Navigating Nature With Editor-in-Chief Magdalena Skipper

One-on-One With Eric Topol

; Magdalena Skipper, PhD, DSc


September 20, 2019

Eric J. Topol, MD: Hello. I'm Eric Topol, editor-in-chief of Medscape. If I ever was excited to have someone to interview, it would be Dr Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of Nature. Welcome, Magdalena.

Magdalena Skipper, PhD, DSc: Hello, Eric. It's very nice to be here. Thank you for this opportunity.

On Being Editor-in-Chief of Nature

Topol: Because a lot of our listeners are physicians and may not be so familiar with Nature or your heritage, I thought I would briefly review. Your background is in genetics; you went to the University of Nottingham and did your PhD at Cambridge. You worked with model organisms like worms and zebrafish. And for most of the past two decades, you have been at Nature in one place or another: Nature Genetics, Nature Review Genetics, Nature Communications. Then last year you became the first woman editor-in-chief of Nature in 149 years. Congratulations.

Skipper: Thank you.

Topol: What was it like to take on the most highly regarded journal in life science and science in general?

Skipper: Your question in many ways points at the answer. It is a tremendous honor to be in this role. It's a tremendous sense of responsibility for so many different reasons. As you mentioned, I'm the first woman to be editor-in-chief in the 149 years of the history of Nature. In fact, this year we are celebrating its 150th anniversary. In thinking about that history and that heritage, Nature has gone through quite a wonderful transition over the years, working together with research communities as they themselves have changed. Nature has changed enormously as well. In all that time, I'm only the eighth editor-in-chief of the journal, which is quite remarkable. There is something quite special about this role and about that sense of duty, custodianship, and responsibility. When you come into the role you really want to stay and do a good job. Heritage is one reason, but another is not so much looking at the past but looking at the present and into the future.

One of the things that has always driven us at Nature right from the very beginning is encapsulated in our mission statement. The key word for me in that mission statement is "serve." We are here to serve. It's incumbent on me to make sure that the journal and the wonderful colleagues I work with serve the various research communities in the best possible ways. It's a tremendous honor and tremendous responsibility. A little daunting as well, but very exciting.

Success and Failure in Science

Topol: You not only have this heritage but you also are a model for all the other scientific journals in so many respects. A topic I know you are [interested in is] success and failure in science. Could you tell me more about your thoughts on that?

Skipper: Yes. This is very interesting. As you can imagine, I've thought a lot about this—not just now that I'm editor-in-chief of Nature but initially throughout my research career and especially throughout my career as an editor. I spent a number of years on Nature as a genetics and genomics editor, making decisions on manuscripts and evaluating them. Often, publishing in Nature and similar journals is considered synonymous with success in science.

This is a very narrow definition of success, and when I think about success in science or research more broadly, I think about the various contributions that researchers make to the research community and the scientific process. Without these various contributions the system would not work. We only evaluate and take into account a very narrow aspect of those contributions, typically publications. It's gratifying to see that more and more people who are part of the research ecosystem are thinking carefully about how to broaden that consideration. Several things usually go unnoticed in science—for example, mentorship in science and that desire for excellence in scholarship by paying attention to how research is done in the most rigorous way with integrity. By and large, all scientists do this but they are not necessarily appreciated nor awarded for this. Peer review contributes to building and perfecting the scholarly output and scholarly publication record. Last and definitely not least are different types of outputs from scientific research. Sharing data, codes, material, protocols, reagents, etc., is something that we are talking about increasingly frequently, especially in life sciences. But until recently it essentially went underappreciated throughout the scientific community. Collectively, all of these different elements have to come to play when we think about success in research or science. Not just me but many others are beginning to think about how to surface those different contributions.

One thing has piqued my interest for some time. We almost universally equate having to retract a paper with a form of failure in science or in research, but it does not really have to be. Somehow in the public eye, science has become this sort of infallible process which, of course, we know it isn't. There is plenty of room for genuine honest mistakes or incorrect conclusions which, as long as they are corrected, are part and parcel of the process. On one hand we talk about science being a self-correcting process, but on the other hand we have forgotten to appreciate that. Somehow the prevailing wind is toward stigmatizing retractions.

We had a wonderful example of this in Nature Climate Change. A manuscript we published some months ago ended up being retracted because the authors mistakenly used a dataset for their analysis which was inappropriate; they mistook that analysis dataset for something else. We retracted the paper but they subsequently repeated their analyses with the correct data and we republished the paper which we previously retracted.[1] This example is very interesting because it illustrates how transparency, honesty, and real focus on what we're trying to discover in the end leads us to a happy ending and successful outcome.

Topol: It's a great example. It's not really a binary story of success and failure—it is a continuum. Those are really instructive.

Finding the Right Balance

Topol: It's 150 years into Nature and perhaps the most exciting time in science ever, with things like genome editing, the gut microbiome, and so much else. How do you try to capture things but not go too fast? How do you address concerns of replication and capture the things that are most interesting? What is the right balance?

Skipper: An excellent question. It is a very important task that the excellent team of editors I work with grapple with on a daily basis. We do it on an individual basis when each one of us reads manuscripts and makes those decisions, but then we do it collectively as a team when trying to think about the direction in which we are going. Balance is struck in many ways. We have a collection of individual professional editors who devote 100% of their time to reading manuscripts, evaluating them, and staying in touch with the community. They work with the community to establish standards on how to report on the work that is done and many other things.

We indeed consider papers on many different levels and for many different reasons. You mentioned genome editing and the microbiome. We may look at some of these submitted manuscripts from a perspective of potential therapeutic, medical, or diagnostic applications. Some other of these papers may be considered purely on the basis of fundamental insights that they provide into the biology. In the case of genome editing, it may be something fundamental about DNA repair, and in the case of the microbiome it may be something fundamental about microbial ecology in the context of the human microbiome. It may be, of course, in other contexts.

Many out there think that we just go after particularly striking stories that maybe will catch the headlines. But that is not the whole truth. One of the things that we editorially feel very strongly about—and I personally feel very strongly about—is that we try to focus on the elegance of science. The method sometimes can be a very simple set of experiments and a very simple way of dissecting a problem, which can be truly elegant and satisfying. Trying to find those papers and find space for them is a real quest for the editors. There was a real personal satisfaction when I used to handle papers as an editor and was able to shepherd papers like this through peer review and publish them.

Editors talk about the papers they publish as "their" papers. Clearly, we're not the authors but we say, "This is the paper I published, this is my paper." That is the level of almost possessiveness and pride that editors have. We look for a mixture of these elements. We are also interested in resources that we can present for the community. Any of these categories I mentioned apply just as readily to life sciences as they do to physical sciences. Nature is a multidisciplinary journal to begin with. For easily a century we were focusing almost exclusively on what I called "hard-core natural sciences," so, basic sciences. But increasingly we are looking beyond that definition. We are looking at much more applied sciences—translational research going all the way in the direction of the clinical. Within the physical sciences space we're more interested in applied papers going toward engineering. We are increasingly interested in papers with an aspect of social sciences, in part because of the wonderful thing we are witnessing these days with science and research becoming so much more multidisciplinary. The rigid distinctions which we once had are really disappearing. That is one of the exciting things we've seen in recent decades.

Topol: I love your description of elegant science, and it makes me think about those last-mile experiments. The drilling down to get the clever way to get to the answer. Testing the hypothesis fully. It's great that you point out how editors handling papers are advocates and feel a sense of real ownership.


Topol: The other part of this 150 years is that everything is going through a shakeup. You have been an advocate of preprints. Now, many things are getting posted as preprints before they even get submitted. How do you balance that with the idea of peer review before something is fully disseminated?

Skipper: We have a very interesting position here because, for us, preprints are far from new. Large swathes of physical sciences invented preprints and adopted them some 25 years ago. arXiv, the first preprint server, has been around for something like 25 years. From the very start, Nature was embracing preprints as a complementary way of disseminating scientific information that went side by side with traditional peer-reviewed, journal-focused publishing. My predecessor (and just about the predecessor before him, because my predecessor was in his role for 22 years) certainly editorialized about the importance of preprints in the physical sciences community.

When life sciences, and more recently other fields, including the clinical sphere, began to adopt preprints, this was just an extension of something we were doing already. We editorialized about 2 months ago about one thing that has changed for us relatively recently.[2] While all these years we've been supporting preprints, we are now actively encouraging our authors to deposit their work as a preprint on a server of their choice. I feel that preprints offer a synergy to the traditional publishing of research. First of all, it's that immediate dissemination of a result. You are sharing it without withholding it while it's undergoing peer review in a journal of your choice. But secondly and importantly—and something that not all communities have taken advantage of—the deposition of preprint allows you to get feedback from your broader community. All those who publish papers solicit some feedback from their colleagues at some point before they share the paper with the journals or with the wider community. Depositing preprints allows that exposure to a broad community for comments, be they on the preprint server or in private by email with the author.

Open Access

Topol: Another change is the migration to open access. More journals are open access, but at the same time we have predatory journals. A lot of things are going on here. How is that going to sort out over time?

Skipper: I very much hope that predatory journals will disappear as quickly as they appeared. Indeed, I've been an editor for almost 20 years now and that upsurge in predatory journals is something that we have seen only relatively recently. The really unfortunate thing is that it is coincident with the widespread interest and support in open access. This is unfortunate because in some communities it creates an impression that open access is somehow associated with lower quality, which most emphatically should have nothing to do with it. It's a completely independent variable but is indeed an unfortunate association.

I do hope that predatory journals are going to disappear, and a number of events are helping that to come about. Beall's list, which was quite popular, unfortunately disappeared at some point. There is a general awareness in the community and an exchanging of information about journals and how to identify a bona fide journal that is indexed in various indices. It's an important awareness that the communities should invest more time and efforts in and exchange information within their circles.

We talk a lot about open access, which is important. I would love for us to talk about open research, which to me is a much broader umbrella under which open access sits. But if we truly use the arguments which are so often used to support open access, if we truly care about the general public having access to the results of the scientific endeavor, if the funders truly care about getting the greatest value for the money that they invest in research, then it's not just the "words" that need to be shared; it's all of the other research objects: data, code, protocols, methods, etc. It's an important move that we are heading towards. I will be honest and say that most of the general public want what may be called "public access," though, strictly speaking, it's open access. When we talk about open access we mean publications which are not just free to read but also published under Creative Commons license, which implies a level of reusability. This is very important to the research community. The general public is probably less likely, in most cases, to want to reuse that information. It's a technicality, but nevertheless from this perspective many tend to forget that Nature can be publicly accessed.

A number of years ago we developed a tool called SharedIt, which allows unlimited sharing of a link to a completely freely accessible version of every manuscript which is published in Nature. It's not something you can save on your desktop or computer, but it's something you can share in social media and with others so anybody can access these papers. I emphasize that they are not open access in the sense that they are not published under Creative Commons license. But that is for Nature itself. Of course, Nature Research publishes other journals that are open access in that traditional sense.

Before coming into this role, I was editor-in-chief of Nature Communications, which is an open-access Nature title. I feel very strongly that openness and transparency are things that science and research can only benefit from, that I advocate within the research community but I also advocate internally for us. I would like us to be more transparent and open in the sense of transparency about processes but also in the sense of what we publish. There is a subset of papers which we publish open access, and we have been publishing under Creative Commons for many years now. Those papers come from the field that is perhaps closest to my heart: genetics and genomics. That community really established itself as the frontrunner in this effort with the Human Genome Project almost 20 years ago now.

It's an interesting challenge for us also because Nature is such a selective journal; we only publish something like 7%-8% of manuscripts submitted to us, which makes that calculation of having to charge authors who publish with us for all of the effort that we put into evaluating all of these different manuscripts. It makes it difficult for us to make that calculation work, perhaps simply because it's such a small proportion of those authors who are successful in publishing their papers. That strong selectivity is indeed what makes Nature what it is today and has been for many years.

Topol: This point that you're making about the openness extends far beyond access. It's about data sharing, code, datasets, and everything else is important. Also, open access is simulated by things like ReadCube and others, where the person who is interested does not have to own the PDF but can access and read the contents of the paper. I think it's an excellent model.

Communicating With the Public

Topol: Some years ago you came to our conference here at Scripps and electrified the audience because you talked about how important it is for scientists and researchers to be able to communicate to the public. I know that this is an important topic for you. Could you elaborate on that?

Skipper: Yes, with pleasure. It is an important topic for me. Let me just put it in context because it may be a little surprising for me to be talking about it. As editor-in-chief of Nature, most of Nature's audience is researchers; the research community is our main primary audience, although the magazine part of Nature with its news and opinion sections is targeted at an interested lay audience. When we write in that section of the journal, we don't write for the specialists. We require some appreciation of the science but certainly not specialist knowledge. Nevertheless, the primary target audience of Nature is the research community itself. Still, we live in the age when, unfortunately, experts, importance, and value are questioned. We live in the age when facts themselves are being challenged. This is an incredibly worrying trend, and I believe that prevention of the progression of this trend can be helped by researchers themselves engaging with the general public. They can talk about the discoveries and the implications of the work, and demystify how that research is done.

Earlier I was alluding to the fact that science itself is not infallible. And one of the arguments in this counterfact discourse is, "Well, scientists themselves don't know what the truth is because one day they think this and another day they think that." We can explain that science is not a religion, that there is no dogma as such—although we use that terminology but in a different sense—but it's an evolving process. Every day we think we've solved a problem. We have a complete picture of something and the next day some new finding emerges which changes acquisition or influences our view of something which we previously thought was sewn up and already solved. This is part of the beauty of science and the whole endeavor.

That is why I feel so strongly that researchers should be taking this opportunity to communicate with the general public. And they do much more than they used to. Certainly, when I was in the lab some 20 years ago, there was a very different sense of that duty in front of the general public of the importance to communicate your research. My favorite example is genetically modified organisms. In North America the climate surrounding that particular topic is a little different. But in Europe the whole argument of the importance and the safety of genetically modified organisms has been lost. I really hope I am wrong here, but unfortunately I think we have lost this argument irretrievably. Recent legislation in Europe ruled that genome precision-engineered plants will fall under the same legislation as transgenic plants. Even that very high-precision engineering has not escaped that sort of tainted assessment in Europe. Europe itself may not need genetically modified organisms but Africa, for example, does. Genetically modified crops are not grown in Africa in part for economic reasons because they could not be exported, for example, to European countries. So there are very important global knock-on effects, which perhaps is not surprising.

To come back to communication, you could ask why is it that scientists or researchers themselves should communicate? We have plenty of professionals who are science communicators. When you look at surveys that evaluate the general public's trust in different professions, it turns out that despite all of these things I said about lack of trust in facts and some concerns about the importance of experts, scientists and researchers still emerge as some of the most trusted professionals. The interesting part is that if you look at the other end of the scale in these surveys, right at the bottom are journalists. When researchers, scientists, or whoever engages in the research endeavor leave communication to the journalists, they are missing an opportunity and missing that trust that the public evidently already has. I'm not saying that scientists don't have anything to learn from journalists—that is another matter. Most emphatically it is an opportunity. As always, the winning combination is for everyone to work together. Journalists, science communicators, as well as researchers should work together to get those messages across. [Together they should explain] why science and research are important to everyone's lives—not just in the context of treating of disease, but on a daily basis—and also explain how scientific method unfolds, how research is done, how scientists approach questions.

Topol: Magdalena, this is so critical because a lot of scientists still are not [comfortable] speaking in simple language, in terms of communicating to the public in ways that a journalist can do quite well.

We want to cultivate that. We have so much misinformation from the polluted Internet that is far beyond anti-vaxxers and climate change denial. Also a scientist's pride is enhanced when they can see how they can ignite the public excitement and enthusiasm about their work. There are so many reasons we want to cultivate that.

Social Media

Topol: Another way that you communicate, which is not shared by lots of other editors of fine scholarly journals, is by Twitter. I suspect that you also pay attention to altmetrics for the journal.

Skipper: I do, yes.

Topol: Can you comment on both of those?

Skipper: Twitter, to many, is like Marmite. I don't know how well that comparison works in North America, but certainly here it works very well. Some love it and some hate it, and there are a very few who are ambivalent about it. You can make a lot of it to suit your own purpose. I have only ever used Twitter. Professionally I've only ever tweeted as an editor. I've been part of the scientific community on Twitter and I professionally have benefitted from it enormously. I have learned a lot about the sentiments in the particular research community. To begin with, I was just part of the genetics and genomics community, but now as editor-in-chief of Nature I am part of a broader community of researchers and others who are interested in this endeavor. It's a wonderful way of exchanging ideas and communicating to the broader interested audience.

I've noticed in the past year the creating of Twitter threads of scientific papers. It certainly transpires that the figures themselves tell a story in a paper. If you reuse the figures and you tweet them and insert intermittent tweets to help narrate the story, this is a very effective way of synthesizing a message in a paper and delivering it to a much broader audience. I've also seen incredibly interesting and very technical discussions about papers which extend the scholarship beyond what is present in the paper itself. Interestingly, this is something that journals have tried to achieve for a very long time, by offering commenting on the papers within the journals, but have failed. That never really took off. But on Twitter that works very well.

You may remember one example being a recent paper in NatureMedicine about the population genetic study associated with the CCR5 variant, which is associated with the variable lifespan.[3] There was a fantastically technical discussion on Twitter. Authors were involved and members of the community were involved, and it was such an enriching experience. That was really valuable.


Skipper: Your second point was about altmetrics, and this is a wonderful tool which puts the individual manuscript in the spotlight. Now, all of a sudden, it does not matter where the paper was published. Without the context of the rest of the journal, you know how well it's been used, how it's been read, how immediately it has influenced the community, whether just in its own community or a wider community. The specific altmetric score is calculated in a very sophisticated way which takes into account, for example, whether social media activity comes mainly from the immediate circle of the authors and the journal that published the paper or from a much broader community. A number of things feed into the metric, like social media coverage and its impact on policymaking. It's a very valuable tool and I hope that all authors are aware of it.

We've been using altmetrics for many years now in Nature and other Nature research journals, and we report those scores on every paper and update them in real time. After we introduced it, for a long time authors were not aware. Today I hope that the vast majority of authors are aware because it is such a valuable metric of how their papers are performing. I should say "performing" in the sense of the impact they have. I should say that we should remember not to measure all papers with the same yardstick. Some papers and some pieces of research will have an immediate effect on the community, and the altmetric scores and the like will shoot up and we will see them attracting attention immediately. Others are true pioneers over time and take time to mature. That does not mean that they are in some way less worthy. They can be as important. But it simply takes time, for whatever reason. Maybe they are so visionary. Maybe they are more theoretical. Maybe at the time of publication they are only relevant to one community but at some point they become relevant to a wider community, and then that influence becomes extended. We have to be sensitive to these nuances of how the different discoveries that are reported, and maybe even the influence of different tools, unfold over time.

Topol: I certainly see that. Some of the papers that get the highest altmetric scores are just because they are so controversial rather than such great science. Nature did a great feature on these "sleeping beauties" that you referred to there.

Hopes for the Future

Topol: I could talk to you literally all day because it's so fascinating to have this opportunity, but I want to hit you with the last question so we can wrap up. You are only the eighth editor in 150 years. Let's fast-forward. Likely you'll be the editor in 20 years hence; you are still young, so this is quite likely, I think. But when you finish up your work, whenever that is, what will you look back on and say? What did we do? What did we accomplish at a relatively turbulent and challenging time in publishing in science?

Skipper: Gosh. That is always the most difficult question of them all. I am going to postpone the answer, but I'm not escaping it. First let me share a personal anecdote about something that happened in my life when I was very young. I just simply love this example because it shows you how poor we can be at predicting the future. When I was about 19, I was talking to a friend of mine who was studying computer science. I really was not familiar with computers at all. I had maybe used one once by that point. And so we were having this conversation and I was trying to understand exactly what computers were and how they were built and so on. And at some point, I proclaimed with this great wisdom of a 19-year-old that maybe one day I will use a computer at work, but I really didn't think I would ever have one at home. Needless to say, I'm surrounded by them. My phone is a more powerful computer than what existed when I was 19, etc. So just a little anecdote. But I really enjoy telling that. It's a real story and it just shows me how difficult it is to look into the future and then look back and predict what has happened.

I will answer your question from the perspective of what really matters to me as a person but also as editor-in-chief of the journal. I will go back to our mission statement, which has not really changed in 150 years, and that word "serve." There is an interesting combination where we serve the research communities (in the broadest sense, and it is likely to become broader than it is now), and I hope that we also enable—that we can lead the scientific community by maybe precipitating opportunities and maybe bringing communities together. These are wonderful opportunities that we can take advantage of, but we can't do it on our own. We can only do it with the research community. I see this very much as a partnership. Just as I see my role in the journal as very much a partnership with all of my colleagues, all of the editors who handle manuscripts, the reporters who write the stories in the magazine part of Nature. Sometimes I think of myself as a conductor of an orchestra. Each individual knows perfectly how to play their instrument, but somehow I try to bring out more than just the sum of the parts that make up the orchestra.

I [hope I] can look back at this point when I retire from Nature and say that under my leadership we enabled new things to emerge with the research community, we made it easier for the research community to publish and influence decision-makers and policymakers, and maybe even broker those conversations to facilitate convergence of new fields. The multidisciplinary journal offers that opportunity. And on the more pragmatic level, we are very interested in working on iterating what we today understand as the format of the scientific paper. The PDF has been the format of choice in terms of file sharing for such a long time. We know it's not perfect. The makeup of scientific papers as we know them today is very rigid and constrained, and both the research community and the publishing community have been talking for a very long time about trying to shake up the way we disseminate results. If we can play a part in this under my leadership, I will be very happy. Maybe you can interview me again in 20 years and we will see if that happens.

Topol: I wish for that opportunity. In closing, I want to say that Nature Publishing Group is very lucky to have you, as are we in the science community. Those are laudable goals that you've outlined and we're certainly cheering for that to be achievable. It's been a joy to have this conversation with you and to get your views and candid thoughts. There is no question that if you go back 150 years, this has got to be the hardest time to navigate. These challenges didn't exist even just 5 or 10 years ago. Thanks so much for having this in-depth conversation with me, Magdalena. I look forward to reconvening, whether it's a decade or two from now.

Skipper: Thank you very much, Eric. It's a real pleasure.


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