Passion and dedication

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As Nature celebrates its 150th birthday, Magdalena Skipper reflects on her career and her work as editor-in-chief

Tell us a little about your background  and qualifications...
I certainly cannot say that being editor-in-chief of Nature was something I aimed to be as I was growing up. 

In fact, at some point I wanted to be a firefighter and then a ballet dancer. But the truth is that from a very early age I knew that biology was my passion. 

In high school I was especially drawn to genetics. So I went to University of Nottingham to study genetics for my BSc and then University of Cambridge to do a PhD on a classic genetic model animal, to study sex determination. Like so many PhD students, I knew very well that one day I will have my own lab….  In the end though, I was not completely satisfied, as I could never find the time to read outside my area of study, and there were so many interesting topics in science one could learn more about.  

It was during my postdoc, at Imperial Cancer Reasearch Fund (today Cancer Research UK) that I began to think about other ways in which I may fruitfully contribute to the advancement of science. My passion for science meant that I never really contemplated leaving the research community altogether.  

Having considered a number of possibilities, I thought that the editorial career could be ‘the’ thing for me. So when one day I came across a job advert for an associate editor at Nature Reviews Genetics, very much in the area in which I specialised, I applied. 

What happened next was this: the journal sent me a set of tests to be done at home; this is something that all Nature Reviews journals do when screening job applicants. The test consisted of a series of tasks you would do as part of the role. One of them was, for example, ‘developmentally’ editing a submitted review article to improve the story flow. Another one was to come up with a number of commissions, to effectively create a table of contents for a future issue of the journal; another still was to select some recently published research articles to write a short ‘research highlight’ about, and explain the choice. 

I had no previous experience in writing nor editing. But I discovered that I enjoyed the test that I had at home so much that by the time I was called for the interview I obviously was imbued with so much enthusiasm that, as I now joke, I left my interviewer no choice but to give me the job. I have never looked back! Although today I do not think of myself as a scientist as such, I feel very strongly that I am part of the research community; I find this very fulfilling and feel very proud that I can make a contribution there.
What have been your career highlights to date? 
I take pleasure in so many aspects of my job that highlights come on many levels. Perhaps not surprisingly, becoming editor-in-chief of Nature was a true highlight. It is an incredible honour to be leading Nature. I consider it an honour and a privilege to be the custodian of the journal today. 

But there have been many highlights, back in the days of Nature Reviews Genetics, being able to bring researchers from different disciplines around an idea of a review article and being told later that they started an entirely new line of collaboration while working on that review. 

Back in the days when I worked as a manuscript editor at Nature, I worked with an international consortium on the publication of their project, Encode. To enhance the take-home messages from this vast project, we devised a new publication solution called threads. To highlight new story lines which were not the focus on the main consortium papers, each thread wove together paragraphs, figures or tables from across the standard Encode papers. The approach was tailor-made and despite being adopted by other, similar consortium led-publication efforts, eventually it did not take off but it was a true highlight to have been able to experiment with publishing formats in this way. And the Encode threads became a very popular teaching tool!

Being able to train and mentor more junior colleagues and watch them develop professionally is always a highlight. And although it is hard for me to think of myself as a role model, it is always a highlight if I can inspire young people in science.  

What do you think it takes to be a Nature editor? Tell us more about your role...
Let me start with the second part of your question. There are two, interconnected aspects to my role: I am editor-in-chief of Nature and chief editorial advisor for Nature Research.

Nature doesn’t typically need an introduction, and yet sometimes it may be all too easy to forget that it is unusual among scientific journals in that it combines science journalism and opinion with original scientific papers. 

An important focus of my role is to make the most of the synergy within Nature – the journalistic part AND the journal part, which is the original research part. The whole can be so much more than the sum of its parts! I am also ultimately accountable for what Nature publishes, although, of course, what we publish is very much a result of a team effort. 

As editor-in-chief, I represent Nature and Nature Research externally, and in general my time is very much split between externally focused and internally focused activities. In addition, an important aspect of my role involves being the champion and the guardian of the Nature brand.

When I describe what I do to those who do not work in publishing, I often say I am like a conductor of an orchestra – without the amazingly talented colleagues around me I could do very little, but our collective output is enhanced and amplified by our co-ordinated efforts. 

What does it take to be a Nature editor? It takes passion, dedication, understanding and a drive to bring the fascinating and vast research worlds we work in, before our readers. It takes the desire to work with the research community to help them disseminate their work in a rigorous and transparent way. Editors at Nature are all former researchers who continue to grow their expert knowledge of their fields. They need to have an eye for detail, and they need to be persistent and patient.

Why do you think Nature has had so few editors?
In Nature’s 150-year history there have been only seven editors-in-chief before me. My predecessor held this role for more than 22 years! I think it goes back to your question around what it takes to be a Nature editor – passion and dedication. It’s so much more than a job. We are all so strongly connected to the work we do and the fields that we are working in. 

It is a labour of love for many and the ability to support the outstanding work of the researchers who publish in Nature keeps us all here. It is a role that we are all incredibly proud of. We also recognise the privilege to be able to engage with, as well as help shape Nature’s future, to ensure that it remains a relevant platform for research communication, news, engagement and the advancement of robust scientific discoveries. 

I believe that it is also the reflection of how receptive the publishers of Nature have been to the editors’ desire to evolve the journal and adapt it to the changing needs of the research community; this is also what has kept my predecessors in their role for so long. One good example comes from the very early days of our history – Nature was originally not meant to include first reports of original scientific findings; it was meant to be more like Scientific American of today. 

But the scientists of the day wanted a new platform for rapid communication among themselves and not to the public – the original intention. It is entirely possible that without the flexibility to change and follow the research community’s needs we might not be here today. Being editor-in-chief is not a role one can get bored in!

What have you done, or do you plan to do, that your predecessors haven’t?
New ideas or directions are rarely born overnight; in most cases they take shape over time. And so many ideas I have for where Nature should be focusing started gathering momentum before I came into the role. 

I am currently very keen for Nature to engage much more with early career researchers. Such closer engagement will be mutually beneficial and it will be interesting to see where it may take us; could it ultimately mean new formats for disseminating research, could it mean greater emphasis on other platforms, including the multimedia? Time will tell. 

One very exciting aspect of this focus is that our own drive towards open research and transparency is also very much at the forefront of many early career researchers’ minds. For some time now, Nature has championed the sharing of data, materials and protocols. This focus continues to gather momentum and these days we work with the research community more than ever before to develop tools that help our authors to showcase the integrity of their research. 

I am also very keen for us to engage with members of hitherto underrepresented groups. The scientific community itself could and should be more diverse; I would like Nature to make a contribution to this transformation. Not only is it the right thing to do but it will also improve research itself. 

It is important to remember that we are all products of our times; I am able to do things that my predecessors couldn’t just because I am the helm of Nature at a time when we are more connected to one another than ever before. For example, I am the first editor-in-chief to engage with our community on social media; a mode of interaction I value a lot.

Because we live in a digital age, we are able to enhance the visual aspects of our communication in ways that were not possible before. For example, just in time for our 150th anniversary we’ve just redesigned our look, under the leadership of our creative director. The redesign was very much driven by the desire to improve our readability online, as this is the principal way our content is consumed these days, but also to respond in the ways that science is changing (for example, we retired our Letter format, which was no longer serving researchers sufficiently well because of its brevity).

Do you think the Nature brand is still as strong as it ever was, or is it changing? What makes researchers want to publish with you?
I actually believe the brand is stronger than it has been in the past. A brand and what it stands for needs time to establish itself and we have worked hard over the decades, building on what we have done right but also learning from our mistakes. But we continue to have much to learn.

We like to think that researchers submit their work to us because of the service and support we can offer them, because we are highly professional and dedicated, because we are independent and strive to be unbiased. In all we do we strive for rigour; take peer review as an example: we ensure rigorous peer review so that the papers we consider can be improved through the combined efforts of our editors and carefully selected reviewers. 

We develop tools for and provide guidance on the best practice for the reporting of methods and data availability, always striving to publish research which is robust and reproducible. 
When you look at our journalistic content, we make analogous efforts to ensure rigour, balance and excellence in our reporting, and our journalists have been recognised by international award-granting bodies. All of this contributes to our reputation among our readers. 

At a time when boundaries between disciplines are blurring, many researchers are keen to publish their work in multidisciplinary journals, so it may come to the attention of the whole scientific community, not just those in their field. When you think about work that addresses the UN’s sustainable development goals, much of contemporary impactful research requires reaching beyond conventional research disciplines.

Nature has evolved over its 150 years; this evolution is set to continue. I believe that it is our willingness to adapt, our responsiveness and the service that we have, and will continue to offer, that have ultimately led to the strength of brand created, and continues to make Nature an attractive choice for researchers.

Why is the 150th such a landmark year for Nature? What’s changing, if anything, going forwards? What are you plans for the next era of Nature?
Nature has always evolved with the scientific community and with science itself. The future promises to be more data-rich, more computationally-heavy, more interdisciplinary, and more focused on the interface between science and society. We are also working towards making Nature more inclusive and diverse, both in terms of the topics and the groups it represents. Looking into the future, it is impossible not to think about early career researchers who are the future of research. They are a major focus for us also, as they should be.

Although not an entirely new initiative, we have made a lot of effort towards rewarding and surfacing efforts to make research reproduce and robust. Although clearly much work remains to be done.

Another important focus of ours is transparency. Transparency of research goes hand in hand with reproducibility. That said, in my view publishers and editors, who demand transparency from researchers, should themselves be more transparent about their own practices. We have begun this journey already: we try to surface exactly what it is that editors do, how we consider submissions and how peer-review is conducted. 

It is important to add much more transparency to the whole scientific discussion that surrounds the publication of a paper. These are just a couple of examples of where we should be increasingly moving, and certainly that I would like to champion.

The 150th anniversary has been an exciting time for all of us, as it has given us a chance to reflect and look back into old archives, learning more about our heritage, but it has also been a great chance to refocus for the future. Publishing continues to change and our anniversary in many ways is about preparing for the future and best supporting the next generation of researchers in effectively and sustainably communicating their work – not just through publishing platforms but also through our Nature Conferences programme, our Nature Careers portal, our Nature Masterclasses and through diverse approaches to content curation and production.

Finally, are there any interesting facts, pastimes or hobbies that you would like to tell us about? 
I find what I do absolutely fascinating and as I said before, being editor-in-chief of Nature is much more than just a job. That said, I find exploring our ‘blue planet’ absolutely irresistible and when I travel on my own time I switch off completely, literally. And when I wish to take a break closer to home, I go to a pottery studio of which I am a member.  I don’t claim to be very good at all, but I derive a different kind of satisfaction from sitting at the potter’s wheel.  

For many of us, balancing leisure and work requires active management of time, but I believe it is an effort worth making.

Interview by Tim Gillett