Researchers range from indifferent to disparaging in their impressions of journal editors. These stereotypes may stem from social media memes such as “Reviewer Number 3 ” or from grumpy lab gossip. Though editors review the products of our blood, sweat, tears, and cell culture media, most of us are unfamiliar with their own respective travails. This was the impetus for Dr. Brett Benedetti, a senior editor from Nature Medicine, to visit Penn. His visit shined a light on how editors orchestrate the peer-review process. He also encouraged trainees who love to think critically and be abreast of current scientific events to consider a career as a scientific editor.
Brett had not entered graduate school intending to be a scientific editor. After completing his doctoral degree at Carnegie Mellon University, he began a post-doctoral position at the NYU Neuroscience Institute with Gordon Fishell. Brett had originally intended to pursue a faculty position until an unexpected and unprecedented event in 2012, Hurricane Sandy, severely rained on his parade. Rather than face the frustrations of continuing his slow-moving research after their animal colony was wiped out and moved a subway ride across town, Brett reached out to his advisor to discuss potential alternatives. Dr. Fishell pointed out that Brett had a talent for communicating new research findings and giving constructive criticism. His mentor connected him with an editor of the journal Neuron. Although Brett didn’t land that position, his increased awareness of this career field led him to find and apply for a position at Nature Medicine, where he has worked since 2014.
Brett describes editing research manuscripts as akin to preparing for a journal club presentation with some added difficulties unique to the editorial position. The goals of an editor are to identify the papers’ strengths and problem areas, to evaluate whether the data support the main arguments, and to distill out key points. Additionally, editors must determine if the subject matter is appropriate for the journal’s target audience. Since editors receive submissions from broad range of topic areas, they must remain privy to technological advances in multiple fields and interact with the ground force of bench scientists to do so. Next, they must be familiar with and reach out to other qualified researchers to review submissions. Finally, they have to synthesize reviewer comments and suggestions into a clear and actionable response, delivered in a timely manner to the anxiously waiting research group.
Brett’s recount of his daily schedule unveils how editors tackle these eclectic responsibilities. At Nature Medicine, each editor is responsible for approximately 500 articles per year from a pool of over 3,000 yearly submissions. To keep up with this formidable quantity, Brett reads and takes notes on two articles daily and stresses that he reads every single submission in his queue in its entirety, which can take up to four hours per manuscript. To help identify manuscripts that will be sent out for review, Brett attends three editorial meetings weekly. As senior editor, Brett spends a lot of time reviewing referee comments and rebuttal letters, which culminates in a final decision that often involves meeting with the editor-in-chief. While Nature Medicine doesn’t have a quota, around 5% of all yearly submissions are published.
When not actively reading and taking notes, Brett searches for referees, reviews critiques, or talks to the authors themselves. While the routine can be quite flexible, there are still time-sensitive workflows to adhere to, especially once a paper is accepted. He reconvenes monthly with editors and other journal staff to discuss broader topics including policy changes and strategies. As a senior editor, Brett also travels to national and international meetings and performs outreach events such as his public lecture and interview at Penn. Based on his personal experience, he believes the median time as an editor is 5 years, although there are members on his team that have been there longer. Upward movement is swift but limited; most entry-level associate editors quickly transition to senior editors, but becoming a chief editor or team leader is more difficult. When editors do leave, they migrate to a variety of positions. Brett’s former colleagues are scattered amongst universities, non-profit organizations, government, and industry where they often continue being liaisons between data generators and disseminators.
For those interested in pursuing editorial positions, Brett describes the application process. Strong candidates are those who are excited about science and thus, are up-to-date on the latest breakthroughs. Rather than having a CV replete with high impact journal publications, a critical component of the application is crafting a “News and Views” article appropriate for the journal. This piece demonstrates the applicant’s ability to choose a relevant and important recent publication, summarize the main points, fairly state the limitations, and speculate on the future directions the research could take. The in-person interview takes this a step further, where interviewees are given multiple articles, and after a short time must present them to the editorial staff with a final recommendation and editorial suggestions. This tests the candidates’ ability to quickly glean and evaluate the paper’s essence under pressure.
To encourage young scientists to consider this career and dispel the notion that editors are elusive and operate in enigmatic ways, Brett shared his feelings on his position. For example, he admits that he struggles when presented with a manuscript that is obviously a significant time investment by multiple people but doesn’t align with the journal’s scope. Brett’s detailed and candid discussion of the ethos and logistics of his work allowed the audience to gain a better understanding and appreciation for scientific editors.