Skills to help you become a scientific editor

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Bio Careers

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Thinking about going into scientific editing, or even just having a better success rate with getting your papers published in the journal of your choice?  If you’re in graduate school or your postdoctoral training, there are steps you can take now to pick up valuable skills.

1.  Read LOTS of papers.

All too often we focus on only the papers in our own tiny area because we’re trying to maintain some semblance of a life as well as training.  But reading papers outside your specialty will enhance your own writing.  Ask a friend in the lab or building next door to recommend their favorite paper.  This helps you read for the structure and logical flow rather than the specifics of the method you’re going to try to reproduce.

If you’re interested in being a professional editor, think about why this paper made it into this journal.  Is the extent of the advance similar to other papers in the journal?  If you were planning on having this reviewed, whom would you choose as the referees?  Are there further experiments that you would have asked for before you published the paper now?  Can you see over time that the same amount of work is no longer sufficient for publication in the same journal, and standards change?  (Two examples of this are genome sequencing and genome-wide association studies.)  All of these are the questions you’ll be asked on a job interview for an editing position, as part of the manuscript test.

2.  Either join or start a journal club.

If you aren’t forced to participate in one, start your own.

My postdoctoral work was on human genetics, but I got together with postdocs in the lab across the hall to read evolutionary biology classic papers.  It was great to be able to admit I didn’t quite understand the nuances of Fst or Ne even after studying them in class, and was crucial to me being able to do my job at Nature, where I had to handle a wide variety of evolution and genetics submissions.  Similarly, I audited a graduate school class on nuclear structure and organization, primarily to read the papers and discuss with the group.  At the time, these related to my labwork, but they became useful later as I had to handle transcription and epigenetics papers in my job.

3.  Ask your mentor to let you help review grant applications or manuscripts.

Chances are, your PI receives referee requests, All. The. Time.  It’s also likely they could use some help.  Journal editors are generally just fine with students or postdocs assisting with (let’s be honest, this often means writing) reviews of papers, as long as the editor is notified that you have assisted, and you agree to keep the paper completely confidential.  Many journals also mail back the anonymized referee reports after the decision has been made, so you can see how your report stacked up against the others.

Keep in mind that there are comments suitable for the editor; comments suitable to be passed along to the authors; and comments that should never, ever be included in a formal review.  Yes, I have seen reviews starting with “This is the stupidest paper I have ever read,” and no, I did not pass those comments on to the author or ever use that referee again. 
Some of the best mentors I have known have conducted mini-study sections for their labs, gathering the graduate students together and parsing out a number of grants among them, then reconvening for detailed summaries.  Again, confidentiality is crucial, but this is another great way to learn.

4.  Write about papers and research advances.

Obviously, a significant part of my job at Nature was reading paper after paper after paper, and summarizing the contents in no more than three paragraphs.  These notes had to set the paper in context, compare the advance reported to other papers, and explain the implications of the work.  The notes had to be clear enough that my colleagues from other fields could read them and give their opinion, and comprehensive enough that I could refer back to them six months later when a similar paper was submitted and I was thinking “I just know I have seen something like this before….” 

Some of these summaries could be written in ten minutes, and others could take hours and hours of background research, particularly for areas with which I was unfamiliar.

You can get similar experience by summarizing papers in a few paragraphs for any outlet that you can find.  Is there a department newsletter looking for summaries of research that’s just come out?  Bet they would love to have a volunteer for that.  Consider anything from starting your own podcast or blog to a column for the local paper (here’s hoping it still exists).  I keep up my own skills by continuing to write Research Highlights for Nature Reviews Genetics.

As you’ve already figured out, even if you’re not planning to be a professional editor, all of these skills will be useful to you in a scientific career.  You don’t have to publish ten papers in Science, Cell or Nature to be a top-notch scientist.  But you do need to understand how to critically evaluate your own work and that of your peers.

Chris Gunter is the Director of Research Affairs at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.  After a B.S. from the University of Georgia and Ph.D. from Emory University, she did postdoctoral work at Case Western Reserve University, all in genetics and molecular biology.  She then moved into journal editing positions at Human Molecular Genetics, Science, and most recently at Nature, serving as the editor for genetics and genomics manuscripts from 2002-2008.  Chris can be reached via

Copyright, 2010, Chris Gunter
Published with permission