The very model of a modern science editor

Thoughts on some of the journal values and expectations placed on a scientific editor in the modern publishing landscape
Published in Microbiology
The very model of a modern science editor

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During a recent conversation with a senior colleague about the tasks required of an editor, while discussing all of the ways in which we consider author and referee service on Nature Microbiology, I happened to mention in passing the expectations which could and should be placed on the shoulders of 'a modern editor'. The proverbial red flag to the bull; in an instant I found myself being pressed to formulate these ideas into a blog post - a manifesto for the modern editor so to speak - that could be shared with colleagues and with the field. Well, who could resist such an order/delightful opportunity. 

Naturally, the Major-General's Song from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta "The Pirates of Penzance"  - which satirizes the idea of the British Army officer in the late 19th century as a modern, educated, fellow but lacking in actual military know-how - was the only logical place to start.

I'm not (only) pushing the metaphor here to enable a clever title, there are parallels to be drawn too. Historically, the (false) impression of editors for publications like Nature and the Nature Research journals has on occasion had something of the ivory tower to it, a pompous and whimsical officer class sat remotely making decisions that the troops on the ground find sometimes barely credible. Editors also can be expected to cover broad swathes of a scientific field (information animal, vegetable and mineral), while needing the scientific knowledge to assimilate and assess the complexities of research submitted (to be very good at integral and differential calculus... and ...know the scientific names of beings animalculous). [Okay, I'm going to stop there, it is a good title though, no?]

Anyway, the gap between the impression of what an editor does and the reality, can often be quite wide and my colleagues and I spend a significant amount of time each year at conferences, in lab visits and during publishing presentations trying to bridge that gap and dispel some of the myths about what an editor does and doesn't do (perhaps that would be better written as "should and shouldn't do"). Beyond this however, as the publishing field evolves, so do the expectations that must be placed on the editors of our journals, and the standards by which an editor should carry out their function has changed over the past couple of decades. When setting up Nature Microbiology I spent a long time thinking about the traits and values that a new Nature journal should seek to establish, which are always going to be an extension of the approach taken by a journal's editors. I have been fortunate in finding a team that has not only taken on board the best practices that I intended to establish, but have gone far further in helping to shape and refine those ideals and realize them every day working for the journal. Of course this does not by any stretch mean that we can please all authors submitting to Nature Microbiology all of the time, and there are (and will be) examples that have proven to be exceptions to these general principles, but our aim has been to try to ensure as best as possible that microbiologists submitting papers have positive experience, even in rejection. Below are some thoughts on some of these values and how they relate to the role as a model of a modern science editor, as typified by Nature Microbiology. I make no claim to comprehensiveness here, this is a broad and nebulous topic, the reader is encouraged to add in other thoughts and ideas in the comments below. I have focused on editors handling primary research articles, but much of this will apply to editors who handle review and magazine content. Also I have tried to write this in such a manner that I think it would apply whether the editor being imagined is a professional or academic one. Please also bear in mind that this is not a statement or promise about editorial approach on any other Nature journal title, although I suspect that editors on most will recognize much of themselves in what is listed.


For a variety of reasons, 'open' is now a somewhat loaded term (... access, ...source), but by openness I am referring here to the approach taken by an editor in making sure that they are available to authors and conduct themselves in as transparent a manner as possible. By this I mean that the modern editor should make sure that their contact details are easy to find on their journal's website (for example here, here or here), should include their contact detail in emails to authors, and should try to make themselves available to anyone who requests a discussion, whether about a potential submission or about a decision on a current or previous manuscript. Beyond this, an editor should try to give authors as much information as possible when communicating about a manuscript, including an individually tailored letter with detailed explanation of the reasoning behind a decision, in clearly understandable language. We all know how frustrating it can be when a train or plane that we are due to catch is delayed without explanation; in the absence of information about the cause and length of a delay and what is being done to rectify the situation, confusion can quickly turn to exasperation or anger. Whether at the editor's or referee's desk, high workloads can mean that delays are an unavoidable part of handling manuscripts too, but keeping lines of communication open with authors by sending a quick progress update every week or two can help to mitigate the effects that delays can have on an expectant authors experience. Beyond picking up the phone to an author or answering their email, the modern editor should where feasible accept invitations to travel and speak about their journal and their work, to lift the lid on a policies and editorial practices, making sure that researchers in the field and putative authors have a better understanding of what a journal is looking for and what to expect if they submit their research paper. Openness also means always being willing to listen to differing opinions about a negative decision and considering appeals without setting their mind to reject automatically without carefully considering the new information presented. 


An editor has the responsibility to read all work that is submitted to their desk both carefully and diligently, to make sure that they do not focus attention on any particular subset of the manuscripts (for instance if it comes from a certain laboratory, institution or country), otherwise potential gems might be missed because a submission comes from a source previously unknown. As noted above, the editor should take responsibility for the decisions taken on a particular study, and make sure that they are open and available to detail their reasoning and listen to any response. When criticism of work that has been published is submitted, the modern editor has a responsibility not to dismiss the criticism out of hand, to weigh up the arguments and consider involving the authors and referees in responding to the criticism where appropriate. Journals and editors need to carefully consider the case for publishing criticism and follow up work arising from a study that has been published, especially where doubt is cast on the main conclusions drawn in the original study. The modern editor has to take responsibility for the work that they publish, and scrutinize papers before publication incredibly carefully, looking at the integrity and accurate reporting of each piece of data included in a study and working with the authors to resolve any potential discrepancies that arise. The editorial desk should not be the rate limiting step in the publication process, an editor should take responsibility to make sure that manuscripts are assessed in a timely manner and that if referees are going to be asked to look at a manuscript that they are identified, invited and assigned as swiftly as possible. The editor is responsible for ensuring that each manuscript sent out for peer review receives a rigorous examination, with all necessary technical and topical areas covered among the referee line up. Where a referee is late in delivering their comments, the editor needs to take responsibility for ensuring that the referee is (politely) chased for their report but ultimately if comments are not forth-coming to either replace the referee or make a decision on the basis of comments already received and their own editorial assessment. The modern editor cannot simply count votes of referees in forming a decision on whether to reject, invite revision or to offer publication. They have a responsibility to carefully weigh any concerns raised by the referees and consider their relative importance in determining whether the central conclusions in a study are sufficiently well supported, they must also consider whether any of the points raised by referees require work that is unnecessary or would be impossible to address in a timely and reasonable manner. The responsible editor should then communicate their decision, with detailed justification to both the authors and referees. 


It is important that when assessing a newly submitted research paper, that preconceptions are put to one side (within reason of course; studies arguing for a flat-earth do not require that an editor suspend all common sense and wisdom) and that the authors are given a chance to put forward their ideas and the data that they think support them on each and every paper. Rejecting a paper out of hand because one might consider a particular part of the field to be a little out of fashion or because the ideas disagree with ones own view of the subject matter should be avoided. If a manuscript is going to be sent for peer review, the editor should ensure to recruit a spread of referees (taking in to account gender, ethnicity and geographic spread as much as possible) with sufficient expertise to cover all aspects of a manuscript. Fore-knowledge of a referees likely opinions on a topic needs to be treated with care and accounted for by ensuring that there is balance in the referee panel recruited. For papers that are on particularly controversial topics, it is important to try and ensure that referees from multiple sides of the argument are consulted, even though if the scientific debate is to be continued in the literature, then at some stage some of the referees may have to be overruled. 


Out of fairness to the authors of a study, even if it may not seem like a kindness at the time, the modern editor should strive to make clean decisions. By this I mean that whether before a paper is sent for peer review or once the referee reports are in, if there is some scientific interest in a study but there are substantial concerns which would preclude publication without a substantial investment of time (say > 6 months) and additional funding to address, then the clean decision is to reject and allow the authors to consider submitting the work in its current form to another journal (of course they could still choose to carry out the work and appeal). Keeping a study on the hook for longer than 6 months without a strong likelihood of ultimate publication should be avoided if at all possible (although the reasonable time period will vary somewhat from field to field). If the editor decides to send a manuscript out for review, it is in the scope of the journal no matter if some of the referees question this point, so the modern editor should not then subsequently reject a study using scope reasons as a fig-leaf for other concerns. Fairness cuts both ways between authors and referees of course; where a referee raises an issue that would require a long time period or a lot of additional money to address but that is not actually necessary to the core message of the study, the editor should overrule out of fairness to the author. Conversely, if the same referee issue is actually fundamental to the core message of the study, a clean rejection is likely the better option. Similarly, while being fair and open to authors in explaining the justification behind certain aspects of an editorial decision, the same applies in respect to explaining the basis for a decision in detail to the referees, in particular when overruling on issues that they might have raised. When assessing and integrating referees reports into the basis for a decision, an editor should keep a careful eye out for evidence of potential bias in referee reports; does the view of one referee stand significantly apart from the others, have they used overly aggressive language, been dismissive or failed to substantiate key points. If potential bias is detected, the editor should considering asking the other referees to look at the comments and adjudicate on their importance/veracity, if necessary additional referees with equivalent experience should be consulted. The submission and publication of a scientific study is most often the result of many years of invested time, money, thinking and effort, and if a related paper comes out in the weeks or months after submission, the modern editor should consider extending scooping protection to a study under consideration (at Nature Microbiology we set this period at 6 months). In the era of concerns about reproducibility of scientific studies, a paper coming out in another journal indicating that the core message of a study under consideration is on firm ground can be seen as a virtue, rather than a reason to give a paper the chop. If criticism of a published study is received, the editor should give the criticized authors a chance (and some time) to respond.


Consistency in editorial decisions can be challenging to achieve given that over time a field and a journal will change and evolve and the editorial bar for consideration in certain fields and sub-fields will increase over time (for instance, after a new technique becomes commonplace). Over short timescales, however, the modern editor should aim to ensure consistency in decision making. If a manuscript is received that is very similar in topic area and level of development to one that was previously sent out for review or rejected, unless there are extenuating circumstances, the second manuscript should receive a consistent decision, irrespective of author identity or institution. Over even shorter periods, the modern editor should strive for consistency in approach to assessing a manuscript; don't give a manuscript at the bottom of a pile less attention that that received by the manuscript at the top. If time is short before lunch/the end of the week/going to a conference, the editor should avoid rushing their appraisal of the submitted work and handle it later. 


An editor should try and make sure that each manuscript is approached afresh and with an enthusiasm that this might be one of those great studies that is a delight to read, is interesting, thought provoking and provides a sufficient conceptual advance as to merit further consideration. If a cover letter is opened expecting the worst, the chances that the editor's low expectations will be met will have increased, irrespective of the work described. The modern editor should try to bring the same level of enthusiasm to the start line for every single manuscript assessment. In practice of course, not everyday is filled with rainbows and kittens, so some self-awareness of general mood can at least act as a counter balance if an editors overall energy levels are lower at any given time. 

There will surely be points that I have missed here so do please add your own thoughts in the comments below.

Also, as a reward for those that stuck with the post this far, here's a bonus track for you to learn verbatim and repeat to your colleagues ad nauseum (or more likely just ignore):

The Science Editor's song

[hint: this only really works if you pronounce it edit-ar]

I am the very model of a modern science editor
I've knowledge biological which is simply quite spectacular 
With mastery in all learning of the chemical vernacular
My physics is renown worldwide for being supernacular
While Curie, Darwin, Lovelace, Boyle, Hooke and Kekule are
Creators of theories that saw each hailed a research superstar
On gravity and relativity Einstein really laid down all the rules [bothered for a rhyme]
Yet I still favour Ant van Leeuwenhoek's pictures of animalcules

I read manuscripts and cover letters both rapidly and carefully
And search the literature for precedent with an eagle-eyed alacrity
In short wherever scientific data and analysis are, 
I am the very model of a modern science editor

I manage peer review fairly, recruiting referees felicitous
Seeking from them detailed insight, always constructive and meticulous
Yet in their reports if something found is intended to be mischievous,
I'll overrule quick smart, not passing on demands iniquitous 
A decision will be reached promptly, always keepIng impartiality,
And communicated to the authors, with explanation and cordiality,
But if serious referee concerns, a research papers fate does seal [bothered for a rhyme]
I'll consider all the arguments if an author chooses to appeal

Figures main and supplemental will be checked for their integrity
Reporting of methods and statistics policed to ensure reproducibility 
In short wherever scientific data and analysis are
I am the very model of a modern science editor

I travel far and wide to meetings, alas always in economy
Greet those met upon the road with a bona fide bonhomie
I'll extoll publishing values, explaining areas of our policy
And answer questions of my role with candour, never pompously
I converse with researchers, early career and after tenure track
Learning of fresh data, new ideas and work yet to hit the journal rack
Where a study is exciting and with potential impact that is high [bothered for a rhyme]
I direct them to and suggest that they give us a try

For our efforts editorial, the limelight our names will never see 
But we work hard all the same to surpass all levels of expectancy
In short wherever scientific data and analysis are
I am the very model of a modern science editor

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