Science editor visits Albion-Q&A with Jake Yeston

Founded in 1880 by Thomas Edison, Science is an interdisciplinary journal with a weekly publication that averages about 15 scientific articles. Jake Yeston, senior editor of Science magazine, received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Harvard University in 1996 and his PhD in Chemistry from University of California-Berkeley in 2001. After postdoctoral research in various fields of chemistry in Germany and Maryland, Yeston joined the staff of Science in 2004. As a senior editor, Yeston edits and handles the peer-review process for manuscripts submitted in chemistry. On Oct. 30, Yeston sat down with The Pleiad to answer some questions.

P: How did you end up with a career in the unique niche of science writing and editing, and did you have equal passions for science and writing during college?

Y:I don’t really consider myself a science writer; I consider myself a science editor. When I was in high school, I think I was equally excited about both science and English. The thing that intimidated me about English was reading long books and writing long papers. The thing that I liked about going into science was that you never had to write 10-page papers—you could write things that were relatively short. That was one of the things that appealed to me, but I think it’s fair to say that I was always interested in the writing aspect of science and scientific presentation.

P: As a senior editor, are you responsible for editing both primary scientific manuscripts and commentary written for a non-expert audience?

Y:I work pretty exclusively with the primary researchers; that’s essentially my whole job. I interface with news writers and commentary writers in the sense that they touch base with me sometimes and say, “there aren’t many mistakes in this right?” But for the most part, my job responsibilities are to evaluate and edit the original research submissions that come to Science in chemistry. Scientists submit papers, and I look them over and send them to peer review. Then, if we decide to accept them for publication, I try to clear up the presentation as much as I can to make them accessible to a broad audience.

P: When selecting research articles for publication, what makes an article stand out from others?

Y:I think the most important thing we look for in Science is how well differentiated it is from related work in its field. The goal of Science actually is to publish papers in many disciplines so that readers in disciplines that are different from the one the paper is in will find interesting.  We publish relatively few papers because we want the journal to stay thin; we want people to feel comfortable taking it on an airplane. So because of that, if you want a diverse range of subjects, and you want the journal to stay thin, what that means is that you publish relatively few chemistry papers because you publish relatively few in any field. Every issue of the journal you want to have a chemistry paper, a physics paper, an ecology paper and an astonomy paper. So, the most important criteria is that you have to consider that if you’re looking at an astronomer  and I take a chemistry paper, that chemistry paper might be the only chemistry paper  the astronomer reads that month. The question is whether that chemistry paper giving the astronomer an accurate sense of what’s at the top of the field. They shouldn’t have to think there’s a better paper out there, and I’m just not seeing it. That’s how we think about things.

P: What do you enjoy the most about your job, and what frustrations do you encounter?

Y:What I enjoy most about my job is when I really help an author clear up what they are trying to say, and they tell me that they appreciate it. It really makes me feel like I’ve done a service to the scientific community as a whole because it’s complicated research, and I think that even scientists who are really outstanding at conceiving and performing the experiment sometimes have trouble explaining what they did. It’s very gratifying when I help them and they recognize that I help them, and we feel like we’ve created something that is better than it was before. My biggest frustration really is that I have to reject a lot of papers. I reject two out of every three papers that cross my desk, and very often authors aren’t too happy about that. And I have to talk on the phone to them, and I have to try and be good natured about it; I also have to make sure that I don’t really alienate them because oftentimes we will still want them to send us papers in the future. It’s just maybe this particular paper wasn’t the one we were looking for. It can be really challenging.

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