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The Nature of the Knight Bus

I may look like a standard soccer mom now, kids, but back in the day people regarded me as a cross between a rock-star goddess and Darth Vader. That’s right, I was indeed an editor for Nature for nearly seven years, handling papers in genetics and genomics. There is a generally accepted hierarchy in science journals, and Nature is always at or near the top. The team of biology editors at Nature can only publish between about 8 and 10 percent of the submissions they receive, so most of your job as a manuscript editor is not publication of work but instead dealing out rejection.

People ask me all the time what the job was like. The best analogy I’ve I found is riding the Knight Bus in Harry Potter.

People ask me all the time what the job was like. The best analogy I’ve I found is riding the Knight Bus in Harry Potter. The Knight Bus is the magical transport full of crazy people and events, both amazingly good and scarily over the top. Similarly, I felt like I was on this magical transport that went to the wildest places, and every week I’d think, “There is absolutely no way we will get to our destination” of putting out a magazine. Yet, thanks in part to the skillful drivers on the editorial and production teams, every week we did arrive at the publication of an issue, and it was an exhilarating ride.

Just like on the Knight Bus, you can’t control your seatmates – here, it’s your authors. At one stop the most fascinating, interesting person working at the top of their field will get on, and it is just awesome. You will feel privileged to have met them and have contributed to the magic of presenting their ideas to the world. Then you’ll publish them and they will get off the bus. At another stop, the most difficult, or insane, or just completely incomprehensible person will get on, and submit a paper about hidden messages in DNA or space viruses or something equally entertaining. Unfortunately, you will have to reject their paper, but they are not as happy to get off of the bus. Some of these seatmates will then repeatedly call or email you, most often to cast aspersions on your qualifications, or with some witty rejoinder like “as a woman, you clearly aren’t capable of understanding my work, so I request you transfer this paper to a male editor.” The bus keeps traveling, and the cycle repeats.

I was lucky enough to handle an exciting area at a high-profile time:  genome papers. These were big productions that had to be wooed for years in advance, and then negotiated and managed like any large project. These papers report determination and analysis of the genetic sequence, or genome, of an organism; Nature was (and still is) interested in publishing them because they are landmarks and resources for scientists in all fields. The human genome had been published before I started, so I first handled the mouse, and then the rat, and then worked through species as they came in. These projects were like the Knight Bus in a second way:  If you remember the scene in the third Harry Potter movie where the bus is squeezed impossibly small between two other oncoming buses, that’s what it was like to be the editor handling these papers.

On the one side, you have the scientists, who are your customers and your colleagues. For genome papers in particular, there are community-agreed guidelines stating all of the data must be completely freely available, and a history of authors punishing journals by taking their papers somewhere else if the journal does not comply with this openness. On the other side, as an editor you have your actual employer — a magazine with publishers and a commercial side involved. If people have to pay to read papers, and lots of them want to read genome papers, then lots of money is at stake. So the editors are squeezed in the middle, and at times that space can be bloody tight. At Nature, we negotiated the squeeze with a policy that any paper reporting primary genome data for the first time would be freely available under special licenses.

Given the size and importance of these papers, they created mountains of drama. One of the biggest was the chimpanzee genome, on which I had worked with the authors for years, as they had committed to Nature well before the paper was written. This did not stop other journals from attempting to woo the authors by stressing their unique offerings and policies. The consortium of authors and I had agreed that the paper would be freely available, as was our policy, and that we would publicize the findings with a press conference and with extra content bundled into a special, high-profile insert into an issue of the magazine.

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