Interviews

Former Nature editor Lesley Anson on publishing in high-profile journals and the future of scientific publishing

BY      |     November 10, 2020

Lesley Anson is a former ion channel scientist who worked as an editor at Nature for more than ten years. Lesley also launched Nature Communications and served as its Editor-in-Chief for almost six years. She is now an independent consultant at Anson Scientific, a company she founded to provide editorial and consulting services for researchers, institutions and other science-related organisations.

Lesley looks forward to a future in which research papers are judged on their own merits and not by the name of the journal they’re published in. She also enjoys creating accessible, user-friendly manuscripts from drafts containing complex ideas.


I spoke with Lesley about her career in ion channels, her experience as an editor at Nature and Nature Communications, effective communication and reviewers’ recompense. It was a great and enriching conversation and I highly recommend reading Lesley’s tips on how to make your paper more appealing to a broad audience.

Lesley is also kindly offering a 10% discount on the price of a cover letter edit to readers of IonChannelLibrary, so be sure to read the interview till the end, to get the discount code.

Have a good read.



So, Lesley, why don’t we begin by you telling me a bit about yourself and your career backgrounds?

I began my scientific career at Newcastle University as a biochemistry undergraduate, but learned very quickly that I had a deeper passion for physiology, so I switched to a physiological sciences degree course at the end of my first year. The strength of Newcastle’s Department of Physiology meant that we spent a lot of time learning biophysics – ion channels, membrane transport, cellular excitability etc – which I fell in love with. Our lectures were held quite literally in the centre of an active research department, so we interacted with the various research groups on a daily basis. This helped me to realise that research was something I could pursue as a career. In particular, I became fascinated by the patch-clamp technique and the prospect of being able to watch single ion channel molecules open and close in real-time. So I set about looking for a Ph.D that would allow me to learn this technique and accepted a position with Jonathan Ashmore at the University of Bristol to work on inner hair cells from the mammalian cochlea. The project provided exactly what I was looking for, and more. I recorded from isolated hair cells and cerebellar granule cells at the same time; pulling off patches of membrane containing NMDA receptors from granule cells to bioassay glutamate release from hair cells stimulated with the other patch pipette. I also used a lock-in amplifier to measure hair cell capacitance in order to detect synaptic vesicles fusing with the plasma membrane. It was a challenging project for a Ph.D. student, but I achieved my goal of recording single molecules as they changed conformation before my eyes, and was hooked.

single channels
J. Neurosci. 18, 581-589 (1998). © 1998 Society for Neuroscience

From Bristol I moved to UCL for my postdoctoral work and was lucky enough to have an opportunity to work with David Colquhoun. We were trying to identify the glutamate binding site in NMDA receptors using site-directed mutagenesis and single-channel recordings, at a time before any high-resolution ion channel structures had been solved. But just as we were making progress, two papers came out that had a big influence on my subsequent career decisions. The first was Rod Mackinnon’s first KcsA ion channel structure – revealing the architecture of an ion channel pore – and the second was Eric Gouaux’s first glutamate-receptor ligand-binding domain structure – which revealed what the binding site that I was looking for probably looked like. These papers opened my eyes to the power of structural biology and how this could transform the ion channel field, for there, in the glutamate binding domain, was the very residue that I was painstakingly characterizing using single channel kinetic analysis.

At that point, I began to hesitate about my next career move: “Should I attempt to dive into structural biology, or maybe try something else?” I knew that I wanted to stay in science, but didn’t know exactly what kind of role I wanted to play in the long term, so I set about investigating the different options available to me. Meanwhile, I continued to scan the pages of Nature and Science in the UCL coffee room for further ion channel advances, and came across an advert for a molecular neurobiologist to join the Nature editorial team in London. To my surprise, I was lucky enough to be offered the role, and I’ve not looked back since.

I’m curious, how could a basic scientist become an editor at Nature? Did you learn any communication or writing techniques? Did you have any previous experience in editing?

Like most of my colleagues, I didn’t have any formal science communication experience when I started at Nature. But actually, that role was primarily about handling research manuscripts: making decisions about what goes out to review, finding the right reviewers, interpreting their reports, deciding whether to pursue publication or not. It was more about scientific decision making than it was about science communication. Everything that I eventually learned about science communication, I learned while I was on the job. For example, I spent a week as a subeditor learning how to improve the readability of manuscripts; making sure that sentences were constructed properly – not too long or complicated – and that the message they conveyed was clear to the reader. I also spent a month with the News and Views team learning how to developmentally edit articles; restructuring the text to develop a narrative and working with artists to create figures that would communicate difficult concepts to readers. I now use those editing skills on a daily basis, so it was a good move to acquire that training.

OK, so you were an associate editor and then a senior editor at Nature for about ten years. But then you moved to Nature Communications. Why did you do this? Was it a step up or a step down?

Being an editor at Nature is an exhilarating experience – you know, to handle the kind of science that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

LESLEY ANSON

That’s a very good question; some of my colleagues questioned why I would want to leave the flagship journal. It’s certainly true that being an editor at Nature is an exhilarating experience – you know, to handle the kind of science that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. And it wasn’t unusual at the time to move to one of the Nature research journals – Nature Neuroscience, Nature Medicine, Nature Genetics etc – as these were also very highly-regarded journals. But Nature Communications was the first foray into the tier below those journals for a Nature-branded publication. I thought it was a great opportunity to launch something new and different – a relatively selective open access journal that few believed could work because open access relied on high volumes. And it was certainly a big challenge – something that my personality seems to be drawn towards. But in hindsight, it turned out to be a great move, because the journal became a huge success and triggered the launch of several other similar journals in that publishing space.

nature

So, why did you leave the editor-in-chief position at Nature Communications after six years? Does this mean that you had overcome all the challenges that you faced and needed new, more sophisticated challenges to fuel your motivation?

Actually, over that relatively short period of time, Nature Communications grew way bigger than anyone envisaged when we first launched it. And I’m immensely proud of that. But the team of editors had to grow and grow and grow. I became a manager of managers who were also managing managers that were managing teams of editors. So I ended up moving further and further away from the science, the editing, the community – the job that I really loved. I’d often toyed with the idea of running my own business, but didn’t really know what kind of business that would be, and this seemed like a good opportunity to move back to my roots by setting up an editorial consultancy from my home office. A happy consequence of that decision was that it allowed me to spend more time with my teenage daughter, having been a very busy working mum throughout her life.

Could you tell me more about Anson Scientific? How it all started? What services do you propose? Who are your clients?

It all happened quite quickly once I’d made the decision. Over the 16 years that I’d spent at Nature, I’d made a lot of friends within the publishing industry and formed good relationships with many scientists. So, when I left Nature Communications, I found that people got in touch with me to ask if I’d be interested in taking on particular jobs. As a result, I ended up working on a number of different things, all based around science communication. And that diversity is what I really enjoy about my business. In a single day, I might write summaries of research papers for one journal, evaluate the suitability of research manuscripts for peer review for a different journal, and develop web resources such as author guides for an entirely different client. I also work with universities and institutions to provide training courses on writing effective manuscripts and lectures on alternative careers for scientists.

But the thing I love most is working directly with authors to improve the communication of research findings in manuscripts destined for high-profile journals. I edit manuscripts and cover letters with the aim of making a convincing case to the editor and reviewers; help to compose appeal letters when manuscripts have been rejected; and provide general guidance to help authors navigate the peer review process. I enjoy this kind of work because it involves direct interaction with scientists. I’m a nerd at heart so I like nothing more than talking to scientists about science. It also allows me to use the skills that I’ve learned over the years to give something back to the community.

Anson Scientific

Could you describe how you work with authors? Imagine that an author has reached out to you. What next?

I’m happy to work with authors in the way that suits them best, but a full developmental edit would typically begin with an online consultation in which I’d talk to the authors about their paper to find out what the novel and interesting findings are and learn about current understanding in that field. I would also want to find out what journal they’d like to publish in, and have a conversation about aspects of the study that are likely to be important to that journal. I’d then sit down to read the manuscript, before going back to the authors with a set of recommendations. I might explain that the manuscript is well-organized and well-written, but that it would benefit from a thorough copyedit to really make sure the ideas it contains are communicated effectively. Or I might suggest a reorganization that would involve moving sections around. Or I might say: “Look, it’s really well-organized, but there’s very little narrative – the paper doesn’t tell a story – so I think we should add more linking sentences to develop the narrative a bit more.” After passing along my recommendations, I would typically give authors an estimate of how much it might cost to edit their manuscript, before proceeding to the edit.

OK. But, as you’re giving your recommendations to authors, you’re basically teaching them how to write good stories. So, they can learn and do it themselves in the future.

You are right. Like most professions, there are ‘tricks of the trade’, and I try to communicate these tips to authors. So once I’ve gone through the process of editing a manuscript with an author, they would likely learn how to do it themselves, and may not need my help the next time. But lots of my clients return for subsequent edits, so there appears to be a need for the service beyond the understanding of how to do it. Polishing manuscripts is a very time-consuming business, so I guess that transferring that task to me frees up authors’ time to spend on tasks that they consider higher priority. But it’s okay if authors choose not to return because there’s an awful lot of research being done out there and new clients tend to contact me following a recommendation from one of those one-time customers.

Polishing manuscripts is a very time-consuming business, so I guess that transferring that task to me frees up authors’ time to spend on tasks that they consider higher priority.

LESLEY ANSON

I have a passion for effective science communication, which means that I’m content if I’ve been able to pass along those skills to someone else, and also helps me to do a decent job myself. I sometimes work on papers where a really interesting aspect is buried deep within the text and not even mentioned in the abstract, and I really enjoy bringing those nuggets of information to the fore – ‘advertising’ the strengths of the work, if you like. But it’s important to bear in mind that conclusions are occasionally overstated and need to be toned down, so I sometimes make suggestions that reduce that kind of hyperbole. At the end of the day, though, I think the idea that effective communication could improve the chances of getting published in a high-profile journal is what’s most attractive to authors.

And could you share some tips that authors could use to increase their chances of getting published in the journal they dream about?

For me, the most important elements, and therefore the things that I spend most time on, are the title, the abstract and, to a certain extent, the introduction. For these sections, the editing process is quite formulaic. Following a tried-and-tested formula can help to communicate even the most difficult concepts effectively. So, for example, the trick with titles is to state what has been found in the study and not what has been done. Manuscript titles are often seen by readers completely out of context – they might come up in a web search or a table of contents – and in that situation it’s easy to skip past a title that only describes the experiments. A reader is more likely to be attracted to papers that state the result in the title, for example: “Potassium channels achieve selectivity by mimicking ion hydration” not “Experiments to determine how potassium channels achieve selectivity.”

The formula for a good abstract begins with a sentence of very general introduction, “An ion channel is a membrane protein that carries ions from one side of a membrane to another”. This is followed by a sentence or two to explain the relevant background to the study, “Potassium channels are able to transport potassium ions rapidly and specifically, and do so by means of a selectivity filter”, before the knowledge gap is stated, “However, the mechanism by which these filters achieve selectivity is unknown”. A ‘here we show’ sentence is very effective at this point, for example, “Here we show that potassium channel selectivity filters accomplish specificity by mimicking the coordination of potassium ions by water”. This should be followed by a couple of sentences to briefly describe the experiments and results, “We use X-ray crystallography to solve the structure of our favourite potassium channel and reveal that eight carbonyl oxygen atoms in the selectivity filter coordinate each potassium ion in a geometry that resembles coordination by water”. And finally, a couple of sentences to put the result into context and explain why it’s important “These results explain why potassium ions pass through the selectivity filter more readily than smaller sodium ions and provide a framework to understand selectivity in other ion channels”. Obviously, credit to Rod Mackinnon for providing inspiration for this example.

So, aspects of editing can be quite formulaic – there are tried-and-tested ways of giving the right information in the right order and in a way that is easy for humans to read and understand.

Lesley Anson

Wow. That’s a very specific answer. Thank you. It’s very helpful.

Well, it’s not a secret; it’s a formula that Nature openly encourages, and which I think works well. You can find an annotated example of a Nature abstract on their website.

Having said all that, there are lots of opinions about how manuscripts should be structured and the tenses and voices that should be used, so there’s more than one way to construct an article. A good example of a situation in which a declarative title doesn’t necessarily work is when a paper is reporting a de novo protein structure. In these cases, the best title is often: “The structure of channel x at whatever resolution.” In other words, it’s important to be flexible when you’re editing.

And what about cover letters? Do editors even read cover letters?

You need to treat a cover letter as if it’s an elevator pitch.

LESLEY ANSON

Yes, editors certainly read cover letters, but they don’t have time to read the entirety of a six-page long cover letter. The most important rule for cover letters is: keep them short – one page, no more. You need to treat a cover letter as if it’s an elevator pitch. And again, I have a formula that I recommend using for cover letters, which has a three paragraph structure: the first paragraph states the title and the most important finding of the study; the second paragraph explains what has been done and what has been found in a bit more detail; and the third paragraph puts all this into context and explains why it’s interesting and important to the readers of that journal. Oh, and I’d always recommend suggesting reviewers – perhaps in a bullet-point list at the end.

Thanks for sharing this. You know that many scientists dream about publishing their work in top-tier journals as this could have a profound impact on their careers. Could you give some tips for those willing to get their paper published in Nature?

Nature and other similar journals are unusual cases, and some studies lend themselves to that kind of publication whereas others don’t. I would say that Nature papers typically have one, very strong and interesting bottom line with multiple lines of evidence that provide firm support for that conclusion. Other than that, it’s difficult to put your finger on precisely what makes a Nature paper.

In any case, I think that whatever the study happens to be about, it’s important to bring the strengths of that work to the attention of the reader, which is what I do when I’m developmentally editing – if there are any of those hidden gems within the paper, I try to bring them out in the abstract. The most interesting part of a piece of work might not necessarily be the goal of the study; it might be the method you’ve developed to reach that goal – a new tool, technique, or approach. Or it might be that the work resolves a decade-old controversy once and for all. My advice is to look more broadly at your work and emphasise any hidden strengths.

OK. And what about the NatureScienceCell club? People think that this sort of unofficial club exists, and if you don’t belong to this club, it’s almost impossible to publish in these top journals. Could you comment on this?

I understand that it does sometimes appear this way, but fundamentally, editors want to publish the most interesting and important science in their community. If you’re publishing great work, you receive nice feedback from the community, which makes everything worthwhile. It doesn’t matter whether this work comes from a well-known author or from somebody who’s just started their own lab – great work is great work. However, there are some authors who publish multiple papers in these kinds of journals, which must fuel the perception that there is a club.

Some authors are really great at building a narrative for their paper. Interestingly, they tend to be the same scientists that give really engaging lectures because it’s the same skill: the ability to tell a story.

LESLEY ANSON

I’m not sure why this is, and imagine there are several factors, but it’s certainly true that some authors are really great at building a narrative for their paper. Interestingly, they tend to be the same scientists that give really engaging lectures because it’s the same skill: the ability to tell a story. My perception is that authors who publish more often in Nature, Science and Cell are often very good at crafting beautifully-written manuscripts. This is by no means the only factor – these individuals are also great scientists – but one of the drivers for my business is to help authors who aren’t natural storytellers to sell their work to journals.

That’s interesting. So, in your opinion, what is more important for successful publishing: strong science or effective communication?

Having robust science is an absolute must – the science within a paper is the end product. Having said that, I’m convinced that effective communication allows you to sell your product to a greater number of people. I’ve heard many scientists say that ‘getting past the editor’ is the most frustrating part of the process, but editors are only human, so it’s important to communicate effectively with the gatekeepers of peer review. In a typical day, dozens of different manuscripts might be brought to the attention of an editor, so I think it’s forgivable if they occasionally fail to spot something that’s hidden at the end of a paper. This is just one of many reasons why communication is really important.

What’s the future of scientific publishing? Do you see any trends in this area?

I can’t predict the future, but I can tell you what I’d like the future to look like. I’d like to see a world of scientific publishing where impact factors aren’t important, so that great science carried out by talented scientists is judged on its own merits and not by the name of the journal it’s published in. Unfortunately, we’re still in a situation where publication venues are very influential for career progression – in some countries more than others. I spent most of my career working at journals with impact factors greater than 10, but I’d much rather be part of a world where the name of the journal isn’t used as a shortcut to judge quality and rigor. I’m not suggesting that papers published in high impact journals aren’t high quality, but I do worry that high-quality papers published in lower impact journals are sometimes perceived as low quality.

“I’d like to see a world of scientific publishing where impact factors aren’t important, so that great science carried out by talented scientists is judged on its own merits and not by the name of the journal it’s published in.”

LESLEY ANSON

I admire what eLife is doing in this respect; it’s slowly but surely nudging the publishing industry towards a much better place. For example, eLife (along with organisations such as ASAPbio) is currently driving forward the use of preprints as a means to communicate research findings widely and freely at the earliest opportunity. eLife’s Preprint Review service allows papers that appear on bioRxiv to be reviewed by the journal, and the reviews subsequently associated with the bioRxiv publication. And it seems that these kinds of initiatives have driven other publishers to develop their own preprint servers, or buy preprint services, or form partnerships with preprint services. There’s still a long way to go before the scientific discussions that are associated with preprints are considered by funding bodies and hiring committees as signposts of quality, but I think eLife is one of the organisations that are doing a great job of pushing things forward.

So, if you were to start a new journal, would it be something similar to eLife?

It’s time to rethink what function journals usefully serve when they are essentially an online collection of papers.

LESLEY ANSON

I’m not really interested in launching another journal that resembles one of the tens of thousands that we already have – I don’t believe there is a need for more journals. Maybe it’s time to rethink what function journals usefully serve when they are essentially an online collection of papers that might have been published in a preprint server months, or perhaps years, earlier? I’m not quite sure what form journals will take in this futuristic world I’m imagining, but it would certainly be a model where the impact factor wasn’t important. I’m interested in doing something new and different that would really drive the situation forward.

I like your idea, but as you said, journals are still very influential and they are going to be around for quite a while. I often wonder why journals do not pay reviewers for their work? Private organizations (journals) ask experts to review papers and to give their opinion. Isn’t that a consulting service? Why not pay people for their work?

It’s a difficult issue to resolve, but on the whole, my feeling is that yes, it would be fair to compensate reviewers for their time. However I am not a fan of paying reviewers per paper because I think it might lead to poor reviews and potentially abuse of the system. I’d much prefer a situation where reviewers were incentivized by the content of each manuscript they reviewed rather than the payment they would receive. I think you’re more likely to get the right reviewers for a paper if their motivation is scientific rather than financial. If a potential reviewer is fundamentally interested in a paper, they’re likely to read it at some point anyway, so they’re motivated to review it. That being said, I do agree that scientists who review papers for journals should receive recompense for their work, maybe in the form of an honorarium at the end of the year.

Well, you are talking about scientific motivation. I think it was true maybe five years ago, when in order to have early access to new findings, scientists had to agree to review manuscripts. But, now the situation is changing with the development of preprints. You can now read new papers without having to spend time writing thoughts and suggestions to the editor.

Things would certainly be different in a world where most, if not all, papers were published as preprints before submission to journals. And in that case, maybe peer review would be conducted via the preprint servers rather than by the journals – maybe the function of journals would simply be to curate papers that have received positive reviews on bioRxiv? This is essentially the ‘publish first, curate second’ model that Stern and O’Shea proposed (see here). It’s a provocative and interesting idea, but there’s obviously a long way to go before the publishing industry embraces this kind of model.      

So, ladies and gentlemen, if you have a great ion channel paper but need help to communicate the findings effectively, Lesley is the person who can do it for you. She’s also offering a 10% discount on the price of a cover letter edit to readers of IonChannelLibrary, which will include the edited letter itself plus priceless tips on how to write great cover letters in the future. Discount code:  ionchannellibrary.com

Anson Scientific Discount code: ionchannellibrary.com


I’m thankful to Lesley Anson for taking the time to talk with me and sharing her interesting insights.

If you have questions to Lesley Anson, you can contact her via LinkedIn, Twitter, or Email

Learn more about Anson Scientific here.

Read the recent interview with Lesley (by Elle Campbell) here.

Read Lesley’s thoughts on exploring science beyond academia here.

Read about two weeks in the life of Lesley Anson as a Nature editor here (p. 14-15).

Listen to Lesley talking about open access publishing at the BBC Radio 4 here.


Pictures by Lesley Anson and Artem Kondratskyi


Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

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