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What does an editor actually do? The value of taking on an internship as a postdoc

Following a 3-month internship with PLOS Biology, postdoc Suzanne de Bruijn shares her thoughts on life as an editor-in-training and why postdocs should be given the opportunity to try alternative careers.

My experience as an editorial intern

Have you ever wondered what kind of jobs exist outside of academia and if you would like any of them? I suspect many researchers have. I definitely wonder this every now and again.

During my PhD I studied the evolution of transcription factors and their binding sites during flower development. I then moved to the John Innes Centre in Norwich in the UK, where I’m currently a postdoc, studying the interplay between DNA methylation and nucleosomes. While I like doing research and being in the lab, I also enjoy reading, hearing about, and discussing all kinds of topics that fall outside my own project. This led me to wonder if I might like a job as an editor. However, I wasn’t sure exactly what it is that an editor does. I knew that they are in charge of papers from submission to acceptance, and I’ve seen them at conferences sometimes, but what does their job exactly entail on a day-to-day basis? Are there aspects to the job I couldn’t imagine? Would I actually like it?

I was lucky enough that my institute offered opportunities for a placement in industry during your postdoc (funded by the BBSRC). I decided to use this opportunity to gain first-hand experience as an editor. After a chat with Nonia, the Editor-in-Chief at PLOS Biology, and a manuscript assessment test in which I had to assess 2 papers in 2 hours, it was official: I would join the editorial team for a placement for 3 months.

On my first day, I received training on how to assess manuscripts for their suitability for the journal and then was given a few manuscripts and told to have a go at it (don’t worry authors, other editors would check my work!). The goal of this initial manuscript assessment, or ‘first read’ is to decide whether an article could be interesting for the journal. This means you need to quickly understand what the main findings are, their novelty and their importance for the field. Editors don’t analyze every single detail in every experiment 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, the scientific rigor, and the experimental approach. For each paper I assessed, I would write a report containing the background of the article, a summary of the findings, and my recommendation of whether we should send the manuscript out for review or not.

This first read was one of the main tasks I performed during my placement. I enjoyed reading papers in very different fields — I could be reading a paper on a molecular pathway in plants in the morning, and a paper on antibiotic resistance in bacteria, a new disease model in mice, or even a paper on cognitive neuroscience in the afternoon. Although this variety makes the job very interesting, it is intellectually quite challenging as you are reading non-stop and don’t have the lab to escape to every now and again! One of the most difficult things at the beginning was learning to be efficient when assessing a manuscript; when I first started, each manuscript would take me several hours, whereas later in my placement I managed to do most of them in an hour.

Another tricky thing was judging the level of advance a manuscript provides and whether this was enough to consider publication, especially in a field I wasn’t familiar with. Staff editors are normally handling papers in specific fields, and are well-acquainted with the background, the experimental approaches, and the big questions in those fields. In addition, PLOS Biology works with an editorial board of experts in the field (Academic Editors) that staff editors regularly consult to help gauge the potential advance of a paper. I received feedback on all my assessments from staff editors, and sometimes from Academic Editors too, and felt that I improved in my decision-making skills during my internship. I also learned quite a lot about different scientific fields.

As well as doing first reads, I also gained experience with other tasks that are part of an editor’s job. These included finding reviewers, assessing the reviews once they came in and deciding whether to invite a revision, and assessing whether the authors of a revised manuscript had sufficiently addressed the reviewers concerns to consult an Academic Editor and/or send the manuscript back to the reviewers. In addition to these tasks, editors also spend their time reaching out to authors, either in person or by email, and are involved in creating content for the ‘magazine section’ of the journal, which requires coming up with topics that would be interesting to cover, deciding on the exact angle you’d like, and finding authors to write the piece. By the end of my 3-month placement, I had learned a lot; not just about the job itself, but also about the editorial process and what a good paper looks like.

Five things I learned as an editor

  • The importance of a well-written manuscript. Trying to analyze a paper in a field you’re not familiar with is a lot easier if the paper is well-written. What I mean with this is the paper should have a good declarative title, clear section headers, and summarizing sentences at the end of each section. Editors at PLOS Biology are assessing the content of a manuscript, not the quality of the writing, so will never reject a manuscript based on writing quality. That said, a manuscript that is difficult to understand for an editor will also give reviewers a harder time, and in general may make the whole publishing process longer and more complicated. A well-written manuscript will not only help editors and reviewers, but, most importantly, also makes it easier for your audience to understand your work. Well worth spending some time on!
  • How an editor selects reviewers. I have previously reviewed papers, and normally found that I was not an expert in all aspects of the paper. During my placement, I learned that editors take this into account. They identify the different topics of a paper, and make sure they have at least one reviewer covering each of these aspects. As a reviewer, you’re not expected to be an expert in everything!
  • Editors want the best for your paper. I was expecting editors to carefully read and assess each manuscript, the reviews, and the revisions. However, I was a bit surprised that they went further than this. For instance, some manuscripts did not contain enough biological advance to be published as a research article, but did contain an interesting method. Instead of rejecting these papers, the editors would sometimes suggest to the authors that the journal could consider it as a methods paper instead of as a research article. Another example is ‘nurturing’ papers; this happens sometimes if the topic/finding of a paper is interesting, but the manuscript does not fully meet the editorial criteria of the journal. Instead of rejecting these papers, the editors would sometimes send it out for review in the hope that the editorial/revision process could help develop the paper and provide the strength of advance that the journal seeks to publish.
  • Editors need to multitask! Editors handle MANY papers at the same time. Every day, a few papers would be assigned to me. At the beginning of my internship, my to-do list was empty by the end of the day; however, the further I got into my placement, the more articles I would have in the pipeline. All these articles need regular attention: you need to find reviewers (and chase reviewers!), make decisions, assess revisions, and accept manuscripts. Of course, this is in addition to the new papers you get every day. Over the course of my internship, my pipeline grew from 0 manuscripts to 19 active manuscripts.
  • The job of an editor is very social. Before my placement, I didn’t realize how social and collaborative the job is. Each editor has their own manuscripts to process. However, editors will often discuss a paper with another editor to get a second opinion. In addition, at PLOS Biology, many manuscripts are also discussed with an Academic Editor. In addition to this, an editor is also constantly in touch with authors and reviewers, so there is a lot of interaction with fellow editors as well as with scientists.

What’s next for me?

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at PLOS Biology, but after 3 months it was time to go back to my postdoc and finish writing up my paper. However, I am seriously considering applying for a job as an editor afterwards. Whatever is next for me, the experience I had as an editor will be very useful. 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 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 that all postdocs try other jobs if they get the chance. Knowing there are many interesting options outside of academia too may make the search for a permanent job a bit less stressful!

About the author

Photograph of the author

Suzanne de Bruijn is a postdoc at the John Innes Centre and an associate features editor for The Plant Cell. ORCID: 0000-0002-7429-0448 @BruijnSuzanne

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