In which I defend the editorial profession – belatedly

Have you ever overhead a conversation that infuriated you so much that you had to physically restrain yourself from butting in?

The other day, I was sitting on the morning shuttle bus that ferries people from the ISG Hotel to the laboratories of EMBL. Normally it is sparsely occupied by visiting scientists like myself, but occasionally EMBL hosts a conference and the little vehicle becomes anchovy-packed with delegates. I was staring at the green leafiness of the woods, hypnotized by lack of sleep and the way the sunlight shafted golden through its canopy, when the loud conversation of the men in the seat behind me finally permeated my concentration.

“So then after all this – three rounds of review – they rejected our paper,” the first man said. “If they didn’t want it, why did they string us along for so long?”

Now, this guy was American: West Coast, late fifties. I’m American myself, so I’m allowed to say that he deployed that particular tone not uncommon amongst a certain generation of American males in the biomedical sciences – smug, arrogant, over-confident, reckoning themselves a science celebrity whose reputation alone should be enough to vouchsafe their work.

The second man asked what the referee comments had been like, and reading between the lines of the first man’s indignant description, I gleaned that the data were highly controversial and he hadn’t provided the extraordinary evidence required to back up an extraordinary claim.

“But these Nature editors,” the first man said. “They’re just glorified secretaries nowadays.”

The second man, bless him, did at least attempt a defense: “They’re scientists, aren’t they?”

“Yeah, like back in the Stone Age. Whatever. They’re completely out of touch with the field, and overwhelmed by manuscripts. And this puts them at the whim of the experts they rely on to make the decisions. Even if those experts have a political agenda , they can’t go against them. It’s totally different when you have real scientists on your editorial board.”

I wisely held my tongue as my blood pressure rose, but I did glance back and memorize the first man’s face, just in case I ever ran into him again. In the meantime, because I used to be an editor, and because some of my best friends are (literally) Nature editors, I hereby present the apologia that I barely repressed during the rest of the bus ride.

Myth 1: Editorial staff are scientifically out of touch

Imagine you are an editor at a prominent journal like Nature . You spend every working hour seeing the top manuscripts in your field, months and sometimes years before they are published. When you are not seeing all this privileged information that normal researchers in the field know nothing about, you are attending the conferences that matter – and not just the talks and poster sessions. You are also working the bars and after-parties, gathering intelligence, hearing the latest rumors and being receptive at a time when scientists, after a few drinks, often say a lot more than they intend to. Now imagine you’ve been doing this for many years. Who do you think knows more about the field, both in breadth as well as depth: the editor, or the scientist who spends most of his time thinking about his one particular little niche of a problem? Who do you think is better placed to decide how a discovery in this niche stacks up against the broader picture of all the rest of the data coming in?

Myth 2: Editors are too stupid or uninformed about the politics of a field to notice when referees aren’t being straight.

Believe it or not, maneuvering and manipulation are blatantly obvious and, because the editor has been involved socially with all the personalities, they already know that Dr X hates Professor Y and take this into account when choosing peer reviewers and, if necessary, when interpreting their vitriol. Good editorial practice is a triumph of data over personal feelings: it’s the same ethos that would induce me to accept the first man’s paper if it were worthy – even if I did think he was a jerk.

Myth 3: Editors dare not overturn a referee decision

Anyone who’s ever compared a manuscript decision letter with the referee reports knows that this is simply not true. And just because the editor agrees with the referee who wants to reject a paper over the word of the referee who did not does not mean the negative referee somehow overpowered the poor editor into taking his side.

Myth 4: Bench scientists make better editors than professional editorial staff

As someone who has worked with journals employing both modes – professional editors, and academic editorial boards – I know that this common assertion is definitely not true in all cases. Of course there are many highly skilled scientist editors out there, but I’d like to focus on those who aren’t. Not a few academic board members are, how shall we phrase it, reaching the end of their career cycle: if not outright retired, they are often nearly there. Some are no longer performing cutting-edge research and have become fixed in their ways; some don’t attend many meetings, so are not up on the latest new theories. Many seem to be unaware of the basic tenets of the editorial credo, which is not to take an author’s word for anything. For example, I ran across a revised manuscript that one of the board members was about to accept. I remembered that there had been a contentious issue with one of the referees and was curious how it had been resolved by the author.

“They said in their rebuttal letter they addressed it,” the board member told me.

“Did they do it well?” I asked.

Silence down the phone. And when I flipped through the revised manuscript personally, I saw that the authors – as many do – had simply lied. Yes, they had fiddled with a few words in the offending sentence, but had not addressed the underlying concern with new experimental data as requested, even though their breezy rebuttal letter certainly implied that they had.

Professional editors are less likely to side automatically with authors precisely because they are not peers. They are trained to be incredibly skeptical of claims. They spend all day plying and honing their professional skills, not a few snatched moments here and there between the stresses, strains and distractions of a research career. This perception that only practicing scientists make effective editors is completely missing the point that certain editorial skills are different from the skills you need to be a good scientist – and it is not something one is automatically good at. It is an entirely different profession requiring talents that do not completely overlap.

“So what finally happened to the manuscript?” the second man asked once his colleague’s diatribe had trickled out.

“Oh, we send it off to our old standby, where at least it will get a fair hearing.”

And what I really wanted to say then was, if Nature editoral staff are so bad, then the journal’s quality would certainly reflect this. So why did you so desperately want to have your paper published there in the first place?

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59 Responses to In which I defend the editorial profession – belatedly

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    Your last paragraph is making me hurt with the holding-in of laughter.
    Fantastic post.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Actually, the whole thing seems very funny now. At the time, I was livid. It comes, probably, from having been here just a liiiiitle bit too long now.

  3. Bob O'Hara says:

    I’m surprised at Myth 4 – any sort of introspection would suggest that professional editors should be better: they’ve got more experience, and are also less likely to have an axe to grind.

  4. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Bob, I think that this ‘professional editor as secretary’ meme is pretty common, at least in biology. Certain authors can’t conceptualize that it’s possible to be incredibly well-informed about a field even if you are not actually practicing research in it. And it’s just a little suspicion, but I think the fact that most editors are female, and relatively younger than the big-shots at that, might exacerbate the misconception among certain males.
    I once overheard the following joke in a conference bar:
    Q: “What do you call a failed female scientist?”
    A: “An editor.”

  5. Mike Fowler says:

    What’s the punchline?

  6. Maxine Clarke says:

    A much appreciated post! If I have learned one thing, it is that anyone who has had a paper rejected feels free to say anything they like about the journal, the publishing process, general paranoia (projected “fear and loathing” syndrome), calibre of editorial staff, etc. And of course the editor cannot say anything back, being bound (and glad to be so) by professionalism and codes of conduct.
    Thanks for writing this lovely post, Jenny.

  7. Henry Gee says:

    Thanks for this, Jenny. You’ve saved me writing about three different posts. I enjoyed the one about Nature editors being glorified secretaries. Excuse me, then, while I go powder my nose, adjust my eyelashes and manicure my gloves.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Henry, and could you bring me a cup of tea while you’re at it? After all, I’m a real scientist, and I’ve got more important things to do.
    Maxine,it always amuses me how the same author who trashes a journal when rejected is happy to sing its praises when another paper is later accepted. It’s a compartmentalization of logic bordering on the pathological.

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    bq. Q: “What do you call a failed female scientist?”
    A: “An editor.”
    I think we need a new version of that.
    Q: What do you call a failed male editor1?
    A: A scientist.
    fn1. As opposed to a failed mail editor, which would be Outlook.

  10. Cristian Bodo says:

    Q: What do you call a glorified kitchen assistant?
    A: A scientist.

  11. Henry Gee says:


  12. Stephen Curry says:

    @Mike – What’s the punchline?
    The line connecting the hearer’s fist with the joker’s gob?

  13. Jennifer Rohn says:

    As Maxine says, editors are never allowed to do anything more than smile politely as insults are hurled. I think as an exercise in professional restraint, there is no profession more testing.

  14. steffi suhr says:

    I think as an exercise in professional restraint, there is no profession more testing.
    Hmm, not sure – maybe on a par with program managers at funding agencies and science support staff?
    {vividly remembers a situation where she had to tell the Chief Scientist during a research cruise that she’d come back to talk after he’d cooled down and stopped swearing}

  15. steffi suhr says:

    p.s. excellent post!

  16. Richard P. Grant says:

    The descriptor that is banging on my cortex is…
    prima donna
    Question. Does being a ‘top’ scientist make one a prima donna, or vice versa?

  17. Henry Gee says:

    I think as an exercise in professional restraint, there is no profession more testing.
    I admit that I have, just now and then, and mainly a long time ago when I was younger and cared more less tired, I have lost my rag with authors. The effect can be … er … gratifying.

  18. steffi suhr says:

    Question. Does being a ‘top’ scientist make one a prima donna, or vice versa?
    Now, that is an interesting thought…
    But you want to be careful, Richard: you’re on ‘our’ side now, so you could be seen as just a whiny ‘failed’ scientist.

  19. Richard P. Grant says:

    The thought had occurred, yes Steffi.
    Of course, someone going back the other way might contend that publishing is hard and… well, that just shows how ludicrous that perception is.

  20. Åsa Karlström says:

    Lovely post Jenny. It is the “I don’t want to think that maybe we didn’t address all the issues that we should have” denial and sticking with “we were and are right and they are stupid”.
    On another nore, I loved this one: “Oh, we send it off to our old standby, where at least it will get a fair hearing.” so… that is the “old reliable journal where papers get published but it is not top 10?” I guess it is good to know which ones those are.
    And about the overhearing things. I had to bite my cheeks last week overhearing two people talking about viruses, doctors (relly physcians) and scientists… all coupled with some conspiracy theories. The main reason I managed to stay out of it? I realized they would never listen to my nuanced answer since “we” are clearly doing lots of this swine flu in order to make life bad for normal people. Much like editors are punishing perfectly superfine scientists, right?! Why wouldn’t Nature like my excellent paper otherwise?!?!?!? 😉

  21. Stephen Curry says:

    Not that I would for a moment defend the behaviour or attitudes of your fellow passenger but it arises, at least in part, because of something that we all feel, authors and editors alike: pressure.
    But your post is an excellent antidote, showing that both sides are only too human and — hopefully — creating room for a little understanding…

  22. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I do think having one too many top-tier papers can go to someone’s head. As I age alongside my peers who didn’t take time off science, I’ve been able to see the evolution of young hotshots in real-time. It’s not always a pretty sight. People who start of relatively normal, down-to-earth, fun to be around and generally humble can, with a little success, end up rather difficult to be around. But I presume that’s not specific to science!

  23. Richard P. Grant says:

    Nice for you all that I ‘failed’, then.

  24. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I am sure that many editors do end up in editorial after many years of wanting to being a scientist, and wanting to succeed as a scientist. And I’m sure that many do discover that their talents lie elsewhere. But you can say the same of all the people who leave science for a host of other careers. I see it not as failure but as a choice that has taken time and experience to hone. And since the stats show that people with STEM PhDs earn more even when doing non-science jobs, and as many of the skills are transferable, I don’t see it as a failure.

  25. Bob O'Hara says:

    How much of this attitude is because a PhD is seen mainly as an apprenticeship for Science? Should there be more of an effort to expand the perception of what a PhD is about?
    My brother got a PhD in mineral processing (reclaiming coal from coal tips), and now works on passports. But he is a failure: he escaped Scunthorpe, and ended up in Slough.

  26. Kyrsten Jensen says:

    Great post!
    I would argue that it’s not the Americans who are the sole conspiracy theorists, as I can think of a few Canadians who do the same.
    I would also argue that it’s not just the editors who people assume are “failed scientists”, my friends in academia (the very few that are left) often have such an attitude when they find out who has lately “defected” to biotech. In fact, when I completed my MSc, the people from the lab I was in felt that I really was “going over to the dark side” when I moved into biotech sales. They asked what exactly I would be doing, to which I responded “you know that person you steal pens from at conferences? That would be me”.
    Of course, little did they realize that even in Sales you can have an impact without having to do the experiments yourself (of course, not everyone does – chances are that your pipette salesman will, are slim).
    With my research background, I don’t know how many times I’ve suggested a proper negative control, because I understood the science behind our products a little better than they did (being that in science, no one person can know anything, and we had extensive training in a particular area, and the poor engineer didn’t). I’m not trying to be smug about this, but in some cases it was true. And in other cases, I learned a lot from the whiz kids who stayed in the lab and did the experiments, and I still share those nuggets with others where possible. I’m no longer in Sales, but I still believe that someone out there has to be involved in collaborative science than just the “bench people”. And yes, Editors have a HUGE role in this too.

  27. Jennifer Rohn says:

    @Bob How much of this attitude is because a PhD is seen mainly as an apprenticeship for Science? Should there be more of an effort to expand the perception of what a PhD is about?
    Many prominent journals are employing former post-docs, not just PhDs. In my case, I was a former group leader: but even that didn’t help.
    Kyrsten: that’s really interesting. I’ve had some great discussions with the tech folks who sell us our siRNA libraries, and believe me they are appreciated. But I’m sure people in that profession get a lot more flack than editorial staff.

  28. Richard P. Grant says:

    bq. such an attitude when they find out who has lately “defected” to biotech.
    You’ve read Jenny’s book then? This is touched on, albeit briefly.
    I’ve not come across that attitude as much as the one Jenny describes here, though. Oh yes. One day I’ll publish my memoirs…
    Hang on, isn’t that what my blog’s for?

  29. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Hmmm. I thought the whole ‘defected to biotech’ stigma was very much of its time, i.e. late Nineties. Do people still get het up about that? There have been so many prominent scientists moving back and forth between in recent years, I assumed that all the fuss was over.

  30. Cath Ennis says:

    The term “going over to the dark side” is still in universal use, but I think things have improved.

  31. Jennifer Rohn says:

    There also needs to be a distinction drawn between biotech and big pharma. I don’t think anyone, for example, doubted that Genentech was a serious player, even back in the Nineties.

  32. Lee Turnpenny says:

    Fascinating. There’s a lot going on here; but I’m confused by:
    “So then after all this – three rounds of review – they rejected our paper,” the first man said. “If they didn’t want it, why did they string us along for so long?”
    because, it seems to me, that three rounds of review indicates the editor(s) in question did their darndest to help him get the thing through.

  33. Richard P. Grant says:

    I think, Lee, that we’ve established that the gentleman in question might not be the sharpest cookie on the barbecue.

  34. Lee Turnpenny says:

    Well, I don’t know about that. The overriding impression I get is one of disdainfulness.

  35. steffi suhr says:

    Of course, little did they realize that even in Sales you can have an impact without having to do the experiments yourself (of course, not everyone does – chances are that your pipette salesman will, are slim).
    I still believe that someone out there has to be involved in collaborative science than just the “bench people”.
    Kyrsten, you just reminded me of the ‘theme’ for my blog… must do more of that, have been slack.

  36. steffi suhr says:

    Richard: one of us… one of us… one of us…

  37. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Lee, you are completely right that it sounds as if the editors really wanted the paper to be true and to make the cut. It was likely controversial and sexy. But elapsed time can really work against an author. If the paper takes a very long time (multiple review rounds), sometimes by the time the authors finally demonstrate something to the editor’s satisfaction, it unfortunately has been touched on in a publication elsewhere and is no longer wholly novel. This happens sometimes, and authors feel pissed off that they literally have satisfied all the demands and still get rejected (and their own paper is effective scooped). Most editors do warn authors that this can happen in long, drawn-out transactions, but I always feel that if you are trying to get into a journal like Nature or Science, you know you are gambling that this might happen. Nevertheless, I can see how authors could blame the editors in cases like those — they are an easy target.

  38. Richard P. Grant says:

    I’m not one of us, Steffi, I’m a free man!
    (Number six.)

  39. Henry Gee says:

    @ Jenny – just to clarify. We Nature editors really don’t like multiple rounds of peer review, for the reasons you suggest (and also because referees get tired of seeing the same old same old). We make this reluctance clear to the authors.
    @ All – the number of new-minted science graduates and science Ph.Ds vastly exceeds the number of academic positions available, as any fule kno. Inevitably, there are lots of trained scientists who find careers outside science. I have friends who trained as scientists and went on to be very successful in banking, insurance and so on. I don’t think the term ‘failed scientist’ applies to them. If they’d stayed at the bench, would they then be ‘failed bankers’?

  40. Maxine Clarke says:

    Does “failed banker” actually mean “successful banker” (because all the “successful” ones have wrecked the international financial system)?

  41. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Let’s hope not, because the last thing this economy needs is more failed bankers.
    Henry, lots of my friends have had papers under consideration at Nature for more than a year — I think revised manuscripts might be common in molecular biology because it is actually easy to suggest experiments that are doable – but then these sometimes raise more questions than they answer.

  42. Mike Fowler says:

    Just before Stephen’s fist attaches itself to anyone’s gob, I’d like to make it quite clear that my “punchline” comment was to indicate that I didn’t think the comment was a funny joke, rather than thinking it was a truism.
    But I still can’t stop myself:

    What rhymes with failed banker, and means failed banker?

  43. Maxine Clarke says:

    That “more than a year” interval might be due to a rejection with an invitation to resubmit. The Catch-22 of submitting to Nature is that the claim in the manuscript needs to be arresting. Typically, the evidence does not really support it, but the editors (and reviewers) are keen to see if the conclusions would stand up, becuase if they do, they are fascinating. Therefore, the editors might decline the mansuscript but invite resumbmission if substantiated (by specific expts, in the case of experimental papers, suggested by the reviewers). Although from the journal’s perspective we aren’t actively considering the paper for the time it takes the authors to do that work, I am sure that from the authors’ point of view it all seems to take place in the same time interval.

  44. Eva Amsen says:

    “Many prominent journals are employing former post-docs, not just PhDs.”
    True. I don’t even dare apply to jobs that say “postdoc recommended”, because I know I’ll be competing with people two years younger than me who did one or two postdocs.

  45. Heather Etchevers says:

    Coming late, but – another good post, Jennifer. It’s true that hanging around here for the last (mumble mumble) number of months has helped me to better appreciate an editor’s job well done. Maybe Nature Network should become required reading for all PI’s, American or otherwise hoping to publish in English-language journals.
    They are trained to be incredibly skeptical of claims.
    I’d have hoped the same was true of scientists, and that they might appreciate restraint and skepticism in the other professionals with whom they interact (and indeed, three rounds of review!).
    I’ve not gone over to any dark side, yet, so I can say what I please. 😛
    Richard – in the British Isles, I don’t believe they barbecue cookies. But they do deep-fry Mars bars, if you care to tweak your metaphor.

  46. Richard P. Grant says:

    There’s nowt wrong with my metaphors. A mixed metaphor is as happy as a gift horse with two ball clams.

  47. Heather Etchevers says:

    We were at a B&B farm last weekend. Our host brought out a now well-worn conspiracy theory that influenza A(H1N1) was developed and released on purpose by a well-known French pharmaceutical company just after President Sarkozy went to Mexico so that they would create a juicy market for their vaccines this autumn and winter. I didn’t even know where to start. The best conspiracy theories can not be disproven by reason alone, or even evidence, for that matter.
    Thus: a powerful editors’ cabal secretly makes sure that meritorious scientists’ work is not published in the best journals for the advancement of their work.

  48. Jennifer Rohn says:

    _There’s nowt wrong with my metaphors. _
    Stop flogging a horse of a different color.
    Eva, you should apply for the jobs regardless. Having sat on many recruitment panels in publishing, I can say that we’ve sometimes gone for the person over the experience level just because it was clear the less experienced person had something special. And it’s good experience even if you don’t get the job.
    Yes, Maxine, I understand that, but I think sometimes authors get swept up in the idea of a Nature paper without considering that getting it out more quickly might be the better move — that it is a gamble that won’t always pay off. Personally I’d love to see some sort of system whereby journals can re-use referee reports to save time when authors are rejected, but it’s so hard to imagine how such a system could really work (except, of course, among sister journals in the same stable where this is already done).

  49. Åsa Karlström says:

    Heather conspiracy theory that influenza A(H1N1) was developed and released on purpose by a well-known French pharmaceutical company just after President Sarkozy went to Mexico so that they would create a juicy market for their vaccines this autumn and winter. Funny enough, that was almost what I heard over here – apart from the French connection of course. And a linker to bioterrorism from the friend of the first suggester… I just stared at them and tried to think of something I could say that they would listen to. [something in the terms of why would someone genetically make a virus and put it in Mexico??? ] I then ended with taking another beer and smile.

  50. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Someday I’d like someone to clone the gene that goes wrong in conspiracy theorists.
    If there is a powerful editors’ cabal, Heather, I bet that Maxine is part of it.

  51. Cath Ennis says:

    I’ve also heard “it’s worse than they’re telling us, people are dying all over the world but the government and the press are keeping it secret”, from a person with a long track record of believing outrageous conspiracy theories, and who has purchased about 30 masks. I got a bit angry with him and pointed out that it’s in the media’s interest to overhype, not underhype. He remains unconvinced…

  52. steffi suhr says:

    It hurts most when it’s your friends that buy into conspiracy theories…

  53. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Cath, maybe you ought to offer to sell him some arable farmland in the Florida Everglades.

  54. Kyrsten Jensen says:

    or maybe sell him a bridge? I can think of a few that would sit nicely in a backyard.
    My best friend was on her public health rotation last month as their “local infectious diseases expert” (she’s an MD/PhD). The stories I heard about their outbreak, and how overblown they really are (and I’ve read the media stories about the outbreak in her particular area) really make you think that I have a more likely chance of getting hit by a car than swine flu. However, they did demonstrate person to person transmission and are publishing as we speak.
    The poor girl is now on her “infection control” rotation and I’ve heard is having a heck of a time of it right now 🙂

  55. Åsa Karlström says:

    Kyrsten> I think part of the “problem” is that in the WHO guidelines for the “pandemic threat” i.e. the numbers they give out, there aren’t any discussion on virulence. A pandemic is when a virus is transimitted freely from people to people, whether or not it is virulent and lethal. At the moment, I think this is part of why people “don’t get it” or are calling it “overhyped”. Mind you though, it seems to be spreading fairly good between people and who knows if it will turn more virulent?
    Ah well… it’s that thing with scientific names and how people understand the definitions.
    Cath> I find it hard to believe that it would be “underhyped” – as you said, at the moment I have more conspiracy theories but none of them are angled towards “they are lying about he severity”

  56. Jennifer Rohn says:

    So is it still spreading? Now that the virus is off the media radar, I have no idea. Kyrsten, sounds like a fun trial by fire for your friend! Beats thinking about teenage Chlamydia.

  57. Cath Ennis says:

    Åsa: this guy readily believes all kinds of things that I would deem “hard to believe”, “extremely unlikely”, and “effing ridiculous”.

  58. Laurie Dempsey says:

    Jennifer, nice post. After a long exodus from Nature Network – precisely because I’ve been busy reading and evaluating manuscripts and shepherding some manuscripts through the peer review process, I can affirm many of your points raised about ‘professional’ editors. My only point that differs perhaps is that I still call myself a scientist. Indeed, we likely have a much greater impact on science than when we were still working at the bench. I call a good editor someone who can be humble enough to help improve the scientific story (that is, after all, what both peer review and a good editor should do) yet not have the ego that demands their name be placed on the manuscript author list. Seeing enough manuscripts from initial submission to publication I know how different the two can be. Pity your ‘scientist #1’ on the bus failed to see that the review process is meant to make the story more robust and to strengthen it to stand the test of time.

  59. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks Laurie. I think scientists are people who do active research, but we can agree to differ on this minor point. And I think editors are great editors when they can let go of being a scientist and start thinking more like a journalist.

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