Editing Primers vs Reviews

How do we approach editing a Primer compared to a 'standard' Review article?

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As the launch of Nature Reviews Methods Primers approaches in January, the team is hard at work editing and finalizing manuscripts. Nature Reviews Methods Primers will be the second ‘Primers’ journal in the Nature Reviews portfolio; the aim of Primer articles is to give a comprehensive overview of a method or technique (or disease, in the case of Nature Reviews Disease Primers) that is accessible to researchers new to the field. Primers are written by a team of researchers, often from different geographical locations and disciplines, to ensure the Primers reflect the views of many of the leading researchers involved.

I’ve had the chance to work on different journals and on different styles of article as a member of the Nature Reviews Cross Journal Editorial Team. Having worked with Nature Reviews Methods Primers as they prepare to launch, I thought it might be useful to share some of my experiences editing Primers compared to standard Review articles.

Sticking to the script

In contrast to standard reviews, Primers have a rigid structure to ensure readers new to the field will know where to find important information; in the case of NRMP, this includes distinct Introduction, Experimentation, Results, Applications, Reproducibility and Data Deposition, Limitations and Optimizations and Outlook sections. Some manuscripts fit naturally to these sections; others may need some structural changes to ensure each section contains the relevant details.

We aim to assist authors with structuring by discussing the outline of the Primer before writing, and after a first draft is written we conduct an initial edit to make suggestions on structure, scope and tone before the manuscript goes to peer review (known as a ‘macro edit’). This macro edit stage is shared with our Reviews workflow, but with a greater focus on tailoring the manuscript to our standard structure and ensuring that the manuscript is written in a way accessible for novices in the field. At this stage, we may also give suggestions for display items in each section; for example, we aim to include a figure in the Results section that showcases actual example data to orient the reader.

Methods are multidisciplinary

Methods are often used across many different scientific disciplines and as a result, methods Primers will often have life-science and physical-science elements. For example, microscopy-based Primers can encompass optical physics, biochemistry, cell biology and even throw in some difficult maths for good measure! To best edit these multidisciplinary manuscripts, Primer articles are discussed or ‘crosschecked’ within the team, which is made up of editors from both biological and physical sciences backgrounds. We hope to give non-experts enough information so they can understand and interpret their results when using the technique for the first time, even if they are, for example, a cell biologist analyzing the results of a microscopy experiment where considerations regarding the optical physics of the set-up will strongly impact the results of the experiment.

Keeping peer review rigorous

Because of the extent and variation in the manuscripts, we tend to invite more reviewers for Primers than we would for standard reviews, often inviting reviewers to focus on specific sections of the manuscript. This helps to get specialist perspectives from different fields on each area of the manuscript. A Primer on a sequencing method may, for example, discuss clinical and agricultural aspects in the Applications section, so inviting reviewers from each of these backgrounds for this section will ensure that every aspect of the manuscript is rigorously peer reviewed.

Getting organized

For authors, Primers require a lot of co-ordination. These are not easy articles to co-ordinate or write! Organizing large groups of co-authors can be very tricky – especially at a time when many authors are exceedingly busy as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. When editing a Primer, we do consider these extra organizational steps and try to work with authors to manage timeframes and expectations effectively. The best way we can help authors is by being flexible at this time and setting realistic deadlines.

We’ve found authors have approached the writing process in a variety of ways. Some authors have found it useful to chair meetings every other week with co-authors to coordinate and bring together materials; others have organized the writing process so that they write directly into the outline and there is only one document throughout. For some Primers, we’ve been actively involved in regular meetings and have been working closely with authors in the development of the manuscript. In other instances, authors prefer to move ahead with constructing a draft and we can leave feedback to the macro edit stage – different approaches work for different authors!

Getting the balance right

The main aim of the Primer is to give an overview of a technique accessible for readers from across different fields of science. Editing the Primers, I always look for balance – would I be interested as an experienced reader, and included as a novice? The best Primers will be a resource for readers at every level of experience and accessible for students and specialists from different fields.

Nature Reviews Methods Primers will begin publishing in January 2021. Find out more on our website. Any questions or Primer proposals can be directed to nrmp@nature.com.

Joseph Willson

Associate Editor, Nature Reviews Cross Journal Editorial Team, Springer Nature

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