Milka is the Senior Editor of Chemistry & Biology and Structure. She spends her days thinking about structural biology, chemical biology, and the role of her journals in advancing science and serving their communities. She is known to gush about the breathtaking beauty of structures and admires elegant approaches to answering nature’s mysteries. Milka enjoys a good story, scientific or otherwise, especially those with a quirky twist.
“How many papers do you read every day?”
As an editor of a science research journal, I get asked this question a lot. It’s hard to give an exact answer, but between the manuscripts I handle in my journals and the papers published elsewhere that I check out, it can be as many as ten—sometimes fifteen—per day.
The average is probably closer to about five, and I actually don’t know if that’s a lot or a little. If you asked me to guess, I’d say I read twice as much as I read when I was in the lab and actively engaged in my own research. And yet, this increase in volume is not the most important or even the most noticeable change that happened over the years and as I moved from the lab bench to the editorial desk. It’s how I read papers that has undergone a profound transformation.
One change happened relatively quickly as I transitioned from being a scientist to being a scientific editor. As a scientist working in the lab, I spent most of my time focused on the problem at hand, and this often came down to very specific issues either relevant to experimental design or data analysis. Because of the technical nature of my problems, I focused a great deal on dissecting papers I read, especially focusing on experimental design, protocols, reagents, and the data. When I became an editor, my focus shifted from looking for how and what to looking more for why, and since I started handling papers that did not focus on topics I’d encountered much in the past, I started paying very close attention to all the components that help a reader place the how and what into a broader perspective of why and what next. Today, I find that most of my attention is focused on the Introduction and Discussion of a paper since I look to form an opinion about whether a study would be of interest to the broader structural biology community.
Another aspect of the shift from being an active scientist to being a scientific editor is that, as a scientist, I read a great deal looking for ideas and insights that would inspire me, nudge my thinking into a different direction, or cast an alternative light on the data I had in hand. As an editor, I continue to be inspired by what I read, but in papers that I’m handling, I’m also trying to put myself in the shoes of those still actively engaged in research and ask whether they will find anything in the articles I decide to publish to inspire them and make a difference in their thinking and the way they do science.
The other change happened gradually and almost unconsciously. One of the most prominent features of my desk back when I was in the lab was paper—piles and piles of printouts, most of them with elaborate, color-coded markups and notes scribbled all over. I had colorful highlighters and pens all over the place, to the point where I’d actively look forward to visits to the local art supply store to get new writing implements. All this made my reading more enjoyable and my printouts quite colorful. This was also the strategy I implemented when I started as an editor. But gradually, I realized that reading on the screen and making electronic notes makes my life several orders of magnitude easier and my work more portable. I can now lay my hand on any manuscript at any time and any place, marked up and ready to share in a blink of an eye. I also don’ miss making trips to the printer, figuring out that there is a paper jam or that the color ink has run out, and resending my print job once. Or getting half way home just to remember that I forgot to bring all the papers I wanted to go over with mew. Or being at a scientific conference in a remote location and realizing that I left a critical set of notes at home thousands of miles away. I don’t even miss not having a dazzling display of colorful highlighters on my desk.
Perhaps the key reason why I was able to let go of the urge to print everything is because my priorities and interests went from those of someone who was invested in building a deep understanding of a specific scientific topic and becoming a domain expert in a relatively narrow field to someone who has a different knowledge needs, where breadth wins over the depth. That’s a possibility, given that there is a research that suggests that we understand and retain information better if we read from a source that is printed than when we read from screen. But, even if that is the case, I’m quite sure that the days when I print things out in order to read them and understand them are over. I’m also sure that the way I read papers now will continue to change, so I’ll end on a philosophical note: Panta rhei!