Gaining New ‘Perspectives’

Guest post by Martha Montello

In 1957, D. J. Ingle, the first editor of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, explained why he thought a new journal was needed for scientists and physicians already inundated by publications. With professional journals increasingly focused on smaller and smaller systems and preoccupied with publishing data, he decided that readers needed a forum in which there was space for leisurely interpretation, speculation, and exploration of new ideas. Ingle intended for the journal to reach into all fields of biology and medicine. The journal would welcome scholarly writing from any discipline that could offer new insight and informed thinking to “take stock” of the results and implications of current research. He encouraged writers to speculate about the future implications of today’s findings. His hope was that readers would “carry these ideas to the laboratory and to the bedside.”

pbm.57.3_frontPerspectives has flourished for 58 years because of its unique vision and mission and the ability of its remarkable editors to stay focused on that mission. From 1973 to 2010, Richard Landau and then Robert Perlman guided the ship. Close friends and colleagues, the two met regularly in their offices at the University of Chicago to discuss submissions and ideas for the journal. Their editorships overlapped with such congeniality that Bob isn’t quite sure when Richard became emeritus. Both physicians and scientists, they were also humanists and scholars, enthusiastically committed to literature and the arts. They broadened the mission of the journal to include more of the humanities and social sciences, organizing the contents of each issue by the now-familiar subheadings that indicate the wide scope of the journal’s scholarship. Following Bob’s retirement, Alan Schechter carried on the tradition and brought a focus on the new genetics to the pages of Perspectives.

Through all these years, the journal has been described variously as “freewheeling,” “quirky,” “eclectic,” and “unique.” It has continued to attract high-quality submissions and a diverse and devoted readership.

Given this auspicious history, I was surprised, thrilled, and daunted when the journal’s publishers at Johns Hopkins University Press asked me to become the new editor for Perspectives. All previous editors have been highly respected physician-scientists. But perhaps in selecting a literary scholar, the journal’s publishers mean to encourage a new kind of attention to the meaning of the word “perspectives” and its relationship with medicine and the biologic sciences. In literary studies, perspective refers to one’s viewpoint, or a slant or angle of vision, or approach to an object or idea—a way of seeing and interpreting.

Under my editorship, we will continue to publish informal essays that, as our JHUP webpage says, place a wide variety of biological and medical subjects in social, cultural, scientific, or humanistic contexts. The word “essay” is key. Essay comes from Latin and means “to try.” We do not generally publish straightforward scientific reports; instead, our essays are explorations, where authors try out ideas. Bob Perlman once described what we’re looking for as Mark Twain–style pieces—that is, they’re well-written and sometimes personal, capturing the excitement and very human engagement with the biological and medical sciences.

There is even more of a need for such essays today than there was 50 years ago. The field of medicine is on the verge of a profound transformation. We are rethinking our understanding of health and disease, the patient-doctor relationship, and the goals of medicine. Clinical care, medical education, and bioscientific research are all undergoing a deep shift toward integrated, translational understandings of the way things are and the work we need to do. Clinicians, medical educators, and researchers are recognizing the need for interdisciplinary thinking and practice, for bringing together the sciences and the humanities in new and important ways to reshape the goals of medicine and the biosciences.

Now, we are at a point in the history of the journal where we need the vision not only to support an even higher level of excellence in our publications but also to expand our reach to the international community. As journals are moving rapidly from paper to digital publication and open access, we have new challenges and new opportunities. With our new Associate Editors and Editorial Board, we have new areas and levels of expertise that make it easier to speak thoughtfully across disciplines. For the first time, we are moving our Editorial Board toward a more international presence for the journal.

Never has the need for this journal been greater. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine fills a crucial gap, both nationally and internationally. Over the months I was considering the editorship and talking with readers about the journal, the one word people used most often to describe Perspectives was “unique.” No other journal offers the same kind of opportunity for people on both sides of the great divide to speak to each other.

Martha Montello is editor of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine and a Lecturer in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School. Visit the Author Guidelines to learn about submitting to the journal.