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Academic Editor Interview – Adam Ratner

Adam Ratner, MD is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology at Columbia University. He is one of the first people to join the Editorial Board at PLoS ONE and is now our Section Editor for Infectious Diseases. We talked over Skype about medicine, Open Access, PLoS and the world of scientific publishing.

BZ: I’d like to start with a bit more detail on your scientific and medical background – what brought you into infectious diseases research?

My interest and my clinical training are in pediatric infectious diseases. My research direction started during a postdoctoral stint at University of Pennsylvania where I could see the power of new methods: we could simultaneously genetically modify a pathogen – Streptococcus pneumoniae, the bacterium responsible for a number of childhood diseases, and its model host – the mouse. With this approach we could study both how the pathogen affects the host and how the host responds to the pathogen.

Most of my work is now focused on research, but for about eight weeks every year I treat pediatric patients. I find it good to combine the lab and the clinic as the two inform each other.

BZ: What was it that attracted you to PLoS ONE in the first place?

I liked the idea of Open Access from the very beginning, especially when PLoS started its first journals – Biology and Medicine. When PLoS put out the call for manuscripts for its new journal – PLoS Pathogens – I persuaded my collaborators that we should support this journal and send our papers there. Actually, our paper, The Role of Innate Immune Responses in the Outcome of Interspecies Competition for Colonization of Mucosal Surfaces, was the very first article published in PLoS Pathogens – number 001.

The following year, when PLoS announced the founding of PLoS ONE, I was intrigued. I admit I was a little skeptical at first, but more I thought about it, more I realized that a journal like this – of broad scope, accepting papers that are scientifically sound without regard to potential impact, is exactly what the scientific community needed. Soon I became a believer, and joined the Academic Board among the very first people to do so, at the beginning of the journal.

BZ: How many hours a week would you say you devote to PLoS ONE and when do you fit that into your busy schedule?

I try to devote 1-2 hours to PLoS ONE every day, as I understand the need for quick turnaround. So I try to move the manuscripts to Academic Editors and reviewers quickly.

BZ: How does the peer-review process on PLoS ONE work? What is the standard of peer-review on PLoS ONE?

In some ways, the review system in PLoS ONE is very similar to other journals in the areas of infectious diseases or microbiology, yet in other ways it is very different. The process is identical to other journals in that manuscripts are sent out to reviewers who do their job seriously and apply the same scientific standards to the work. On the other hand, it makes a huge difference that no manuscript is rejected early because “it is not of interest to us” – there are none of those limitations.

Thus, the reviewing process is rigorous – reviewers are evaluating if the work is hypothesis driven, is the work of high quality, and are conclusions supported by the data, but not trying to meet any subjective criteria.

BZ: How quickly does this process move?

Speed is an important aspect of PLoS ONE. I read each manuscript myself, which takes a day or two, and then decide which other Academic Editors or external reviewers to send it to. There, the review process may last an additional two to three weeks or so, at which point we can make a decision to reject, accept with modifications or accept as is.

BZ: What’s the general quality of submissions like?

It is similar to other quality journals. Sure, some manuscripts are sub-par, and our system allows the Academic Editors to reject such papers quickly, without necessarily burdening the external reviewers with them. But most are very good. What is very good about PLoS ONE is that it is a natural home for studies that are interdisciplinary – thus not fitting neatly into other specialized journals’ criteria of what they like to publish. And such interdisciplinary studies are now becoming very frequent. Also, this is a good place for negative or confirmatory results, which, though they may not be exciting, are very useful, especially in clinical areas of biomedical science. The fact that PLoS ONE does not care about the tyranny of Impact Factor allows it to publish a wealth of medically important studies.

BZ: What would you say is the ‘best’ paper you have handled and why?

It is hard to choose, but I would like to point out a series of papers about tuberculosis in The Gambia. A group there is looking at sensitivity and specificity of TB tests on the ground, in a place where tuberculosis is highly prevalent. Look at, for instance, Surprisingly High Specificity of the PPD Skin Test for M. tuberculosis Infection from Recent Exposure in The Gambia and Using ELISPOT to Expose False Positive Skin Test Conversion in Tuberculosis Contacts. Those are important studies in themselves, but they also showcase the importance of Open Access in the developing world – both medical personnel and researchers there need access to the literature on the diseases that are prevalent in those parts of the world.

BZ: What do you feel makes PLoS ONE relevant to scientists?

The best thing about PLoS ONE is that it does not impose boundaries between disciplines. †Thus, cross-disciplinary work that does not fit neatly anywhere else (as much as there is a lot of lip-service about the importance of such work), fits perfectly in PLoS ONE.

BZ: And finally, what would you say is the thing about Open Access that most excites you?

There is a social justice aspect to Open Access that I find particularly compelling. Especially, as we just mentioned, in the international sphere: making sure that all the existing medical knowledge is available to physicians everywhere on the planet.

BZ: Thank you very much for your time. It was great fun talking to you.

And for the readers: if you would like to experience PLoS ONE for yourself, submit your work to us today.

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