CAREER COLUMN

Why you should join a journal’s editorial board

Susan D’Agostino explains how serving as a board member can pay big career dividends.
Susan D’Agostino is a mathematician and science-writing fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Her forthcoming book, How to Free Your Inner Mathematician, is expected to be published by Oxford University Press in March 2020.

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If you’re an early-career researcher, you might not hear much from mentors about the prospect of joining a scientific editorial board for an academic journal or a volume of peer-reviewed research papers. Your mentors might even discourage board membership out of concern that your time would be better spent on research.

However, a board-member position could confer large, lasting dividends. The role typically requires a few hours each month (more just before publication deadlines) on tasks such as consulting with editors, recruiting authors or reviewing papers.

These positions are usually unpaid, but they offer important benefits. Your network will expand to include fellow editorial-board members around the country and the globe, and they could provide leads on professional opportunities or introduce you to new contacts in your discipline. You’ll also gain an insider’s view of publication dos and don’ts, which could accelerate your publication efforts with other journals and boost your marketability for hiring and promotions.

As a mid-career mathematician with editorial-board experience, I can attest to these benefits. From 2017 to 2019, I was editor-in-chief and editorial-board member of A Celebration of the EDGE Program’s Impact on the Mathematics Community and Beyond, a volume of peer-reviewed mathematics papers in Springer’s Association for Women in Mathematics Series. (Springer Nature publishes Nature.) These appointments, although unpaid, helped me to reach several longtime professional goals.

For example, I secured a sit-down meeting with an editor at my dream publisher only after I’d mentioned my editorial-board position to him. Soon after that meeting, I won a contract for the general-interest book that I had long wanted to write — a book that I expect will generate royalties and speaking engagements. That contract led to further opportunities, including a fellowship that helped me to make the career move into maths and science writing that I’d been mulling over for a decade. I also won an international grant with funding for travel and writing support, and access to the invitation-only Heidelberg Laureate Forum this September in Germany, so that I can write about this meeting in mainstream publications such as Quanta and The Washington Post. At the forum, I’ll interview ‘rock stars’ in my field, such as Fields medallists and Abel prizewinners — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a mathematician–writer like me.

My editorial-board-member colleagues report similar career enhancements. One colleague, who had been a postdoc when she became a board member, landed a tenure-track position at her top-choice institution during her term on the board. During her interviews, hiring-committee members mentioned how impressed they were with her editorial-board service. Another colleague was nominated for a faculty scholarship award at her university as a result of serving on our editorial board, a distinction that will be noteworthy in her future applications for promotion. Yet another fellow board member landed a paid editing job with a prestigious publisher that she works for — and enjoys — alongside her visiting assistant professorship.

How did I land my position? It took little more than speaking to a publisher’s representative, and a phone call to the president of my professional association (the Association for Women in Mathematics in Providence, Rhode Island).

Tips on how to join an editorial board

Identify a target publication or two on whose editorial board you would like to serve. Read your target publications to familiarize yourself with the topics, format, tone and length of accepted articles. Look at the credentials of those on the editorial board to determine whether any match — or could soon match — your own.

Network with the editors of your target journal and with editorial-board members at professional conferences, where they often hold board meetings. Although their meetings will probably be closed to non-members, you might be able to attend other panels or talks in which the members participate. Find their names on the journal’s inside cover or website. Then, cross-reference the names with lists of conference speakers and attendees.

At the conference, introduce yourself and ask prepared questions. These could include: “How did you obtain your editorial-board position? What are your responsibilities? How much time do you spend on editorial duties each week or month? When’s the next call for new board members?” Talk to more than one member of each board to get a full picture.

If you can’t talk to an editorial-board member at a conference, conduct an informational phone interview. After you have identified an editor or board member, send them an e-mail requesting a 30-minute phone conversation about board membership. Most people enjoy talking about their work, so don’t worry that you’re intruding. During the phone call, ask your prepared questions.

Look for calls for new editorial-board members in your target journal. Be aware, however, that some volunteer positions might be filled through word of mouth from the current board’s network — even more reason to communicate your interest to a current board member, as noted above.

Apply for open editorial-board positions promptly when they are advertised. After all, you can’t be appointed to a scientific editorial board without requesting formal consideration.

Understand the value you bring to an editorial board if you identify as a woman, or are a member of a minority ethnic group. Research on maths and science editorial-board demographics is rare, but a 2017 PLoS Biology study1 found that more than two-thirds of environmental-biology-journal editors hail from the United States or the United Kingdom, and most other editors come from other financially privileged countries. “Now is the time to challenge the status quo,” a 2018 Lancet paper on gender inequities in scientific publishing urges2.

Explicit and implicit biases are real. There is a growing awareness in academic publishing that homogeneous editorial boards conflict not only with journals’ values but also with scientific progress. If you would bring a diverse perspective, communicate that in your search for a position.

Consider alternative routes to editorial-board service. During my first board stint, I spoke to a publisher’s representative about editing a volume from my research community. I left that conversation with the editor’s contact information in hand and a sense of what she sought in a new board recruit. Fast-forward a few months: I was appointed.

Apply again if your first attempt is not fruitful. Strategize about ideas for target journals, or people whom you might contact, during your commute or before falling asleep at night. Seek advice from trusted mentors. Persist until you succeed.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02410-0

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

References

  1. 1.

    Espin, J. et al. PLoS Biol. 15, e2002760 (2017).

  2. 2.

    Lundine, J. et al. Lancet 391, 1754–1756 (2018).

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