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Enmeshed in the gears of publishing – lessons from working as a young editor

Enmeshed in the gears of publishing – lessons from working as a young editor

Editors of scientific journals play an important role in the process research publication. They act as the midpoint between authors and reviewers, and set the direction of a given journal. However, for an early career scientist like me (I only defended my PhD in early December 2016) the intricacies of editorial work remained somewhat mysterious. Many academic journals tend to appoint established, more senior scientists to these roles, and while most scientists interact with editors regularly their role is not commonly taught to more junior researchers. I was fortunate to get the chance to work, short term, as an associate editor at Nature Geoscience in the first 4 months of this year (2017). During that time, I learned a number of lessons about scientific publishing that I felt could be valuable to the community at large.

What does an editor actually do?

The role of the editor is often hidden to readers; in both paywalled and open-access journals the notes and thoughts editors make on submitted manuscripts are generally kept private. One of the first things to appreciate is that editors judge whether a manuscript meets a set of editorial thresholds that would make it appropriate for the journal in question, rather than whether the study is correctly designed or the results are robust. I’d argue most editors are looking for a balance of an advance beyond existing literature and the level of interest a manuscript offers for their audience.

At each step of the publication process, from initial submission, through judging referee comments, to making a final decision, the editor is making a judgement whether the manuscript still meets those editorial thresholds.

The vast majority of the papers I got the chance to read were pretty fascinating, but since the journal I was working for is targeted at the whole Earth science community some of these were a bit too esoteric, and as such didn’t fit the thresholds we set to appeal to the journal audience.

I actually found judging papers on the basis of editorial thresholds refreshing – in our capacity as peer reviewers, most scientists are naturally sceptical of methodology and conclusions in other studies, but as an editor in most cases I was able to take the authors conclusions at face-value, and leave the critical assessment to referees.

That’s where the important difference lies; even though editors are generally scientists by training, since they are naturally not experts in every field that they receive papers from, it’s paramount to find reviewers who have the appropriate expertise and to ask them the right set of questions. In journals with academic editors, the editors may have more leeway to make critical comments, but impartiality is key.

Much of this may be already clear to many readers, but perhaps less so to more junior scientists. Many of the editorial decisions are somewhat subjective, like gauging the level of interest to a journal audience.

In the context of open access research journals, I think it’s worth asking whether the editorial decisions should also be made openly readable by authors and referees – this might aid potential authors in deciding how to pitch their articles to a given journal. This feeds into my next point – what are journals looking for?

By which metrics do journals judge studies?
The second big thing I picked up is that the amount of work does not always equate to a paper being appropriate for a given journal. Invariably, authors have clearly worked hard, and it’s often really tricky to explain to authors that their study is not a good fit for the journal you’re working for.

Speaking somewhat cynically, journals run for profit are interested in articles that can sell more copies or subscriptions. Since the audiences are primarily scientists, “scientific significance” will be a dominant consideration, but Nature and subsidiary journals also directly compare the mainstream media coverage of some of their articles with that of Science – that competition is important to their business.

Many other authors have discussed the relative merits of “prestige” journals (including Nobel prize winners – https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/09/nobel-winner-boycott-science-journals), and all I’ll add here is what strikes me most is that ‘number of grad student hours worked’ is often not related to those articles that would be of a broader interest to the more mainstream media. The majority of articles don’t attract media attention of course, but I’d also argue that “scientific significance” is not strongly linked to the amount of time that goes into each study.

In the long run, high quality science tends to ensure a strong readership of any journal, but in my experience as an editor the quality of science in submitted manuscripts tends to be universally strong – the scientific method is followed, conclusions are robust, but in some cases they’re just pitched at the wrong audience. I’d argue this is why some studies have found in meta-analysis that in the majority of cases, articles that are initially rejected are later accepted in journals of similar ‘prestige’ (Weller et al. 2001, Moore et al. 2017).

As such, it’s imperative that authors tailor their manuscripts to the appropriate audience. Editors from every journal are picking from the same pool of peer reviewers, and so the quality of reviews should also be consistent, which ultimately determines the robustness of a study; so to meet editorial thresholds, prospective authors should think about who is reading the journal.
It’s certainly a fine line to walk – studies that are confirmatory of prior work tend to attract fewer readers, and as such editors may be less inclined to take an interest, but these are nonetheless important for the scientific canon.

In my short time as an editor I certainly didn’t see a way around these problems, but it was eye-opening to see the gears of the publication system – the machine from within, as it were.

Who gets to review?
One of the most time-consuming jobs of an editor is finding referees for manuscripts. It generally takes as long, if not far longer, than reading the manuscript in detail!

The ideal set of referees should first have the required set of expertise to properly assess the paper in question, and then beyond that be representative of the field at large. Moreover, they need to have no conflict of interest with the authors of the paper. There are an awful lot of scientists working in the world at the moment, but in some sub-fields it can be pretty hard to find individuals who fit all these categories.

For example, some studies in smaller research fields with a large number of senior co-authors often unintentionally rule out vast swathes of their colleagues as referees, simply because they have collaborated extensively.

Ironically, working with everyone in your field leaves no-one left to review your work! I have no doubt that the vast majority of scientists would be able to referee a colleagues work impartially, but striving for truly impartial review should be an aim of an editor.

As mentioned above, finding referees who represent the field is also important. More senior scientists have a greater range of experience, but tend to have less time available to review, while junior researchers can often provide more in-depth reviews of specific aspects. Referees from a range of geographic locations help provide diversity of opinion, as well as a fair balance in terms of gender.

It was certainly informative to compare the diversity of authors with the diversity of the referees they recommended, who in general tend to be more male dominated and more US-centric than the authors themselves.

A positive way of looking at this might be that this represents a diversifying Earth science community; recommended referees tend to be more established scientists, so greater author diversity might represent a changing demographic. On the other hand, it’s certainly worth bearing in mind that since reviewing is increasingly becoming a metric by which scientists themselves are judged, recommending referees who are more diverse is a way of encouraging a more varied and open community.

What’s the job like?
Editorial work is definitely rewarding – I certainly felt part of the scientific process, and providing a service to authors and the readership community is the main remit of the job.

I got to read a lot of interesting science from a range of different places, and worked with some highly motivated people. It’s a steep learning curve, and tends to be consistently busy; papers are always coming in, so there’s always a need to keep working.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I’d also suggest that scientists could work as editors at almost any stage in their careers, and it offers a neat place between the world of academia and science communication, which I found fascinating.

By Robert Emberson, freelance science writer

References

Moore, S., Neylon, C., Eve, M. P., O’Donnell, D. P., and Pattinson, D. 2017. “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence. Palgrave Communications, 3, 16105

Weller A.C. 2001 Editorial Peer Review: Its Strengths and Weaknesses. Information Today: Medford NJ

We are hiring: be our next Science Policy Officer!

We are hiring: be our next Science Policy Officer!

Do you have an interest in science policy and the geosciences? Then this post might be just right for you!

We are looking to hire a Science Policy Officer to continue developing the EGU’s policy programme, which is aimed at building bridges between geoscientists and European policymakers, engaging the EGU membership with public policy, and informing decision makers about the Earth, planetary and space sciences. The officer will be tasked with mapping out policy opportunities for the EGU, setting up links between EGU members and European decision makers, and developing training and networking events for scientists to engage with policy.

We are looking for a good team player with excellent interpersonal, organisational, and communication skills to fill this role. The successful applicant will have a postgraduate degree (e.g. MA, MSc), preferably in the geosciences or related scientific disciplines or in public policy. Candidates should also have experience in communicating with policymakers, knowledge of policymaking at the European level and an expert command of English. Non-European nationals are eligible to apply, provided they have some knowledge of the European decision-making system.

To get a feel for what the position involves why not read this post by the current post holder, Sarah Connors? Be sure to also check the GeoPolicy column of the blog for even more insight into the work.

The deadline for application is 15 November 2016. Further details about the position and how to apply can be found here.

Feel free to contact Dr Bárbara Ferreira, the Media and Communications Manager, at media@egu.eu or on +49-89-2180-6703 if you have any questions about the position.

GeoSciences Column: Improving together – science writing and football

GeoSciences Column: Improving together – science writing and football

Writing is something that those pursuing a career in academia are expected to be good at. It is a requirement of the job, yet it is a skill few get any formal training in and simply rely on the old saying that practice makes perfect. But what if there is another way? Mathew Stiller-Reeve is a co-founder of ClimateSnack, a writing group organization, which aims to tackle the problem. In today’s post Mathew considers how the workings of a football team might reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project.

The premise behind the ClimateSnack project is simple: We need to improve our writing in science. But many young researchers do not have access to good training initiatives, especially not continuous ones. So, maybe we should just mobilize ourselves; we can mobilize ourselves by starting writing groups and working together to improve. In ClimateSnack, early career scientists (ECS) start writing groups at their home institute. Participants write short popular science articles (usually 400-500 words), read them aloud, get feedback, and publish online. Several ClimateSnack writing groups sprouted up all over the world, however, only a few truly blossomed. What made some groups work and some not? We analyzed the answer to this question in our new paper. The style of a peer-review paper didn’t allow us to make fancy, lengthy analogies. But on GeoLog, I feel safe using football as an analogy to explain the workings of a writing group, and maybe infuse some of my own personal opinions too.

Football is a team sport, but you can play football completely alone and still become an expert. You can see this when you watch football freestylers (like Indi Cowie in the video) do their incredible tricks. Most of these tricksters likely play football with a whole team, but they don’t have to. The same applies to science writing and communication. You can become an expert in these skills by yourself, and some people prefer this. But for ECS’s who like to work together, ClimateSnack would give them the opportunity to improve as part of a team: a writing group.

But what was needed for the teams to work successfully? And what did we learn from the teams that disbanded after a few training sessions?

Successful football teams have good leadership, and in particular good captains. Good captains bring out the best in their players, encourage them when things get hard and manage conflict. These elements were reflected in the ClimateSnack writing groups. The strong leaders guided the groups and encouraged participants to contribute in sensitive ways. However, strong leaders don’t stick around forever. Just as other football clubs often buy captains, writing group leaders also moved on; they finished PhDs and got jobs far, far away. New captains needed to be found, but this was always a challenge.

Can the workings of a football team reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project? Credit: Syaza , distributed via gify.

Can the workings of a football team reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project? Credit: Syaza , distributed via gify.

I am absolutely not saying that the leaders of the disbanded other groups were poor captains! Even a potentially good captain cannot lead a team if he/she doesn’t know the rules of the game. If the rules are not clear then the whole team cannot play properly together. They need to know where the goal is; they need to understand the game’s objectives. And this is where the ClimateSnack management team (where I am most to blame!) was shortsighted. We failed to properly communicate the objectives and aims of a ClimateSnack writing group and the writing process we suggested.

Even if a football team knows the rules and has a good captain, they won’t get far if morale is low, or if the players haven’t got time to train or turn up for matches. We noticed that a lot of the motivation within writing groups was linked to socializing. Just as some amateur football teams might go to the pub after training, one successful writing group planned their meetings just before the Department coffee break so everyone could socialize after the hard work was done.

What other elements need to be in place for a football team to work?

The right number of players is an absolute necessity. Most people have seen how a football team struggles after a couple of players have been sent off. You may have also heard about players going to other clubs if they don’t get to play enough matches. The ClimateSnack group meetings also faced challenges with the number of participants. One group had so many participants to start with that it became difficult to manage. It is difficult for everyone to get something out of a peer feedback discussion if too many are involved.  In this instance, participants lost interest and numbers decreased steadily and finally to a level where too few attended and the group disbanded. In our Bergen group, we always find that the best discussions happen with 4-6 people at the meetings. If we get far more than this in the future, then we will likely split into smaller discussion groups which work more effectively.

Effective writing groups demand some kind of time commitment from the participants. Good writing requires practice, just like football. Football players often train several times a week. With ClimateSnack, we did not have the luxury of asking the members for this level of commitment. Students are already under pressure from a variety of different sources. They need to complete mandatory courses, collect data, attend conferences, and work as teaching assistants. People who play football have a passion for the game and make time for it. Unfortunately, few young researchers have a passion for writing (cards on the table: I was exactly the same. It took a lot of time before I started enjoying writing). Therefore, something voluntary like a writing group will often fall by the wayside when to-do lists are being compiled.

A football team celebrates together after scoring a goal!

A football team celebrates together after scoring a goal! ( Lewes Ladies 2 BHA 1 4 May 2014. 645 , credit: James Boyes distributed via a href=” https://www.flickr.com/”> flickr).

Some ClimateSnack teams started scoring goals! ClimateSnack participants have published over 100 articles online, some of which articles have appeared in newspapers here in Norway. Many participants feel that their writing has improved. Some participants have even started receiving better peer reviews for their scientific publications. Other participants have also used their new network to organize science communication workshops. Even if many writing groups didn’t find a footing, for some people the concept worked really well. And many people have made good friends!

Just like with many football teams, they are more likely to score more goals if they have generous sponsors. Football clubs need to buy kits, pay for pitch maintenance and travel to play other teams. A writing group project like ClimateSnack ideally needs some funding to let new ideas flourish and allow different groups to interact and learn from each other. The ClimateSnack founders had big ambitions to create an international online community where ECS would interact and peer-review each other’s articles across borders. We secured some funding to update the website, but never to implement the kind of things needed to properly promote an international community.

Despite the challanges we encountered, we have seen that writing groups can be a really effective way to learn writing skills together (like ours in Bergen in the photo). Maybe they are so effective that universities should consider implementing them in curricula for all students at all levels. With this in mind, I’ll indulge with a final football-related analogy. When I was a child, we had to play football at school. I didn’t like it! However, now I appreciate that I got fit and healthier, and I learned skills that I could apply to other sports in the process. You see the link to learning basic writing skills?

Indeed, if you think about it, I could have applied the football team analogy to any aspect of research education: We can learn anything alone, but it can be more enjoyable and rewarding if we learn together. However, I think the analogy works well with communication. After all, this is the part of the research process where we really have to put ourselves out there, we have to receive feedback, debate our results, and defend our conclusions, often in open forums. These are all elements at the forefront of writing group dynamics.

Read more about the highs and lows of our ClimateSnack project in our paper in the recent HESS/NHESS special issue on Effective Science Communication and Education in Hydrology and Natural Hazards.

By Mathew Stiller-Reeve, co-founder of ClimateSnack and researcher at Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Bergen, Norway

Reference

Stiller-Reeve, M. A., Heuzé, C., Ball, W. T., White, R. H., Messori, G., van der Wiel, K., Medhaug, I., Eckes, A. H., O’Callaghan, A., Newland, M. J., Williams, S. R., Kasoar, M., Wittmeier, H. E., and Kumer, V.: Improving together: better science writing through peer learning, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 2965-2973, doi:10.5194/hess-20-2965-2016, 2016.

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