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Academic Editor Interview – Craig McClain

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina and the Section Editor for Aquatic and Marine Sciences at PLoS ONE. Last week we met (it is nice that we now live so close to each other) and did the interview over pizza in Durham.

BZ: I’d like to start with a bit more detail on your scientific background – what brought you into the research on marine ecology?

Even as I was growing up in land-locked Arkansas, I was always drawn to water: ponds, lakes and streams. I often went fishing with my Dad. In college I was going to study medicine, but a friend re-awakened my interest in marine biology. I applied for a Research Experience for Undergraduates program from NSF for a summer project studying coral reefs (and scuba diving) in St.Croix, but I was not selected. Instead, I got an invitation from my ‘second choice’, Dr.Michael Rex, to spend the summer indoors, doing marine biology by measuring hundreds of tiny snails under the microscope. Admittedly, I was not originally excited about the project but living in Boston for the summer was a lot better than working a minimum wage gig and living with my parents. That summer his passion and enthusiasm were contagious, so much so I remained in the field. I returned to his lab after receiving my Bachelors to continue on with my work studying body size and diversity.

Mike encouraged me to tackle the Big Questions not just about the deep sea but as model of life in general. My research focuses on the complexity of processes that underlies marine invertebrate biodiversity and body size, the consequences of temporal and spatial variation in primary production on biological communities, and the interconnections of processes occurring within ecological communities and at global levels. Thus, my research addresses how the intricate workings of marine communities and biodiversity will respond to anthropogenic disturbance, e.g. climate change or interference of the carbon cycle.

My recent move to the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center follows that passion – the people at NeSCENT ask Big Questions, they are synthetic thinkers, combining ideas, data, and methods from different disciplines in novel ways. It is an extremely rich research and intellectual environment to be in.

BZ: You are also a science blogger. How did that start and what are your experiences to date?

Some time ago I built a wesbite where I collected items about what’s new in deep-sea research. Later, a friend told me that this would be easier if I was using a blogging software, so I moved Deep-Sea News onto for about a year. I was quite surprised and excited to see that there are 500 or so people showing regularly interest in the deep sea.

I was then joined on Deep-Sea News by my friends Peter Etnoyer and Kevin Zelnio and we were fortunate to be invited to join the community of science bloggers on Seed where we remained for about a year. We then moved briefly to Discovery Channel, and finally went back to being independent on our own servers at Having our blog on such prominent platforms brought us thousands of readers per day, who have remained with us now that we are independent again.

While there are a large and growing number of excellent science blogs focusing on aquatic and marine sciences, we often serve as an informal central headquarters, a one-stop-shop for all things marine. The three of us are sometimes called the “bad boys of marine biology” of course others refer to us at the “Three Stooges”. Either way we strive in an informal, and often comedic, style for the lay audience, yet retain the authority that comes from our expertise in the area. It also shows our readers that it is cool to be a geek.

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

My primary attraction is Open Access. I believe science should not be a privilege of the wealthy or well funded, whether it be scientists, the public, research institute, universities, or even countries. Science is not only research, but also communication of the research to the both other scientists and the public. Communication is a step of the Scientific Method. Thus, science that is hidden behind a wall is incomplete.

Another important aspect of Open Access is that it is also Immediate Access. When I search for literature and I find a reference, I need it today. I may not be able to afford week or more for an inter-library loan to come through or the author to mail me a reprint. I may be working under a deadline to submit a manuscript or grant. More importantly, waiting for information may provide an unnatural break in the flow of synthetic thinking as one is putting together ideas and concepts.

Another thing that makes PLoS ONE attractive to me is that there are no criteria for novelty during peer-review. How do we define novelty and who makes that choice? In the long term, the community will, and can, decide what is novel or ground-breaking or of great utility through citations and application of methodology or theory. The lack of novelty criterion also frees authors. It allows the author to convey the original passion he or she has for subject, without restrictions of framing it to meet some requirement of novelty. Often when the focus is novelty it hides what is really cool about the work. When an author writes with passion, the true importance of the work comes through.

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

The criteria on which PLoS ONE manuscripts are judged are: a) is it technically flawless, b) is the conclusion justified from the results, and c) does the research meet the community criteria in that field. When I joined the editorial board I was somewhat surprised – the rejection rate was higher than I thought.

The peer-review process at PLoS ONE is as rigorous as anywhere else. If a manuscript is judged unacceptable, it is rejected. I am continuously surprised by the myth that exists out there that peer-review in PLoS ONE is “soft” or even non-existent. Why is this even a subject? We have a review process. Period.

BZ: How quickly does this process move?

The process moves really quickly – a good manuscript that does not require much revision can get published in a couple of months. Excellent staff strives to keep the turnaround time low. The reviewers are also almost always quite vested in the paper. The speed is a real benefit both to the authors and to the science.

BZ: What’s the general quality of submissions like? How many hours a week would you say you devote to PLoS ONE and when do you fit that into your busy schedule?

The general quality of manuscripts in my field is excellent. The amount of time I spend varies from week to week. It is more than I initially thought would be, especially at the beginning when I was the only marine biologist on the editorial board. As a Section Editor I am spending considerable time to build the marine and aquatic science editorial board as the next year will be very busy in our field with the Census of Marine Life. But I feel that my time spent doing this is spent in dedication, and with passion, to my field, open access, and the journal.

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

I feel I really don’t need to pitch it very much to people in my field, as many are highly supportive of Open Access. They are excited by the same things that excite me: the research published in marine science in PLoS ONE is interesting, of high quality and novel.

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

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