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Benefits of Volunteering in Scientific Publishing

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Alfred U’Ren

Contributing to scientific publishing as an editor or reviewer can be a great way to network, keep up on the latest research and learn a new skillset. OPN talked with Alfred U’Ren, a research scientist and professor at the Institute of Nuclear Sciences, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), about his work for peer-reviewed journals—and how it has elevated his career.

Can you tell me about your editorial activities?

As an editor, I’ve been involved with two journals. I was with JOSA B as a topical editor for six years over two periods. I was initially invited to join by the then editor-in-chief, Grover Swartzlander, and it was something I was very interested in, so I was really excited. It was a very rewarding and interesting job that didn’t take up a huge amount of time.

After my second period with JOSA B ended, I was invited by Michael Raymer to become part of the editorial committee for the new journal Optica Quantum. This is different from JOSA B because it’s a higher-impact journal, and papers submitted to Optica Quantum go through editorial review, which is essentially an initial filter by an editor before a paper moves to peer review. I think my experience with JOSA B prepared me well for this new role, which has been fun, and I think will be more intense.

What aspect of your editor role do you enjoy most?

Right now, with Optica Quantum, it’s great to have a continuous flow of interesting papers. It’s a way to keep oneself up to speed with recent developments. In order to conduct an editorial review, you really have to get into the paper. Without the editorial review, it’s a bit different because you mainly rely on the reviewers, although of course the editor still makes the decisions. The fact that there is an editorial-review phase makes it interesting for the editor because, in a lot of cases, these are cutting-edge papers that expose you to new, interesting ideas in the field.

It’s also great to be part of such a wonderful community. The other editors are all amazing people. It seems that there are going to be these constant connections with the other editors.

How can someone become a peer reviewer or editor?

I imagine it’s possible to just approach the editor-in-chief of a journal and state one’s interest in becoming an editor. But the first step would be to review papers as a peer reviewer to get some significant experience on that side.

“In a lot of cases, these are cutting-edge papers that expose you to new, interesting ideas in the field.” —Alfred U’Ren

Nowadays, there is a peer reviewer certification process that Optica offers. So as an editor, when you look for reviewers, there’s a symbol that tells you whether a potential reviewer has been certified. That’s one step someone could take to improve their chances of being selected as a peer reviewer and even an editor later on.

I would also suggest getting involved with professional organizations in any capacity, to build relationships that could create opportunities. For example, I worked for a number of years for the Frontiers in Optics conference. I went all the way from subcommittee member to subcommittee chair, and then eventually I was the program cochair and finally general cochair. This was over the course of about six or seven years, and that experience gave me exposure to Optica. I got to meet a lot of great people.

There are various ways early-career people can get involved—any involvement is a good idea, so that those in leadership positions come to know about you. Then eventually, it might be a good thing to approach an editor-in-chief of a journal about becoming an editor.

You also served as a mentor for a JOSA B assistant topical editor. How did you guide this mentee?

The way it worked was that I would get papers as an editor that I would then send to the assistant topical editor. Then he or she would take charge of that paper, but the final decision would still be made by myself. Shuo Sun was the assistant editor who was my mentee, and he has now become a full topical editor. The mentorship only lasted for between half a year to a year, but it was a good way for someone to build up to a position.

What advice you would give to someone who’s entering an editorial role?

I would say keep on top of the tasks at hand and pay attention to your queue of papers. If you don’t pay attention for a whole week or two, then it gets problematic. Authors will get impatient if they don’t hear back from the journal.

And sometimes it can be a challenge to find reviewers. It’s important to send reminder emails to reviewers and to find an alternative reviewer as soon as possible, if necessary.

Why does peer review matter?

Peer review is the cornerstone of modern science. If some piece of research never goes through the filter of peer review, then there’s no guarantee that it’s valid, relevant or something new that has not been done before.

“Peer review is absolutely fundamental. All of us as researchers need to get our work published in peer-reviewed journals to advance our careers, so at some point, it also becomes important to give back to the community.” —Alfred U’Ren

Peer review is absolutely fundamental. All of us as researchers need to get our work published in peer-reviewed journals to advance our careers, so at some point, it also becomes important to give back to the community—both as a reviewer and in a role such as an editor.

But reviewing is also rewarding in itself—it’s something different and can add interest to one’s career path. If all that one ever does is write papers and publish papers, that’s fine, but it’s also interesting to get involved in other aspects. Peer review is rewarding, interesting and very much worth it.

Based on your experience as a reviewer and editor, do you have any tips for navigating the peer-review process as an author?

It’s a good strategy to target a broad spectrum of journals. One has to decide, given the merits of a particular manuscript, where it could best fit. Be prepared to take the risk of maybe aiming a little bit high. For example, one advantage of Optica or Optica Quantum is that if a paper is going to be rejected at the editorial-review step, it is going to be quick. So then one doesn’t waste that much time as an author.

Of course, one has to gauge whether a particular manuscript has sufficient quality or sufficient impact to go to one of those journals. But at the same time, it’s good to take the risk.

Oftentimes, there is also a chance to transfer a paper to another Optica journal. If a paper doesn’t make it into Optica, then that by itself may open up the door to other journals. The whole process is very streamlined and easy to transfer—you do not need to do the whole submission process from scratch.

Publish Date: 29 August 2023

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