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Book editing and publishing: A scientific book worm’s dream job

There is no such thing as a typical day for Merlin Fox, books commissioning editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). His primary responsibilities include finding authors and editors to write new academic books and book series, managing the portfolio of already published works and seeking out opportunities for new publishing products.

I met Merlin at PittCon 2011 this past March, where he was scoping out potential new book opportunities, and I soon found out he was a chemist-turned-book editor. Fascinating,

I thought to myself, tell me more!

Merlin Fox, books commissioning editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Courtesy photo.

Merlin’s background is in biology (B.Sc.), applied environmental science (M.Sc.), and agricultural sciences (Ph.D.). His graduate research and ensuing post-doctoral work were focused on environmental/analytical chemistry and biogeochemistry.

So, how did the transition into publishing happen? Well, after his post-doc, Merlin landed a spot in the RSC graduate programme, where his job was to handle the peer review process for journal articles. After 18 months in that position, an opportunity to work in books came along and he took it.

Since he was always interested in books and had research experience, he felt the two viable career paths for him after his Ph.D. were publishing or working in a lab. He chose the former and says he doesn’t regret that decision.

Although the graduate and post-graduate work weren’t required to get into publishing, he said he is glad to have gotten the additional training in teamwork, keeping to budgets, and working on a set timeframe– all transferable skills that he carries on with him as he pursues his non-traditional science career path.

“A book can take two years to write and needs dedication and focus – much like a long project or Ph.D., so yes, I think having a Ph.D. lends some empathy to what authors are doing – as well as a better understanding of what academic life is like,” he said.

What Merlin likes most about his job is being able to travel and meet new people, as well as having the security of a permanent job. But he occasionally misses being in the lab, especially when he visits a chemistry department.

Merlin’s environmental and biogeochemistry graduate work was largely composed of fieldwork in the great outdoors. While he doesn’t do this type of research anymore, he finds other ways to satisfy his craving to explore nature.

“I grow vegetables at home and do voluntary conservation work most weekends, so I’m still getting outdoors,” he said.

Merlin said it is satisfying to see a book he worked on finally come out in print and to see it on the shelf at a bookstore. He also loves learning about all kinds of science and meeting interesting and clever people in science, including Nobel Laureates.

The most challenging part is when a book project gets cancelled—but fortunately that doesn’t happen often.

For chemists and others out there interested in publishing, Merlin says: “Get talking to publishers! They are usually at conferences.”

Merlin says one of the highlights of his job is seeing a book he worked on for years finally make it onto the shelf in a bookstore. Photo credit: flickr user boopsie.daisy.

So, next time you’re at a conference, scope out the booths at the Expo’s, the huge area where companies come out and set up their booths and demo their new products. Book publishers can often be found there, and with a little bit of investigative work, you should be able to find them.

As far as getting jobs in the book publishing industry, Merlin said there is certainly some tough competition, especially for the more senior jobs, but it helps to develop a good network with other publishers.

Regarding the whole ongoing transition of books from print to electronic, he said it may not be such a terrible thing for those in publishing.

“The recession is beginning to impact publishers as library budgets begin to feel the pinch, but the growth of electronic publishing, and broader acceptance of eBooks, means there are exciting times ahead,” he said.

So is Merlin happy with his decision to pursue this career path?

“Oh yes, I love science and have always loved books and reading,” he said. “It’s great to be part of communicating science.”

Find out more about the graduate programme offered by the RSC online.

Profile: journal editor

Publishing. As scientists, we all have to do it. But did you ever wonder who’s on the receiving end of those journal submissions? The individual responsible for a big YES or NO, and shuttling it off to reviewers far and wide, evil or kind?

Oh, yeah, that person. The editor.

Many chemistry journals have professors who work as editors in their free time and hire some support staff, but some have their own independent editors who read and vet papers full time.

Jake Yeston, courtesy photo.

Science is one such place, and Jake Yeston is one of 15 senior editors there. His main areas of responsibility are chemistry and applied physics. More specifically, he handles the small molecule chemistry papers, “though I also see a fair number of physics papers dealing with spectroscopic methods, biology papers dealing with enzyme mechanisms, and polymer papers dealing with synthesis (vs macroscopic properties). I probably get an average of 2 or 3 papers a day assigned to me, and then I comment on a few more that have been assigned to the enzyme, physics, and materials science editors,” he said.

Yeston got his B.A.from Harvard and Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley, and also did a couple of post-docs before landing a job at Science. And how he found out about this particular career path was completely random, he said.

“After [post-doc work], I wanted to stay in the DC area, and that geographic constraint really limited the options. I basically checked the C&E News job listings every week for opportunities in DC, and one day in mid-2004 the Science ad appeared, and I thought “Oh—I’d be good at that!” But before seeing the ad, this professional option wasn’t even on my radar.”

Yeston spends his days reading papers. Lots and lots of papers. He then discusses them with other editors, either in-office or on the web with editors in their other places.

“We have a great database that facilitates communication about papers online, so I can exchange thoughts with, for example our physics editor in Cambridge England practically in real time. The job is also very amenable to telecommuting—we have several editors who work from home in Toronto and Boston, for example, in addition to our two main offices in Washington, DC and Cambridge,” Yeston said.

His official job duties include:

“Evaluating manuscripts submitted for publication; discussing reviews with reviewers to determine what additional information is needed from author; working closely with author to incorporate reviewers’ suggestions; presenting recommendations to other editors in an effort to reach consensus on acceptance or rejection of manuscript; editing manuscripts for scientific content and style before and after revisions; following manuscript through production process to ensure material is published in a timely manner; soliciting manuscripts from authors at scientific community meetings or over the phone; and staying abreast of scientific advances through literature reviews, meetings and professional contacts.”

Yeston wants to point out that being a journal editor is NOT the same thing as being a science journalist. (Notes on that can be found here.)

“Many of the people who ask me about my career think I’m a science reporter, and ask me how to get into that line of work. Although Science does have a news department, it’s completely separate from the research/editorial section of the journal. The path to becoming a journalist is pretty different from the path I took, and the job description (which involves interviewing people) is also rather different,” he said.

Image by flickr user Nic's events.

But what it does involve is a lot of social networking. Really.

“I have an unusually broad background in chemistry, but still nowhere near the level of expertise necessary to fully grasp the details of every paper that comes across my desk. The key is to know who knows things, and then to build relationships with those people (whether professors or industrial scientists) so when they see my email, they’ll be inclined to take time out of their very busy schedule to evaluate a paper for me,” Yeston said.

He has to travel a lot, about 5 or 6 times each year, primarily to keep his pool of referees large and healthy.

“Obviously I also try to see how work that we’ve published gets received when it’s presented, and I sometimes encourage people with exciting unpublished work to send it my way.”

Sadly, Yeston said, he has to reject most of the papers that come across his desk. Only about 1 in 10 actually gets published in Science.

“Our goal is to keep the size of the journal manageable, so people will actually have time each week to read most of it, and maybe be tempted to read outside their field, and be inspired by our interdisciplinary offerings. But as a consequence, I have to reject a lot of really outstanding work, and I always try to be very diplomatic about it, because I don’t want to alienate any scientists—chances are good that I’ll want to publish something someday from that research program,” he said.

But he still loves his job. One thing he notes is that he gets a thrill being among the first to read about some of the most exciting developments in chemistry. Yeston also really likes the opportunity to make the papers he does accept as clear and understandable as possible.

“I remember frequently reading a paragraph in an important paper over and over again as a graduate student, failing to get the point, and then feeling really dumb and inadequate about it. Now when I edit a paper, I can make a little note in the margin and ask the authors if they really meant thus-and-such. And when they clear it up, I feel as though I’ve saved future graduate students a lot of stress and turmoil. ”

He doesn’t miss doing original research, because he still feels very connected to the research community.

“You have to be willing to take vicarious pride in a job like mine—to appreciate that you’ve played a supporting role in presenting exciting research to the community, even if you didn’t perform the research yourself. That kind of satisfaction works for me—it’s probably not for everybody though.”

If you’re thinking of becoming a journal editor, Yeston suggests having a broad chemical background and an outgoing personality. Also, writing ability is pretty high on the list, but he thinks that’s self-selecting.

“If you’re inclined to spend your life reading papers,” he said, “chances are you have a sense of how they ought to be written.”

He notes that there aren’t a whole lot of jobs out there, but you should still keep your eyes peeled.

“I think the best advice I can give is that if you’re in a post-doc and an editor position opens up, it’s a terrific opportunity, and a worthwhile one to consider pursuing.”

A few places to get started:

Current Graduate vacancies in Publishing at RSC

Job openings (as of Sept 15) at Wiley-VCH

And as of September 23, there are two Managing Editor positions open at ACS, one at ACS Nano, and one at ACS Catalysis (new journal).