What does an editor actually do? The interest of doing an internship as a postdoctoral fellow

After a 3-month internship at PLOS Biology, postdoc Suzanne de Bruijn shares her thoughts on editorial lifer-in training and why post-docs should be given the opportunity to try alternative careers.

My editorial intern experience

Have you ever wondered what kinds of jobs exist outside of academia and if you would like one of them? I suspect that many researchers have done this. I really wonder that from time to time.

During my thesis, I studied the evolution of transcription factors and their binding sites during floral development. I then moved to the John Innes Center in Norwich in the UK, where I am currently doing a post-doc, studying the interplay between DNA methylation and nucleosomes. Although I enjoy doing research and being in the lab, I also enjoy reading, listening, and discussing all kinds of topics that are outside of my own project. This made me wonder if I might like a job as an editor. However, I didn’t know exactly what an editor did. I knew they handled the papers from submission to acceptance, and I’ve seen them occasionally at conferences, but what exactly is their day-to-day job? Are there aspects of the job that I couldn’t imagine? Would I really like that?

I was lucky that my institute offered internship opportunities in industry during your postdoc (funded by BBSRC). I decided to use this opportunity to gain first-hand experience as an editor. After a conversation with Nonia, the editor-in-chief of PLOS Biologyand a manuscript evaluation test in which I had to evaluate 2 articles in 2 hours, it was official: I would join the editorial team for a 3-month internship.

On the first day, I received training on how to assess manuscripts for their relevance to the journal, then I was given a few manuscripts and told to give it a try (don’t worry authors, other editors would check my work!). The purpose of this initial manuscript evaluation, or “first reading,” is to decide whether an article might be of interest to the journal. This means you need to quickly understand what the key findings are, how new they are, and how important they are to the field. The editors don’t analyze every detail of every experience like a reviewer would. Instead, the focus is on whether the manuscript meets the scope and editorial criteria of the journal, which includes assessing the importance of the research question, scientific rigor and the experimental approach. For each article I assessed, I would write a report containing the background to the article, a summary of the findings, and my recommendation whether or not to send the manuscript for review.

This first reading was one of the main tasks I carried out during my internship. I liked to read articles in very different areas – I could read an article on a molecular pathway in plants in the morning, and an article on antibiotic resistance in bacteria, a new disease model in mice, or even an article on cognitive neuroscience in the afternoon. Although this variety makes the work very interesting, it is intellectually quite difficult as you read non-stop and don’t have the lab to escape from once in a while! One of the hardest things in the beginning was learning how to be efficient when reviewing a manuscript; when I started, each manuscript took me several hours, while later in my internship I managed to do most of them in an hour.

Another delicate thing was to judge the level of advancement of a manuscript and to know if it was sufficient to consider a publication, in particular in a field which I did not know. Editors normally deal with articles in specific areas and are familiar with the background, experimental approaches and major issues in those areas. Besides, PLOS Biology works with an editorial board of experts in the field (academic editors) whom the editors regularly consult to help assess the potential advancement of an article. I received feedback on all my reviews from editors, and sometimes also academic editors, and felt that I had improved my decision-making skills during my internship. I also learned a lot about different scientific fields.

In addition to doing first reads, I also gained experience with other tasks that are part of an editor’s job. These included finding reviewers, evaluating reviews once they arrived and deciding whether or not to invite a review, and assessing whether the authors of a reviewed manuscript had sufficiently addressed concerns. reviewers to consult an academic editor and/or return the manuscript to reviewers. . In addition to these tasks, editors also spend their time contacting authors, either in person or by email, and help create content for the “magazine section” of the journal, which requires coming up with topics that would be interesting to cover, decide on the exact angle you want, and find authors to write the article. At the end of my 3 month internship, I had learned a lot; not just about the work itself, but also about the editorial process and what a good journal looks like.

Five things I learned as an editor

  • The importance of a well-written manuscript. Trying to analyze an article in an area you don’t know is much easier if the article is well written. What I mean by this is that the document should have a good declarative title, clear section headings, and summary sentences at the end of each section. Editors at PLOS Biology assess the content of a manuscript, not the quality of the writing, so will never reject a manuscript based on the quality of the writing. That said, a manuscript that is difficult for an editor to understand will also give reviewers a hard time and, in general, can make the whole publishing process longer and more complicated. A well-written manuscript will not only help editors and reviewers, but more importantly, it will also make it easier for your audience to understand your work. Definitely worth the time spent on it!
  • How an editor selects reviewers. I have reviewed articles before and normally found that I was not an expert in all aspects of the article. During my internship, I learned that publishers take this into account. They identify the different subjects of an article and make sure to have at least one proofreader covering each of these aspects. As an examiner, you are not expected to be an expert in everything!
  • Editors want the best for your article. I expected editors to carefully read and evaluate each manuscript, reviews, and reviews. However, I was a bit surprised that they went further than that. For example, some manuscripts did not contain enough biological advances to be published as a research paper, but contained an interesting method. Instead of rejecting these articles, editors sometimes suggested to authors that the journal might consider it a method article rather than a research article. Another example is “feeder” articles; this sometimes happens if the subject/finding of an article is interesting, but the manuscript does not fully meet the editorial criteria of the journal. Instead of rejecting these articles, editors sometimes sent them for review in the hope that the editorial/review process might help develop the article and provide the head start the journal seeks to publish.
  • Editors need to multitask! Editors process a LOT of articles at the same time. Every day, a few papers would be assigned to me. At the start of my internship, my to-do list was empty at the end of the day; however, the more I advanced in my placement, the more articles I had in preparation. All of these articles require regular attention: you need to find reviewers (and hunt reviewers!), make decisions, evaluate revisions, and accept manuscripts. Of course, this is in addition to the new papers you receive every day. During my internship, my pipeline grew from 0 manuscripts to 19 active manuscripts.
  • The job of an editor is very social. Before my internship, I hadn’t realized how social and collaborative the work was. Each publisher has their own manuscripts to process. However, editors will often discuss an article with another editor for a second opinion. Moreover, to PLOS Biology, many manuscripts are also discussed with an academic editor. In addition to this, an editor is also in constant contact with the authors and reviewers, so there is a lot of interaction with the other editors as well as with the scientists.

What’s next for me?

I really enjoyed my experience at PLOS Biology, but after 3 months it was time to go back to my postdoc and finish writing my article. However, I am seriously considering applying for an editor position in the future. Whatever comes next for me, the experience I’ve had as an editor will come in very handy. If I stay in academia, quickly summarizing a paper and judging its strengths and weaknesses will be useful for both writing and reviewing papers and grants. If I want to become an editor, I now have a clear idea of ​​what it entails as well as some experience. More importantly, I now know that there is at least one job outside of academia that I really enjoy! I would recommend all postdocs to try other jobs if they have the chance. Knowing that there are plenty of great options outside of academia can also make finding a permanent job a little less stressful!

About the Author

Suzanne de Bruijn is a post-doctoral fellow at the John Innes Center and associate articles editor for The Plant Cell. ORCID: 0000-0002-7429-0448 @BruijnSuzanne