#MySciComm: Sarah Schneider on the at-times winding road from academia to academic publishing

This week, Sarah Schneider (of ESA’s Editorial Office/publications) responds to the #MySciComm questions! We’re delighted to share her story with you, as it is a window into a type of SciComm career that is pivotal to how we do science.

Woman in hat smiling at camera
You can take the ecologist out of the field, but you can’t take the field out of the ecologist. Sarah Schneider applying her backcountry research experience to a hiking trip in Shenandoah National Park. (Photo credit: Virginia Sawyer)

Sarah Schneider has worked for the Publications Office of the Ecological Society of America since 2013. These days, she works primarily on Ecosphere, ESA’s open access journal, and on the society Bulletin. Sarah worked as a paralegal, lab technician, farmhand, museum curator, and archivist before finding her calling in science publishing. She has a Bachelor’s from Cornell University and a Master’s in Ecology from the University of Maine. You can connect with her at sarah@esa.org.

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Okay, Sarah…

1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?

I “decided” on a career in science early in life.

I recently came across a diary entry from fourth grade in which I lamented being forced to take a writing elective, because it was “boring,” “stupid,” and made me miss out on unspecified “cool stuff.” It concluded with “I want to do SCEINCE!” Clearly, my insight as to my future career path was rivaled only by my grasp of English spelling conventions.

The tension (if you can call it that) between science and the humanities continued throughout my education. I attended a science magnet school, and primarily excelled in social studies. I started out my undergraduate career (at an R1 university) as a Classics major. In between an unsuccessful stint as a pre-law student and a detour into Latin American Studies, I was peer-pressured into trying out some earth science classes. I then stumbled into ecology, and I fell in love with the field (forest ecology specifically). I continued to awe my friends by being able to turn out 25-page term papers at the drop of a hat, which was an asset in my now-planned career as a professional ecology researcher. I loaded up on science classes and worked as a lab technician. By the time I got to graduate school, the only place in my mind for writing was in scientific papers. I considered myself a Real Scientist, and my college liberal arts classes were nothing more than an anecdote to tell at parties.

Nothing like real-world experience to make one re-evaluate their plans

There wasn’t any single moment when this started to change for me. I gradually realized that while I loved the broader world of science, I didn’t have the right mix of passion, detachment, discipline, and creativity to thrive as a researcher. Taking failed experiments as personal insults was certainly a warning sign. I focused on the biogeochemistry of forested ecosystems to avoid having to pick a single organism to study. Even then, I had difficulty focusing on just one, well-defined research topic. I finished up my Master’s program with no clear idea of what I wanted to do next. At this impressionable point in life, I fell under the spell of E. O. Wilson’s “The Diversity of Life,” particularly the section where Wilson describes the importance of museum collections as repositories for biodiversity. Coincidentally, a friend was working at a local paleontology museum, and encouraged me to pursue my interest in this field. I applied for a volunteer position, which ultimately turned into an at-times paid job.

I was pleased to find that working in a museum, much like working as a laboratory technician, kept me in the field of science, but didn’t push me into the unwanted (for me) role of independent researcher. I started to realize that there was a whole universe of such jobs in science. PI-led research may drive the field, but without technicians, curators, data managers, and the like, that research can’t happen.

The museum job was rewarding in that it gave me a sense of mission and accomplishment, but it wasn’t rewarding in a financial sense. I was paying the bills with my second job as a farmhand (and sometimes third job as a landscaper). I was considering a move to a larger city in pursuit of either more stable museum work or a library science degree when an opportunity in science communication fell into my lap.

Taking a chance on a new path (and having a chance taken on me)

An acquaintance worked as a technical editor at the Ecological Society of America; several people had recently retired, and the editorial office was looking for a few new copy editors. My only formal editing or reviewing experience at that point had been serving on a volunteer grant review panel as a graduate student. However, I knew I liked reading scientific papers, and I thought that editing them would make for an interesting change of pace. My difficulty picking a single subfield of ecology now proved to be an asset. I was fortunate in that the editorial office was as willing to teach editing to an ecologist as they were to teach ecology to an editor. I came in with a strong grasp of citation formatting, taxonomic naming conventions, and many of the potential pitfalls of the passive voice. I (fairly) quickly picked up equation formatting and the difference between an em dash and an en dash. I’ll admit that the intricacies of arranging tables came to me more slowly.

My first impression of copy editing was “oh, good, a job I can do when it’s snowing,” but within a few months of starting the job, I knew I’d found my real calling. Editing (first copy, although I worked my way up to graphics and some technical work) combined my abiding love of ecology with my skills as a writer. I’d always enjoyed editing my friends’ cover letters and application essays; the task of shaping and refining their words to create the best possible result was consistently satisfying. I applied this same attitude toward copy editing; I wasn’t just wrangling rogue semi-colons, I was helping to create the clearest, most readable science possible. This was great, because I had long wondered: if your research wasn’t clearly readable to a wide audience of interested experts, what was the point?

Both my growing appreciation for scientific publishing work and my learning on the job are, I suspect, fairly typical for science communication. Very few people graduate with a degree in science writing and go to work immediately in the field of communication. Most of us are starting out from more traditional scientific or writing backgrounds, and we learn the other side of the job as we move along. What seems like an interesting short-term job slowly turns into a vocation.

Behind the scenes with ESA’s publishing

Over time, my job with ESA has shifted; where once I corralled punctuation, now I shepherd manuscripts through the peer review process. This is one of the more behind-the-scenes aspects of academic publishing. I sometimes joke that, in the ideal manuscript submission, the authors and reviewers don’t realize we exist. I will now (slightly) lift the curtain on the secrets of the review process, as practiced by ESA. Every academic journal handles the process of reviewing and publishing manuscripts a little differently. One thing virtually all the larger journals have in common is full-time staff, to deal with the many technical and logistical issues that come with the publication process.

At ESA, we’re well aware what a tremendous volunteer service our reviewers and editorial boards offer (and we’re incredibly grateful for it). We try to limit the work they do to evaluating the science of any given study. When a paper is submitted to any of the ESA journals, editorial office staff check it over for obvious issues or errors, and we work with the authors to ensure that any file going out for review is in the best shape possible. We don’t want good papers to be rejected because a figure file got lost in the submission process.

The editorial office tries to minimize the workload for reviewers and editors in other ways, as well. We keep track of how recently a given person has reviewed a paper for any ESA journal, so that we don’t keep asking the same people to handle reviews. We troubleshoot issues with the software used for the review process, and answer questions about journal standards. We check over decision letters before they go out, to make sure that anonymous reviews are truly anonymous, and that it is clear what changes are being requested of authors. We consult regularly with the editorial boards and editors in chief about the amount of material everyone is handling, and we help with recruiting new editors as needed. In some cases, we transfer papers from one ESA journal to another, so that solid science that doesn’t quite match the journal it was submitted to winds up being published in the “right” place.

If a paper is accepted, staff work with the authors to get all the necessary pieces of the article together before the article is sent off to press. The earlier in the process you can fix a problem, the easier it is to do so. Something like switching out a figure or adding an author is much, much easier during the peer review process than it is after the article has been accepted and is being typeset. Depending on the journal in question, this is a place where I re-don my copy editor hat.

As accepted articles move through the production process, editorial staff continue to coordinate between the authors and the different components of the publishing process (editing, typesetting, billing, publicity, etc.). Even after an article has published, we’re still not necessarily done with it. Articles may be featured on the various journal Twitter accounts or the ESA homepage, or presented as part of a collection.

Beyond working with individual papers and authors, I (and the rest of the editorial office) deal with some of the broader aspects of the society publishing program. We serve as sounding boards for journal editors. We coordinate between the different journal editorial boards, our publishing partner (Wiley), other departments within ESA, and ESA membership about plans and policies for the publishing program. For example, if members of an ESA section have an idea for a special feature in one of the journals, editorial staff will be involved in the conversation with the relevant editor in chief about the best way to coordinate this special feature. We then pass this information to our publishing partner, so that we can handle all of the back-end, technical aspects (for example, being able to group all the articles together in a special feature).

Academic publishing – a bigger picture

 That’s just the day-to-day part of it. There is a lot going on in academic publishing right now. A string of recent scandals have underscored the need for oversight of the peer review process. Scientists are under increasing pressure to publish in volume, and the temptation to slice one paper into three or four so-called “least publishable units” is rising accordingly. The entire business model is also in the midst of a shift.

In the recent past, most science was published in subscription-only journals; readers (or their institutions) would pay a flat fee for access, and those fees were used to offset the costs of publishing. In many cases (including the ESA journals), that subscription revenue also provided a lot of the financial support for the professional societies running the journals. While the majority of science is still being published in subscription journals, open-access journals (in which the authors pay the entire cost of publishing, and the resulting work is free to all readers) are on the rise. There’s clearly a trade-off; either the cost of publishing is loaded onto the author or onto the reader. The field of academic publishing is still trying to figure out the fairest way to handle this trade-off. The ESA journals include both subscription and open-access journals; we’re trying to meet scientists on both sides of the payment equation.

When I started out in academic publishing, I was working at the microscale end of the process. Editing one paper at a time was rewarding in a tangible sense; when the final version of an article published, I’d get a little satisfied buzz from reading over some formerly unclear wording I had helped the author rewrite, or from looking over a table I had reformatted. I was reminded of my contribution to the published paper. The work I do on individual papers still brings that kind of satisfaction, but it’s not the only way I’m contributing. The macroscale end of my job (i.e., spending time in strategy meetings) gives me a voice in the direction of the ESA publishing program. I can use my scientific training and my experience in both research and publishing to suggest ways to better meet the needs of authors, reviewers, and readers. Whatever part of the process I’m working on at the moment, I’m still using my own specific skillset to better serve a field of science I care deeply about.

2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?

1. Consider your audience.

Whether you’re writing, editing, advising, or designing some piece of communication, ask yourself, who is the intended audience? Who is likely to read this? Are those the same groups of people? Who do you want to reach, and do the format and distribution of this piece line up with those goals? Good writing is important, but it’s even more important to match the needs of your audience.

2. Remember that the loudest voices aren’t always the most representative.

It can be very easy to assume that if a given person or institution has, for example, a very active social media presence, they are a leader in their field, and thus a natural point for outreach and engagement. While this is sometimes true, sometimes it isn’t. It’s always a good idea to seek out other voices and solicit feedback, especially from some of the quieter people in the room.

3. For insights into what’s going on in the field of academic publishing…

…I’m a big fan of The Scholarly Kitchen. The authors of the blog do a great job highlighting a huge range of topics and looking at issues in publishing from an array of perspectives.


This piece was edited by Annaliese Hettinger and Bethann Garramon Merkle.