Matthew Burnett in Conversation with Leonie Verhage

05 June 2021 - By: Matt Burnett

Matthew Burnett in Conversation with Leonie Verhage

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Leonie Verhage is a plant scientist, a Postdoctoral Humboldt Fellow at the Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, and research highlights editor at The Plant Journal.

MB: Tell me about your work as the research highlights editor at The Plant Journal (TPJ).

LV: I have several roles at TPJ. First of all, I write a research highlight for each issue. This includes choosing a paper to highlight, contacting the authors with a list of questions, writing the actual highlight, correcting it after a round of editing and a fact-check from the authors, and checking the proofs after typesetting. Since I started writing my first highlights in June 2020, Sheila McCormick has edited my pieces. Sheila was editor and writer for TPJ for 17 years and started the research highlights editor position, and you can imagine I am very happy to be able to learn directly from her! Moreover, I’m also getting great support from Lee Sweetlove, the editor-in-chief.

MB: What other roles do you have at TPJ?

LV: I take care of the TPJ Twitter account. I always try to tweet the core message of a new paper, but I do not have time to read the complete paper: I read the abstract, the significance statement, and the last paragraph of the introduction.In the beginning, I found this quite daunting. TPJ has almost 19,000 followers, and the first few times I sent a tweet from the account, I was very nervous. The moment you hit the ‘tweet’ button, all these people can read what you just wrote, and comment on it directly. But I got used to it very quickly, and now I enjoy the engagement that you can create with a single tweet.

I am also in charge of selecting the front cover of each issue of TPJ. This can be simply deciding which image fits best, but I have also been asked by authors to help them design a cover using their images. When I have time, I really enjoy this as well. I like the creative aspects of this job!

MB: Do you think social media, and Twitter in particular, is becoming more important for the scientific community?

LV: Yes, I do. If I think about how up to date I am on the latest research findings, conferences, and open positions since I started my personal Twitter account about 3 years ago, I can only be positive about it. I have a much better idea of ‘hot topics’ in science thanks to Twitter. The trick, of course, is to follow the right people and institutions. Scientific Twitter is becoming well established, so if you have something to share, such as a new article you’ve published, Twitter is THE place to get the news out.

MB: How did you get the job?

LV: Well, in line with what I said above about the usefulness of social media, I found the advertisement for the job on Twitter. I applied with a cover letter and a CV that were very different from what I would send in for a scientific position—it was very ‘light’ on my scientific experience. For this application, I focused on my creative abilities and left out large parts of my scientific career, which was a bit nerve-wracking.

MB: How does your work as a research highlights editor affect your work as a scientist?

LV: Since I began working as a research highlights editor, I have started reading many more papers that are not related to my research topic—there is so much to learn from other disciplines. TPJ publishes articles that cover a vast array of disciplines in plant science. In my position as research highlights editor, I try to cover these different fields as much as possible. That means that I do a lot of literature research on topics that I otherwise would never read about. However, I think it is very beneficial for me as a researcher to know what is going on in other fields, especially when I am designing new projects.

MB: Are there any trends that you have noticed in academic publishing?

LV: I think research highlights are gaining in popularity, and science communication is getting more visibility and appreciation.

MB: How do you choose which research to highlight each month?

LV: As soon as a new paper is accepted, I receive an email notification with a PDF of the paper. This means papers are rolling in constantly. I always have a quick look at the titles of the papers that are coming in, but most of the time I only make a decision when it is time to pick the next paper to highlight. The editors of TPJ are always asked to indicate to me if they think the paper would be interesting for me to highlight. This is very useful, because I am not always aware of the state of the art of each discipline. However, I do not directly dismiss papers that are not marked as interesting for a highlight. In the end, I am always looking to tell a story, and, sometimes, I see stories in unexpected papers.

MB: When you write a research highlight article, how closely do you work with the original paper’s authors?

LV: I always contact the authors with a list of questions. The goal is to get a personal insight. I find it fascinating to hear what is going on behind the scenes of a publication—perhaps young students were the driving force behind the paper, or the scientists had to fight to continue their research because nobody believed in them or their research. After I write the highlight, I always ask the authors for a fact-check.

MB: Which of the highlight articles has been the most popular? Why do you think that is?

LV: I don’t get any readership numbers, but I do tweet about each highlight, and from the engagement on Twitter I get a good idea about their popularity. The best engagement I have had was on an article called “Underground allies: how bacteria stimulate plant growth by altering root development” (https://doi.org/10.1111/tpj.14941). I think the topic is very interesting to many people because it appeals to the imagination.

MB: What are the best things about the job?

LV: There are several things. I like the challenge of having to quickly grasp what a paper is about, and translating it in way that many plant scientists will understand. I also really like the search for the story that makes the highlight an interesting read. It allows me to use my creativity.

What I also enjoy is the interaction with the authors. I am always bringing them good news, because I put their research in the spotlight. I love seeing how happy this makes them.

Word Count: 1096

Quote Suggestions

“In the end, I am always looking to tell a story, and, sometimes, I see stories in unexpected papers”

“Scientific Twitter is becoming well established, so if you have something to share, such as a new article you’ve published, Twitter is THE place to get the news out”

“I applied with a cover letter and a CV that were very different from what I would send in for a scientific position—it was very ‘light’ on my scientific experience… I focused on my creative abilities”

“I like the challenge of having to quickly grasp what a paper is about, and translating it in way that many plant scientists will understand. I also really like the search for the story that makes the highlight an interesting read. It allows me to use my creativity.”

“I enjoy the interaction with the authors. I am always bringing them good news, because I put their research in the spotlight. I love seeing how happy this makes them.”

Photo credit: Fabian Haas

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