What Is It Like To Be a Senior Editor for One of the Most Prominent Scientific Journals?

The literary scientific process is rigorous and extensive, and the role of an editor is integral to the diffusion of discovery and promotion of scientific reliability.

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For many scientists, one of the main goals of their research projects is to publish their final papers in prestigious peer-reviewed journals such as Nature. Nature receives 200 article submissions per week, with only eight percent making their way into the final publication. Nature editors are responsible for efficiently selecting from the large submission pool by analyzing which papers will appeal to a broad readership.

Dr. Katarzyna Marcinkiewicz is a senior editor of Nature Communications at Springer Nature. She handles submissions spanning structural biology, biophysics, protein folding, and the molecular biology of chromatin. “I imagine, in high school, nobody plans to work as a science editor,” Dr. Marcinkiewicz said in an interview with The Spectator. “I wanted to be a scientist.” She obtained her Ph.D. from Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, studying heritable changes in cancer. During her postdoctoral training at the New York University School of Medicine, her research focused on cellular phenomena, specifically the survival of senescent cells—whose cell division process eventually stops—following multiplication.

She left her lab work for the world of editing in April 2020, joining Nature’s editorial team with a specialty in structural and molecular biology and nature biotechnology. “To be a scientist, you have to focus on one topic. As an editor, I handle various topics. I attend many conferences and talk to people who work in diverse fields, and I like it better,” Dr. Marcinkiewicz explained. “I interact only with the authors or the referees, who are also scientists. So, I don’t feel like I left science. I stay on top of it.” 

As a senior editor, Dr. Marcinkiewicz plays an important role in steering scientific papers through peer review and publication. She decides if submissions are suitable for publication and meet the journal’s standards. Since she is responsible for submissions only within her remit––structural biology and biochemistry––Dr. Marcinkiewicz identifies and asks scientists in the relevant field of research to check if all techniques, controls, and conditions are appropriate. 

Once the manuscript is sent for review, an editor seeks experts or “referees.” Dr. Marcinkiewicz admits that employing referees famous in their respective fields has its benefits. However, since she strongly believes that science is all about disruption, and that novel developments are integral in the field, she tries to engage younger researchers. In particular, she emphasizes the need for inclusion to counteract the racial, gender, and socioeconomic biases that have affected the field of scientific research. She insists on pursuing efforts to engage female scientists and scientists that come from underrepresented backgrounds. Dr. Marcinkiewicz asserts that “if we can find someone from a low- and middle-income country, that’s always great.”

Any given paper must go through multiple rounds of edits between authors and reviewers before it can be published. For example, Dr. Marcinkiewicz often encounters a lack of accurate computer simulation or unsatisfactory levels of protein purity in experiments. These technical failings are caught and reported back to the authors. Dr. Marcinkiewicz stresses that there are multiple experts who carefully examine the paper and substantiate conclusions through their analysis of the conducted experiments. “This thorough scrutiny is the reason peer-reviewed journals form the base of solid science,” Dr. Marcinkiewicz said. In addition, reviewers cannot have any personal or professional connections to authors or potential conflicts of interest, which could cause a biased assessment. After all the revisions have been made, the paper is accepted for publication, marking the culmination of a process spanning months.

Reflecting on the problem of public skepticism surrounding scientific findings, Dr. Marcinkiewicz points to general public misconceptions regarding scientific research. She explains that what people fail to understand is that even if the article comes out, it doesn’t mean that “work on the [topic] is closed.” She sees science as “ever-evolving,” and the results of a good paper and reasonable conclusions from the past can turn out to be incorrect because of what current evidence offers. “That is how science works; it’s about pushing the boundaries of what is known. There is no grand truth,” Dr. Marcinkiewicz remarked. Outside of her editing duties, Dr. Marcinkiewicz is always excited to lead and attend scientific conferences. “It’s a lot of fun to be there if you’re a science nerd,” Dr. Marcinkiewicz said. At these conferences, she has a chance to mingle with both expert speakers and young scientists, some of whom may not yet have their own labs or tenures. Her job at these conferences is to find out about cutting-edge techniques before they arrive as journal submissions.

Alongside reading submissions and participating in conferences, Dr. Marcinkiewicz writes review articles in which she discusses recent scientific developments. Above all, she enjoys the vast learning opportunities in her field of scientific journalism.