DIARY: Getting back to nature and supporting science.
By Andrew Jermy
First published on the Nature Microbiology Community on on 23rd October 2017
A keen scout as a youth, many are the nights this diarist has spent huddled in sleeping bag with only two thin walls of canvas separating my inner from the great dark outer beyond. Camping wasn't just an occasional event; the entire Jermy clan had as fine a scouting pedigree as one could imagine. The Jermy seniors variably held the positions of cub leader, scout leader, group scout leader, treasurer, quarter master, assistant district commissioner and leader trainer, each receiving local and national recognition for their service. Myself and the other two Jermy juniors joined the movement at six years of age and over a dozen years progressed from Beaver, Cub and Scout through to Venture Scout, with two of the three of us representing the UK at World Scout Jamborees, and all three spending probably a minimum of four weeks per year under canvas from the age of ten onward. We would camp, hike, climb, kayak, orienteer, light fires, cook, burn things, run around, get muddy and generally revel in the great outdoors, returning home rosy-cheeked and exhausted. Such was the familial devotion to the Baden Powell-inspired life that our summer holiday would also occasionally be spent in a tent, at a Scout campsite carefully selected to sit near sufficient places of interest to keep three young boys and their parents from going spare with boredom. Looking back with adult eyes, I realize now that this was perhaps as much a financial necessity as it was choice; low-cost carriers were not yet flying from the UK to the Mediterranean for loose change, although I suspect that even if they were, the Jermy seniors would have opted for us to carry on camping. It is through rose-tinted glass that I now view these memory fragments, and I suspect that were I to converse with my 13 year old predecessor, wedged in the middle of a glum fraternal trio in the back of a beige Lada Riva estate car, drinking plastic tea from a thermos flask on a wet weekday visiting some desolate country house, before retiring to a sodden tent for the evening, he might have a different take on the situation. However, while not always sunshine and sweetness, it was simple and happy, an idyll that I do not want to be forgotten altogether as Mrs Jermy and I start to lay down the foundations upon which Jermy's minor and minimus will build their hazy halycon days.
Truth be told though, while the rest of the clan Jermy have retained or reestablished their connection with and service to Scouting and the outdoor life, since my own undergraduate years, this thread from my youth has been allowed to fade far more than I would like. Despite occasional hill-walking weekends with friends, and the odd night under canvas here or there, and despite feeling as much the scout as I ever did, I have become soft and suburban. You are more likely to find me in the indoor pool of a Hilton than outdoors with a hat on, sweltering at the beach not sheltering in a bivouac. This has not been helped by Mrs Jermy's predilection for the creature comforts, a warm shower, dry towel, soft bed and an absence of creepy crawlies. Despite this, over the past eighteen months has begun the process of trying to rekindle the campfires so to speak, and get our own patrol of the Jermy clan under canvas once again. The first attempt was promising, finding in Kelling Heath a family campsite with facilities to rival most holiday villages; Jermy minor and yours truly had a blast but the chill April nights and the airbed/sleeping bag arrangements proved a problem for Mrs Jermy; we returned home after only three nights. Too much, too soon then. So a change of tack was needed and festival camping, at Standon Calling in the summer of 2016, was next to be tried. Alas having arrived early and secured our tent in a prime slot in the family field, we we were soon penned in so tightly by other festival goers as to make the experience unpalatable. Individually and in small numbers people rub along together just fine, but crammed together at a festival and under pressure to (pretend to) have a marvelous time, the added friction can drain the enjoyment from an event, especially with a two year old who just wants to run around freely. Witness the seemingly hippy mother of an adjacent tent as she chided children from another family ("Look guys, bubbles are great fun ya-aah, but they damage the waterproofing on the tents so can you play with them somewhere else, o-kaaay"). Seriously? Let them have their fun - it's a festival after all! Anyway, having seen one of my favorite boyhood bands (Suede) attempt to relive their glory days (but ultimately miss the mark), we returned home the next morning after only a single night under canvas to escape the maddening crowd. Two fails then, and a greatly ratcheted pressure on the third camping experience; if the secret to success was not found, I suspect it would have seen us mothballing our gear for many years to come. Fortunes change for the better, thank goodness, owing to a few key elements. Firstly Wapsbourne Manor Farm (aka camp WoWo) is discovered, a family campsite in Sussex with pretty rustic amenities and where children are encouraged to get muddy, climb trees and light fires. Secondly, some camp beds and additional kit are procured to move the in-tent experience more akin to glamping than tramping. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we opt to leave Mrs Jermy at home (ostensibly to look after minimus), releasing Jermy minor and myself to enjoy the full three night trip with no early retreat. Campfires, rope swings, clambering, balancing, bike riding, football (and yes, the wood-fired pizza van on the second night) made for a thoroughly enjoyable time. Huzzah, the Jermy boys are outdoors-men once again and my inner teenager is reborn. Whether this will be the spark that leads back into the service of Scouting alongside my two brothers, time will tell.
Service of a different kind comes calling upon my return to the office, as I happily fulfill a commitment to speak at a grant and paper writing workshop organized by Professors Neil Gow and Al Brown, of the University of Aberdeen, on behalf of the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award for Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology. In the journal proper, we recently published an entreaty that the press, public and funding bodies should "Stop neglecting fungi" a message that was seemingly important and incredibly popular given the amount of attention that the piece received. Well, to the talented group of young career researchers at this workshop, our message was preaching to the converted - they have absolutely nothing to learn about the importance of Fungi from the likes of this editor. What I was able to help guide them in, however, were the in's and out's of scientific publishing and some of the mechanics of how to put together a research paper and communicate it to editors, referees and the wider readership beyond. Initially slated for a 60 minute talk with 30 minutes of questions, with such a bright bunch of engaged young researchers your diarist was kept on his toes with probing questions and a lively discussion for pretty much a full two hours. At such events it is always the aim to try and answer queries with full candor while avoiding any corporate blandness that would alienate such a switched on audience. One question asked in this session demanded just such a response; why should researchers seek to publish papers in journals such as Nature Microbiology that are subscription-based and owned by a commercial publisher, rather than in those journals that support scientific societies? A perfectly reasonable point to raise. My response, having spent a good proportion of the session discussing the role of an editor and the principals by which we the editorial team at Nature Microbiology operate (see this companion post, The very model of a modern science editor), primarily boiled down to the notion that the only way in which our journal can survive and thrive is if we demonstrate each and every day that we add value, bringing a care and dedication at every opportunity to provide great author and referee service and bringing work we publish to prominence among a wide readership. A secondary, but equally important point was also noted in my response, that it should not be an either/or situation and that this editor (and the rest of the editorial team at Nature Microbiology) support the idea of a diverse and varied publishing landscape that gives microbiologists a wide range of options in terms of publishing model, degree of selectivity and editorial criteria. Academic societies have a long and proud history of publishing important research from microbiologists, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) for instance was founded in 1899 (making it only 30 years younger than Nature itself) and one of its eighteen publications, The Journal of Bacteriology celebrated its centenary in 2016. What guides author choice among this diverse landscape of journals is of course an important issue which, unbeknownst at the time to both parties in this discussion, was precisely the topic of an editorial published in another of the ASM journals, mBio (established in 2010) a matter of hours later. [A quick disclaimer – I have served on the ASM Microbe meeting planning committee for the past 4 years]
The editorial - Support Science by Publishing in Scientific Society Journals - penned by the excellent and always thought-provoking Editor in Chief of mBio Professor Arturo Casadevall, as well as the Editor in Chief of the journal Genetics, Professor Mark Johnston and Chair of the ASM Journals Board, Professor Patrick Schloss, is certainly worth reading and provoked much discussion among the Nature Microbiology team. Taking a look at the total volume of content across the 18 ASM journal titles (using PubMed), it seems evident that there has been a sharp decrease between 2015 and 2016 in the volume of content published (and presumably therefore submissions too), which is understandably worrying, and was possibly a factor in the decision to cancel a large proportion of the society's conference program (discussed in an earlier diary entry). The sentiment behind the editorial is in close agreement with the thoughts of this editor; scientific societies such as the Microbiology Society, Society for Applied Microbiology, International Society for Microbial Ecology, ASM and many others, do important work that is supported in large part by their publishing activities, and microbiologists should absolutely continue to consider their journals when submitting research papers for consideration. Where our views diverge a little more is in the diagnosis of the causal factors behind the decline, and what should be done to return submissions to a healthy volume.
Casadevall, Johnston and Schloss target two key factors as being responsible for the decline in the proportion of research papers published in their journals. Firstly the editorial takes aim at researchers for seeking to publish their work in what they (and plenty of others previously) refer to as 'glam journals', an attempted slur that many seem determined to stick with, despite any evidence to suggest that collectively associating selective journals with the concept of glamour (as opposed to a drab dowdiness of less editorially-selective journals??) has had any effect on submissions to, or volume and quality of research published in such journals. Time to let that one go, surely gents. The well-trodden trope of Impact Factor-mania is also wheeled out and used to decry authors for choosing to publish their work in non-society journals; in essence the arguments put forward are that many microbiologists not only lack a sense of civic duty in not supporting their societies when they submit papers elsewhere, but are also ignorant of the highly visible recent discussions regarding the limitations of metrics such as the Journal Impact Factor. I suspect that this is more than a little wide of the mark as a reason for declining submissions at society journals, and that the collective intelligence of the microbiology community should be given a lot more credit. Rather ironically, while (rightly) decrying the Impact Factor as a useful metric, the editorial also proposes that another metric - the journal authority factor - which is based on the collective citation record of the editorial board, should be taken into account when selecting where to submit work. This is an extension of an occasionally trotted out complaint about the use by journals (such as Nature Microbiology) of professional editors. The main thrust of this argument is to suggest that a professional editor (who no longer publishes research under their own name and so does not, by definition, rank highly in a metric based on citation), cannot have the requisite knowledge and experience to properly understand and assess where a scientific paper sits in relation to the previous literature. It likely wont surprise you to read that in my estimation this is a narrowly held canard that falls apart very quickly when one actually starts to consider it more thoroughly. Professional editors at Nature Journals have strong academic backgrounds (PhD and usually post-doctoral experience, generally in the field of research covered by the journal on which they work) but are no longer active researchers. To suggest that a professional editor is unable to fully grasp the complexities of a piece of research is a slight on the ability, hard work, dedication and broad insight held by the editor. It would also suggest that a paper is so poorly written that the deeper relevance of the research is impenetrable to anyone other than a few senior researchers. But perhaps most importantly, it suggests that as a PhD candidate, as a post-doctoral researcher and as junior faculty, researchers are not fully able to understand scientific work and literature in their own field, and that such decisions are only safe in the hands of the more senior researchers who have been publishing papers long enough and in a field with a sufficient number of other labs to accrue a high H index. The argument is facile, and being a highly cited researcher does not automatically mean that you are better placed to understand and assess a paper, manage the peer review process and make editorial decisions on others research across widely varying parts of the field. Imagine that you are an up and coming racing driver but your engine is misfiring ahead of an important race - do you take it to the world champion racing driver and assume that only they and other former world champions have the expertise and time to take a careful look at your car and rectify the problem, or do you seek a mechanic (who may well have been a promising driver themselves before re-training) to strip down the engine, identify the problem and help to rebuild. The tasks of racing a car and fixing an engine are related but not identical; as with being an author and scientific editor. The reader should not be hoodwinked into thinking that simply because an individual is no longer securing grants and writing their own papers that they become a gibbering simpleton unable to grasp the complexities and nuance of the scientific process, the relevance of new findings to a field and that they cannot play a full and important role in publishing. There are good and bad editors of both the academic and professional kind, period. What this diarist suggests is that in selecting a group of journals suitable for submission of your study, once you have taken into account the various criteria in terms of publishing model, scope and degree of selectivity, that you send your papers to the short-listed journals where you and your colleagues have previously found the good editors to be, and had a constructive experience.
The second major (and perhaps more credible) target for discussion in the editorial is the rise of so-called mega journals, PLOS ONE and Scientific Reports, for example [Another quick disclaimer, it should hopefully be clear that I am employed by Springer Nature, the publisher of the latter]. Casadevall and colleagues rightly note that clear hierarchies of journals have been established in part to facilitate the transfer of work rejected by one journal in a publishers' stable to another whose scope and selection criteria are more suitable. This is indeed a fair point, although it should also be noted that at Nature Research, authors are in full control when transferring a research paper between different journals and that there are also benefits to be had in terms of simplified re-submission processes, consistent formatting and reusing referee reports to avoid a potentially time-consuming and financially costly fresh round of review at another publishers journal. That said, having seen the actual number of transfers upstream and down from Nature Microbiology during 2015 and 2016, I can say categorically that this is not the major cause of the declining submissions at ASM journals. Direct submissions to mega-journals is perhaps the bigger problem, and this relates to what for this editor are the two key factors missing from the analysis in the mBio editorial. Firstly there is no sign of recognition that any of the journals discussed in the piece (mine included) might be doing many things right. Authors don't submit papers to Nature Microbiology simply because of an impact factor alone (indeed as a newly launched journal we don't yet have one, and will not trumpet it when we do receive one in 2018). Instead authors receive truly great author service, whether a paper is rejected or ultimately published (See again the companion post The very model of modern science editor), and in the latter case the work gains a visibility online and through social media that few other microbiology journals match, even those that have been established for a decade/century longer than we. Microbiologists aren't simply submitting papers to 'mega-journals' for foolish reasons alone, the journals are doing many things right and societies would be wise to identify what those things are, rather than simply lambast microbiologists for a lack of service to a scientific society when making a choice. Perhaps more importantly, the editorial lacks any sense of introspection; certainly society journals will often have very senior editorial lineups and a proud history on their side (as did Blockbusters), but is that enough? What does each ASM journal get right for their authors, and where is there room for improvement? If the ordered hierarchy of journals at some publishers leads to the retention of some research papers, does a less-structured cohort of journals published by a scientific society serve the same purpose and if not, why not? Society journals should not be allowed to wither and fold, they serve an important function in the diverse publishing landscape of our field, but in publishing as in nature, there is no free-ride. This diarist hopes that the recent editorial is just a first sign that the necessary self analysis is being undertaken and pragmatic steps identified to stem and then turn the tide, so that the society journals that we have all grown up with, and that have published so many fundamental and important papers for the microbiology field, as well as those that have joined them more recently, can be publishing for another 100 years to come.
A quick final note; the 15th of October marked ten years for me at Nature Research, a decade spent covering microbiology across three existing journals (including the mothership) and latterly launching a fourth, always alongside many amazing colleagues. For all that has been great (and not so great) about working for NPG, Macmillan and now Springer Nature, the quality, enthusiasm and dedication to the journal and the role of editor that I have witnessed and been inspired by in many of those around me has been a constant, is an important factor in the success of Nature journals, and is worth defending.