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Day in the life of a senior Comment editor

Jo Baker, senior Comment editor

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

Making an impact, meeting interesting people and learning new things. Each week is different.

What’s a typical day like for a comment editor at Nature?

Like everyone else’s, it’s pretty hectic — and powered by coffee. My morning starts by scanning the scores of e-mails I receive each day. My job entails working with researchers to solicit and hone opinion articles for Nature, so most of my e-mails are from authors either sending me text or revisions, or proposing ideas. I typically work on about a dozen or so articles in parallel, which averages out at publishing around one a week, and each goes through several intensive rounds of editing. The rest of the e-mails are to do with producing the current week’s issue, from picking photographs to checking page proofs, writing press releases, pulling together graphics and doing last-minute trouble-shooting. Comment editors work each week with a wide range of people across many departments, from the press office to the art team.

But by far the majority of my time is spent editing — crafting the often technical text that research scientists submit into articles that are readable, of wide interest and clear. This is an art as well as a skill. In my experience it is a deeply intuitive process. I digest, juggle and sculpt many strands of information in my head, gradually revealing the key points and gaps and trying to shape the whole. It is a bit like trimming topiary. Depending on the quality of the writing and the concept, this can feel like conducting an orchestra, wrestling an octopus or building a house from Lego bricks.

What do you enjoy most about your day?

I really enjoy working with the diverse authors that write for Nature, covering a vast range of topics, and producing articles that make an impact in the world. For example, in the past couple of weeks I’ve helped Canadian researchers warn about the sudden collapse of permafrost across the Arctic as it warms; they’ve sent me videos of them in the field in Alaska watching whole hillsides liquefy and flow off as oozing slurry, sometimes carrying their instruments off in the mud. I enjoy busting myths in Comment pieces, for example showing that autonomous vehicles will never be rolled out onto public roads without better safety measures and some sort of management system akin to air traffic control. And I love big global issues. For instance, I have just published a piece on how geopolitics could derail the world’s transition to clean energy, through protectionist policies, technology trading blocs and changing allegiances. As a former astronomer and physicist, I’m always keen to cover space science, from tracking space junk and satellites to imaging ever closer to the edges of black holes.

What has been your most memorable experience working at Nature?

One aspect of my job that I love is travelling to conferences. I don’t get to as many as I would like — producing the magazine each week takes precedence — but my broad ‘beat’ means I can stray into fields that I find fascinating but know little about. For example, materials science has opened up to me, with its weird topological structures, microscopic robots and 2D sheets of atoms. Social-science meetings have made me aware of ethical issues and biases in how algorithms direct our lives, from passport controls to policing and sentencing. And my exposure to places expands, too. In the past few years I’ve visited China several times, and enjoyed learning about its history along with dumplings, noodles and green tea. Last year I was lucky to attend a Nature conference on flexible electronics (co-run by physical science editors Karl Ziemelis and Luke Fleet) in Xi’an. The talks were memorable, covering topics ranging from television screens that you can roll up and put in your pocket, to electronic stimulators designed to reconnect the circuitry of people’s spines, to brain implants that have enabled paralysed rodents to walk. The trip to see the terracotta warriors was memorable too, as were long and fascinating discussions with participants over dinners and late in the hotel bar.

How many other Comment editors work at Nature?

Nature differs from many other journals in having specialist editors commission and edit opinion pieces, combining journalistic and editorial skills. Because we cover so many fields, we work closely with our back- half colleagues and reporters, who share their specialist knowledge and insights into particular areas. There are two dedicated long-format Comment editors at Nature: Lucy Odling-Smee covers biology and health, and I pick up areas outside biology, including the physical sciences, climate change and sustainability. The section as a whole is run by Sara Abdulla, and includes three more editors: Monya Baker commissions and edits the one-page World View column; Barbara Kiser coordinates reviews of the latest science books and arts events; and Rosalind Cotter sifts Nature’s bulging postbag.


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