Nature chief: editors must improve journal-researcher relations

Magdalena Skipper lists dedication to high-quality, reproducible science and greater transparency in decision-making as priorities

August 10, 2018
Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of Nature
Source: Ian Alderman
In sync: Magdalena Skipper wants to improve journal-researcher relations

Journal editors must become more open to engagement in order to help repair public opinion of science in the fake news era, the new editor-in-chief of one of the world’s foremost academic titles has urged.

Having taken charge at Nature this summer, Magdalena Skipper listed reproducibility and greater transparency in science alongside better support for early career researchers as her priorities for the journal.

Better communication of the decision processes that lead a paper to be published could result in “a much more fruitful working interaction between publishers and researchers” as well as others in the science community, she told Times Higher Education.

“We editors do not sufficiently communicate how we work with the scientific community,” she added. “Transparency overall is really important, especially at a time when some voices have rebelled against the need for experts and rigorous lines of thinking.

“The more transparent we are in our practices, the more successful we are going to be at convincing [those people] to come back into the realm of facts and indeed expert advice.”

The geneticist became the first life scientist to edit Nature in more than half a century. She is also the first woman to be appointed in the title’s 150-year history. But to fixate on that detail – as much coverage did at the time – would be a mistake.

“The fact [that] I am a female is hardly news to me,” she said. “In fact, I was surprised how much focus on that fact there was. I was interested in the job. I have worked here in a number of editorial roles including in Nature…I happen to be a woman.”

Dr Skipper succeeds Philip Campbell – Nature’s editor for 22 years – after spending more than 15 years working across various positions at the title, including chief editor of Nature Reviews Genetics, associate publisher of Nature Life Sciences and, most recently, as editor-in-chief of Nature Communications.

But it is her ability to draw on her own experiences as a biology researcher that most qualifies her and allows her a clear understanding of the community the journal is designed to serve, Dr Skipper said.

As a biologist, she suggested that the reproducibility debate was also one that she was “intimately familiar with”. She added: “I understand the need for it much more organically than perhaps had I been a physicist”, noting that the reproducibility movement emerged primarily from her own field.

Responding to criticisms that major profit-making titles such as her own had lost touch to some extent with the needs of the scientific community, Dr Skipper said to suggest that “researchers are on one side of the table, and editors and journals are on the other” was “a completely artificial distinction”.

“We are actually [led] by a common goal and that is to disseminate excellent, robust research that advances our collective knowledge for the interest of the scientific community, but importantly for the interests of everybody,” she said. Any suggestion that journal editors and researchers are working in opposition here is a misconception, she added, “[but] I would actually put the blame [for this] at our own feet”.

“I think that we – and in the broadest sense the scientific publishing community and editors in particular – could do more to explain to the research community, but also to the public at large, the role we play, how we get involved with engagement and dissemination of research and how we actually share that common goal with the researchers,” she said.

The answer to improving the relationship “comes back to transparency”, she said, but Dr Skipper is wary of enforcing blanket transparency rules across the journal such as those trialled by the likes of eLife in recent months.

“It’s fascinating to consider these different models and I think that it’s really important to remember that diversity of solutions is a really important, healthy aspect of any ecosystem,” she said. Publishing transparent peer review processes alongside finished work has been trialled by Nature too, she noted, “but we respect the authors’ wishes – we do not mandate it”.

Proposals for a series of mentoring schemes for early career researchers are in development, according to Dr Skipper. Additionally, she not only wants to encourage senior researchers to include their trainees in the reviewing of papers, but wants to make it a requirement for all reviewers to actively name their juniors to editors so that credit is fairly awarded.

The business model of Nature means there will likely be no active shift towards open access models seen by the likes of newer journals.

“It is certainly true that I work for a for-profit company,” said Dr Skipper. “Exactly how the landscape will shape [up] depends on many different things…[but] it would almost be foolish for me to predict where we are going to be in ‘x’ number of years because almost certainly I will be wrong.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Transparency is vital against voices doubting experts, says Nature chief

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