Editors are scientists too

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Once upon a time, I sat down to lunch with several postdocs. One postdoc was in a bad mood: his paper was under review at a prominent journal, and while I no longer remember all the details, I remember clearly that he was irked at the handling editor.

“Well, editors aren’t scientists anyways,” he suddenly declared.

“But they have PhDs, don’t they? They have science degrees,” I responded immediately, shocked at his assertion.

“Oh, but they’re not real scientists. It’s not like they run their own labs,” he clarified for me.

“!!”

This conversation occurred towards the end of my graduate career, at a time when I was mulling over several options for what to do with my life, post-graduate school. Editorial work was one of these options, and I was absolutely shocked to find out that if I became an editor, “real” scientists might no longer consider me a colleague.

The ironic thing is that I think I became a better scientist after my stint as an editor. Well, okay, perhaps better is not quite the right word. But more well-rounded, certainly, and having a clearer understanding of how science progresses and how it is conducted.

I saw more clearly how experiments might fit together or which experiments should come next. It was also clearer to me what kinds of results were merely consistent with a hypothesis, and what kinds of results genuinely tested a hypothesis.

As an editor, I could more easily see the convergence of papers – large numbers of submissions all addressing similar topics from different angles, and perhaps with contrasting conclusions. It was really thrilling to see the figurative edge of accepted biological knowledge. And to be above the fray – removed from the minutiae of experiments – it was so much clearer to me whether we were progressing towards a relatively quick consensus, or whether we were still years away from really knowing what was going on.

And let’s not forget all the real-world skills I learned. For one, I learned how to read/skim papers very quickly. (Wish I had managed to pick this up when I was still a grad student.) I also learned how to quickly get up-to-speed in a given field. Of course it would vary based on how far the particular field was from my own – but again, a useful skill and one I will most certainly employ in the future.

Other important general skills that I honed were time/project management and customer service. In fact, in my current job search (for non-bench jobs), I’ve found that people are often more interested in these skills, as opposed to any of my actual scientific training.

I no longer had the depth of knowledge that I had as a bench scientist. But what I gained instead was an incredible amount of breadth: an ability to read and understand papers from different biological subfields, an insider’s view of scientific (and incidentally, open-access) publishing, and a larger, big picture view of biology as a whole.

I’m not at all arguing that editorial work is the only way to acquire such a big picture view of biology. In fact, I expect that many senior researchers, be they experienced postdocs, faculty of various levels, or other sorts of investigators, can and do view their research in a larger context.

For me, however, I think my stint as an editor really facilitated getting to this level of understanding. It complemented my training as a grad student – allowed me to get out of the trenches and view the conduct of science from a different angle. And it makes me wonder if every bench scientist shouldn’t engage in some sort of editorial work. If only because it would give them a proper appreciation for what editors do… and an understanding that we do actually make use of our science degrees.

Because, yes, editors are real scientists too.

[Note 08/11/2010: Updated the title of this post to better reflect its message. Old title was “‘Real’ scientists only, please”.]

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