The life editorial (in brief)

With apologies to @BenchFly (who sent me a set of thought-provoking career-related questions a long time ago now — and I promise I will answer them at some point), here is a short post to take part in the #ChemCoach carnival being organized by @SeeArrOh.

My current job

I am the Chief Editor of the journal Nature Chemistry.

What I do in a standard work day

In some ways it’s a fairly predictable job — just get one issue of the journal out each month and publish papers online every Sunday as soon as they are ready. Having said that, there is no ‘standard’ work day. As the Chief Editor, a lot of what I do is the same as the Associate/Senior Editors, but there is an additional layer of shit responsibility that comes with the role.

The day-to-day journal business revolves around the manuscripts that are submitted to the journal. Editors spend a lot of time reading manuscripts, reading ‘the literature’, finding referees, chasing referees, making decisions based on referee reports — and explaining them to the authors (and the referees). For the manuscripts that ultimately make it into the journal, editors will have provided a lot of feedback to the authors concerning the text and figures, and the editors also do the ‘final read’ after the authors have returned their proof corrections.

Editors also commission content for the journal such as review articles, book reviews, News & Views articles, Commentaries, and miscellaneous pieces for other journal sections (and all of this involves being up-to-date with the literature as well) — and when that content comes in, we edit it too. Writing is also a core (but small) part of the job. Editors write 300-word research highlight articles and occasionally editorials and press releases too. And in the small amount of time left over, editors sometimes blog (not very often, admittedly) and tweet. And some days involve not being in the office — we give talks at universities and we also go to conferences.

As the Chief Editor, I’m also responsible for the development of the journal, including long-term strategy and planning. Also, if any problems arise — such as accusations of plagiarism or other nefarious publishing acts, they make their way to my desk. I’m also involved in cross-company projects that look at how we present our content online and how we can make it better. And anything that involves our editorial workflow and how we interact with print production and web production is my domain too.

Oh, and e-mail. We get lots of e-mail. Chief Editors in particular. I probably spend 1-2 hours each day writing and answering e-mail.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get me there?

I went through a fairly traditional career path to begin with: undergraduate degree, PhD, postdoc. I then took a teaching-faculty position, but at the same time I started work in the newly founded Organic Letters editorial office at UCLA. The Associate Editor was Fraser Stoddart (my former PhD supervisor). I think Fraser looked at the first half-a-dozen papers that were submitted and each time he asked me what I would do. After that, I just did them without bothering him.

Over the next 2.5 years, I think Fraser got involved on a handful of occasions, typically when there was the odd messy appeal. That was my first experience working in journals — and it was kinda fun. There was no formal training for the job — but I think it helped that during my PhD and postdoc I’d written 50 or so papers and read a lot of literature. After that, I made the leap back across the Atlantic to Nature Nanotechnology as an Associate (and then Senior) Editor. Just over two years later, I started the ball rolling on Nature Chemistry.

How does chemistry inform my work?

Although we don’t really assess manuscripts in a technical sense — that’s the job of the referees — it is very helpful in reading and evaluating a manuscript if we have some level of understanding when it comes to the actual science. You have an idea of whether what is being claimed is significant and whether any claimed implications of the work are outlandish or not. The vast majority of Nature journal editors have a PhD (and many have postdoc experience too). And academic background and expertise are usually major factors in making a job offer to potential candidates. Unlike some publishers, we look for particular types of chemistry expertise and then we make use of that on the job. Someone with a physical chemistry background will evaluate physical chemistry manuscripts, an organic chemist will look at organic chemistry manuscripts and so on…

A working knowledge of chemistry also comes in handy when going to conferences and visiting labs. If you can talk with a researcher about their chemistry without sounding like an idiot, then it obviously helps — and can sometimes encourage submissions. Nobody likes having their manuscript rejected, but if it’s done by someone who seems to know what they’re talking about when it comes to the science, that can reassure the author that the editor at least understands the work they are evaluating. (Of course, that doesn’t apply to everyone — some don’t deal well with rejection, no matter the background of the editor).

We also need to know about chemistry when we write for the journal — we need to identify interesting topics to cover in research highlights and we need to be able to express technical ideas quite simply for a general chemistry audience. Take stereochemistry, for example, which is one of my favourite topics. It is one of the hardest things to write about clearly for a general audience — especially if you don’t have pictures to help illustrate your words, which is sometimes the case.

A unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career

When we were setting up Nature Chemistry, we needed a banner graphic for the top of our website. You can still see it now — it’s the purple periodic-table fragment at the top of pages like this one. There I was, planning to just do this myself, but one thing you soon learn about going from academia to the real world, is that many things ARE NOT YOUR JOB. We have graphic designers to do this sort of stuff. So, I asked our designer to make a nice slanted periodic table with funky lighting effects. I even provided a sketch. What I got was a lovely and quite stunning periodic table. But it was based on some sort of stock image that had made-up elements in it (and even the real ones were in the wrong order!). I then had to explain why that might be a problem… it took 3 or 4 more iterations before we got to the banner image that is there now… Sometimes the subtleties of chemistry are very easily lost on non-chemists.

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