AAS Publishing News: An Interview with Data Editor Katie Merrell

Engineer-turned-astronomer Katie Merrell recently joined the AAS Publishing team as the third journals data editor. Read on to learn about her first few months on the job, how the data editors work to serve our authors, and how the astronomical data landscape has changed in just the last few years.

A Perfect Fit

photograph of Katie Merrell

AAS Journals Data Editor Katie Merrell

Katie Merrell didn’t start out as a wrangler of astronomical data or even as an astronomer. After graduating college, she began her career as an engineer for Boeing, working to ensure that flight control system hardware complied with safety standards. But her interest in astronomy had been simmering on the back burner, and she made the leap to a PhD program. At Georgia State University, she studied supermassive black holes in nearby galaxies, determining their masses by monitoring the orbits of stars in their neighborhoods.

After completing her PhD, Katie was on the hunt for a position that would allow her to have a hand in all areas of astronomy while incorporating the aspects she liked best about working in a corporate setting: being part of a team, getting organized, and ensuring adherence to quality control standards. Ultimately, her advisor pointed out the listing for the data editor position. “This is exactly what I wanted to do before I even knew that this was a possibility,” Katie said.

The position proved to be a perfect fit. As a data editor, Katie and fellow editors Greg Schwarz and Gus Muench ensure that the data products in AAS journal articles — tables, figures, archived data sets, and the like — meet the journals’ standards and are presented in a clear, compelling way. This could mean anything from converting a table to a standardized, machine-readable format to encouraging authors to create an interactive figure that better showcases their data.

The Rapid Evolution of Data Editing

In 2021, we checked in with Greg and Gus to get their perspective on the past two decades of data editing at the AAS journals. Now, just two years later, the landscape has changed considerably as the result of a substantial push from funding agencies, governments, and the scientific community for open science. For example, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has named 2023 the Year of Open Science. As part of the Year of Open Science, NASA has launched the Transform to Open Science (TOPS) mission, which aims to “rapidly transform agencies, organizations, and communities to an inclusive culture of open science.”

To support these goals, one of the most common tasks the AAS data editors take on is handling authors’ machine-readable tables — tables of data in a standardized format that can be easily accessed and read by researchers looking to reproduce or build on an author’s results. Roughly 35% of the accepted manuscripts the data editors handle contain at least one such table.

plot showing the number of data products of each type handled by AAS journals data editors since 2000

The change in the number of various data products handled by the data editors from 2000 to 2022. Click to enlarge. [Greg Schwarz]

But data products in scientific articles go beyond tables now: one of the fastest-growing categories is that of citable, persistent links (Digital Object Identifiers or DOIs) to datasets hosted in repositories. More than a quarter of data-edited manuscripts contain references to NASA-related datasets, and the practice of citing these datasets to enable reproducibility is becoming increasingly common. The growth in the category labeled “other” in the plot to the left is mostly due to authors referencing data from the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes, or MAST, which houses data from JWST, Hubble, Kepler, and other prolific space telescopes.

With NASA, the AAS, and other organizations strengthening their support of open science practices, the number of data products included with journal articles is expected to grow, giving the data editors even more to do; in 2022, the AAS journals data editors worked to improve 1,181 manuscripts, and that number is projected to jump up to 1,522 this year.

Lending a Hand to Readers and Researchers Alike

What all this means for researchers is that making your data accessible to others is increasingly important, and the data editors exist to make your life easier! “We want to make sure that it’s easy for people to understand and reproduce work, and giving credit where credit’s due is also really important,” Katie said. The data editors help shape manuscripts as soon as they’re submitted, which means that when you receive a referee report, it might contain a note from one of our editors. The data editors’ roles continue beyond when your manuscript is accepted, helping to ensure that your data is accessible and complies with any requirements from your funders. Ultimately, they help to enhance the clarity and accessibility of your data, which play a huge role in making your work reproducible — a key principle of sound science.

Curious how the AAS journals data editors can help you? Have burning questions about how to organize, store, and present your data? You can contact the data editors’ help desk at data-editors@aas.org. And if you prefer to meet our data editors face to face (they’d love to chat!), be sure to stop by their booth at the next AAS meeting in New Orleans in January 2024.