In this episode of History of SfN: 50th Anniversary, Marina Picciotto, Charles B.G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University and the editor-in-chief of JNeurosci, notes how the journal has evolved in its nearly 40 years to mirror the changing ways in which research is shared.
History of SfN: 50th Anniversary is a limited series podcast highlighting stories from the history of the Society for Neuroscience, recounting groundbreaking moments in the growth of the Society from the perspectives of current, past, and future leaders.
Picciotto discusses her involvement with JNeurosci and experience as its editor-in-chief. More personally, she shares her own past and present research interests as well as how her many roles within the Society have been important to her personal and professional development.
Throughout this narration of the history of SfN journals, she reflects on research trends that have captured the imagination of neuroscientists early in their careers, and on the future of scientific publishing.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of the Society for Neuroscience.
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SWANSON: Neuroscientists are explorers, adventurers, boldly posing big questions and working to discover incredible insights about the least understood organ of the human body: the brain. For 50 years the Society for Neuroscience has celebrated these scientists and physicians and provided venues for them to explore together.
We'll discuss the most significant trailblazing moments in the history of SfN, with some of our current, past, and future leaders. I'm your host, Dr. Larry Swanson, past president of the Society for Neuroscience and professor of biological sciences and psychology at the University of Southern California.
In this episode, we speak with Dr. Marina Picciotto, Charles B.G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University, and editor in chief for the Journal of Neuroscience. In addition to being editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neuroscience, Dr. Picciotto has also served as the chair of the Finance Committee and the Program Committee and treasurer of SfN Council.
Taylor Johnson, SfN's multimedia manager, and Dr. Picciotto, discuss the history and evolution of SfN's journals, Dr. Picciotto's involvement with the Journal of Neuroscience and experience as editor-in-chief, as well as the future of the field of scientific publishing.
Be sure to visit neuronline.sfn.org/listen to subscribe to our podcasts and to tune into more of our audio content. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E.org/listen. Without further ado, Taylor, take it away.
JOHNSON: Thank you, Dr. Swanson. Hi, this is Taylor Johnson and I'm here with Dr. Marina Picciotto. She's the professor of the department of psychiatry at Yale University and the current editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neuroscience. Dr. Picciotto, welcome.
PICCIOTTO: Thanks very much and thanks for having me.
JOHNSON: Thanks so much for being here. As you know, we're going to discuss the Journal of Neuroscience, and how that's progressed through the past 50 years of the Society for Neuroscience. I know that didn't start at the same time that the Society did, but we're looking at just the journals in general and everywhere in between. But before we do that, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind giving a bit of a primer on your academic training background, as well as your core research?
PICCIOTTO: Sure, I'd be happy to. I started as a high school student, in fact, as a trainee at Rockefeller University, where I worked on feeding behavior in rats in Sarah Leibowitz's lab as a really naive, wide-eyed young person who didn't really know what science was about. That introduced me to lab work. I was this disorganized, I would say, good student, but would lose stuff and not do things on time. Once I got into a lab that changed, and I really never left the lab again.
I didn't know yet that I was going to be a scientist. I worked in Richard Scheller's lab as an undergraduate when I was at Stanford, and I learned about molecular biology, realized that understanding the molecules and the cells of the brain were going to be essential to understanding the more complex functions of the brain, including behavior.
Then I went onto Paul Greengard's lab as a graduate student at Rockefeller, where I studied signal transduction, and how molecules in individual cells change their response to the next impulse, and the next event that happens to the whole organism.
And finally, as a postdoc, I was able to put all of those levels together in the laboratory of Jean-Pierre Changeux at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where I was working at the very beginning of the application of genetic engineering in mice to problems relevant to neuroscience. There, I was involved in studying nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, and my job as a postdoc was to knock out one of the receptors that I thought would be really essential for functioning at the nicotinic system.
The acetylcholine system, which, acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter that acts through nicotinic receptors as well as another class of acetylcholine receptors, sucked me in. Despite all of my best efforts, to this day I study how acetylcholine changes the function of molecules, cells, neurons, circuits and behaviors. I try to put those different levels of investigation together and then translate them to humans and understand how that system works in health and in disease.
JOHNSON: Wonderful. Thank you for that. During all of this, when did you actually get involved with the Society?
PICCIOTTO: Well, I actually got sucked into the Society really early, and it was great for my career because I got adopted along the way by different people who had functions in SfN that were in different parts of the organization. The first time I attended a meeting, I was a graduate student, and I went to New Orleans I think. Was just astounded by the breadth of neuroscience that opened up in front of me. Actually, I think I was even writing my thesis at the time, and I just went from poster to poster getting background for things that I kept thinking, "Oh my gosh, this has to go into my thesis." That was my first experience with the Society.
Then when I was looking for a job, I came back to the meeting to make contacts with people whose work I wanted to see in person and who I wanted to discuss science with, and then ultimately as a junior faculty member, I got invited to review papers for the Journal of Neuroscience, and I didn't yet know how to say no. I'd just say, "Sure," and I'd end up with a lot of papers to review. I guess I did a pretty good job, because I was invited to become, first on the editorial board as an associate editor, and then as a reviewing editor of the Journal of Neuroscience. That's what sucked me into the editorial side. I just loved editing from the beginning.
Then on the other sides of the Society, I was invited, not much later, to sit on the Program Committee, where I got to see how different neuroscientists come together and really argue out the program so that it's balanced across the real breadth of neuroscience research. That was also eye-opening. I ended up, after several years serving on the committee, being able to chair that committee, and I learned a tremendous amount about how to bring people together, how to get out of the way of smart people from my jobs at the society. It's been extremely important for my development, not only as a scientist, but as a person.
JOHNSON: So you've really seen the full spectrum of the research that emerges out of neuroscience. Have you seen certain trends since you started? You were on the editorial and then even through program committees and stuff like that, did you see trends in research or developments or ebbs and flows, waves, anything like that?
PICCIOTTO: Well, it's interesting. I think there are always ebbs and flows in any kind of research as we get a problem that is new that we can answer for the first time, either because there are conceptual breakthroughs and theoretical breakthroughs or because there are technical breakthroughs that allow us to do experiments we couldn't do before. There's always emergence of new ideas and then there's this sort of paradigm shift in how we think about something and then we start to fill in details for a little while. You can see those happen through the abstracts at the meeting, and through the articles that are submitted to the Journal of Neuroscience and our sister journal eNeuro. What you see there, is that what people self-identify as interesting, does change over time.
Right now we are in a circuit revolution. Everybody wants to do circuits and how they match up, but I can promise you that 10 years from now, although there will still certainly be people doing circuit-level neuroscience, there will be something else that has really captured the imagination of the youngest neuroscientists. I really do think a lot of the ebbs and flows in research in all of science come from the youngest minds. The ones that are captured in terms of their imagination and what's the infinite possibility of both the ideas and the techniques that are out there today.
I've seen the revolution of cellular and molecular neuroscience that started probably around the time that I was first an undergraduate, and how molecular biology really revolutionized how we think about the brain and neurons. And now we have this revolution of circuit neuroscience that's again, changing how our traditional ideas of neuroanatomy actually work and how our ideas of how behavior is actually mediated by the brain and the body. I think we'll see many, many more of those trends over the next 50 years of SfN.
JOHNSON: That sounds really exciting. I mean, just to see how things change over time, not just the research, but how you were explaining the wave and the concentration. When you were actually just starting out with the Society and with the journals, what was your knowledge or impression of the Journal for Neuroscience at that point?
PICCIOTTO: So I knew of the Journal of Neuroscience from the earliest times that I started doing research. My lab head, when I was an undergraduate, became part of the editorial board in, I think in the '80s. That was the place where all of the neuroscience met. The Journal of Neuroscience was founded by neuroscientists who really felt that they needed an outlet for the work that they presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
As you know, the Society is 50 years old. The journal isn't yet quite that old, but it was founded in the '70s by members of the Society for Neuroscience who needed a place to publish their work. So for a long time, it was the place to put your research. As it matured, all of the people who are members of the society, who publish their work in the Journal of Neuroscience, and now in eNeuro, founded other journals. Now there's a huge proliferation of places to publish your research.
At the society, we want to be able to represent core aspects of publishing. From the flagship journal, the Journal of Neuroscience, that's meant to cover in-depth work that is representative of the breadth of the topics in neuroscience, we've also founded an open access journal, eNeuro, which is meant to be the place that you put those observations that may not yet be mechanistic, but may be absolutely critical to future research in neuroscience.
That first observation, may be something that makes you think, "Wow, I think that the brain is going to work differently than we think it does," that would go in eNeuro, and then once we work it out, that would go in the Journal of Neuroscience.
JOHNSON: Great. Do you believe that the Journal of Neuroscience has and remains and always will be a good summary of the work going on in neuroscience as a whole?
PICCIOTTO: Oh, heck yeah.
JOHNSON: That's what I was going for. I have an image... Oh, sorry, go ahead.
PICCIOTTO: Oh, I was just going to say that I will work very hard to make sure that continues to be the case as long as I am editor of the journal. I think that it is beloved by many, many members of the Society for Neuroscience, and I think that's going to be the case for a long, long time.
JOHNSON: Right. You have been editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neuroscience since 2015, is that correct?
PICCIOTTO: That's right.
JOHNSON: Wonderful. I have an image in front of me right now and it says, the Journal of Neuroscience, January 1981, Volume 1, Number 1. The official journal of the Society for Neuroscience.
PICCIOTTO: Oh, that's right, '81. I said '70s, but it was '81. That's exactly right.
JOHNSON: I mean, I believe they were planning it in the '70s, but this is the first issue I'm looking at. The official journal of the Society for Neuroscience. So that means we're almost 40 years, we're approaching 40 years from that first ...
PICCIOTTO: That's right.
JOHNSON: From where you stand now at this point, looking back on almost the 40 years since the journal started and since it's been progressing through time, what does that say? What are your thoughts about that?
PICCIOTTO: Well, my thoughts are that it's changed a tremendous amount since the first issue and that's because the neuroscience has changed. Our hope is that the journal is not just a static old lady but a way of thinking about presenting your research to your colleagues that will evolve as the field evolves. The journal is obviously looking for a representation of what the field itself thinks is important and interesting, to share with our colleagues, but just the way that that research is shared, is changing all the time. When it first came out, the Journal of Neuroscience was like all journals. A paper copy that had to be either taken out of the library as a physical object or sent through the mail. And now of course, almost all journals are either exclusively online or primarily online, as well as distributed electronically by libraries.
That's allowed us to change a lot of the aspects of how the research is shared. For example, online data, for example, it could be computer code, it could be enormous datasets that can be manipulated in mind by other researchers. Those kinds of aspects of a publication couldn't be hosted when the Journal of Neuroscience was a paper copy. And now both eNeuro and JNeurosci have those kinds of online datasets that enrich the possibilities of how we can publish. We're very committed to innovating within the sphere of peer-reviewed publications, and we're interested in keeping the science in the hands of the scientists.
When the journal was first published, like other journals, the copyright for the material stayed with the Society. Now, all of our authors retain their own copyrights to their own material. That's their work, their words, and therefore their copyright. I think those kinds of evolving ideas of who owns the data, what is data, what is a scientific publication, continues to evolve, and we hope to continue to evolve with it.
JOHNSON: Well, it really seems like there's a real sense of ownership with the Journal for Neuroscience.
PICCIOTTO: Well, I would say what there is, is this sense that the Journal of Neuroscience is owned by its authors and by the members of the Society and by the larger neuroscience community. It's a journal that is meant to be in the hands of scientists for scientists. And that's something we take very seriously.
JOHNSON: It's interesting talking about how long the journals have been around and looking at the date, 1981, it makes me think that this journal is a millennial. Going through the stresses that many Millennials might go through with these changing times and everything like that. You started to talk about how things have changed with distribution, publishing, and content. Things change, things stay the same. What's most important for the factors of success going forward with the journals?
PICCIOTTO: Well I think the thing, you're pointing to something that is really important and that is that some things have to stay the same. One of the things that has to stay the same for me is that the editors and the reviewers for the Journal of Neuroscience are working neuroscientists, and that the decision on what to publish and the decision on how to change the journal or what to keep in the journal, is in the hands of active neuroscientists. I think that's going to stay the same.
Almost everything else is up for grabs. That is, that we want to make sure that as the community decides, here's something that is our core value, that we reflect that in both JNeurosci and eNeuro. So, we're listening to our authors, our readers, our editors, our reviewers all the time and trying to make sure that we take into account what the community is thinking about and how the field and publishing in general is changing as we make policy.
JOHNSON: Wonderful. So, looking at your ongoing tenure as editor-in-chief, what has been the most rewarding part so far? What's been the most challenging? And what's been the most unexpected?
PICCIOTTO: Okay, well let me start with rewarding because that's most fun. One of the things that has been a real goal of mine is to make sure that I include younger scientists and trainees in the mission of the Journal of Neuroscience from the beginning. We've done things to include them at every step. Before I took on the editorship, John Maunsell had started something called Trainee Journal Clubs. Those Journal Clubs allowed trainees to write short pieces that analyze research that's appeared in the journal, with ownership. That is, that they are the only authors. Trainees can only be authors of those, not established scientists.
So that we've maintained, but we've also started a Reviewer Mentor Training Program in order to get younger scientists into the pool of reviewers as soon as they start publishing their own work.
The idea that we used to get many emails from trainees, either graduate students or postdocs saying, "How can I become a reviewer? How can I become involved with the journal?" And now what we have is this Reviewer Mentoring Program where we pair up trainees who have published at least one first author paper, so they know what it takes to write and publish a paper, so they're ready to review. We pair them up with some of our most prolific and really skilled reviewers as a mentor. That trainee picks an open access Bio-Rxiv paper to review and works on that review with the mentor until they've really gotten all the principles of reviewing down.
The editors of eNeuro have also prepared a number of online resources to help trainee reviewers figure out what it is that makes a good review. Bringing those young reviewers into the Journal of Neuroscience and eNeuro community has been extremely rewarding. I also really enjoy inviting junior faculty, where people who are not as well known in the field, to write feature articles for the Journal of Neuroscience. That's a real pleasure.
Then you asked me about most challenging.
PICCIOTTO: I think most challenging has been the fact that the publishing space has changed so quickly and has broadened so rapidly that it has been very difficult to adapt to, in particular, the for-profit journal streams. Where we go from, for example, a single-name journal down to its baby journals, and then the open access for-profit journals that have taken many of the papers that would have come to the journal in the past.
Part of that is because of the ease of transferring a manuscript from a one-name journal down to its open access sibling after a long, long period of review, and part of it is this ongoing obsession with journal impact factors, which reflects a sort of a red velvet rope. And that, if the journal impact factor is high, then the work in it must be terrific.
I would say that the work in the Journal of Neuroscience continues to be some of the most outstanding in the field, and that whatever the journal impact factor, the individual papers are really, many of them, very outstanding. So that's been a real challenge. Making sure that everybody understands what's involved behind the scenes in publishing that's changed the landscape in ways that we don't fully understand.
JOHNSON: I mean, that might tie in with unexpected, because obviously, challenges usually are unexpected, aren't they?
JOHNSON: I don't know if there's any other... can you have a pleasant unexpected? Maybe?
PICCIOTTO: You can have a pleasant unexpected. What's been unexpected? I think what's been unexpected and yet at the same time I'm not super surprised by it, is how much people love the Journal of Neuroscience. When I go to meetings or I go to give a seminar at a university and talk moves to publishing, as it almost always does among academic scientists, there will come this moment when someone says, "I just love the journal. I always have."
It's really important to me that it does well. The degree to which many, many people in the field really feel that way, has been very pleasant. Not fully unexpected, but to a greater degree than I might have expected.
JOHNSON: Do you think part of that love or enjoyment for the journals, I'm just wondering how much of that has to do with the Society having this meeting? I guess I'm getting into, how does the meeting support the journal, vice versa, and if that's something that makes it unique among other journals?
PICCIOTTO: It's not unique among society journals. Many societies have an annual meeting and have their own society journal. I think that one of the things we have not done as well as we could is to in fact invite those synergies between the meeting and the journal. We do have annual meetings, symposia highlighted as brief review articles in the journal, and the journal certainly always has a presence at the annual meeting, where you can meet the editors and come and ask about whether a paper is appropriate for one of the two journals or whether there is something that an author needs to know. In that way there's been a back and forth between the meeting and the journal, but I think going forward we could imagine, as virtual meetings and as the online versions of the journals change over time, that there may be more synergy between the meeting and the journals.
But certainly, originally, the Journal of Neuroscience came out of the desire of people at the annual meeting who were getting together talking about their research, presenting their most exciting findings, and wanting an outlet for those findings to be published. In that way, there's pure synergy between the different parts of the Society.
JOHNSON: Do you think when the meetings were smaller and there was a little bit more of an intimate, smaller attendance, fewer thousands, that that synergy was greater? With the size of the meetings now, is that something that needs to be reconsidered?
PICCIOTTO: Well, that's a great question. I think that not every meeting can be all things to all people. One of the things that I like about the sprawling nature of the annual meeting is that I know that people who I have met across the entire arc of my career, when I was doing very different things or when I was participating in a course or when I met someone at a meeting, will probably be at the annual meeting. If not this year, next year. If not every year, at least every other year. That ability to call together a community that is very broad, for me, is a huge feature of the meeting.
How you keep that and have a more intimate feeling when you have this field that has exploded, and it's exploded because neuroscience is so complex — because there are so many levels at which you can study a neuron or a brain or a behavior or every aspect of how two cells communicate — because of that, either you keep it sprawling or you pull out some aspects of that at the expense of others. I think there's room for both, obviously. I do think that there is something wonderful about having this community come together regardless of what aspect of the field they're really interested in, and also regardless of whether they're super famous or a first-year undergraduate or graduate student.
The fact that trainees are the primary presenters on the poster floor for the most part, for me, is wonderful. When else does a trainee get to show their science to an audience that could contain both their next mentor and also other students or other trainees? When else do you get to be at the center of that presentation than in a meeting that's very democratic?
JOHNSON: Absolutely. Well, this actually leads into what I'm thinking about next. Obviously we're at the 50th anniversary of the Society and a huge milestone. Again, the Journal of Neuroscience is not that same age, but not too far behind when you think about that.
PICCIOTTO: Not too far behind.
JOHNSON: Not too far behind. When we look to the future, and we look, let's say, the next 50 years of SfN and the next 50 years of the journals, what do you hope to see? What would you want the journals to represent at that point and its relationship with the society?
PICCIOTTO: Well, I absolutely want them to continue to be responsive to the community, to be representative, to become as transparent as possible about all of the processes that go into publishing the research. I want them to be inclusive of trainees, as well as very well-established scientists. If you keep those principles and your constituency, which is the scientists, changes, then the journals will change. But those underlying principles really should be, I think, rock solid. I don't think that part is going to change, but I think that what is published will continue to reflect what the broad membership of SfN and the broader community of neuroscientists believe are interesting and important going forward.
I can't predict, I'm really bad at predicting. I don't know what the next exciting new thing is going to be, but I can promise you that the journals are going to be there to publish it when it happens.
JOHNSON: Oh, that's great. I think honestly, that's a good sentiment to almost leave on, though I’ve got to say, is there anything that you'd still like to say or anything that I haven't asked you that you'd like to talk about?
PICCIOTTO: No, I think you've covered it. You can let our audience know that we are always looking for their ideas and we want their feedback. We want them to feel part of the journals. Both the eNeuro editor, Christophe Bernard, and myself are really always there to listen to your concerns and to try to respond to it in the ways that we can.
JOHNSON: Wonderful. Well, I actually do have a bonus question for you.
JOHNSON: Obviously you have looked at countless articles, countless papers and everything like that. What was the most memorable? Was there anything that was Nobel-worthy, actually?
PICCIOTTO: You mean like a Darwin Award?
JOHNSON: Something like that, or...
PICCIOTTO: I was going to go the other way. I was going to say that the most memorable was the first time that I published a paper in the Journal of Neuroscience. I was pretty thrilled about it. Every time that I have been able to get one of my papers into the journal, has been a pretty banner moment for me and for my lab.
JOHNSON: Well actually, talk about that first paper, if you can?
PICCIOTTO: Sure. I was an assistant professor and we had some really exciting new research. I think the first one was a cellular and molecular paper, but it may have been a behavioral paper. I can't remember which one came first, but we were like, "I don't know if this is going to go in that journal. It's too scary." We're like, "Let's go for it." When we got the reviews, the cool thing about the reviews is they were super focused on the science. They were like, is this well controlled? Is this a good experiment? Does this tell us something new? We were able to answer all the reviews and got the paper published, and I was pretty thrilled.
JOHNSON: Wow. That's great, thank you for sharing that. That's something I should've asked you, but I guess I did, in an indirect way.
PICCIOTTO: Yes, you did.
JOHNSON: Well, thank you so much. Thanks for sticking around, thank you for taking your time to talk to us. Really appreciate it.
PICCIOTTO: It was my pleasure. Really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.
SWANSON: Thank you for listening to this episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary, brought to you by the Society for Neuroscience, the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system.
You can hear the rest of this series on iTunes or SoundCloud or by visiting neuronline.sfn.org/listen. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E.org/listen. We'd like to know what you want to hear in future podcasts. Please take a moment and check out the episode description for a survey link. Help us make the content you want to hear. Find out how you can join SfN’s nearly 36,000 members from more than 90 countries by visiting www.SfN.org/join.
For more information about the benefits available to SfN members, visit www.SfN.org/membership. This episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary was written and produced by Jack Lee and Taylor Johnson. Senior producers include Amanda Kimball and Melissa Thompson Ayoub. Music and editing were provided by Human Factor Media. Thank you for tuning in and we'll see you next time.