“I am in favour of open access, it’s a good model”

Myles Axton, chief editor, Nature Genetics, believes that open access is a good model for online publications, though it doesn’t have the same reader responsiveness as the subscription model. But the bigger challenge for the publishers of the world’s most read peer-reviewed journals is still the large overhead costs, especially for the ones which do not charge article processing charges

“I am in favour of open access, it’s a good model”

One of the key concerns of scientists and medical researchers, who dream of getting their research papers published in reputed peer-reviewed journals like yours, is the fear of rejection. How would you react to this?
It is important to make sure that scientists have access to the best advice so that they can get their research published quickly and in a robust form that can be used as a research tool by other people. Any research, which meets the basic and the strong elements of novelty and conceptual advance shouldn’t ideally face any such issue.
I don’t have much respect for the concept of symbolic publication. The idea is that if there is a breakthrough or something big that needs to be known by everyone, it is more important that scientists should know this first as a tool to move the field forward. And at the end, when you look at one’s career, you should be able to say that you made a lot of good scientific decisions and some clever experiments with dedication to solve a particular set of problems. This is what makes you a great scientist.
Often a great scientist is somebody on the ground close to the problem and who realises that this is a problem and therefore it has a technical solution. Often, this solution is not very difficult. But it requires new resources, knowledge and years of dedication. Finally you may find that it was essentially a simple solution.

How do you prioritise the papers for publishing from the large number of submissions by authors?
It is the same, like novelty and conceptual advance, like any other journal. And of course, a voice in your head saying how many labs would do their projects differently after reading this paper is another key consideration.The interesting insights that we get on the research from the authors and the paper about how significant was the knowledge gap that they tried to fill in while bringing up the point for conclusion, whether it led to positive or negative result, also contributes to the decision. Ideally, the best paper to publish is the one that helps in moving the field forward.
In terms of interviewing authors, it is quite satisfying for my team of managers as they ask questions to know the story behind the story. And they will tell you what happened in the lab and so on and so forth, which helps the editor to really take a much better view of the paper, which is often appreciated by the authors as well as readers. That way, as an editor of a peer-reviewed science journal, it is nice to get paid as a professional appreciator.

As far as communicating the science is concerned, how is it different in a magazine like Nature Genetics, which is read by a scientific audience, compared to journals that are aimed at a translational audience?
The mistake in communicating science to translational or non-scientific audience is often that the scientists or the communicator approach them thinking that they understand science. It will never work unless the audience finds it connected to their area of work or interest. The translational audience will get interested or try to understand the subject only if it answers their questions or they find some direct applications of the same in their field. It is true across professions whether it is an agriculturist or a doctor. So it is always better to start the communication with a question to which they wanted answers and reward them with an answer to know more on what they are looking for. For example, in your case, the doctors would be more interested in science if that has a direct clinical application.
Similarly, it will be difficult to communicate to a clinical researcher unless you are close to clinical research. In clinical research, the doctor is always curious to know why the condition of one group of patients improves while it worsens for the other. He also wants to know if he can have a marker or the patients need to be put on a different course of treatment.
As an editor of a peer-reviewed science magazine, I have to always think in the perspective of a peer reviewer asking a question to the author in the language of a scientist. But for science editors who cater to the information needs of a public or professional audience, they need to think in users’ perspective.

What about an open access policy for journals like Nature?
I am in favour of open access, I think it’s a good model. But it doesn’t have the same reader responsiveness as subscription model, except the fact that it can be read by everybody. In the subscription model, the readers take it as valuable and place it in the library of research, but on the contrary, in the open access model, one can say that it is valuable as even the students who are not affiliated with wealthy institutions can be inspired by the research. So, the draw aspect of the open access is very attractive indeed. Certainly, we can get 50% more readership for Nature Genetics if we make every article open access and that would be appealing.
Nature is a big open access publisher. We have got Nature Communications with nearly 70 editors and making a big effort with open access. We publish Reference Genomes under open access because the community demands it. But we don’t take any article processing charge as we don’t have any business model to accept that. So there is no prospect of making all of the journals open access as that’s not the way the journal was set up.

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