Submitted: 10 June 2014
Two interview sessions: 1 August 2012, 10 August 2012
Total approximate duration: 3 hours 40 minutes
Interviewer: Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D.
For supplementary materials:
Please contact, the Historical Resources Center, Research Medical Library:
Javier Garza, MSIS, firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Interview Subject:
Walter Pagel (b. December 18, 1947, West Point, New York) joined MD Anderson as an Assistant Editor of Scientific Publication in 1971. Since 1984 he has served as Director of the Department of Scientific Publications. His philosophy of scientific writing has shaped the Department’s editorial and teaching services provided to MD Anderson faculty. Mr. Pagel has been a member of the Council of Biology Editors for twenty-two years. While serving on the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences, he had nationwide impact by helping to develop accreditation guidelines for editors in the biomedical sciences. In 2001 he received the John P. McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication.
Major Topics Covered:
Personal and educational background
The craft of the scientific editor
A reader-centered philosophy of editing
Department of Scientific Publications: history, role of, services for faculty and institution
MD Anderson publications (e.g. The Heart Bulletin, The Year Book of Cancer, Cancer Bulletin, Breast Diseases, Neuro-oncology, The First Twenty Years, the Cancer Care Series)
Work with national biomedical editing organizations
Regarding the Transcript and Audio Files
In accordance with oral history best practices, this transcript was intentionally created to preserve the conversational language of the interview sessions. (Language has not been edited to conform to written prose).
The interview subject was given the opportunity to review the transcript. Any requested editorial changes are indicated in brackets [ ], and the audio file has not correspondingly altered.
Redactions to the transcript and audio files may have been made in response to the interview subject’s request or to eliminate personal health information in compliance with HIPAA.
Interview Session One: 1 August 2012
The Role of the Department of Scientific Publications and Its Editors
Chapter 01 / Overview
Learning the Editor’s Craft
Chapter 02 / Professional Path
The History of the Department of Scientific Publications
Chapter 03 / An Institutional Unit
Developing a New Editorial Perspective for Scientific Publications
Chapter 04 / The Administrator
A Reader-Focused Philosophy: Editing and Teaching
Chapter 05 / An Institutional Unit
Key In-House Publications
Chapter 06 / Building the Institution
Interview Session Two: 10 August 2012
Reports, Changes to the Field of Scientific Publications,and the Challenges of In-House Publications
Chapter 07 / An Institutional Unit
Offering Support for MD Anderson Writers
Chapter 08 / An Institutional Unit
Strengthening Biomedical Editing Nationwide and Within MD Anderson
Chapter 09 / Contributions
Initiatives and Committees
Chapter 10 / The Administrator
Presidents and a Senior Vice President
Chapter 11 / Key MD Anderson Figures
Paying Attention: A Professional and Personal Habit
Chapter 12 / Post-Retirement Activities
Interview Session One: 1 August 2012 (listen/read)
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 01 (Overview)
The Role of the Department of Scientific Publications and Its Editors (listen/read)
Mr. Pagel explains that the Department of Scientific Publications supports faculty in the writing of research articles. This role is key because the reputation of an institution is built on the reputation of its faculty who advance their public stature entirely by publication. Scientific Publications is also responsible for a number of institutional publications, including Cancer Bulletin and Onco-Log, an online newsletter for physicians in private practice. In addition, the Department provides writing programs for faculty and students. Mr. Pagel notes that the Department has a good reputation among the graduate students, who go on to successful careers in part facilitated by their ability to write and publish.
Mr. Pagel defines the purpose of a research article: to disseminate discoveries to peers and those outside a specialty. In his view, an editor’s main role is to help researchers understand the important of providing the context in which a discovery emerges –and to which it contributes. Many are not aware of such background and it is needed so that articles have meaning to audiences beyond a researcher’s specific field. He notes that sloppy writing often suggests sloppy science, so an editor helps a researcher achieve clear and accurate writing. Editors in the Department of Scientific Publications work primarily on articles. Most books are already under contract with a publisher (who handles editorial work), though they do support faculty who are exploring publications avenues for books. He also notes that though faculty at MD Anderson contribute chapters to books (and Scientific Publications provides editorial support), these matter much less than articles to the evolution of a faculty member’s career. A great scientific article, he explains, tells a story that situates a discovery in the history of a field and also gives a real sense of a scientist involved in a research process that leads to the unveiling of an important answer to a scientific question. He has worked with some great writers at MD Anderson, among them Drs. Isaiah J. Fidler [Oral History Interview], Lester Peter, and Margaret Kripke [Oral History Interview].
Chapter 02 (Professional Path)
Learning the Editor’s Craft (listen/read)
Mr. Pagel begins this segment by quickly sketching his educational path, including his track at Rice University, where he first majored in electrical engineering, then switched to English Literature. A career counselor at Rice suggested he apply for an opening in Scientific Publications at MD Anderson, and in 1971 he became an assistant editor. He describes his activities at that time and notes that he began to learn what it meant to be an editor. There were 6-8 editors in the department at the time, handling about ten articles per month.
Next Mr. Pagel explains that he left MD Anderson in 1974 to become Assistant Managing Editor (then Associate Editor, 1975) for the Quality Review Bulletin published by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulletin published narratives of care provided at institutions; frequently review of the details provided would indicate need for a further audit of the institution prior to its accreditation. Mr. Pagel point out that the Joint Commission came to understand that more than physician notes are needed to assess the quality of care.
Chapter 03 (An Institutional Unit)
The History of the Department of Scientific Publications (listen/read)
In this segment, Mr. Pagel explains that he returned to MD Anderson’s Department of Scientific Publications as an Associate Editor in 1976. He notes that he had the reputation of working well with faculty. He managed several projects in his new role, including the Research Report and the General Report.
He then briefly sketches the history of the Department of Scientific Publications, created by R. Lee Clark to provide centralized editorial services on the model of the Mayo Clinic’s in-house services, founded at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century. Mr. Pagel also recounts how Dr. Russell Cumley came to be the first chair of the Department because of a personal connection with Dr. Clark. Dr. Cumley influenced Mr. Pagel’s leadership style by showing respect for his staff’s abilities.
Mr. Pagel next provides an overview of the people and projects in Scientific Publications. He begins by characterizing his leadership style as more collaborative than authoritarian, a style he learned from Dorothy Beane (the former director), for example, while Melissa Burkett (Associate Director) has taught him how to plan. (He mentions in passing that the Administrative leadership at MD Anderson tends to “admire its own decisiveness” rather than relying on collaboration to make decisions.)
Chapter 04 (The Administrator)
Developing a New Editorial Perspective for Scientific Publications (listen/read)
Mr. Pagel begins this segment by speaking briefly about some changes he tried to make to the General Report. He then covers two main policy changes he instituted during his role as Publications Coordinator (’78 – ’84) and Director (’84 – present). The first was to regularize the pace of editing manuscripts, previously determined by the editorial staff. He worked with staff to reorganize this process so editing could be done more quickly and efficiently. Mr. Pagel speaks briefly with the Interviewer about how editors specialize in different subject areas, but the challenges of editing scientific papers come down to a core set of basic issues. He then explains that prior to the 90s, faculty were required to submit manuscripts to Scientific Publications for editing help (whether they wanted/needed it or not). During the 90s, however, Scientific Publications was inundated with article manuscripts as well as grant proposals, and they switched from a mandatory to voluntary system to better serve those who actually wanted help. Mr. Pagel also talks about the challenges of marketing the services Scientific Publications offers within MD Anderson. One challenge, he points out, is that even though journals provide very poor editing services, researchers often question whether non-scientists (i.e, the editors in Scientific Publications) can truly help them with their articles.
Chapter 05 (An Institutional Unit)
A Reader-Focused Philosophy: Editing and Teaching (listen/read)
In this segment Mr. Pagel talks about how the Department’s approach to editing crystallized under his Directorship. The focus shifted from copyediting as the main task to determining what an article must provide to meet the expectations of a reader (who might not necessarily be a peer within a scientist’s own narrow specialty). The 2000s were a key period in which Scientific Publications began to develop in-house guidelines for structuring a reader-focused article at the same time that they developed focus groups and writing courses (at first to serve the rising numbers of international scientists at the institution). They concluded that they could teach a conventional framework for assembling an article that would communicate effectively. Over a six month period, they set up classes (with a workbook) to demonstrate how to put together an article with a logical sequence of parts, with guidance regarding the contents of each section. Mr. Pagel talks about how important it is for international scientists to be able to participate in “the discourse that drives science.” He also observes that as Scientific Publications taught the writing courses, their experiences fed back and influenced their ability to edit articles effectively.
Chapter 06 (Building the Institution)
Key In-House Publications (listen/read)
Here Mr. Pagel talks about several key activities in the Department. First he notes the move, in the 198s, to a new building and then the shift from an MBI computer to Mac personal computers. He then talks about the key publications the Department produces. The Year Book of Cancer ’56 – ‘88), provided a collection of abstracts of cancer research and was, effectively, a database before the days of electronic databasing. Mr. Pagel himself started the Cancer Care Series, created as a holistic picture of MD Anderson research treating particular care sites. In 1990, Mr. Pagel began talking to clinical leaders about the series, and realized he needed a champion. Dr. Ralph Freedman emerged, offering the idea that the project could be funded by the Alumni Association. Scientific Publications has published “Breast Cancer,” “Gastrointestinal Cancer,” Gynecologic Cancer,” “Lung Cancer,” “Pediatric Oncology,” and “Tumors of the Brain and Spine.” Each is a comprehensive work, heavily edited, he points out, as it is designed to inform non-academic physicians about the latest research. Also planned are volumes on bone sarcoma, head and neck, emergency oncology medicine, and survivorship. Mr. Pagel questions how effectively these books are being marketed. Next he talks about the OncoLog newsletter, first published in ’56. It is now offered in print and as an online publication for non-academic physicians, in both English and Spanish.
Interview Session Two: 10 August 2012 (listen/read)
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 07 (An Institutional Unit)
Reports, Changes to the Field of Scientific Publications, and the Challenges of In-House Publications (listen/read)
In this segment Mr. Pagel first talks about how MD Anderson was selected by the Texas Department of Health to prepare reports on “The Impact of Cancer on Texas.” This came about through the efforts of Dr. Joseph Painter and the Texas Commissioner of Health. The Department of Scientific Publications prepared three editions of this report between 1977 and the mid-eighties, compiling information on the impact of cancer by disease site. The statistics, he explains, came from ordinary databases. When data management changed (becoming primarily electronic) the publication was stopped.
Next, Mr. Pagel describes how publishing in the sciences has been radically altered in the electronic age, when information is so accessible and the pace of research is so brisk. Books are becoming much less prominent in the biomedical field, he explains, as there is no point in compiling information in a book when the contents will be quickly outdated. This accessibility offers mixed benefits, however, as Mr. Pagel notes. Fewer and fewer individuals browse for information, and he sees this as an indication that researchers tend not to look beyond the limits of information they know they need, a habit that may ultimately narrow their perspective. He gives examples of researchers who take a different perspective and always think about what is going on outside their own field of research: Molecular biologist Arnold J. Levine, who discovered p53, the tumor suppressor gene, and Gigi (Guillermina) Lozano, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Cancer Genetics at MD Anderson, who also studies the gene. Dr. Lozano has established herself with great publication and the reach of her grants, he explains, and she has served on panel discussions organized by Scientific Publications. The advice she gave at one session: Don’t expect your funding to be renewed if your work has not evolved by year five.
Mr. Pagel next goes into detail about the Department’s (ultimately unsuccessful) experience with a journal publishing initiative. Molecular Carcinogenesis was first published in 1988, and Mr. Pagel notes the individuals involved in starting up the journal, with the rationale that creating such a publication would facilitate connections with faculty. However, this publication would have to support itself financially, and the Department of Scientific Publications realized that it could not manage a successful journal under those conditions. After publishing one issue, the journal was turned over to Wiley-Liss publishers. Mr. Pagel then talks about Cancer Bulletin, the journal once most closely associated with MD Anderson, broadening his focus to comment on the politics of publication and the questionable value of institutional journals, given the current availability of information. He then talks about the challenges of working on MD Anderson’s “General Report” (which served as a kind of annual report until about 1990.) From an editorial perspective, it was a challenging publication because there were no guidelines for contributors to follow. From another perspective, it was a challenge because no one had defined a clear purpose or audience for the Report. Mr. Pagel notes that it was important to MD Anderson in earlier years to document the caliber of the institution. After 1990, the Department of Public Affairs took over publication of an “Annual Report,” with the function of reporting taxpayer money is spent.
Chapter 08 (An Institutional Unit)
Offering Support for MD Anderson Writers (listen/read)
Mr. Pagel begins this segment reviewing how the Department of Scientific Publications offers editorial and instructional writing support to MD Anderson faculty. He then talks about Words into Print, a book of guidelines for writers published in-house that has evolved through three editions (1983, 1992, 2000). He notes that the Department has learned more with each edition published and expects that it will go through another, two-volume edition in which writing skills and writing process are treated separately. He then summarizes the mission of the Department’s courses: to teach a systematic was of writing an article that satisfies the conventions of a field and meets reader expectations. The practice of teaching how to accomplish this has evolved slowly, but had never altered the basic philosophy established years ago. Mr. Pagel then talks about funding for the Department’s writing courses. He underscores that the courses are a source of great pride for the Department, and that they have worked hard to earn a reputation among a community of researchers who might never believe that a nonscientist could have credibility and authority to aid them in publishing their work.
Chapter 09 (Contributions)
Strengthening Biomedical Editing Nationwide and Within MD Anderson (listen/read)
In this segment, Mr. Pagel first briefly notes his involvement with the Southwest Chapter of the American Medical Writer’s Association and the Council of Biology Editors (with a 22-year membership). He then explains that he had his biggest impact while he served on the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences and in the late 80s worked on the Editorial Certification Examination Development Committee. He describes the examination he helped create to certify competence for editors of biomedical articles and explains the significance of certification. He notes that the Department of Scientific Publications at MD Anderson uses its own battery of tests to evaluate editors’ abilities for abstract reasoning, grammar, and other skills and talents.
Next, Mr. Pagel talks about his Department’s blog, “The Write Stuff,” and two significant projects: his role on the Historical Resources Center Steering Committee, and the development of panel discussions for the Department of Scientific Publications. To begin the discussion of the Steering Committee, he notes that Scientific Publications wrote The First Twenty Years, the first history of MD Anderson. Because of this association with the institution’s history, Mr. Pagel was asked to be part of the Steering Committee when the Historical Resources Center was formed and set as its first goal the publication of an updated institutional history. Mr. Pagel wanted the perspective to be broader than the first book, situating MD Anderson and cancer research in a larger context of other cancer institutions and the history of cancer research. Though not alone in holding this view, he says he had something to do with articulating it for the benefit of the Steering Committee. He describes how James Olsen was selected to be the author and notes other Steering Committee activities.
Chapter 10 (The Administrator)
Initiatives and Committees (listen/read)
In this segment, Mr. Pagel reviews several past and ongoing activities for the Department of Scientific Publications. He first talks about the series of panel discussions he established, covering such topics as “Publishing Strategies,” “Grant Strategies,” and a new panel on “Publishing in High-Impact Journals.” In explaining the latter project, Mr. Pagel explains the prevailing assumption that unless a researcher is publishing in high-impact journals, s/he is not successful. Faculty members approached Scientific Publications to address this issue and point out that it is actually a myth –that publication is actually about the quality of science and the writing. He notes there was faculty hostility to the approach Scientific Publications chose to take: to acknowledge that the importance of high-impact journals is simply a reality and that researchers need to learns the skills required to reach these journals. He mentions several people he has invited to speak on this panel, noting that everyone was very willing to participate.
Mr. Pagel next mentions that he must complete his work on the Cancer Care Series prior to his retirement, then he goes on to talk about his work on a committee formed to change the Research Report into an online publication. He explains the strategy of creating general guidelines then inviting faculty to decide the details of the procedure, and notes how proud he was of the committee’s effectiveness. After noting a habit of MD Anderson’s administration to impose plans from the top-down, he explains how the online report came to be incorporated into a database.
Chapter 11 (Key MD Anderson Figures)
Presidents and a Senior Vice President (listen/read)
In this overview of key MD Anderson administrators, Mr. Pagel first describes R. Lee Clark as a powerful individual who recognized everyone in the institution personally –and who was also feared. Mr. Pagel explains that Dr. Clark was very concerned about his centrality to the institution and would evaluate others’ actions based on how they influenced his position. Dr. Charles LeMaistre, he says, was very supportive of Scientific Publications and had a habit of allowing good people to lead themselves. He says that while Dr. Clark’s leadership was based on charisma, Dr. LeMaistre may have had more affection for MD Anderson people. He describes Dr. John Mendelsohn taught the institution how to be successful in an aggressive way, turning MD Anderson into a business. His style was to “float above everyone else,” Mr. Pagel says. Mr. Pagel describes the warm welcome he received when going to meet Dr. Ronald DePinho, the institution’s fourth president, and speculates the scientific writing may be personally very important to Dr. DePinho, who quickly sent the Department articles to edit and was quick to praise the results. Mr. Pagel then describes Dr. Stephen Tomasovic, with whom he worked for fifteen years. He recalls that it was Dr. Tomasovic who challenged him to “do something” and succeed in the area of education, when it was clear that writing needed to be addressed in the institution. He states that Dr. Tomasovic “gave everything he could to this institution.”
Chapter 12 (Post-Retirement Activities)
Paying Attention: A Professional and Personal Habit (listen/read)
In this segment, Mr. Pagel first talks about receiving the John P. McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication in 2001. He then looks ahead to activities he will take up after retiring at the end of August 2012. He likes to cook and tend orchids and he also writes, he notes. He is a good amateur photographer and may volunteer for the Houston Public Library’s new photography project. He lists some of the authors he respects (e.g. Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov). Observing his own character he says, “I notice that there are people who don’t notice anything,” whereas he feels his is attuned to what’s going on around him. This, he says, is the reason he likes to cook, enjoy wine, and keep orchids. He mentions that he recently received a call from Chapin Rodriguez, Director of Scientific Training at the Association for Multimedia Education (UMNA) in China, who asked him, “How do you do this?” Mr. Pagel says, “What I do is fairly simple, but moderately unusual: I ask questions and pay attention to the answers.”
In this two-session interview (approx. 3:40), Mr. Walter Pagel (b. December 18, 1947, West Point, New York) talks about his forty-one year career in the Department of Scientific Publications at MD Anderson. His roles have spanned editing, teaching, and administration. He has served as the Department’s director since 1984, and his philosophy of scientific writing has shaped the Department’s editorial and teaching services provided to MD Anderson faculty. The interview sessions take place in Mr. Pagel’s office in Pickens Tower on the main MD Anderson Campus. Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D. is the interviewer.
Mr. Pagel joined MD Anderson as an Assistant Editor in 1971, after graduating from Rice University with a B.A. in English and a minor in Biology. He left MD Anderson briefly in 1974 to serve as Associate Editor for the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals in Chicago, Illinois. He returned to MD Anderson in 1976 as an Associate Editor and was promoted to Publications Coordinator in 1978. Since 1984 he has served as Director. Mr. Pagel has been a member of the Council of Biology Editors for twenty-two years. While serving on the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences, he had nationwide impact by helping to develop accreditation guidelines for editors in the biomedical sciences. In 2001 he received the John P. McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication.
In this interview, Mr. Pagel shines a light into the world of scientific publishing and the importance of written communication for the success of scientific researchers. He explains the wide range of services that the Department of Scientific Publications offers to MD Anderson. He explains the evolution of his own, reader-oriented philosophy of scientific writing and traces the initiatives he undertook to offer MD Anderson faculty new skills and strategies for success in publishing and writing for grants. He sketches a history of the Department of Scientific Publications and describes how scientific publishing has changed as electronic technologies and the Internet have altered access to information. Mr. Pagel also offers insight into the roles of an institutional publication service and the challenges arising from the broader political and economic context of the institution. He discusses the range of publications his Department has produced over the years (e.g. The Heart Bulletin, The Year Book of Cancer, Cancer Bulletin, Breast Diseases, Neuro-oncology, The First Twenty Years) including one of his own initiatives, the Cancer Care Series.