STEM PhDs as Science Editors
Updated: Jan 28
Every STEM Ph.D. student, regardless of their major or niche research subject, goes through the process of writing and publishing papers. While for some researchers writing, editing, or reviewing articles can be agonizing, for others it is a rewarding experience, that allows one to put into words, seal and validate months of hard work. If you fit this category and if you ever wondered what it's like to be on the other side of the publication process, you may want to consider a career as a science journal editor and hopefully find this article quite interesting.
Science editors oversee every single aspect involving the publication of an article and the dissemination of scientific developments within their journal. Now more than ever their effort is fundamental to maintain high-quality standards in publications and ensure the progress of legitimate scientific knowledge. Year by year, we are seeing a substantial increase in the global scientific output. Propelled by the globalization of scientific research and the rise of emerging markets, the number of articles published each year now passed 2.5 million units, carrying an annual growth rate above 4%. The decision by The Review of Higher Education – a highly respected academic journal – to temporarily suspend submissions due to a backlog of more than two years’ worth of articles, is the mirror of a frantic race to publication and of a content crisis the entire academic publishing system is now facing. The pressure to “publish at all costs” is fostering the emergence of an uncountable number of publishers, including predatory and fraudulent journals, and the uptake of questionable practices such as what is termed as salami slicing, which consists of researchers splitting papers into multiple publishable units to increase their publication output and boost their citation prospects. This overload is undermining the overall quality of scientific output, the sustainability and validity of secondary research and the accessibility of relevant meaningful information, that get lost in a sea of mediocrity.
Besides the elevated ethical scope, STEM publishing is a $10 billion industry, whose market leaders such as Springer Nature and Elsevier are driving prestigious employment opportunities for doctorates and post-doctorates. There are multiple roles within an STEM publishing landscape, but most of them require a Ph.D. degree and high technical knowledge in the fields covered by the specific journal. Salary is a relatively strong point of the STEM editor career, with entry-level US salaries ranging between $50k and $80k, depending on the seniority level.
If at this point of the article you start to see your future self in the shoes of a science editor, but still wonder what a science editor exactly does, we asked two professionals in the field to share their insights on the outlook of such a career. Dr. Maria Maragkou, Senior Editor at Nature Materials, and Dr. Matteo Rini, Deputy Editor for American Physical Society (APS) help us navigate the science editor career and share their experience on the transition from a Ph.D. degree. You can find complete individual interviews in our blog session - links at the end of the article. Thanks to their testimony, we better understand the motivations that drove them towards this career pivot, the skills needed for succeeding as an editor, and the challenges and rewards of such a role.
What does a normal working day for an editor look like?
The main role of a science editor is to oversee the entire publication life-cycle of a manuscript, from evaluating the significance of a submission to finalizing its publication. To this end, editors need to be constantly informed about the latest developments in their field of competence, make sure that the peer review process runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible, and build and maintain positive relationships with both authors and reviewers to ensure the quality of the published papers. There are a plethora of activities entrusted to the editors, and long daily to-do lists to keep track of. But both our interviewees assure us that this is part of the fun, as no two days are alike.
Maria: A large part of our job is assessing manuscripts and deciding whether they fit the scope and standards of our Journal. As such, I always have new submissions waiting to be assessed or in need of reviewers. There are revised manuscripts responding to the issues raised by the reviewers, and authors requesting we reconsider a negative decision. As you can see, manuscripts need attention at different moments during their time with us.
Matteo: I spend time reading and looking for the most exciting science. And depending on the current articles, I interview scientists, visit labs, prepare visuals, and work with other writers and journalists.
What drove you to start as an editor?
Maria: It was mostly curiosity I would say. I wanted to explore what happens on the other side of the editorial process. Publishing is such an important part of our training in academia and yet to me it felt like a black box, as I didn’t really understand the criteria behind the editorial assessment.
Matteo: What drove me to this career are my curiosity for many topics beyond my field and my passion for writing. Even before jumping into this career, I knew I would have liked it.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges in approaching and pursuing a career as a science editor?
The science editor career is not easy to approach and calls for significant commitment and effort. But in turn, it is extremely rewarding and attractive.
Maria: The transition from academic researcher to editor at the beginning is rather brutal, we go from knowing a narrow topic relatively well to evaluating manuscripts that cover a significantly broader scope. But the learning curve is extremely steep.
Matteo: There aren’t many positions available, so entering the field is a challenge. But once in, the experience one acquires opens up many paths for further development.
“With great power, there must also come great responsibility”. By facilitating the dissemination of scientific publications, editors don’t only have responsibilities towards their publishing company, but also act as a proxy for their community, being responsible for validating and fostering the developments in their field of competence.
Maria: Given the selectivity of Nature journals, editors in most cases are bearers of not positive news. That means that at any given moment there are many people that are unhappy with me, and often they let me know. It took me several years to not take such reactions personally.
And what are the aspects you find most rewarding and entertaining?
While working to assess and disseminate academic production, science editors are always at the forefront of the broader scientific conversation and have the chance to witness the latest developments in their fields first-hand.
Maria: I very much enjoy being so close to so many smart researchers and beautiful science without all the difficult aspects of academic life. I also love the diversity and flexibility of our role. We can focus on research papers, we can do more outreach by organizing seminars and workshops, we can explore new topics and new fields by commissioning content for the journal. All this freedom in shaping the role and the journal makes our job the complete opposite of routine.
Matteo: Learning about the frontiers of knowledge and being in touch with some of the smartest people on this planet is exhilarating. As an editor, I remember getting in touch with Stephen Hawking. It was unbelievable to be in touch with him directly.
What are the skills necessary to succeed as a science editor?
Maria: Good communication and social skills are the backbone of what we do, either when we interact with the utmost experts in the field or when explaining complex ideas to the broader audience. A good editor is a science junkie, who loves reading and writing about science in the broader sense and loves learning new things. It is important that this universal interest, beyond the narrow topic of our training as Ph.D. students, imbues our efforts as editors and reaches our readers.
Matteo’s viewpoint is also on the same line.
Matteo: What do the major publishers look for in prospective editors? 1. A broad mindset, allowing you to explore many fields of science. 2. Great communication skills.
Any practical tip you want to share with young researchers approaching a career as a science editor?
Maria: Find a position that relates to your expertise and passions. Also, be constantly informed and read a lot! Devote some time every week to read the new issue of any journal you like, as they offer so much remarkable content beyond your remit. And especially if you are a non-native speaker, read books in English to improve your vocabulary and editing skills in general.
Matteo: First of all, it helps to act as a peer reviewer during your Ph.D. Second, try to explore options for getting a first-hand experience. There are a number of journals, like PLOS, that allow scientists to act as an academic editor.
On top of the precious advice suggested by our guests, a good starting point to explore opportunities in a career as a science editor is browsing publication platforms and resources, such as Web of Science and SCI Journal, that provide a list of top publishers and journals, and their impact. And as with any other job, don’t forget the importance of networking, and get in touch with other editors, to learn more about their job.
If you are passionate about scientific breakthrough and the latest developments in your research field, but are tired of running simulations, analyzing microscopy images, or spending hours in the cleanroom, if you are fascinated by the academic publication system and want to directly contribute to its rigorous execution, then you may want to consider becoming a science editor. As highlighted by Maria and Matteo, this career entails a high level of responsibility and hard work, but it is also highly rewarding and dynamic. Given the high level of competency required, science editor is a role tailored for PhDs and postdocs. But it is also a quite competitive position and starting early on to build credit and qualification for the role, by acting as a peer reviewer, networking and exploring the editorial industry landscape, is definitely the best way for approaching a job application.
Full interviews with Dr. Maragkou and Dr. Rini will be published in the coming week at our dedicated blog session. Stay tuned! www.nanotechnyc.com/blog
About the Author
Francesco Lavini is an Italian Ph.D. candidate in Material Engineering at NYU Tandon, with a research focus on the mechanical properties and industrial applications of advanced materials and graphene. He is putting his experience with academic, entrepreneurial, and student organizations at the service of Nanotech NYC mission, to build a more active and united nanotechnology community in New York City.