Holden Thorp is editor-in-chief of the Science group of journals, a job he started in October 2019. A chemist, Thorp previously served as chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill and provost at Washington University in St. Louis. In this interview, conducted by email, Thorp discusses his role at Science, how his experience in administration informs his new job, and the outlook for science journalism.
Q. Describe your job as editor-in-chief. What is your typical workweek?
A. I’m the editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, which is six journals. The flagship, Science, is much more than a research journal. We call it “Science magazine” partly to distinguish it from Science News or Scientific American, but also because it is meant to be read cover to cover and we still print over 50,000 copies to loyal readers in print.
Science magazine is very unusual in that it is really three publications: a News section that is science journalism done by folks very similar in background to folks in your classes; Insights, which is the editorial page, a policy forum on new ideas in science policy, and perspective articles about advances in science; and the research section, which is a research journal with both reviews and research articles that are among the most cited and selective in the world.
Much like the publisher of a newspaper would have with its journalists, there is a firewall between me and the news reporters. But if they have a problem, I’m the one who partners with them on solving it, so they keep me updated on what they are working on.
I am very involved in the Insights section as I either write or invite the editorial every week. This is extremely high profile in academia — it is the first page of the print magazine and never behind a paywall, so it gets a lot of attention.
The research section is overseen by a team of scientists who handle the research papers. It would be very unusual for me to intervene in a decision on a paper unless asked; these folks are highly professional and correctly have a lot of autonomy.
The other five journals are all much more traditional scientific journals that have editors handling manuscripts and getting them ready for publication. The quality standards for all of this are very high, and we do a lot more proofreading and visual production than almost all of our peers, so there is an extensive team that does that.
My typical workweek involves meeting with the folks who work for me directly — the top editors of the journals plus the heads of news and visuals, meetings with my supervisors and colleagues at our parent organization (AAAS), and regular meetings that we conduct in order to get the journals out every week.
For Science, every paper is presented at something we call the “space meeting” to all of the editors. The print magazine has to be in on Tuesday night and drops online at 2 p.m. on Thursday. We usually get the first print copies on Friday morning.
Science has a perfect binding, so we need to have 100 pages, and we don’t like to be over because print loses money. So there is a lot of jockeying that goes on to get it to exactly 100 pages.
We have editors, reporters, and advisers all over the world, so I spend a lot of time getting out to talk to them and to researchers that we hope will send their papers to us and not our competitors. Our principal competitors (Nature and Cell) are commercial journals and we are non-profit, so we have to hustle.
Q. How do copy editing and headline writing work at the Science publications and website?
A. There are teams of copy editors, and some of it is done off-site, especially for the research articles. We use a company called HighWire to maintain the website.
There are only really headlines for news, which are done by the news team. The research articles have titles that are provided by the authors in consultation with the editors.
Q. You previously worked in high-level positions in university administration. How does that experience help you in this role? What new skills and concepts are you learning?
A. I’m learning a lot of new things about the nature of publishing, and science publishing in particular. There is a lot of talk about access to scientific articles and a business model called “open access” where researchers pay to have their papers published rather than for subscriptions and then the papers are freely available.
But what is similar is that I’ve often had jobs where I was at the interface between scientists and the business world. Here, I’m the interface between the scientists who create the content and the business team in the organization that sells it. That is very familiar to me.
Q. What do you see as the future of academic publishing in the sciences? In the mainstream press?
A. I think there will continue to be evolution in science publishing, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that open access is going to undo the whole business overnight. Scientists will always want high-quality, high-impact journals, which are expensive to create.
In the mainstream press, I worry a lot about the survival of excellent science journalism. We will fight to make sure we can still do it here, and while there will always be challenges, I’m confident we can do that.
But our audience is mostly Ph.D. level scientists or very close. There is very little science journalism being done more broadly, and this has contributed to public apathy, confusion and downright disdain for important topics like evolution, vaccines, genetically modified organisms and climate change.