Careers in Scientific Editing and Publishing

Recently, AIOG hosted Dr. Tim Spencer, who is the current Executive Editor for the Journal of Cell Biology. Dr. Spencer received his PhD from the City University of New York where his dissertation focused on signaling mechanisms that underly growth and regeneration following injury. He then completed a post-doc at Columbia University studying molecular markers of post-natal motor neuron maturation. After finishing his post-doc, he started a career at Nature Publishing Group and later moved on to become Executive Editor at the Journal of Cell Biology. Dr. Spencer shared his insights and experiences working in scientific editing and publishing. He provided useful information about the industry and answered student questions about what it is like working as a journal editor. 

What is the career outlook like for a person interested in scientific writing or editing and what positions are available? 

There has been an increase in scientific publishing as well as an information explosion in science fields. The number of papers published doubles about every 9 years and the numbers of journals double around every 15 years. Therefore, the need for scientific editors and publishers is continuing to rise. Although, this is a field that often has job openings, but they can be somewhat competitive. Scientific editors often hold PhDs and have some post-doctoral experience. Other positions at scientific journals include review journal editors, publishing editors, specialized editors for News and Feature sections, production staff, and copy editors. Copy editors and production staff often do not require a PhD, but it is helpful to have a scientific background for these roles. Other related science career options included book editing and acquisitions, medical writing, and science journalism. Dr. Spencer also discussed editorial career paths if you start as a scientific editor. With this position, you have the ability to be promoted within the journal or company or switch journals/publishers. Some people transition to the business arm of the company, go on to work with funding agencies, move to the pharmaceutical industry, or work in academic administrations. Certain individuals decide to pursue freelance science journalism/ writing or move into science policy. 

How do you get a job as a scientific editor and what skills are good to have as a scientific editor?

Dr. Spencer relayed that most editors have PhD’s and post-doctoral experience. Although it is possible to start as a scientific editor right after completing your PhD, it is helpful to have a post-doc since it exposes you to further research and publishing. During the interview process, most publishing companies will have a manuscript test. Essentially, this is a ‘trial by fire’ that has a candidate assess an unpublished paper and give their feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript. Scientific editors are immersed in the cutting edge of primary scientific research. They need to have good critical scientific thinking and writing abilities. Additionally, they should be able to network within the scientific community. Scientific editors are exposed to a broader number and range of topics, so having interest and understanding of a number of different disciplines is beneficial. Additionally, having an understanding of the publishing and peer review process as well as having experience publishing in scientific journals is encouraged. Dr. Spencer also covered how most journals select editors. He stated that many journals are looking for scientists with a strong research background with broad scientific interests. It is also important to have an interest in science communication and an enthusiasm for science and publishing. In this field, journals are often looking for someone who will be a good ambassador for the journal with strong writing and communication skills. 

How is working in scientific editing different than working in academia?

Dr. Spencer talked about the main differences between working as a researcher in academia versus working in the scientific publishing industry. An important fact to keep in mind as an editor is that you become a scientific generalist, essentially sacrificing depth of knowledge for breadth of knowledge. This career allows you to learn about various topics, but you are no longer conducting primary research in a very specific area. Another difference is that deadlines and schedules are comparatively short in publishing, so that there can be faster turn-around. The working hours are generally shorter but the time-related pressures are often greater. Additionally, the focus of this career is on clear communication of ideas to a wide and/or broad-scope audience. Dr. Spencer concluded by saying that the work/life balance is generally better as an editor, but this is at the cost of constant and persistent deadlines. 

What is the role of a scientific editor in the publishing process?

Broadly, Scientific Editors are involved in the manuscript handling and selection process. They often participate in core tasks such as reading and evaluating new manuscript submissions, leading discussions with both editorial teams and academic editors to reach an initial decision about article review, choosing and assigning peer reviewers, analyzing and discussing reviewer reports, making a final decision about a paper, crafting decision letters, and checking accepted manuscripts pre-publication. Editors may also be involved in commissioning reviews, perspectives, preview, or coordinating special projects. Editors often attend or organize scientific conferences and meetings, or they may visit scientific institutions to talk to researchers and experts in different disciplines. Editors are essential for choosing how the journal looks, picking cover images, and deciding the layout. Finally, sometimes scientific editors may be asked to write editorials and other content or be involved in developmental editing. 

Types of editorial models that are used today

There are three main types of editorial models currently used for publishing academic papers. One type of editorial model is one that employs professional editors only. This includes publishing groups such as Nature, Science, and Cell Press journals. There are also journals that use academic editors only. These include journals such as eLife, PNAS, and various Society journals. The final type uses a ‘hybrid’ editorial model that uses both professional and academic editors. The Journal of Cell Biology where Dr. Spencer is employed uses this model when publishing scientific content. It is important to have an understanding of different editorial models as well as the publishing and peer review process if you are interested in a career as a scientific editor.

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