After 149 years, Nature, one of the top scientific journals in the world, is getting its first editor-in-chief who’s a life scientist. And its first editor-in-chief who’s on Twitter.
Magdalena Skipper also happens to be the first editor-in-chief who is a woman.
A geneticist by training and a longtime editor at other Nature publications, Skipper will take the helm as the eighth editor-in-chief of the prestigious journal in July. She will replace Philip Campbell, who is moving to a new role as the editor-in-chief at Nature’s publisher, Springer Nature.
The scientific community cheered the news of Skipper’s hire, noting that she brings a laundry list of talents to the job.
“This is excellent news — for Nature, for science publishing, and for the advancement of women,” said Dr. Fiona Godlee, the editor-in-chief of the BMJ, who added that Skipper brings “an enormous richness of skill and experience appropriate for this important role.”
Skipper describes her editing style as a lot like her personality — “open-minded, unbiased, but at the same time, quizzical.” She tries to approach every manuscript “prepared to be surprised by something truly amazing.”
“I read some manuscripts like you read a page turner of a book,” she told STAT.
She’s thrilled about the new gig, and hopes to use it to advance transparency in science and support junior researchers.
She’s not as thrilled it took so long for a woman to be hired for the job.
“A big part of me wishes I wasn’t the first female editor,” Skipper said. “It is a little bit odd for my X chromosome to have acquired so much attention all of the sudden. It really shouldn’t matter whether I’m female or male.”
And it shouldn’t. But Skipper knows that her hire carries a certain kind of weight in a field that’s long been dominated by men. Since Nature announced her new role this week, she’s been flooded with congratulatory messages, including notes praising her as a role model for other women in science.
Skipper never expected to be an editor. She fell in love with science in her high school biology class and went on to earn a Ph.D. in developmental genetics from the University of Cambridge, where she studied sex differentiation in C. elegans worms.
But then, while doing her postdoctoral fellowship at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, she started to get the feeling she was too buried in her own work to appreciate the other research happening in her field.
“The more involved you become in your subject area, the more you feel you miss out on the greater picture,” Skipper said. She was itching for a chance to take more of a bird’s-eye view.
Then, she saw an advertisement in the back of a Nature journal. They were looking for an associate editor at Nature Reviews Genetics.
Skipper took an editing test. She pored over a draft review paper, marking it up with comments and suggestions. She brainstormed ideas for new review papers, pinpointed the right people to write them, and penned an article on a new study.
The test would’ve been enough to make some scientists run back to the bench. It only made Skipper want the job more.
“I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty,” she said.
She started at Nature Reviews Genetics in 2001, and has spent the better part of two decades immersed in editing. Last year, she became editor-in-chief of Nature Communications.
Authors and peer reviewers who’ve worked with Skipper say she is a top-notch editor with a keen and thoughtful eye and a deep understanding of genomics.
“She’s really an outstanding editor, and one of the finest I’ve had the chance to work with,” said Dr. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute.
Topol said he’s particularly excited because Skipper is not “stuck in the past of tradition.” He pointed to her Twitter page — which she uses as a way to communicate science and interact with researchers — and her open attitude toward preprints.
Preprint servers, where researchers share their work before it goes through formal peer review, are controversial in publishing. Some journals won’t accept papers that have been posted on preprint servers, though Nature Research does. Skipper said they can serve as a “pre-peer review.”
“We, as editors, are in the business of communicating science,” she said. “We’re certainly not in the business of preventing science being communicated.”
“We’re certainly not in the business of preventing science being communicated.”
Magdalena Skipper, incoming Nature editor-in-chief
Once she steps into her new role, Skipper said she’d like to focus on two thorny, intertwined issues: research reproducibility and publishing transparency.
“Science is increasingly more complex,” she explained. “That necessitates much greater care both with experimentation and with reporting of that experimentation.”
Typically, when a manuscript is evaluated at a journal, editors decide either to return it to the authors or continue considering it. If they want to keep working with the paper, they send it out for peer review. Qualified scientists read the papers and make comments; the authors respond to those comments and make tweaks. That can go on for several rounds.
But traditionally, that process happens behind closed doors. That means researchers are kept in the dark about who reviewed their paper — and by the same token, readers are kept in the dark about that discourse.
At Nature Communications, the authors of papers have the choice to publish those exchanges along with their papers. Skipper said about 60 percent do so. It’s a good example of an effort to improve transparency and make it easier for researchers trying to replicate a study to have the details they need, she said. But, she acknowledged, it’s not the sole solution to the issue of reproducibility.
“There’s a lot more to do,” she said. Skipper also said she’d like to spend time speaking with more early-career researchers. She knows there is extreme pressure on young scientists to publish papers. And she knows the job market is tough — there are more Ph.D.s and postdocs than there are subsequent jobs in active research, Skipper said. She’s hoping to find ways that Nature can better support those scientists.
Whatever her first steps are in the job, the scientific community is excited to see what comes next for the journal.
“I’m very much looking forward to seeing how she and her team take Nature forward,” BMJ’s Godlee said.