‘I feel I’m contributing to science getting the impact it deserves’

Ian Florance meets Stavroula Kousta

Studying psychology may be an ideal preparation for working in the media: publishing and journalism for instance. Stavroula Kousta certainly believes so. She is the Chief Editor of Nature Human Behaviour, a new online journal and source of psychological and wider social science research. Stavroula told us about her journey to a job that plainly excites her and that impacts psychology and society.

Tools to investigate language in life
‘I was born in Athens and didn’t travel outside Greece till I was 21. My mum was a seamstress; my dad a policeman. Like a lot of working-class parents, they placed a strong emphasis on education. I was a geek – I grew up among books, did very well at school and was the first person in my extended family to go beyond a first degree, which was in English studies. In Greece, such courses have a huge component of linguistics as well as literature; I also studied some Greek and Latin philosophy. One of the courses I took was on psycholinguistics, and that really opened the door into psychology. I became interested in experimental psychology and how it gives us tools to investigate how we use language in everyday life.’

But, as will become clear, Stavroula doesn’t leave it until the last minute to plan the next stage of her life. ‘I already had a job teaching English as a foreign language before I graduated, but it soon became clear that teaching was not my calling. I ended up feeling that I was repeating myself and no longer learning, and realised that learning is my primary motivation for the jobs I take and the work I do. So, I was interested in undertaking further studies – life as an academic seemed to open up more career possibilities.’

Stavroula applied for an MPhil at Cambridge – a varied degree including psycholinguistics and the psychology of language. She describes her PhD as coming to her. ‘As I was finishing my MPhil, I was offered a scholarship to stay on at Cambridge and do a PhD in psycholinguistics. I had become fascinated by our ability for seamless communication, even though most of what we say is ambiguous. It’s so often unclear what we’re referring to with the words we use.’ This might sound like a rather theoretical topic but Stavroula ‘did psychological experiments on how people perceive and resolve ambiguity in language without even being conscious of it’.

A postdoctoral research fellowship at the Department of Psychology, University College London, allowed Stavroula to expand her interests. She is very complimentary about the diversity and cross-disciplinary cooperation she experienced there. ‘The boundaries were very fluid and it was a lively place to work. I got interested in neuroscience, something which informed my later interests in biology and the natural sciences.’ Perhaps this experience prepared her for her editorial jobs, where she looks at research from many disciplines.

Stavroula had been offered a Fulbright scholarship early in her career and turned it down. That seems an odd reaction to such a prestigious award. ‘Yes. That’s the relic of an earlier interest in post-colonial English literature, a fascinating and now very popular topic. I applied to US universities but in the end my priorities changed.’

Academia suits the single-minded
While at University College, Stavroula says, ‘I realised two things – that I loved science and that I loved collecting knowledge as broadly as possible. For instance, despite all my other interests I’ve also published on philosophical topics, such as John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic and post-structuralism. Knowledge production in an academic sense suits the single-minded – those who are prepared to take one topic, stay with it and drill down into it. By contrast, I love amassing different sorts of knowledge and helping to communicate it.’

Stavroula’s comment provides an excellent definition of the role of a scientific editor.  She saw such a role – the editor of Trends in Cognitive Sciences – advertised, ‘and I’ve never worked harder than I did on the application for that job. Once I’d got it I realised I’d found my niche. Academic life requires singular focus and the patience to spend a lot of time chasing research funding. In editorial work, I love having to look at the big picture, asking how a piece of knowledge fits into the grand scheme of things. I learn something new every day and get paid for it! Plus, the job comes with tangible rewards – a brand new issue every month and the satisfaction that we have helped scientists communicate their research.

‘Editorial work is very varied and engaging. The average professional scientific editor will read two to three new manuscripts every day; make decisions on whether to send them out to peer review or invite a revision after review; commission and edit reviews or commentaries; write editorials or other short pieces; attend talks at nearby universities and plan a conference. One thing is certain: you never get bored!’

Are there no downsides to the role? ‘I wouldn’t say downsides, but the job certainly challenges you. Any editor will tell you the job requires real negotiation skills and the ability to say no to people. And the pace is very fast – you must keep to multiple deadlines, while also planning months ahead. You also need to coordinate many different people and functions. But if you love fast-paced, challenging work that keeps you at the cutting-edge of science, you’ll thrive as an editor.’

After five years Stavroula found it was harder being creative at Trends in Cognitive Sciences and moved to PLoS Biology, a general biology journal published by the Public Library of Science. ‘I felt I could really learn more in a new area. And I did.’

When she heard about the Nature Human Behaviour role, Stavroula again worked hard to get the job. ‘Being the launch editor of a journal that aims to bring together research from across the behavioural sciences and beyond, trying to increase its societal impact and practical relevance, has been incredibly rewarding. Psychology is one discipline in the mix, and the idea is to get interdisciplinary communication going...’

It’s early days for the journal and, as Stavroula says, ‘You can’t predict the future. But I feel I’m contributing to science getting the impact it deserves. In my view, that’s what a scientific editor does. You select research, guide and nurture it through peer review, and make sure it reaches the right audiences, not just academic, but also the general public and policymakers. Psychology shares issues with other sciences, not least how far and accurately findings are communicated. That’s why we must communicate more effectively,
and editors have a key role in that task.’

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