit and train a team of editors, to work with a phalanx of publishers, developers, marketers, production editors to create the website, the manuscript tracking system portal and this blog community site. Seven months in which to travel extensively to conferences to raise the profile of the journal, hear from microbiologists what they wanted from us and to set down journal policies. It was manic, especially once we opened for submissions and saw how quickly we were embraced by the field as the numbers of manuscripts coming in each week grew, but we got it all done, just about.

The title of this track in my greatest hits was in part inspired by the Elvis Costello song Shipbuilding ­which I knew actually from the Suede cover version included on 1995’s The Help album. A lyric in this song ­– with all the will in the world, diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls – captures the mania during this and a couple of later periods of my time at the helm of Nature Microbiology. Working furiously just to keep up and survive, when with more time and resources things could have been a different, perhaps better, certainly less challenging. Luckily I still uncovered plenty of pearls along the way. Speaking of which…

6. Come Together

Onboarding is a term currently fashionable in corporate speak. Probably unjustifiably, I loathe the word, which is used to describe the recruitment and training of an employee. I find it pretentious and perhaps even a little sinsister; it is not enough to simply hire someone anymore, you have to ‘onboard’ them and integrate [brainwash?] them in to the organizational culture. Anyway, it fits with the nautical theme above, so I will stick with it here.

This is what I personally consider to be my greatest hit of this volume, my ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ moment. I have had the honour to have onboarded [see it doesn’t work…] a team of truly exceptional editors during the past four years. In the order in which they clambered up the gangplank: Dr Mike Chao, Dr Nonia Pariente, Dr Heidi Burdett [who returned to start her own lab in 2016], Dr Claudio Nunes Alves, Dr Emily White and Dr Libera Lo Presti. All of them fantastic in ways common and unique. They are deeply knowledgeable about the microbiology field, incredibly hard-working and passionate about giving authors the best possible experience. They have been instrumental in crafting a journal with a specific set of values, and this helped us to attract researchers from across the entire field to consider submitting their work to us. I make no claim that Nature Microbiology is the best journal in the field, indeed microbiologists are lucky in having a range of excellent journals to consider when submitting their work. But I am confident that you will not find an editorial team more dedicated to serving the microbiology field to the best of their ample abilities. 

A piece of advice that I have heard numerous iterations of before I became a Chief Editor was to hire people that are smarter and better than you and then do everything you can to keep up. It may sound corny, but this actually has a large element of truth to it. It has been my privilege to try and stay in touch with them while they grew and developed as editors. They forced me to work harder and do better too.

7. Self presentation society

Amid the launch chaos of 2015, I had not yet learned the value and importance of occasionally saying no. Thus I found myself involved in several projects that perhaps weren’t strictly critical to the goal of launching a journal on time. One of those was co-organizing what has now turned out to be a successful and on-going Nature conference series on Viral Infection and Immune Response, with colleagues in China. Another came in a meeting with James Butcher, the publisher heading up new launches, then my line manager and now at the top of the tree for all of Nature Research. James wanted me [and the other new launch Chief Eds] to meet with some people from a start-up company called Zapnito to hear about the community platform that they had developed. While being careful not to say that we absolutely had to launch a community site, James made clear that there was interest in us doing so coming from the very top of the chain. Well, having already seen what the new design Nature Microbiology website was and wasn’t going to be able to support, I actually remember being excited to see the potential in the platform being demonstrated by Zapnito’s Jen Thoroughgood and Charles Thiede. It would enable us to publish ‘soft’ content, blog, news, comment, video and so forth quickly and nimbly and help us to engage with the microbiology researchers outside of the formal pages of the journal [and it’s paywall] and enable us to create a community in which they provided and shared their own content. So in the end I didn’t need my arm to be twisted and so said yes. We soon began setting up what has evolved over four years into this very community site.

We initially set the community up such that anyone could join and post, and that has largely stuck true through to today [although we have had to tweak this a little under siege from spammers on a few occasions]. Personally I hoped for more engagement than we perhaps have seen; cross-commenting on posts and interaction among community members certainly does occur, but it was slow to get off the ground and hasn’t perhaps become as commonplace as it might. We hit upon some content types that worked nicely, and others that haven’t. The runaway success has been the Behind the Paper format, which provides a forum for authors of papers published anywhere to present the story behind their study. The community became far better managed over time with the onboarding of the excellent Ben Johnson  and Ruth Milne, who have also worked closely other editors to replicate the success of the microbiology community for other subject areas. It has benefitted from regular contributors choosing our community to host their interesting and thought-provoking blogs. It has also allowed me to have a lot of fun dabbling with different approaches to writing about microbiology, the experience of being an editor, and life in general, and occasionally to compose a song or poem. I wish I’d had time to post more frequently myself, but looking at what this community has grown into I’m glad that I took that meeting back in 2015 and didn’t say no.  

8. The Show Must Go On

Even the most empathetic of us still view the world through our own eyes, with the filters of our own experiences and opinions. When I finally left the University of Manchester, I thought much about my time in the Stirling laboratory. As a mentor, teacher, manager and colleague, a PhD supervisor is a hugely important figure in the life and career of the PhD student, yet the reverse is very rarely true since the relationship is unequal. While most PhD students will have only a single supervisor, it is likely that many students will come through the laboratory over the career of a researcher. Some will perhaps be more memorable and make more of a mark than others, but the experience and perception of this time is never going to be entirely mutual. Colin’s lab existed well before I joined it in 2000, and continued just fine after I moved on, no matter how much my ego would like to think that I left something of a hole that couldn’t be entirely filled. The same is true on all of the journals that I have worked on since joining Nature back in 2007. During some of the key moments in my life, I spent 4 ½ fantastic years at Nature Reviews Microbiology, yet they published amazing content before I joined and continued to do so on my leaving in 2012. Similarly if someone were to chronicle the 150 year history of Nature, my 2 ½ year contribution would be barely noticeable among the continuum of high-level science and commentary in those august pages, yet it was a massive part of my life and career. And despite flattering to deceive myself that perhaps Nature Microbiology will be different because I was the first Chief Editor, I know that with time things will move on regardless. Whoever sits at the desk I vacate will move in a matter of months from be the new Chief Editor to being just the Chief Editor, and in decades to come, while I may have been the first, it will be clear that far better came after as they steered the journal to fulfil its potential and to meet the desires of the field that it serves.

So for just one more week then, Nature Microbiology is a huge part of my life, just as I am huge part of it. And then the next phase begins, and the latter will diminish over time. As ever, the show must go on. 

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Go to the profile of Ben Johnson
over 5 years ago

What a great history of microbiology publishing at Nature! 

Please can you share the book review you wrote for Nature during your well-oiled flight...? 

Go to the profile of Andrew Jermy
over 5 years ago

Thanks Ben. Here you go: Do bear in mind that all writing is improved by a good edit, and Barb Kiser who handles B&A at Nature is a GREAT editor who easily made sure that any slurring that made it into my draft didn't stain the pages of Nature on publication.

Also linked above.

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