NATURE PODCAST

Backchat: Nature's 150th anniversary

Benjamin Thompson hosts our roundtable discussion, with guests Magdalena Skipper, Ritu Dhand and Helen Pearson.

In this roundtable, our panel looks back at 150 years of Nature.

This week marks 150 years since the first issue of Nature was published, on 4 November 1869. In this anniversary edition of Backchat, the panel take a look back at how the journal has evolved in this time, and discuss the role that Nature can play in today's society. The panel also pick a few of their favourite research papers that Nature has published, and think about where science might be headed in the next 150 years.

Collection: 150 years of Nature

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03425-3

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Transcript

In this roundtable, our panel looks back at 150 years of Nature.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Hello, and welcome back to Backchat, our roundtable discussion show where we take a peek behind the scenes of what goes on at Nature. This week marks 150 years since the first issue of Nature was published on 4 November 1869 no less. In this edition of Backchat, we’ll be peering back through time at the history of Nature and gazing into the future of what the next 150 years might bring. I’m Benjamin Thompson and joining me on this time-travelling adventure are Magdalena Skipper…

Magdalena Skipper

Hi, I’m editor-in-chief of Nature. I coordinate the strategy for the journal and look after the many parts that actually make up Nature itself.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Ritu Dhand…

Ritu Dhand

Hi, I’m Ritu Dhand. I am the Vice President of the Nature journals.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And Helen Pearson.

Helen Pearson

I’m Chief Magazine Editor for Nature. I oversee our journalism and opinion content.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, a wealth of experience then on my panel today, and, well, let’s talk about Nature then. So, 150 years of publishing. A lot is the same – Nature is still publishing science – but an awful lot has changed. Magdalena, if you had to distil down the differences, what would you say are the three biggest changes that have happened in Nature over this century and a half?

Magdalena Skipper

Well, first off the mark would be the fact that we were actually launched to be something slightly different from what we are today. We were launched to be much more like a magazine, let’s say like Scientific American is today, where the scientists themselves were supposed to write about their discoveries for the general public. Of course, today, that’s an important part of Nature but that’s not the whole of Nature. We also publish original discoveries and thereby an important purpose of Nature is to communicate science within the scientific community. So, that’s your first difference. The second difference, I’m going to say, is in the authorship. So, some of the very early papers that we published, the very early communications, were authored by maybe one person, maybe two people at most. Almost certainly men from particular backgrounds. Today, of course, our authorship community is incredibly diverse. Often papers are authored by multi-author consortia, international consortia and actually, interestingly, sometimes amongst our authors we also have citizen scientists. And the third difference that I would bring out is who works on Nature itself. So, you know that very first issue was actually looked after and brought to life by one editor and his assistant. Today, we have more than 100 people who come together for that issue of Nature to come out every week and of course also for the online content on a continuous basis.

Helen Pearson

Yeah, interestingly, in the first year of Nature I think we had about 200 subscribers, so that’s another thing that’s potentially changed. Now, we’re reaching millions every month.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, my goodness, a bit of a leap there, absolutely. Now, Nature itself is kind of roughly split up into two parts – we call it the ‘back half’, which are the research papers, and the ‘front half’, which is the journalism content. Helen, with you looking after the front half, it’s interesting that Nature maybe started off maybe with a more kind of general audience. How has that manifested itself for what you’ve produced?

Helen Pearson

I think it’s really interesting what Magdalena says about how communicating science around the world has always been central to Nature’s mission, and even though we have that heavier focus now on the scientific community, communicating and discussing these broader issues around science are absolutely essential to what we do. In some ways, the papers themselves have become so specialised as science has expanded that they can be somewhat impenetrable, as I’m sure you’ve found if you’ve ever tried to delve into a paper which might be outside your discipline, whereas the news and the opinion content in which we’re discussing broader changes across policy and of course scientific discoveries are aimed to be accessible across the scientific community. So, in some ways, as science has expanded and also become more specialised for scientists themselves, that front half of Nature has become even more important.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And its reach, as you say, has expanded hugely as well.

Helen Pearson

Yes, and of course, we’re also on platforms that our founders back in 1869 would never have imagined. Then it was all about producing a print journal.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And that’s interesting in terms of the machinations of how it works. I mean when I was a student I was still going to read paper journals in a library, right, and of course, Nature’s done that for a very, very long time, but that’s changing completely now as well.

Ritu Dhand

Absolutely, I mean so many of our readers consume Nature through social media. Nature has this image of producing content in a way. The research is much more modular now. Watson and Crick published a one-page paper for the DNA helix. If that paper were published today, it would be at least ten pages long, with all the insights, the data, the methods. It would all be available to everybody to consume.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, maybe it’s just the sheer depth then of available data and the ways we can share it that have changed, but maybe what themes have stayed the same? If science has changed so much, what overarching themes do you think are similar?

Magdalena Skipper

So, it’s interesting, I sometimes get asked whether it really is Nature’s place to be talking about science, how it’s conducted, life in the lab and politics when it’s relevant to science. And then I always give this example that actually it has always been at the forefront of our attention. If you look at some of the very early issues of Nature, they were full of discussions about politics, about what the parliament was deciding, for example, about science education in this country and then subsequently as our outlook was becoming more international, our predecessors were discussing these topics in a broader issue.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Given that then, what’s the place of Nature maybe in society, if I can be so grandiose? Where is it its place to lead and drive political arguments or other arguments like this and where is it its place just to publish science?

Helen Pearson

I think that we have that conversation all the time, as we should. We should always be considering our role and what role we’re playing both within the scientific community and within society. I do think that we should not just be publishing results and then shrugging our shoulders about how those are used in society. We care very much about how they’re used and that science that we publish is also the best science, and so, for example, Nature’s been really active in the discussions around reproducibility of research. There’s been big conversations, as I’m sure you know, over the last decade, and we’ve been very active in kind of airing that debate and also helping the scientific community come up with standards and discussions which will help research become more rigorous, and that in itself is very important because if you’re making societal decisions based on science, it has to be good science. So, you can’t draw clear boundaries between what is science actually and how it influences society – those are one and the same.

Ritu Dhand

The reproducibility issue was rightly pointed to as a problem about ten years ago, and we discussed it in our pages, we discussed it with the researchers, we changed how we communicate science in our pages to address those concerns that we had investigated and that had been brought to our attention. As Helen says, there are issues in science communication that will always arise and our job is to make sure that science becomes better because we learn from those issues.

Magdalena Skipper

And what we’re discussing here is an interesting point about what Nature is. Sometimes it’s easy to think that Nature is a platform for publishing either scientific papers or news stories and opinion pieces, but we are actually a lot more than that, so everything we discussed about reproducibility, indeed, in addition to discussing the issues and offering a space for scientists to talk about it in our pages, we’ve actually worked with those communities to devise ways for members of the scientific community to report their own research more transparently and more robustly. So, in that way, I would say especially in the day and age when we talk a lot about loss of trust in experts, some misinformation and disinformation being prevalent around us, I think it’s really important that a) we publish excellent science, b) we put in the context, for example, in our magazine part of Nature, but then we also provide these tools to researchers so they can surface that rigour with which they do their own work.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, a lot of strands then maybe as to what Nature is trying to accomplish, but what do you think the perception is among the research community? Are they seeing these things, do we think?

Ritu Dhand

Yes, I think the researchers deeply value what Nature says in the news pages and in our journalistic and commissioned content, as well as what is published in the research section. We’ve made our name on delivering very, very high quality. That requires a huge amount of investment of time. We don’t want to be seen to get it wrong. We definitely don’t want it to be wrong. That doesn’t mean we always get it right. Science is published that may not be entirely correct, but we’ve gone to extensive lengths to check and double check and peer review everything, such that wherever possible, we catch errors, we spot mistakes, we are publishing the most rigorous science in the world.

Magdalena Skipper

One way of answering your question is to think about what we hear as feedback from individual researchers who’ve been our authors, and almost invariably, they will eventually sigh with relief that something, of course, is published in our pages. It’s usually, as Ritu was saying, a long, thorough process. And even if during that process they feel it may be painful, almost always they come back to us to say at the end, this was really worth it and that our manuscript, our paper, is now better as a result of it. I think that’s a good measure also of what the community thinks of us, of our efforts.

Helen Pearson

I think it’s really important that we’re always listening to the community and it’s important for us, as we’re 150, to also be really humble. Ultimately, we are here to serve scientists, that’s in our mission, and to serve the public, and we’re always listening to the feedback we get. The danger with Nature is that we’re put on some type of pedestal or people don’t understand how the process works or that there’s normal human beings like us kind of behind the scenes trying to publish this amazing magazine all the time, so as much as anything, we’re still listening and we want to listen even more right now as to how we should adapt and how we go into the next 150 years, hoping we last that long.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s change tact just a little bit then. So, 150 years – what a birthday that is. What are some of your personal highlights of things that maybe you’ve worked on or that have appeared in Nature in that time?

Ritu Dhand

I started at Nature back in 1999. I was the signalling and cancer editor and I took great pride in all the papers that we published. We love the research so much. We claim it as our very own, even though a researcher has spent five years putting it together and it’s most certainly their work. I was at Nature when the human genome was published. What an honour and privilege it was to be able to communicate that through our pages. But I’ve also been at Nature when we published that dragons will emerge in climate change and that was an April fool that we published in our section called News and Views, so we are human. We do occasionally have a little laugh if we can.

Magdalena Skipper

So, I also started my life at Nature as a manuscript editor in genetics and genomics, although the human genome, at that time, was already done, if you like, was already sequenced. The favourite which I handled is probably an unlikely choice but it was just such a beautiful paper and I had no idea it was going to be submitted to us. So, when you work as a manuscript editor, you’re very much in touch with the community, you go to scientific conferences, you go and visit labs, you read, of course, the literature. Often you know what’s about to come your way, but this particular paper came out of the blue. So, in the paper, genome sequencing was used in a population in Monarch butterflies, the brightly coloured orange butterflies that live mainly in Central America, and most of them migrate but there are some populations that don’t migrate and it was a big mystery as to why it was because otherwise morphologically they were the same. And it was actually using this population genome sequencing that the scientists were able to actually pin down this difference to a single mutation that essentially meant that the reason why some small populations were not migrating was because there was a mutation which disrupted their energy process, so they literally were too tired to migrate and they developed a completely different niche. It’s a very simple story and yet a very complex phenomenon that was described in this way. It was so elegant. I actually remember sitting closer and closer to the screen on which I was reading the paper. It was really very exciting.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

My goodness, I mean we do cover some bases here. And what about you, Helen? Any stories that we’ve broken, any exclusive that really stood out to you?

Helen Pearson

So, journalists tend to have short memories and seeing as the Nobels happened just a few weeks ago, it was really amazing to see that two of the winners in the physical sciences for the discovery of the first exoplanet circling a Sun-like star, and that always causes excitement if Nature has published a paper involved in the Nobels, and indeed we did publish that paper, so it was wonderful to see the scientists who’d done that work being awarded in that way.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s flip the coin a little bit and look at near misses. Is there maybe one example of a paper that Nature rejected for whatever reason that through the lens of time has turned out to be much more important than we realised at the time?

Ritu Dhand

There’s probably more than one example. Over 150 years we certainly haven’ got it right on every single occasion. One paper that comes to mind is Krebs cycle and every schoolchild will be aware of Krebs cycle and I remember learning the cycle from the textbook. But we did reject that paper and the grandson of Sir Krebs does delight in showing our rejection letter around that, and of course, we got that one wrong. It happens.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, last question from me then. Here we are at Nature’s 150th birthday. I’m going to throw open the question to the panel here – where do we go in the next 150 years? So, let’s say we’re here at the 300th anniversary of Nature. Where do we think science might have gone? What are we most excited about? What do we think might change?

Magdalena Skipper

Now, there’s a question. Predicting the future is hardly an easy exercise. One of my favourite stories comes from William Gibson who wrote Neuromancer, and one of the things he predicts, and the novel was written in the 80s, one of the things he predicts is a sort of version of stem cell therapy combined with AI, so fairly advanced, but he fails to predict mobile phones. So, the hero in the book still goes to a public phone box to make a phone call in the book. I always think of that example when we think of predicting the future. One thing I will make a prediction and that is about the formats in which we publish science. I think the change to the format of a scientific paper is long overdue. Data and computational analysis have become so important in pretty much any walk of science today, that we have to be able to harness that and give it the due that it deserves in the format of a scientific paper and who knows, maybe words will disappear or lose their importance and we will be disseminating information in a completely different way.

Helen Pearson

I mean I think what we do know, if we can’t predict the science itself, is that we will continue to be excited by it. That’s what we all love about being at Nature – everyone’s nodding around the table – is that you’re just always bombarded with kind of experiments that you just never thought could quite happen, and that’s really what makes working here so amazing, I think, and being part of this publication so amazing and I think however we’re communicating that, which we can’t predict, we will definitely be part of it.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, that’s it for this edition of Backchat and all that remains for me to do is to thank my guests Magdalena Skipper, Ritu Dhand and Helen Pearson. Listeners, we have a wealth of content relating to Nature’s 150th anniversary, which you can find over at go.nature.com/150. This has been Backchat. I’ve been Benjamin Thompson. Thanks for listening.