The view from the other side
A physicist leaves the world of research to venture into scientific publishing
By Mike Weir Posted on 19 November 2012
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The Author Dr. Mike Weir joined Elsevier in November as a publisher for a small portfolio of materials science journals in energy materials and ceramics. He is also an associate editor for Materials Today, managing the journal's webinar series and social media. After completing an undergraduate degree in physics at The University of Nottingham, he completed a PhD in polymer physics from The University of Sheffield. He then spent two years as a post-doctoral research fellow at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in Sydney. This is a post he wrote for Solid Statements, an informal blog from the team behind Materials Today about all aspects of science and technology.[/note]
At the end of September, I gave up the world of research to venture into scientific publishing – and this is my first look back. No more than two months ago, I was at a state-of-the-art neutron scattering facility, my office adjacent to a hall crammed full of other-worldly diffraction instruments of all shapes and sizes. Mostly very large. Now I sit in an ordinary office with the noise of fingers on keyboards all around and the most complex instrument at my disposal appears to be my computer (or is it that telephone?). There’s no doubt that research has a cut-and-thrust that appeals to many people, a heady mix of academic freedom with personal ambition. They relish the idea of being at the forefront of scientific understanding in a particular topic. Research careers are the reward for those who can maintain focus and work hard; such careers are not for the faint at heart. Publishing and writing had appealed to me since I was very young, and it was during a careers session during my undergraduate degree that I registered my first interest in scientific publishing and journalism with my academic tutors. “Do a PhD first,” they said, suggesting I might regret it later if I didn’t. As it was, this turned out to be very good advice. I cannot describe the excitement I felt when that Ph.D. scholarship letter dropped through the door and hit the mat. “Spend the next three years tinkering in a lab, and get paid,” it read, though I paraphrase. And what followed were indeed excellent years. The excitement of scientific research is second to none, as long as it is mixed with a good deal of enthusiasm, and plenty of patience. Straight away I was off on my travels, attending meetings, speaking to experts in the field, and doing experiments. I learnt a great deal – more than I could ever even get into words in my Ph.D. thesis – and met some amazing friends and colleagues. At the end of my PhD I got a job, in Australia, and it was clear to me that this research game was all right, and I was going places. Meanwhile in the background, my interest in publishing grew, and in the moments when the lows of laboratory research (my least favourite aspect in particular) struck, I turned to science blogs and social media. I saw that today the internet provides us with an intravenous information feed, and that engaging with the science zeitgeist was as easy as signing up for a Twitter account. People must earn a living doing this stuff, I thought to myself. Also, in the online world, I could take a broad view of science once again, and read of planets, galaxies and supernovae, as well as polymers, proteins and materials. Was there a different kind of job out there for me? I searched for a job that would allow me to return home to the UK. The rest, as they say, is history. Here I am in Elsevier’s office in Kidlington, Oxford, working as a journal publisher for a small portfolio of materials science titles and acting as an associate editor for Materials Today. I can’t tell you much about it, at only week two on the job, but I can say this. Here is a world where the big picture matters, where I still enjoy autonomy and freedom in my work, and where innovation and research are highly valued. This is a completely different forefront than the ones I chipped away at during my PhD and post doc, but it is a forefront nonetheless. Things can change in time, of course, but right now I’m here to stay in publishing.