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Jeremy Berg: Data and Deadlines

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In a three-decade career, Jeremy Berg has been a researcher, a teacher, and an administrator. Now he’s wielding an editor’s red pen at Science, the AAAS-published family of leading peer-reviewed journals.

Berg, 58, took over as editor-in-chief at Science in July, after stints leading the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, and as president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The Stanford- and Harvard-educated Berg replaced Marcia McNutt, who recently became president of the National Academy of Sciences.

Berg most recently held a variety of top-level positions at the University of Pittsburgh Schools of Health Sciences, and lives in Pittsburgh, where he remains an adviser at the university. He talked with AAAS MemberCentral about data, deadlines, and the issues facing scientific journals today.

Q: What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had since taking the helm at Science?

Berg: There have not been many surprises, but that is, in part, because I tried not to have too many preconceived notions going in. One surprise is that some individuals with an opportunity to write an editorial for Science don’t seem to take this opportunity as seriously as I would have expected and miss deadlines or submit relatively rough drafts. I am getting better at writing 625-word essays pretty quickly, although none of my emergency efforts have been used to date.

Q: I'm a bit surprised to hear that, given how prestigious it is to be published in Science. What can you do to crack the whip, so to speak? 

Berg: Our editorial staff works with editorial authors closely. Part of the challenge is that many of the editorial writers are in very demanding positions and they have many other ongoing activities.

Q: You came out of biochemistry. How did you end up as a journal editor, and what lessons did you take into that field from your primary discipline?

Berg: I moved from chemistry to biochemistry because I found the problems to be more compelling and relatable for me and for people in general. With that said, I still value the rigor and quantitative nature of chemistry. I have always had broad interests, from math to medicine, and many topics in between. I also always enjoyed teaching. For these reasons, communication about science to scientists and to more general audiences has been as passion for some time. Moving into an editorial position, particularly one as broad as my current position at Science, was very appealing.

Q: In addition to being editor-in-chief, you’ve got a blog that specializes in data analysis and visualization. Is that something you expect the journals to emphasize more in the years ahead?

Berg: While I was in a position at the National Institutes of Health, I started a blog to communicate with the scientific community. Many of the most popular and impactful posts included substantial amounts of data. Of course, it should not be all that surprising that scientists engage strongly when you present them with data. I certainly plan to continue and extend the Sciencehound blog. I do not know how my interests in data analysis and visualization will play out in other ways.

Q: Technology has fueled an incredible democratization of information in the past two decades. What’s the role of a prestigious journal like Science in this environment? Do you see any changes that might need to be made?

Berg: The technology framework for information-sharing is very powerful and expanding all the time. Science and the Science family of journals can and should lead in this environment. We are very interested in making our content as available as possible, with the caveat that we need to have business models that make content generation sustainable.

Q. About those business models: How do the challenges of the scientific publishing field differ from the kind of troubles facing advertising-supported print and broadcast outlets?

Berg: They are not substantially different from those facing other sorts of media. The challenge is having a suitable revenue stream to support high-quality content generation. The open-access, author-pays model is somewhat unusual. This works well in some ways, although I worry that it might distort the sorts of authors who can effectively use it.

Q:  In the last few years, Science has launched some new products like Science Advances and Science Immunology. Science Robotics is coming soon. What other subjects you would like to see get this sort of specialized treatment?

A: No new members of the Science family of journals are in the offing. We are working on developing a clear set of principles that will help us evaluate what subjects, if any, might be most appropriate going forward.