As I mentioned previously, I've been looking for a new job over the past few months, since my current research contract is ending imminently. When I started looking, all that I knew was that I wanted to work somewhere other than a university, which doesn't really narrow down options.
I think I've a much clearer career direction now. However, the combination of imminent unemployment — at a time of high unemployment — and an uncertainty about what I actually wanted to do meant that, earlier this year, I was applying for anything that I thought that I had a good chance of getting. (In retrospect, I think this was crucial in helping me decide what I actually want to do.)
One of these jobs was as a journal editor. Until now, my only dealings with journal editors have involved me submitting manuscripts to journals, and resolving any corrections. I hadn't ever given much consideration as to what their role really involves.
If you're unfamiliar with the academic world, peer-reviewed journals are an important feature. Researchers send work to a journal and then, provided the editors and the peer reviewers deem it suitable, they'll publish it. The reputation of the journal in which work is published is important: a researcher's publication record has a massive influence on future funding applications. It can also hugely increase the audience of a research work: many scientific stories reported in mainstream media are often sourced from the big journals, like Nature or Science.
Publishing in high profile journals is obviously both highly desirable and highly competitive. Editors are sent many manuscripts and then have the difficult task of reading through them and making quick decisions on whether to submit them for peer review. For the best journals, good papers are just not good enough. Maintaining the journal's prestige means that they have to try to pick out the outstanding papers.
As part of my editor application, I was sent three manuscripts covering three very different scientific topics. For this editing exercise, I had to summarise the main research finding and argue whether or not the paper should be sent for peer review. In one case, I understood quickly what their idea was, but the other two took me far longer to appreciate.
A paper in your own area of expertise is fairly easy to consider. You instinctively have a feel for what is novel. On the other hand, with little experience of a subject, it's incredibly difficult to appreciate the context and impact of a scientific work. You have to do your own background research to figure out what the current state of that area of research, where the paper you're reading fits in, and therefore how important it is.
This probably isn't as much of a problem for editors of specialised journals: they have fairly narrow scopes. Editors in journals with a wider remit no doubt have a much tougher time here.
So, if you're an eager scientist sending your work to a high profile, multidisciplinary journal, what can you do? Well, apart from making sure that your research is clearly written up for other researchers, you also need to give consideration to the editor who will be the first hurdle to getting your work published. The background context, what your work contributes and the aspects distinguishing this work from other papers must all be absolutely clear. The editors reading your work may well be experienced scientists themselves, but they might be completely unfamiliar with that particular area of research.
In the end, I had a pleasant interview which went well, although I didn't actually get offered the job. (As I want to leave the physical sciences behind entirely, I think it would have been a misstep for me to take it if it were offered.) Nonetheless, the process was still a useful one when thinking about writing up my remaining papers.
Finally, there's a parallel of this process in submitting job applications. When applying for a job, you'll often send a cover letter and CV. At some point, a recruiter is going to look over them and make a snap decision as to your suitability for the job. Again, they've probably got a big stack of documents to get through. And, once again, making an immediate impression is critical: you need to jump off the page.