For our first career profile, we interviewed Anne Nielsen about her career as a professional scientific editor at EMBO. In this role, Anne coordinates assessment and peer review of manuscripts at The EMBO Journal, making decisions on which papers match the scope of the journal, and interacting with authors and reviewers to ensure a timely and constructive review process.
This role may appeal to scientists with a broad interest and curiosity for science, who enjoy discussions about research, and who are able to quickly grasp the main points of a study. Postdoc experience is generally required for a professional editor position. At many journals, the scientific editors are not involved in copy editing – so it’s not necessary to be a native English speaker or have extensive science writing experience, but you do need good general communication skills. For Anne, the best part of the role is the constant exposure to new things, and interacting with authors and referees all over the world. Anne finds the work-life balance in the role good, but notes that although she enjoys the fast pace, it does require you to work efficiently and set priorities. Based on her experience, she advises those interested in this career to read broadly and learn about the peer review process.
You can find the full interview below. We thank Anne for sharing her time and insight.
If you are interested in this career area, you can find additional resources at:
- Science careers article: editing as a scientific career
- Within EMBL only: previous career day talks from Katie Ridd (2018) and Barbara Pauly (2017)
If you have further questions, we recommend carrying out an informational interview with an editor. For example, if you are attending a scientific meeting in the near future, you may find this a good opportunity to seek out editors to talk to, as Anne did before applying to EMBO. Alternatively, it is likely that alumni from your institute have become editors.
What is your role and what does it involve? I work as an editor for the EMBO Journal, which means I handle manuscript submissions that come in to the journal. The first stage is to evaluate which submissions add the level of advance we look for. Then, if I decide that the manuscript is something we’d in principle be interested in publishing, I’m responsible for identifying and contacting referees. We look for people who have the technical and biological expertise required to know whether or not these studies are well performed and who will provide constructive criticism within a reasonable time. When their reports come in, I make a decision based on these reports. Some cases are very clear as everyone is positive about the study, but other times we have diverging opinions. In those cases, you have to use your scientific knowledge to determine which referee comments are justified and make the decision accordingly. My job also involves commissioning materials for News&Views pieces and reviews, and we do some text summary writing for the website. Finally, I travel to conferences quite extensively, both to see what is new and exciting in the fields I cover for the journal, and also to interact with authors and referees. In our experience it’s really helpful that people in the field know who we are and how to find us.
Do you feel you are using your scientific background? In my case definitely. At EMBO Jounral each editor deals with 3-4 main topics at the journal. I deal with chromatin, transcription, RNA, translation and protein folding. These categories are well linked and it’s a logical extension from my original field of RNA. Some of my colleagues have topics that are more distant from their original research focus. But we all use our background to some extent as well as our scientific curiosity. Additionally, I think what you really use is your ability to analyse something scientifically and quickly get an overview of the different topics.
What other skills are important to be an editor? It’s good to be fast thinking, versatile and flexible, so that you can quickly understand the scientific problem and main message of a paper. You will jump from one topic to another and you have to be comfortable with that. You also have to be able to cope with stress to some level: we do have tight deadlines and we do also get pushback from authors sometimes. It’s important to be efficient in focussing on the main content of the paper, what you need to know to make a decision and on the *relevant* literature. You don’t have time to go into all the details. Given that we have a lot of contact to authors, being open and communicative is definitely helpful.
What are the main differences between being an editor and working as a postdoc? There’s a main difference in how you approach reading a paper. As an editor, I am more superficial in some respects because I am mainly interested in the main conclusion: what do we learn from this that we didn’t know before, and how does this relate to the existing literature. As a postdoc you are more focused on the details and are often an expert on the topic – this is the role reviewers, not editors, play in scientific publishing.
Another difference is the timelines. For me, I found it frustrating as a postdoc to be working on something that maybe, eventually, in 1-2 years’ time would turn into a paper. I found that stressful as there is quite a long distance between doing the work and the gratification at seeing it published. As an editor, it’s almost the other extreme. You have a large number of deadlines within a short time and we try to do everything fast for the authors.
Does that affect your work life balance? I wouldn’t say so: although you have lots of things running in parallel, things also turn over quickly. At EMBO Press there are relatively fixed office hours, and each editor generally handles 3 new manuscript submissions per day. However, as an editor, and I think in many other jobs, there’s always more work to be done: you can always search for one more referee or write one more letter. In particular, summer is a really busy time for editors and then you get to the point that there are papers still pending, but you have to draw the line somewhere and it’s up to you to do that.
What is the biggest challenge? One part of the challenge is psychological: that you inherently spend much more time rejecting than accepting papers. That comes with the job, everyone knows that and understands that. But some days you can feel like you turn people down. That can be particularly tough when you know that someone has spent a lot of time on a study. In those cases it helps to remember that editorial decisions are not generally about the technical quality of the work, but the scope relative to our journal. In addition, there are many other journals out there. Just because we cannot offer to publish a paper in The EMBO Journal doesn’t mean that it won’t be published elsewhere.
And the best part? A big driver for me and I think for my colleagues as well is the constant exposure to new things. We’re all curious about science. In my case, I deal with 3-4 subject categories and covering for colleagues I sometimes read things that are completely different. I have really good interactions with the authors as well, in particular at conferences. Although you’re not an active researcher it feels like you’re still working closely with academia and you get to follow the progress of science at a much faster pace than if you’re in the lab.
How did you get into the first role? I did a classical university PhD in Denmark and then went on to do a 3-year postdoc at IMBA in Vienna. When I started my postdoc I wasn’t looking to per se pursue a PI career, but really wanted to do research. During my postdoc I realized that although I enjoyed being in the lab, what I really found inspiring was seminars, discussion, journal club and lab meetings. Writing, talking and discussing science was more enjoyable to me than the daily struggle with the small details in the lab. I also missed the exposure to the topics you had earlier in your studies when you really get exposed to the bigger picture.
I started thinking about going into publishing to use that curiosity as a professional strength, rather than have it distract me from what I was supposed to do in the lab. And so I had a couple of chances to talk to editors at meetings, which was really helpful to get a feeling about the job. I then started looking for possibilities, and heard about a role at The EMBO Journal.
After applying and a whole day interview, I started as an editor directly from my postdoc. There is no formal training programme when you start – it’s very much learning by doing with lots of support from the team.
Had you had contact with EMBO press before applying? I hadn’t had any direct contact, but I knew the journal and really liked it. The EMBO Journal has a strong standing in the field I worked in, and I’d enjoyed reading it when I was still in the lab. It’s a general interest journal that has a nice balance of new phenomena and mechanism that gives you complete stories. You get deeper understanding of the process in question than from the higher flying first reports. That appealed to me.
What advice do you have for people interested in becoming a journal editor? Read broadly. Having curiosity outside your field is something most people thinking about editorial positions have anyway, but you will come across new topics all the time, and you have to be able to summarize the defining points of what you read in 1-2 sentences. To have a good grasp outside your narrow field is helpful. Of course you can’t know everything, and to start with it feels like a steep learning curve – that is perfectly normal.
Most journals want editors with postdoc experience; I had a 3 year postdoc. Most of my colleagues have between 2-7 years of postdoc. If you want to do a postdoc to become an editor, I’d advise you to go to a big place. This helps to have a good set of connections before you start. You have to come up with referees, and it’s easier if you had connections with them first. I’m really amazed by how many people I know in different disciplines because I was in a well-connected institute for my postdoc.
In terms of what is looked for in applications it’s a combination of where you worked, what you published and your motivation. Within the team when we see applications, we each look differently – I feel I get a good impression of people when I read the cover letter, including how ready they are for the career move. Some of my colleagues look first at what topics they’ve worked on. Your ability to grasp science quickly would be explored in an interview.
Are there any misconceptions about the role that you come across frequently? One question I get a lot is whether you have to do lots of science writing before you become an editor. Most of my writing is manuscript notes for internal use and emails to authors – the only thing I write that is ever visible are short paper summaries that go on the website. If you do lots of News &Views commissioning, you can be more involved in developmental editing. I like writing but it’s not such an important part of my job. So, if your goal is to do science writing, professional journal editor roles may not be for you. It’s really about assessing papers rather than scientific communication. However you do need good general communications skills to interact with authors and reviewers.
Another question is whether you need to be a native English speaker. No one on the team is a native English speaker, so I guess the answer is no.
Is there a particular place where positions are advertised? I assume that most positions are advertised on the large central science jobs boards – that’s where I had been looking, but it’s good to check with the individual journals. The thing about working as an editor, particularly as a professional editor in Europe is that there aren’t that many places you can work, so it is possible to keep an eye on all of them.
Was there anything that surprised you about the role? There are some things that I found tricky that I didn’t expect. Like how much of a struggle finding reviewers can be.
EMBL staff / fellows can also search for alumni working in publishing careers in the EMBL alumni directory – here.