Inside Nature with Dr Henry Gee (UCL)

Uploaded by UCLTV on 09.11.2010

>> Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,
welcome to the Grant Museum of Zoology.
My name is Jack Ashby, I'm your host for the evening
and I want to welcome you all very much to one
of our evening events here.
This is something we do every couple of weeks for those of you
that don't know we have lectures
at the Grant Museum; especially exciting this time
because we are closed at the moment
for an exciting relocation across the road.
So March 2011 we'll be opening in the Rockefeller building
which is a few metres or few tens of metres further north
up Gower Street.
It's much more, a fairly bigger space
and we'll be doing exciting things in there
but we're keeping you interested in us
by having our continued programme of evening events.
Tonight's event: we are very excited
to welcome Doctor Henry Gee, who,
I'm sure many of you will know, is Senior Editor
of the Biological Sciences for Nature.
The way the evening is going to run is, Henry is going to talk
for about 30 minutes and we'll have about 30 minutes questions,
so do keep your thinking caps on.
Other things you might want to know
about Henry is he is a prolific writer,
he's written a couple of books including Jacob's Ladder,
the Science of Middle Earth, A Field Guide to Dinosaurs,
he's an extremely prolific blogger, you can check
out his blog at The End of the Peer Show, and he writes
for BBC Focus Magazine. He had an article
in the Guardian recently.
He's a very influential chap in the world of science and I'd
like you to join me in welcoming him here tonight.
Thank you.
[ Applause ]
>> Can you hear me at the back?
No. Good. All right.
Apparently this is being filmed but it's going to be edited
so they're going to take out the rude parts.
And what I'm going to do, as Jack said, I'm going to talk
for a bit and encourage questions.
When I come and talk about Nature everyone is dying to ask
about particular things, usually coded versions
of, why did you reject my manuscript?
But please interrupt at any time and I'm going to keep talking
until I run out of breath and then we can have a general chat.
I'm always changing the title of this thing it was Inside Nature
and still is, but a lot of what it is, is what I think
about when I think about manuscripts.
I spend a lot of my time saying no to people -
and this will become evident -
also I'm trying out my laptop, my new Ipad.
it's very nice and I live in Norfolk
and even in Norfolk, believe it or not, there is an Apple Store,
in Norwich, and me and my family go and worship
at the altar of Saint Steve of Jobs.
And now at home my wife has an Ipad too; I bought it for her
for our anniversary and she bought me a Norwich City season
ticket so everyone was happy [laughter].
Also another thing is on the Keynote presentation,
and I swear Apple isn't paying me for this,
you can put Keynote, their presentation software,
on your Ipad for £5.99 and it has a laser pointer,
this is it, so I'm going to see if this works,
sometimes it doesn't, it says if you just touch and hold,
do not press this button again, all right.
There it is, okay.
You can do that [laughter] isn't that amazing [laughter].
I spend hours and hours just doing this [laughter].
Anyway on with the show.
Now, when most people think about Nature they think
of this -- I'm going to try this again, yeah, there it is.
[Laughter] This is a black box. Now scientists spend years
and years working out their particular problem
and spending more hours than is good for them in the laboratory
or in the museum or wherever they're working
on that particular problem; they sweat and strain all the hours
that there are and some that aren't writing their manuscript
up and send it to Nature
and mostly they get a very bland letter saying, no thank you.
And of course this causes a great deal of mashing and waving
and gnashing of teeth, we had some teeth earlier, didn't we?
One of Jack's slides.
It was a rabbit, wasn't it?
Something like that.
But rabbits generally don't send manuscripts to Nature,
well not that I know of.
Yes, you must pull me back onto the subject,
I do digress a lot, digression is one of my worst faults but,
you know, sometimes I might just stop, so just shout at me
or really I need someone with a balloon on a stick
to go behind me like all of us scientists
and science journalists we're all borderline Asperger's
so we tend to wander off.
So one of my jobs at Nature is to go out to talk to people
about Nature because people are actually surprised
that there are human beings or humanoid things that work
at Nature; it's not just some strange secret organisation,
although I do like to [laughter] I do
like to further the mythology that it looks a bit like that,
that's -- let's try this again, it's not working --
that's Airforce One, that is, right, I didn't know
that originally, an American colleague told me that.
So that is the Nature office, which is actually
around the back of King's Cross Station.
Now, this is very interesting
because some time ago my kids were at a school
and most of the other school dads were taxi drivers and they used
to pull up around the back of King's Cross Station
and so I was walking up to the office behind King's Cross Station
and I heard this voice, Henry, Henry, it was one of my friends,
one of the school dads in his cab,
so then because they weren't quite sure what I did
for a living, so I'm telling you what I'm doing for a living,
but my taxi driver friends don't generally go
to events like this.
So all around the school the next day was
that Henry does something or another
that he doesn't really quite explain around the back
of King's Cross Station.
Then I wrote a book about dinosaurs and gave one
to the school library.
So then it was settled what I do behind the King's Cross Station is
write books about dinosaurs.
But we have many strange denizens in the Nature office
which I like to -- this is what people tend to,
I like that one best, I'm very pleased about that.
But to get slightly more serious -
I don't like being serious really -
but this is or was Nature's website.
We've had this massive redesign recently, including the website,
which looks much flashier than it is, this is what it was
until recently and this is my excuse to talk about the history
of Nature, which you may not know about
and is very closely tied with UCL.
This actually is not this week's issue,
this is the very first issue of Nature
from the fourth of November 1869.
Now back in those days, it's hard
to believe, there was no internet, no telly,
no radio and, you know, in those days
when people had PCs they used to chip the flints themselves
to make the silicon chips so it really was a long time ago
and people had to make their own entertainment.
So newspapers and magazines - people were voracious readers -
periodicals of all kinds were very popular
and there was a group of people in London called the X Club
and influential among them was Thomas Henry Huxley
and they used to have a - well they were very much more liberal
for the time. In those days,
if you wanted to be an academic at Oxford or Cambridge you had
to be male and a member of holy orders.
So if you were Jewish or Catholic
or a nonconformist you couldn't go.
So they all ended up down here at UCL, which was founded
in 1828, something like that,
basically UCL was founded
by the awkward squad and I'm glad to say
that tradition is maintained I hope.
So - they were still all male - when they had ladies' night
at the X Club it was called the X wives and they used
to have a magazine that they liked to read called The Reader
where scientific things were talked about,
but The Reader folded because periodicals were being founded
and going bust all the time.
So the X club wanted to have a magazine to read about science,
although science as a concept was hardly even thought
about; it was just natural philosophy or just knowledge.
Oh, here it is, you can't see that, it's some teeth, oh well,
you saw it before didn't you -- if I move this, no I'm not going
to I might knock the thing over.
So they persuaded a friend
of theirs, the X Club, called Alexander MacMillan,
who was a publisher, to produce this magazine called Nature
for them
as a news magazine,
and Alexander MacMillan was very generous
and he had very deep pockets - Nature took
at least 10 years before it turned a penny of profit.
You would never do it these days.
And it was just a chatty news magazine,
if you look at these early copies
of Nature there is a range in a kind
of random way. There's articles and letters,
Darwin used to write in and tell people what his bees were doing
in his garden and they used to be little chatty news items
that would say in one week we're sad to say
that Professor Helmholtz has gone into the hospital
and then next week they would say we're pleased to say
that Professor Helmholtz has come out of the hospital
and that was the news.
So that's how Nature worked
until relatively recently actually.
Now, it said in the blurb -
I wouldn't believe anything you read in the blurb,
now don't believe anything you read in the papers at all -
that I came on a three month contract in 1987
and I'm still there, that's actually true.
Even though you have to take it from me I joined as a junior
news reporter having failed to be an assistant editor.
I was a palaeontologist and they gave me as a subediting
test a manuscript on messenger RNA processing
which I knew from nothing.
So I did this and then I got a call from John Maddox,
who some of you may remember is the former editor of Nature
who died last year or the year before,
and he said "You haven't got this job but can you write?"
And I said, "Yes", what do you say? You don't say no.
But then he said, "Okay, send me something you've written"
and that was the hard part, I had written an article
for New Scientist that had got spiked
so it never actually appeared.
And I had written a Motorhead review for Cantab
in Cambridge, I didn't send him
that one I sent him the one that got spiked.
So nothing happened for ages and I was writing up my PhD
in Cambridge, and then to cut a long story short, I got a call
at 10:00 in the morning on the eighth
of December 1987, I remember it well, the phone rang
down in the basement at the Zoology Museum in Cambridge
and the technician took it and said, it's for you,
it's the editor of Nature.
And I go. He said, "I'm offering you a job"
and I said "When's its start?", thinking after Christmas
or in the spring, and he says, "Oh, Monday at half past nine."
So I disengaged myself from Cambridge in a hurry and turn
up in London on Monday at half past nine,
and I say, "Okay, what do I do?", they give me a desk with a phone
and a typewriter, there were no computers.
And I said, "What do I do?". They said, "Oh, we just want you
to write this news story
about radiological protection guidelines".
I said "When do you want it?, "Oh, no hurry, noon",
and so I've been there ever since.
Although I've done a lot of things at Nature but now I'm
very much in the back half, that is I look at manuscripts
in palaeontology, evolution, what I call real biology as opposed
to all this molecular stuff
which involves transferring very small quantities of
colourless liquid from one tube to another and back again.
I tried very hard to understand this.
Mind you I just accepted a manuscript with micro rays
in it, if anybody knows what they are talk to me afterwards.
Oh yes, we have a number of people.
The, basically, the editorial team, there are about 20
of us distributed in offices around the world.
These are what the physicists look like,
and these are the biologists.
[Laughter] One of my colleagues who is now the editor
of our new journal, Nature Communications, which I'm bound
to plug, it's very nice, she is a keen fan of Kill Bill
and we did toy with the idea you should call the biology team the
Deadly Viper Assassination Squad,
but I don't think it would catch on.
So I could show you lots of boring pictures of the office
and people having meetings and people are totally underwhelmed
when they come to the building,
I mean maybe we should promote our mystique.
So this is a [laughter] basically a weekly
editorial meeting.
So as I said, there are about 20 of us editors around the world.
The head office is still in London even
after all this time, although most of our traffic
is with the United States
and increasingly countries such as China.
I think we should have a Beijing office, I would go there myself.
I went to China for the first time in May
and I thought it was wonderful, I had a great time.
So what do we do?
Now, this is much of an adventure for you as me
because this thing doesn't show me the slide that's coming next
and I'd rather forgotten.
So let's just see shall we?
Oh by the way, you can interrupt
at any time, I see you are all hypnotised.
This is not the palaeontologist that you're looking for.
Ah, yes, this is what we do, manuscripts.
Now, manuscripts used to look like that when I joined,
believe it or not, people used
to send their manuscripts printed on bits
of dead tree triplicated and they would post it to our office
and if we sent them to referees we wouldn't ask people first
about refereeing, we would just send it to them in the hope
that they would get refereed and amazingly they did.
That's kind of amazing
that people referee manuscripts actually.
I did get a very, very, bulky manuscript
from some strange person in America.
He was talking about the secondary sexual characteristics
of human beings and he supported his evidence
with three very lurid copies of Playboy, well four,
one for the office and three, one for each referee,
and I sent them all back, I sent them all back.
So manuscripts - this is what we do.
Here are some of my favourite things. I was a
palaeontologist at Cambridge. I did my degree in Leeds
in zoology and genetics. I started off doing zoology
and biochemistry but biochemistry seemed to be
like bad cookery that you couldn't eat the results of
and the people had more interesting discussions
in the genetics coffee room so I moved to there.
And after that I decided I'd be a palaeontologist which is
of course completely mad and still is.
But having said that, I've been in the right place
at the right time because in my time
at Nature palaeontology has just exploded,
there's so many things that have happened,
particularly from China. When I joined Nature, Chinese papers
in palaeontology from China could be numbered on the fingers
of one thumb and they were usually extremely poor,
now I'm flooded with papers in palaeontology from China
and a lot of them are the best in the world.
And so I've been very lucky
that on my watch, I've seen the first feathered
dinosaurs coming from China and here are some of my favourites
that we've been pleased to publish.
And those are some other weird creatures in China.
Oh here's some hominids, not from China,
and some other bits and pieces.
Oh no that's too frightening.
An interesting thing about being an editor
at Nature is you don't get to see the research.
It's a very interesting thing
about science is people send you manuscripts -
of course now they come electronically -
but you take whatever they do or say on trust.
Another thing that amazes me is the whole scientific edifice
is based on trust.
You assume that what you're being told is true.
Now, of course the world is full of people who are fraudulent
or just downright mistaken or plagiarise things
but in general we have to assume
that what people send us is sent in good faith.
If you don't, that way madness lies, but I could talk
about that, again, but there are so many ways
and so many digressions I could do this talk,
that is why if you have a question
to ask you should just stop me and interrupt at any time.
So here are some of the things I've looked at over the time.
Now, of course I've talked about what people think of editors,
but this is Dr No.
I have a doctorate and most of the time I say no.
I joke with people and say what do I do for a living
and I say I ruin in people's tenure prospects,
which is very sad, but of course the reality is a lot
more frightening.
Your paper goes and sees this guy, who looks very frightened
but actually this guy what he's doing he's,
how do I say, dreaming
about being fed grapes by flying babies.
People ask me what I do, if you want to know where the office --
the little laser pointer has failed me --
well let's look at some numbers.
That is a manuscript I didn't receive, that's Beowulf,
so I didn't receive that.
It would have been hard to have it
in triplicate anyway there's only one of it.
Altogether we receive that number
of new manuscripts in a week.
Now, seriously what I do
when people ask me what I do is I make decisions very quickly
on the fate of manuscripts
if I didn't I would be completely overwhelmed.
So I get of that portion I get between 10
to 15, sometimes 20 new manuscripts a week.
And you have to just process them, you have to make a decision
about their fate really, really quickly.
You haven't got time to haver around.
One could say this is a lot like science; in science you have
to make decisions based on inadequate information
and very much is the same of being a journal editor.
Now, when we had manuscripts submitted by post
and we rejected it we would just write 'reject this manuscript'
on it and we went to a pool of typists
and they would type the letters and send them out.
And I remember when I was a fairly new editor I'd make
that decision and then I used to go home and worry
about it all night and get
to the office really early before anyone else arrived
and pull that thing out of the tray and think again.
Can't afford to do that.
I did have a colleague who was a very distinguished scientist
in her own field who thought far too deeply
about manuscripts. They used to pile up and pile
up around her desk until she was completely surrounded by towers
of unread manuscripts and then she disappeared we never saw her
again, she just vanished.
So I can talk more about this,
I'm really providing bullet points for what you should look
at so somebody said to me what size bullets should you use
and I say nato point 75 millimeters.
Now, we publish that number of manuscripts approximately.
So as you can see the rejection rate is very, very severe.
Well, that's the acceptance rate is about five per cent.
I'm in serious trouble this year
because I've accepted far too many manuscripts.
That sometimes happens, it's very hard to keep to that level.
What we can't do, and I will advocate this
when people are running journals will ask me 'We're getting
too many manuscripts, should I increase the pagination,
shall we actually print more manuscripts
and increase the number of pages?' It's easy to do,
for example, with an online journal these days and I say,
"No you mustn't increase the pagination you've got
to keep the pagination quite tight and the best position
to be in is to be rejecting good papers".
It sounds really daft,
but if you keep expanding the pagination to just put
in the papers you like, eventually the journal expands and expands
and expands and will be full of substandard stuff
and people won't be able to find the good stuff anymore.
Now, that's not as true as it used to be because now people
who are scientists don't read journals from cover
to cover they just look for the articles they want.
But still we have that so that's grown --
from that there are new models of publishing
such as the Public Library of Science
and Nature Communications,
which are volume publishers; they will publish things
that will be reviewed and are very good
but they're not necessarily whizzy or the best in the world
or particularly noteworthy.
So this is what we do.
Who decides what gets published?
Well, we do.
Now, this is a rather interesting thing
and it's very contentious. My colleagues and I reject four
in five manuscripts we receive straight off
without taking any advice out about them.
Now, mostly when I reject a manuscripts I don't do it
on my own recognisance, I do have a good sense
of what makes a Nature manuscript now.
So physically what you do is you get a manuscript
into your electronic inbox and you read it
or you read just enough to know what's going to happen to it.
The problem is when you've been doing it long enough you kind
of know, you kind of know instinctively what makes a good
manuscript and what doesn't.
And when people say "Do you actually read all the
manuscripts you get?", no I don't, I can't, I haven't got the time.
You read it enough to know whether it's going
to be a contender.
So what do I do when I get a new manuscript? I do the following,
I read the covering letter,
which is usually extremely interesting.
It tells you a great deal about -- it's like a handshake,
you think it's not essential, people ask me "Is it essential?"
it's not essential but when I get a manuscript
without a covering letter I feel somehow lost, I don't feel,
it doesn't feel quite right.
It looks a bit like one of those dreams where you rush
out with no clothes on and nobody seems to mind except you
and you just look like - is it just me who has dreams
like that? - and I read the manuscript, particularly the
first paragraph, and if it looks interesting I keep reading
and if it doesn't look interesting I stop.
I always look at the references,
which are very revealing, and the figures.
And if you haven't got a good idea by then, then you've kind
of a problem, but what I generally do
to resolve problems is I have my colleagues, I have my fellow
editors and we circulate stuff to each other.
In the old days we used
to actually sit together and talk about them.
Of course we don't do
that anymore we just e-mail each other.
And we usually receive a consensus.
This is particularly useful when there are fields
that I am particularly enthusiastic about.
I get a manuscript on something that really interests me
and what I'm looking for is some perspective from my colleagues
who may not be as enthusiastic about the history of knitting
in Ruritania or whatever it is
and they will decide whether this is a Nature paper
or should really go to a specialist journal,
which I might read anyway
because I'm really interested in that subject.
So we get a certain amount of perspective.
Now, another problem we have is when we --
each editor gets a portfolio of manuscripts in a lot of areas
in which they have no direct knowledge as a scientist.
Now, when I did my PhD it was a palaeontology project.
It was all about how to tell the difference
between cows and bison in bones.
Now, if I had a pound for every time people have asked me how
you tell the difference between a bison
and a buffalo - you can't wash your hands
in a buffalo - I would have £874.
But it wasn't about that, but I've handled maybe tens
of thousands of manuscripts and none of them have been about how
to tell the difference between bisons
and cows surprisingly enough.
I did publish one paper on this in a specialty journal,
which I don't think has ever been cited.
It might have cited once
but then they probably didn't believe it.
It's the great thing
about citations you can publish a controversial paper
and you get millions of citations and when you look
at them they always say this paper is wrong, it's great.
Love it. I'm a journalist really I like stirring up controversy,
I didn't say that did I?
Edit that bit out of there.
So I handle manuscripts in a huge variety of areas.
I've looked at manuscripts just today on the control
of development, the genetic control
of development using micro rays and I've looked at manuscripts today
that look at the mineralogy of the very earliest sedimentary rocks.
I get to see and advise manuscripts
on bar tick consequences
or bar tick responses to climate change.
I get manuscripts on archaeology
and of course there's the usual new dinosaur -
what I call ADAD papers. ADAD: another day, another dinosaur.
So there's a wide range of topics
and people will say "How dare you reject my manuscript on such
and such you're not even qualified in this field?".
Well there is some benefit in -
not distraction that's just what I'm usually suffering from -
detachment that's the word.
You can usually tell whether a manuscript is novel, exciting,
something you want to read about in the paper
without necessarily being a specialist.
So my colleagues and I, we were all once scientists,
but now we are kind of journalists as well,
and what scientists are, they have a very, very,
deep knowledge of a very, very tiny aspect of the world.
Journalists have a very shallow knowledge
of a very wide range of things,
journalists are very curious people and they will know
if this manuscript has general appeal.
It might look at some tiny, tiny system
but it could be generalised
and explain something more, it could have a more
multidisciplinary focus.
What I think about when I think about manuscripts
and I pick up a new manuscript: I'm expecting it
to in one way entertain me but also to change the way I look
at the world. A manuscript has to - my God is
that the time? - a manuscript has to change the way that I look
at the world in some fundamental way.
It shouldn't just say "Fancy that, there are bomb trees that,
you know, rain apples down on those rabbits skulls
so the rabbits have to wear crash helmets" as my rabbits do
in our garden when our apple trees in fall, shut up Henry.
It has to say something fundamental that makes you think
that stays with you when you you've stopped reading the
manuscript and you think, that was interesting.
So that's that bit.
So what do we do when we have a manuscript
that my colleagues think, yes, in principle that's exciting
and my colleagues and I think, yes,
what should we do with that manuscript?
For the rest there's peer review.
Now, in the old days, oh I should explain this for those
who can't see it, this is the very famous picture of the --
I'm going to try this again, there is it -- this is a famous,
this is a canonical blind men and the elephant.
And I'll talk about those, well I'll talk
about them while we're all here, I might as well.
The elephant is a manuscript - it's a very subtle allegory, this -
and the blind men are peer reviewers and what we do
when we have a manuscript, usually if it's a manuscript
for Nature it's kind of multidisciplinary
so I'll have a manuscript on some new fossil hominid
and there may be be several aspects that need to be judged.
There will be the palaeontology,
there will be the anatomy, there will some geology,
there will be some formal analysis,
there will be some dating,
it may be in several different methods so you have
to find experts that will judge these particular aspects.
Now in the old days, and I'm talking back
in 1869, there was peer review. The first Nature office was
in St Martin's Lane near Trafalgar Square and the editor used
to gallop across to the Athenaeum, the Athenaeum club,
where all his mates hung out and just hand around the manuscripts
in the smoking rooms and the various people who were there.
And that was peer review,
they would go and discuss it
in the club room of the Athenaeum.
In a sense nothing has changed; what we do is we ask people
who often we know to review a manuscript and they will each
like the blind man give their own particular take
on the manuscript based on their own expertise.
And in this particular - you can pursue this analogy further - that's
me, I have to sort of put it all together at the end.
Now, some people will ask "How do you choose referees?".
Well there is no let or hindrance
about us choosing referees.
Every editor who comes
into Nature will bring their own address book with them
and we say to new editors, "One of the hardest jobs you have
to do is to reject manuscripts from your friends
and reject manuscripts from your PhD supervisor
who will no doubt say,
'Well young Fred has just joined Nature I'll send my manuscript
to Nature he's bound to take it'".
So there's a great deal of that.
So of course, when we come, as we are only human
or at least have the appearance
of being human - I keep being shown all these
wonderful things here, you can't see them,
about what the Grant Museum is doing.
I'll turn my back on that.
So editors are only human and tend to bring their expertise
with them and referees believe it or not are only human as well
and that actually pertains a great deal to the way we work.
So we will know our referees, we will know their likes
and dislikes, quite often we'll know them personally.
This is very useful but because what referees will do is send a
referee's report in and part of the job
of an editor is not just reading the lines written
by the referees but reading between them at the time.
If you know the referees, you will know that Professor Grumpy
always says miserable things about manuscripts that she gets.
So if Professor Grumpy says it's not bad,
usually you think this actually really good.
Sometimes we get reports from Professor Happy
and Professor Happy will say this the most exciting
manuscript I've read all year it should be immediately
publishable in Nature provided
that they answer these following 37 quite fatal problems
to the manuscript.
So I would reject the report based on that manuscript
and the author will come back
and say "What do you mean you rejected it this person says it
was the best thing they read all year?"
So, you know, you have to kind of interpret these things
and when the referees come in we discuss them again based
on the expertise and knowledge
and we make a preliminary decision about what to do.
Sometimes, you know, I've been there long enough
to see maybe a generation of young graduate students turn
into professors, and have their own doctorates and post docs and,
you know, sometimes - there was one occasion with a colleague
of mine who was very brazen, who was chasing up a report
from a referee and learned from his tearful secretary
that the professor had just died, on the phone,
and my colleague said "Well I guess there's no chance
that we'll get that,
did he actually type the referee's report before he
died then?"
I don't know what the answer was or if he got it
so we're fairly tenacious.
But what happens in people's careers,
people move up the academic ladder
and then they're less involved with the day
to day research they're more going to boring meetings
and being administrative so they will say, "I'm terribly sorry I
cannot look at this because I'm in a boring meeting.
Why don't you try my new post doc who's working
on exactly this field and is really hot?"
So then we will send it to the new post doc.
Now, the great thing about getting young people
in is you have a lot of fresh virgin blood to suck.
[laughter] The younger people are actually working
on the coalface of research and also they're very, very -
they're not backward in coming forward. It's a good thing
to have anonymous peer review,
so you can have somebody who's actually working
at it being very candid -- hello up there, hello.
Smile you're on telly -- and, you know, so they can come
and be very critical about it.
Whereas more seasoned, more wise scientists will be a little
more circumspect with the way they say things.
So we tend to have a kind of mixture of people.
Another great thing about peer review, it's very rare
that a manuscript is accepted on one round of review.
If a manuscript is - because usually things
need to be done.
If a manuscript is rejected after one round of review,
that happens more often,
but usually I think I've done my job badly it means I've wasted
people's time on a manuscript, that I thought was nice
but is really a turkey and if I'd done my job properly
and made decisions earlier it could have been rejected
and the author will go away and cry for a bit and then send it
to Science and then Science will publish it
and everyone will be happy.
Presumably it works the other way around
but I don't want to talk about that.
And what nobody likes, no scientist,
nobody likes a manuscript being rejected
but what people really hate is manuscripts being rejected
after a long time.
Especially without review so that's another reason.
Oh, no, that's my head exploding.
What usually happens is we get a mixture of reports.
If we judge the likely impact of a paper well,
our job is to decide whether it is generally interesting, it's
the referee's jobs to say, given
that this is generally interesting do the data support
the conclusions? That's largely the referees' job, their job is
to do the technical work for us; us editors aren't qualified to do
because, after all, 20 years ago I did a PhD on how
to tell the difference between bison
and cows, I mean what am I doing? That's why we have referees.
So we usually get a mixture.
We have Professor Grumpy and Professor Happy
and their post docs and
then someone else who is just passing
and they send their reviews in and we then,
well we meet on the internet and we then discuss the manuscript
and decide what to do.
And usually for most of these manuscripts we decide not
to decide.
We basically send the manuscript back to the authors
and say "Well, you know, this could be okay but you need
to do these experiments or you need to go out
and find more data or you need to present things differently".
And then it will come back for another cycle of review
and that is interesting because when the manuscript comes
after review that's when the fun starts
because we don't only send the referees the revised manuscript
we send them all the reports from all referees on the previous version.
Now, that's really great because the referees can then see what
each other said about the manuscript.
Now that's very useful for us because it's a kind of a control
because it could be that one
of the referees has been unreasonable
about the manuscript, they are putting road blocks
in the author's way unreasonably and the referees can comment
about each other's reports
and these are sometimes great fun to read.
And after that we will usually come
to a decision either way, sometimes you get to a point
where a manuscript is just not going to make it
and as an editor you have to make a decision to say well,
you know, we've done all we can, we've come
to the end of the road.
It's no point carrying a torch for a manuscript that you like
but your colleagues don't
and neither do the referees, it just irritates everybody.
The referees get very cross and say, "Well you might
as well publish this, you obviously want
to publish it no matter what I say" and the poor author gets fed
up with it and I learned my lesson when an author
who was actually extraordinarily gentlemanly about it,
he sent his manuscript a first birthday card.
This sweet little card, Dear manuscript, now you are one.
And then I realised, you know, I got the message.
We didn't publish it.
So there's that.
But after that one comes to the celestial city of acceptance
in principle and even then there are things
to be done, a lot more admin needs to be done.
So that's my head exploding and this is you, you're a lot
of inquisitive squirrels.
So I've been way over time
and you haven't interrupted, you've been very kind.
So now we can open up for questions.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you Henry for a fascinating, very amusing
talk there. We do have some time
for questions I really hope you've got some.
If you do have them please wait for myself or Helen
to bring you a microphone because
as Henry mentioned it is being recorded.
>> There's the first one up there.
>> Yes, we've got one up here.
Don't worry if you haven't done your make-up
or have a bad hair day you won't have your face on camera
because the camera is behind you,
but we will be able to hear you.
>> So I wondered if you could talk a little bit more
about how you choose the people you send the manuscripts
to for peer review.
You said you know some of them personally and then you rely
on them to give it to other people
and obviously you've been doing this for quite a while
but maybe talk a little bit how you did it initially
and how that's changed.
>> Well, of course initially when you just join you rely
on the people you know from your student days and you rely
on the recommendations of your colleagues and I still do,
they say, you know, "Send this to Dr X, Dr Y
and Dr Z. So you start to rely on them
when you just start, that's what your colleagues are for.
We do have a certain amount of mentoring in Nature,
editors teach each other, and I've got to the stage
where I have to mentor my junior colleagues
who seem much brighter than I am and much more knowledgeable.
The first thing you have to do
with a manuscript is write an opinion about the manuscript
and my opinion is usually very short but then
my new colleagues write these long detailed opinions
with references in and all I can say
at the bottom is "Instincts trust you should master".
Trust your instincts because essentially that's what you do
in the end.
My problem is internalising everything
and so it's very hard; I get a feeling about a manuscript
and I say "I don't like this very much"
and the difficult part is actually putting this
into rational words.
But how do we choose things? It's largely based
on experience, on the experience of colleagues.
One important thing I do in my job is I travel quite a bit
to conferences and to visit labs and to get to know people.
The best way to get to know scientists is to meet them
in the place that they work, which is great,
but of course that's very time consuming so one
of the things I do is I go to a lot of conferences
and people ask me what I do at conferences
and I say "What do I do at conferences?
I hang around in bars" basically because that's
where all the real science is done.
One does go to the presentations and these are very nice
but you can be stuck in a presentation
that you thought was going to be really interesting
and it's not, it's really dull and that's, you know --
hi, Frank, I didn't see you there -- that's maybe, you know,
half an hour wasted and so it's best to be circulating,
all the real science gets done in the corridors
and in the coffee bars, in the bars, in the pub.
And so that's where I meet people, where people -
we talk about manuscripts, we talk about manuscripts
that are ongoing, people come
and pitch me manuscripts, it's a bit like a trade fair
and that's how I get to meet people.
It's so much -- even in the days, even in this day
of rapid instant communication it's so much better
to actually meet people, to see people, to go
out for dinner with them and you get a much better idea
of who they are, what all their interests are,
what their likes and dislikes are,
and of course they feel a personal connection with you
and of course that's all part of the demystification process
where we're not actually in a black box with the Eye of Sauron
and full of orcs. We actually were scientists in the past just
like you and, you know, you're real people too
and isn't everything lovely and fluffy?
So really the way to do it is just to go meet people,
but in the initial thing you just supply,
you just get the -- use your own nouse.
Of course sometimes you get manuscripts
where nobody really knows anything about the field
so then you do what most people do is go on the internet
and find people and find people's expertise
and use Google Scholar and trawl references and things like that.
And quite a lot of the time all the people you ask
will say "No, I'm busy why don't you try someone else?"
and you finally find lots of good reviewers
who you hadn't heard of before
and then they might be reviewers well into the future.
>> Thank you.
One over here.
>> There's one there, and then up there, at the top,
at the top, lady up there.
>> Have you ever rejected a paper
that then got accepted somewhere else and it turned out to be
like the most significant paper of the decade?
>> Oh all the time.
I mean, you know, this happens all the time.
Nature is proud to have rejected, well not proud,
the Krebs cycle [laughter]
and Nature has rejected the mechanism of beta decay,
I think we rejected that, physics mostly, but what can you do?
I mean somebody said, you know,
prediction is very hard especially about the future
and it's a very interesting thing about that saying
that nobody actually knows who said it first.
So, yes, of course there are because we're only human
and there are manuscripts that I've dealt
with that I've seen come out elsewhere
that I thought were really nice manuscripts,
that I would have been pleased to publish,
but for one reason or another they fell foul
of the referee process.
And what you do if you get a manuscript that gets loads
of bad reviews, the one thing you have to do is stick
with the referees you've got.
You can't keep choosing more referees
until they give you the results you want.
So it is in a sense a bit of a lottery and this does happen.
And so a manuscript will appear in Science or elsewhere that,
you know, it's really nice.
Sometimes a manuscript will appear somewhere else
that I've never heard of before
and I wish I had got it, I wish it had come to me.
Yeah, of course it happens, it happens all the time.
Of course the significance of some of the manuscripts is very,
very hard to judge when you're sitting on top
of them. It's only, you know, I've written --
there is probably a manuscript out there
that I rejected maybe two years ago that's probably the best
thing since sliced bread and I can't remember it.
And it's only in the future
that once all the other manuscripts have faded
into obscurity, this one will stand out but who can say?
So there's a lady right at the top there.
>> Thank you.
I'm afraid I'm going to ask a non-sciencey question.
I also work in print media
and as an editor what do you feel is the future of Nature
as a print publication or moving increasingly online?
>> Very glad you asked that.
That's something I should have brought up.
[Laughter] if you listen very closely you can hear the sea.
When I joined Nature, you know, my job was to muck
out the brontosaurus and take it for a walk around the block.
When I joined Nature there was just Nature the print magazine
and it had a circulation of between 50
and 60 thousand copies a week.
What do you think the print circulation of Nature is now?
The print circulation. It's between 50
and 60 thousand copies a week, it's exactly the same as it was.
But of course now it gets to 10 million desktops in universities
and museums and institutions through site licensing,
so our marketing people will bare their fangs, sorry they will
go and talk to librarians and say, "For a huge amount
of money you can get an online subscription to Nature
and other journals in our group" and it all depends
on how many end users there are in the university system.
So most people will see Nature for free online
and they will use it in a different way, they will tend
to just pick out the bits they want.
However, I think there will always be a place for Nature
as a print magazine and since I've been there there's been a
progressive expansion in the amount of journalism as opposed
to just science in Nature until it's now big and featurey,
and that is a very expensive thing to do,
journalism is expensive, science is cheap.
People send us their stuff for nothing and we get it reviewed
for nothing and then we just print it
and if it's online you can do that for nothing as well
if you have a tame IT person that you've house trained.
But print is expensive, it's expensive to make,
it's expensive to distribute.
Will we always have a print magazine? Who can say,
as I said we can't predict the future.
But people like it, they like to have something to read
on their coffee table or in the loo or on the train.
Now, increasingly with mobile communications
and my favourite robot secretary here, you know,
you can get the experience of print on a reader
or something, so who can say?
But it's something that has been happening for as long as --
I'm beginning to ramble now but here's an interesting fact --
newspaper subscriptions have been declining and declining
and declining for as long as I can remember.
So print -- there will be a time
when print will be a niche market in the way
that the web used to be.
I think that's all I can really say
because I'm just a bottom feeder in this game and the people
who make decisions
who are up there in the photic zone somewhere raining
down their benisons and corpses on us to digest.
So there's a lady right at the top there.
>> I've got one here first.
We've got about seven minutes left Henry.
[ All talking at once ]
>> You've got next up there.
>> So one of my favourite sections
of Nature is research highlights and I often wonder how much
of that is composed of the papers you've rejected
that you wish you'd taken or papers
that you'd wish you got to see.
>> Very little.
The universe of science publishing is enormous.
Quite often -- or not quite often -- I don't really know.
What happens with research highlights is we trawl the
contents pages of lots of journals and we find things
that are kind of fun or interesting
that we might never have heard of and we will give them
to the research highlights editor and say,
"Hey do a little piece about this, especially
if you can get a picture".
The research highlights editor will also be trawling the press
releases, the pages of Science and PNAS and lots and lots
of journals and send to us to say what do we think about that?
Now, sometimes it will turn out these are papers
that we've rejected but, you know, we could say,
"Well you could do this but it was rejected
on three absolute stinkers of referees' reports
so perhaps we should stay away from it".
But of course in the time that it's been away it could have
improved greatly.
So as for me I don't really mind; I will say, something was a
Nature reject but hey it's quite fun
and it's an interesting story
and it's only a 150 word squib with a nice picture.
So here is a statistic I'm not supposed to tell anybody
so keep it to yourselves: about half of the papers
that - in my area - that are published
in Science have been across my desk.
It's been consistently half for as long
as I've been keeping a record of this,
which is about 10 years or so.
Now, of course I don't know the opposite statistic unless I get
a referee that says what they shouldn't do
because it's suppose to be confidential,
well I saw this before when it was submitted to Science
or to another journal
or sometimes people don't really reformat their cover letter
saying Dear editor of Science [laughter].
So we only get these little dribblings.
So people submit all the time to different things.
So up there.
>> Thank you.
I've got two questions,
the first one is can you give some suggestions for us like how
to write a good cover letter just in terms of your --
>> Yeah.
>> Your cover letter and the first paragraph of the paper.
And the second question is I got a kind of personal impression
that sometimes with Science it has some articles
which are actually faked articles
but I rarely see that in Nature.
>> Sorry I didn't really catch what you said
about the second question?
>> I used to read -- I know
that sometimes occasionally there's articles that are published
in Science that are actually fake, the data are fake.
>> Yeah.
>> There's one I think around 2000 sometime, it's a paper
about stem cells published by a Korean.
>> Yeah.
>> About stem cells in science and then actually turned
out it's a faked paper the data all faked.
>> Yes, I know the one, yeah.
>> Yeah. But I rarely see these kinds of faked papers such kinds
of things happen to Nature.
>> Oh I'm very glad about that.
>> Yeah. I'm just wondering how do you --
>> Two questions, we're running out of time,
but I'll try and address them.
When you're writing a covering letter the main thing is
to relax.
And just write short and sweet.
Here is my paper this is what it's about.
Now, useful things in covering letters; we actually give quite
detailed instructions on our website. Somewhere in the forest
of pages of our Guide to Authors is details of how to do this.
A very, very important part of the covering letter
for me is suggestions of referees
to whom this paper could be sent.
Now, that's always incredibly useful particularly
if it's a field I don't know particularly well
and they will suggest referees. We do not feel our ourselves
bound to honour that, however what we do look
at carefully is a list of referees
who the author thinks we shouldn't send the
manuscript to.
Now, you know, we have to take a line here, I mean sometimes we
get -- there was one case where somebody said,
"Do not send this manuscript to anybody in North America".
So we said "Well can you be a bit more specific?"
and they said yes and it turned out to be one particular person.
Now, we don't mind why you exclude a person
but science is a human endeavour and there's lots
of rivalries and, you know, antipathies.
So that's always an extremely important thing,
but I think in general the covering letter is really a kind
of handshake because you have been immersed in your research
for years, you know everything about it, you know the ins
and outs. I have never seen it before, I know nothing about it
and I never met you so it's good to have some kind
of introduction, this is me and this is my research.
So as for the second question, well, you know,
when I see a paper that has had a lot of publicity that has had
to be retracted or there's been some problems
about it I don't put myself in the Costa del Schadenfreude
and say you know, ha ha; I say there but the grace of God go I,
because, goodness me, as I said we take all these things on trust.
There isn't time to go into one particular story I have
about how I was very nearly fooled by something and saved
by a sharp eyed picture editor
from a rather embarrassing manuscript
that had fooled everyone including the referees.
We have had our retractions, there was a physicist,
a young German physicist who did a lot of work on high temperature
superconductors who had a slew of papers in all sorts of
journals including Nature but all had to be messily retracted.
So these things do happen.
Now, sad to say we now have automated mechanisms
to judge plagiarism which we never used to do.
And those of my colleagues who look
at more molecular things look very carefully at gel bands
to see how much they have been photoshopped.
So there is a line we're always discussing, where is the line
between honest image manipulation
and fraud? Now it's something that makes us,
as editors, makes our blood go cold.
Well we don't care about rejecting manuscripts
but we do worry about fraud and we're not in this business
to be policemen and the whole of science is based on trust.
I think it's actually amazing how little there is
that we're aware of.
Maybe it is, maybe it's full of it, who knows, but
that way madness lies [laughter].
Have we got time for one more?
>> If you would like one more.
>> Can I do Johnny B Goode before we close?
Here's one.
>> Hi. I was wondering where does the bulk
of your manuscripts come from? Is it London Universities
or abroad institutions?
>> America.
The USA still produces -- overwhelmingly is the single
biggest source of our manuscripts.
So this is why we have quite a few offices in America
but we are getting a lot
from other places. I think Britain always punches
above its weight in science.
I've been very pleased to have been a minimal tiny part
of the Science is Vital campaign, which you have been aware
of, which actually did change the government's mind on keeping
-- basically not slashing science in Britain by 25%
but only cutting it by 10% in real terms.
So that was a -- that was something nasty that was avoided.
So even through Britain is tiny, compared
with many other countries Britain still produces certainly
in the top five.
But over many years we get more and more manuscripts
from Eastern Asia and Japan, for a long time Korea,
China increasingly, and a lot of other interesting places.
I am always thrilled to get what looks like a terrific manuscript
from somewhere I've never heard of.
That's great and especially when you can go and meet people
and see what they're doing, often in countries
where doing science is extremely hard
because of political problems or because
of just logistical problems.
I mean I went to Mexico in 1994 to do a feature on science
in Mexico and there was some world class molecular biology
going on in Mexico, but the efforts they had to go to just
to get reagents that weren't held up in customs
sheds because the customs men didn't know what they were
and by the time they had gotten them they had all gone off.
>> Okay. I am afraid that is all we've got time for.
I've got four very important things
to say before you rush off.
The first is thank you very much for coming today
and for your questions also,
secondly, it's very important, we would be very grateful
if you could fill out your evaluation forms and hand them
to Helen on your way out.
These help us plan our events
but they also help us justify our existence
so please do fill those out.
Third thing is I hope very much to see you back on the 17th
of November in a different lecture theatre, the
Cruciform Lecture Theatre for our annual Grant Lecture
with Professor Steve Jones from here at UCL.
And last and most importantly I hope you will join me
in thanking Dr Henry Gee for his talk today.
[ Applause ]
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