On the Way Out

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Science  29 Feb 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5867, pp. 1161
DOI: 10.1126/science.1156805

As I write, I have just a week or so left as Editor-in-Chief of Science. It is one of those mixed-emotions moments. I'm leaving some wonderful colleagues, which is painful, but on the other hand, my friend Bruce Alberts gets the opportunity to work with them. He deserves the splendid help they will give him, and they will have a leader who understands science, enjoys the deep respect of the community, and led it brilliantly as president of the National Academy of Sciences for a dozen years. So Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are the beneficiaries of a fine appointment. A profile of Bruce (p. 1199) explains why we are in such good hands. Meanwhile, I need to hurry and clean up any loose ends before he asks about them.

CREDIT: CORBIS/HULTON ARCHIVE

I had thought of celebrating this transition by designating some parting gifts to leave Bruce and my colleagues in science. Before getting to problem solutions, enemies lists, and the like, my first gift to Bruce is of Tiffany quality: the Editorial and News staffs he will inherit. Colin Norman in News and Monica Bradford as the Executive Editor are superb professionals, and the staffs they lead are as able and committed as their equivalents in any place I've ever been. Alan Leshner has been a great colleague and friend, and Beth Rosner and her staff have held off the recession. I hope to stay in contact with many of them.

In return for that, I want to beg Bruce to let me write the occasional editorial. His own passions for science, education, and public policy will fill that space elegantly, but I want a chance to poach a little whenever some outrage exceeds my tolerance level. He understands this need of mine, and I am grateful. At the same time, I must bequeath him some volunteers—including distinguished public servants—who will send him editorials they hope Science will publish. Some of these will be good, but he should be wary. It's always wise to ask if the proposed piece will be written by the Secretary of Whatever or by some staffer.

The world is full of questions about peer review. A few of our authors have occasionally believed that some reviewer has deliberately stalled a paper or even appropriated an idea. I would like to present the scientific community with some encouragement about this process. We have seen few supportable instances of bad behavior by reviewers, despite occasional claims. Of course peer review is not perfect. It has missed a couple of spectacular frauds, and in a few cases, has approved papers that later turned out to be wrong. But I know of no better process. Neither am I convinced that we should establish a system to press authors for authentication so intensely that it threatens the trust that has characterized our community.

I hope Bruce will not have to deal with an environment in which scientists who work for the U.S. government are controlled by public relations “minders” or by Assistant Secretaries appointed to ensure that science follows policy instead of the other way around. The Union of Concerned Scientists, having fought against this practice for years, has now produced a Bill of Rights for government scientists, designed to liberate federal researchers from practices that had become routine over the two terms of the Bush Administration. This won't be a gift but a duty, because Science will have to be alert to identify new cases that the Bill of Rights is designed to prevent.

Finally, I wish I could give my successor some release from the obligations of hearing appeals at Science. That requires deciding, negotiating, or rejecting differences that arise between authors and editors; or authors and peer reviewers; or authors contending about priority, or the correctness of another's finding, or delivering material reported in a Science paper to another author. Here's the best I can do, Bruce. Be as fair as you can, sympathize with anger, confess institutional error when appropriate, and be firm. And when the disappointed complain to members of the AAAS Board, remember to smile!

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