Interview with Dr Magdalena Skipper, new Editor-in-Chief of Nature

Kety Alania and Ines Das Neves) You are the first woman to become an Editor-in-Chief of Nature over the last 149 years. What does this mean to you personally?

It is interesting actually, at some level it means very little. When you think about the role, my gender should not matter. I am in the role because of what I have to offer, both as a scientist first and now as an editor. My professional setting should be gender-neutral. Of course, in general, there are fewer women and less diversity in leadership roles and roles of influence: for these reasons it is important that I am a woman in this role.

As it happens, I am the first woman. What is worth remembering is that although Nature has been around for almost 150 years, I am only the 8th Editor-in-Chief. My predecessor, the outgoing Editor-in-Chief Sir Philip Campbell, was appointed 22 years ago. When you go back to the previous appointments, unfortunately, there were fewer women in positions that would have allowed them to compete for the role then, both from perspective of personal engagement, education, and so on. Fortunately, things are changing, and this is important. Overall, I rarely think of myself as a role model in the true sense of the word, but if I can be a role model for young women, that is of course a delightful side effect of my appointment to this role.

Esther Awodipe) Have you experienced any challenges as a woman in science? And if so, how did you overcome these challenges?

I have to be honest and say that I personally have not, at least I do not believe that I have experienced any specific challenges, which of course is a delightful thing for me to be able to say. I have been fortunate enough to have the kind of mentors and teachers since the very beginning who looked at me as a person in a gender-neutral way, and then encouraged me in the direction I wanted to proceed. That has always been the case: when I was at school, at the University of Nottingham, where I had fantastic tutors in the Genetics department, and similarly during my PhD and my postdoc.

The biggest challenge we all have to face is the decision on how to divide the time between the professional engagement (and science is a very jealous profession, to which you have to devote so much time) and personal life. Early career stages are also times during which one thinks about a family; while these considerations are equally important for men and for women, for biological reasons women tend to be more intensively engaged, at least for a period of time.

Kety Alania) Have you seen a change in recent years in terms of number of females competing and being appointed in leadership roles within or outside academic publishing? Also, do you think we can do more about that?


In general, we do see many more women who are much more visible in roles of responsibilities and senior roles in academia, in publishing and in industry (or applied research, if you like), which is, of course wonderful to see. Just the right thing to be experiencing: there is not a reason why they should not be there. There never was, but it is great that we no longer see it so emphasised.

Publishing is a very interesting example. In my experience, and I have been working in science publishing for eighteen years now, has always been quite well balanced. If anything, I would say that it was almost skewed towards females. In my experience, many professional editors tend to be female rather than male.

Actually here within Springer Nature some of the most senior roles on the editorial side are actually filled by women. Editorial directory: is a woman. Nature editorial director: is a woman. Many among the Chief Editors of Nature Research titles are women. My previous role, Editor-in-Chief of Nature Communications, was filled by me, a woman, until some days ago. In this particular industry, women ‘drive’ and this is certainly recognised (and rightly so).

Ines Das Neves) Considering your background in genetics, what drew you to a career in publishing/editing or out of a career in research? 

My answer is actually agnostic of my specific background. Having spoken to many colleagues of mine over the years, the reason why I left the bench and active research itself and chose publishing actually resonates with many of my colleagues. The fact that I was a genetic researcher before is not related to that decision. I did a PhD and a postdoc. At some point during my postdoc years, I began to think in what way I could most fruitfully contribute to the advancement of science. My postdoc was such that I would have not been in a position to start an independent career after one postdoc, so the plan would have been then to go onto a second postdoc. While I enjoyed research very much, I decided that I was probably not the person who would make the strongest contribution to the advancement of science through research. And yet I really love science, ever since I was a child. I have always found scientific discoveries fascinating, and knowing how the world around me works fascinated me more than anything else. So I did not want to lose this kind of contact with scientific research.

Having considered a number of possibilities, I thought that the editorial career could have been ‘the’ thing for me. At that time I began to look for editorial opportunities and I saw a job advert for an Associate Editor at Nature Reviews Genetics, very much within the area in which I specialised. What happened next was this: the journal, like all  Nature Reviews journals do, sent me a set of tests to be done at home. The test consisted of a series of tasks you would do if appointed to the role. One of them was, for example, looking at a submitted review article to see whether it could be edited to improve the story flow. Another one was to come up with a number of commissions, to effectively create a table of contents for a future issue of the journal, and select some recently published research articles to write a short ‘research highlight’ about, and explain the choice. I had no previous experience in writing nor editing. But as it happened, I enjoyed the test that I had at home so much that by the time I came back for the interview I obviously was imbued with so much enthusiasm that, as I now joke, I almost bullied them into giving me the job.

For me, moving from research to being an editor was, in many ways, a  perfect transition for me.

Mash Coomaraswamy) Do you feel like more needs to be done to open pathways for a more equal gender representation in the biological sciences?

Definitely we do need to encourage girls and young women, and this effort has to start very early on, at school or pre-school. We, as a society, anywhere, continue to have pre-set ideas of what girls and boys are like, and we reward our children for different things depending on their gender. The stereotyping unfortunately begins very earlier on. I do think we have to place more emphasis on equality from the very early days. The responsibility is not only on the educators, but on the whole society, whether we are talking about our own children or children of others

Certainly this effort needs to continue through the schooling years, at university at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, during postdoc years and so on. I see no distinction between biological sciences, physical sciences or engineering. Right across the board, agnostic of the topic, we should encourage those who are interested in the study, regardless of their gender.

Esther Awodipe) How do you manage your work-life balance? 

With difficulty! (she smiles) I have never really made a complete distinction between work and life. Work is part of life for all of us, it is more of a continuum. I find what I do absolutely fascinating. Having said that, I do other things in life, which have nothing to do with work. For example I particularly enjoy pottery. One has to make an effort to switch off. Another thing I try to do as much as possible is not to check my emails when I am on holidays. It is for everyone’s sake, really. For most of us, balancing leisure and work requires some active management of time, but I believe it is very important that we have leisure time and can switch off completely.

Esther Awodipe) Who is your biggest science inspiration?

I am inspired by a numbers of characters, not necessarily within science. But let’s start with scientists.

My earliest inspiration, when I was still a child, was Isaac Newton. My parents bought me a book specifically written for young readers, and it was a book about Newton’s life. I guess that partly thanks to how the author put the story across and explained the different contributions that Newton made and how they came about in his life, I was absolutely fascinated by the dedication to discovery and knowledge, and it may be that this is why I become a scientists. Although I do not remember a very clear connection, now, from perspective of time, I think that was an early inspiration for me.

I have recently acquired a new inspiration – Alexander von Humboldt; he is somebody I did not know much about until recently. The remarkable thing about von Humboldt was that he was a bit of a Renaissance man and possibly the first environmental scientists. Multi-disciplinarian but most importantly, he was somebody who was not afraid to go out there and empirically test ideas and collect data. He spent months and months travelling around South American jungle, completely disregarding the associated discomforts because he was so interested in collecting data. Importantly, he was a very progressive thinker. One of the things he encountered during his travel was slavery. He very openly spoke against slavery and human inequality. Apparently, this was one of the few things he disagreed with George Washington about.

Another person I was very inspired by, if I am allowed to use an inspiration from outside sciences, was a woman called Rosita Forbes. She was not a scientist, but an incredible woman. During the early 1930s she spent quite some time travelling in the Central Asia, by herself and propelled by her own curiosity. At that time Central Asia was politically quite sensitive. She wrote the most wonderful diaries about her travels, where she described her amazement at the cultural variety in Central Asia: it is an amazing chronicle. She wasn’t formally trained as a scientist, but her writing tends towards social anthropology. I think that the reason why I am inspired by her is that in that climate, when women did not travel or did not have necessarily independent existence from their male companions, she just went forth to a part of the World that nobody knew very much about (and which was associated with many different perils) and brought back incredibly rich stories; I find it very inspiring.

Sarah Lee) Over the past years working at Nature, what do you think has been the greatest change (development) in regards to publishing scientific data?

Certainly data availability and being able to increasingly and effectively link scientific papers  to real underlying data. The problem is far from solved: a great challenge for publishers is to be able to even better link the data with the results as discussed in the paper and, ideally, to provide the data exactly as associated with each figure and each graph in a paper that has been published. Publishers spend a lot of time thinking about how we can best do this best. Our ability to directly link and lead the readers of a paper, and of a story, to the dataset would allow them to replicate (at least in silico) how the data were analysed and a particular conclusion is reached.

Sarah Lee) What has been the highlight of your career at Nature so far, from the very first job interview to nowadays?

I am most excited by is something I was involved in when I was the genetics and genomics editor at Nature. I am referring to the ENCODE project.

ENCODE is the Encyclopedia of DNA elements. The Consortium had been working for years, producing a very large body of work, some of which had been published previously. But at some point a very significant bulk of information was ready to be published in a number of papers that were going to come out simultaneously. The dataset and the analyses were so rich that it was quite tricky to choose the story to tell. If you imagine the project as a landscape, writing papers to convey certain messages only allow you to discover certain aspects of the ‘landscape’. But there are other paths through which you can explore a landscape.

Together with the authors we proposed to create what we called ‘threads’. Threads were composed of sections from the already accepted papers, sections of text, or figures, or tables. Threads orthogonal to the exiting papers revealed additional insights into the ‘ENCODE landscape’. The reason why I find it particularly exciting was that not only that was an added way of enriching the data and the analyses, but also a new thing in publishing: nobody has ever done this before. We did this not just with the papers we published in Nature, but together with papers that were published in other journals, such as Genome Biology and Genome Research, which were published by other publishers. For me that was a wonderful opportunity but a number of things had to align: we had amazingly rich datasets, which were ready to be published at the same time; we had the interested and willing authors who took an extremely active part in the whole process; we had the goodwill of the different publishers (including publishers of Nature, but also different publishers: now Genome Biology is part of Springer Nature, but at that time it was not, it was BMC, and Genome Research was published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory). A wonderful opportunity! And then the efforts were well rewarded by the response from the community: I had much positive feedback on this initiative

Ines Das Neves) Do you think there should be any major shifts in the way Nature and scientific publishing in general work?

I certainly can see the need for some shifts. Although not an entirely new initiative, we have made a lot of effort towards rewarding and surfacing efforts to make research reproduce and robust. Again, much work remains to be done.

Another important focus is transparency. Transparency of research goes hand in hand with reproducibility. That said, in my view publishers and editors, who demand transparency from researchers, should themselves be more transparent about their own practices. We at Nature have begun this journey already: we try to surface exactly what it is that editors do, how we consider submissions and how peer-review is conducted. For example, within the journal I led until some days ago, Nature Communications, with the author’s agreement, we publish the referees’ report: we call it ‘transparent peer-review’.

It is important to add much more transparency to the whole scientific discussion that surrounds the publication of a paper. These are just a couple of examples of where I think we should be increasingly moving, and certainly that I would like to champion.

Alexandra Rother) What is in your opinion the best strategy to make sure that papers present reproducible results? What is your opinion on this on both sides, editors and scientists?

I would say to the scientists that a lot of reproducibility uncertainty arises from unclear reporting of how research was actually done. It is not that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way something was done, but simply insufficient details are provided. In some way,  the most transparent way would be for all the researchers to switch to electronic notebooks and publish them as part of, or substituting, the methods section of the papers. This would lead, by definition, to a 100% transparency. Although I am not entirely sure whether that would be necessarily helpful to all the readers.

In the meantime, there are a number of platforms and venues available to researchers to publish their protocols in details, to deposit their data and to describe their datasets in a specific way. For example, a number of journals are specifically dedicated to publishing descriptors of datasets. Springer Nature publishes one of them, but there are also others. The one we publish is called Scientific Data; it publishes an article type called ‘Data Descriptors’. There are no results there, no conclusions, but a description of a dataset alongside, not necessarily coincident, with the analyses and the results that emerge from this dataset; the latter published elsewhere. Of course the beauty of spending more time on describing the dataset is that others can re-use it. There are already a number of tools that scientists could take better advantage of and which can be linked to papers themselves.

Mash Coomaraswamy) What advice would you give to those hoping to enter university or those unsure about pursuing a PhD and further study in science? 

The advice to those entering university: open your mind and enjoy learning about the most wonderful planet (and beyond) and the various aspects of whatever you have chosen to study. I remember being very excited when I was an undergraduate: learning about the mysteries of life. It sounds perhaps cheesy, but that really was the case. Uncovering how things work. Very importantly, uncovering what it is that we do not know yet.

I should say that I am still very excited by many of these questions today, so you do not have to stop being excited by them when you leave university. But I do think it is a wonderful time when you are a student. My advice would be: do not constrain yourself with other things, just immerse yourself in this sort of sea of knowledge as a student.

Moving on to the PhD and further, I would say the following: if you are thinking of doing a PhD because you cannot think of something else to do, you probably should not do it. PhD is hard work: you will have to dedicate yourself to work on a specific problem (to the exclusion of many other things) and to be persistent. Most of the time experiments do not work, you will have to encounter a lot of failures. But if you are genuinely interested in what you do, if you are curious and if you want to make a contribution to research, then the PhD and the postdoc are absolutely wonderful times to be exploring and making your own contribution.

If, after your PhD, you find that you are happy with your contribution, but you are not sure about what to do but the path of least existence  seems to be a postdoc, I would say: think again, there are many other things you can do after a PhD in science. You are incredibly well-qualified for all sorts different roles in society, outside of academia, in industry or actually in other aspects of academia, or publishing, industry etc. The somewhat cliché question ‘where do you see yourself in a five-year time?’ is useful to consider, despite being a cliché. Even if you do not know exactly what you may want to do, perhaps you know what you do not want to do; that is already quite informative.

Alexandra Rother) What tips would you give to someone wishing to pursue a carrier in scientific writing/editing?

Scientific writing and scientific editing are actually quite separate. For scientific editing, there is not specific training or preparation. What you need is an open mind, the ability to consider and discuss a broad range of topics, broader than just your own area of research. If you are interested in pursuing this career, what really helps is talking to an editor. From my own experience, I can tell you that editors are very happy to talk about their careers Editors attend scientific conferences and will often come and visit your university or your institute. Why not invite an editor to come over and maybe give a talk or just have a lunch-session with you and your peers so that you may find out what specific advice they have for you.

Scientific writing usually requires a little bit more of preparation. Some people are natural writers, but, as with any skills, it requires practice. If you do have an opportunity to write, whether it is a blog or a newspaper (it can be a student or a university newspaper or any other), then do so. Sometimes newspapers are looking for science writers as interns. There are also specific courses: Master Degrees or summer courses that will teach you about the fundamental of science writing or just give you tips on how to do that.

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