Zuker, a professor of neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, laughs when he recalls last year's cake-shopping expedition, and how the bakers reacted when he told them his plans. "They freaked," he says.
Nevertheless, Zuker was on a serious mission. That luscious concoctiondesigned to entice the little rodentswas to play a major role in enticing certain bigger and smarter creatures as well. The journal Cell had just accepted a paper from Zuker's team on the functional identification of mammalian sweet-taste receptors, and the scientists were out to create a photograph arresting enough to get their article featured on the cover.
"Science is an extraordinarily competitive endeavor," Zuker says. "We get two great pleasures out of it. One is to discover the undiscovered. The second is the recognition and respect of our peers. While it is the science that really counts, there's no question that getting on the cover draws attention."
How Sweet it is
A cover appearance can indeed be a big deal, especially for young scientists trying to make a name in their field. "It can do their profile good," says Philip Campbell, editor of Nature. Although few believe that cover stories can make or break a career, covers nevertheless look good on a curriculum vitae and add heft to presentations at important scientific meetingsplus they also look great on the office wall.
To this end, researchers often go to great lengths to create compelling and innovative images to accompany their submissions, hoping an editor will think "Cover!"
Zuker's team found a photographer and brought some lab miceand their newly purchased dessertto his studio. There, they spent about seven hours shooting endless rolls of film. "It was extraordinarily difficult," Zuker says. "You'd get one mouse to pose perfectly, and the others would scamper awaygone."
The rodents weren't even posing with the cake. With only that one precious confection, the team didn't dare let the mice anywhere near it. Thanks to the wonders of computer technology, however, the final photographa seamless fusion of many shotswas flawless. It depicted a white mouse and a brown mouse, their forelegs reaching upward toward the delicacy, their noses sniffing the chocolate. It's almost possible to imagine their whiskers twitching.
Readers of Cell saw it on the August 10, 2001, cover.
"We liked it," says Deborah Sweet, a deputy editor at Cell. "Generally, we have scientific pictures. But we aren't averse to having something less scientific from time to time, if it seems appropriate and looks good."
Icing on the Cake
Scientific journals differ from mainstream publications when it comes to art. Most magazines arrange for photographs and other illustrations on their own, regardless of whether a piece is destined for the cover or not. Journals, however, suggest that researchers design and submit photographs and drawings to accompany their manuscripts and encourage the production of images that are high-tech, computer-generated, colorful and daring. A cover decision often will hinge on the quality of what the authors send.
Although most researchers will say it makes no difference to their careers, they nevertheless invest considerable time, effort and money trying to come up with ideas that will sell. "One of the tricks when you know your article is being published in a December issue, for example, is to make your art look Christmassy," says HHMI investigator Thomas A. Steitz, a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. "For a submission to Cell, we had arranged one molecular structure, and I made sure it had red and green in it. In fact, it had a perspective that made it look a little bit like a Christmas tree."
Cindy Smith, Science's art director, is the editorial employee who comes under the most pressure from authors. "I've had people beg," she says. "Postdocs have called and pleaded: 'This would get me a job,' or 'This would get me a grant,' if it landed on the cover. They've tugged at my heartstrings, and it's always difficult for me to say no. So I never say no. I always say: 'It's still under consideration.' "
Steitz, who jokes that he "never had dreams of being a cover boy" as a young scientist, doesn't believe his scientific future hinges on how often his work appears on a journal cover. But he doesn't dismiss its value eithernot for a moment.
"I don't think anybody will get a job or be promoted because he or she had a cover; it's what's behind the cover that will get [a person] promoted," Steitz says. "Still, it increases the impact factorand that's very important."
HHMI investigator Christine E. Seidman, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, agrees. She and her colleagues made the cover of Cell last fall with their paper on Holt-Oram syndrome, a disorder that causes hand and heart deformities. The scientists introduced into mice the gene mutation that causes the syndrome, and they successfully reproduced the condition in the animals.
The cover featured a picture of a mouse heart with an atrial septal defect. "It's a wonderful attraction to your article if it is represented on the cover," she says. "Obviously, people will see it. People who are not necessarily inclined to read it otherwise will read it."
Still, Seidman acknowledges that although "trainees and people writing the article are very invested in it being on the cover, the more senior people recognize that what is really important is the science. The discovery. Your experiments. The work. A cover, truly, is just the icing."
In cases in which the cover potential of an article may be marginal, however, a dazzling piece of art can make the difference between prominence and burial. "It is often the case that a striking image determines the choice of what to run as the cover story," Nature's Campbell says. "But sometimes a paper is so important that we'll know from the outset we want to highlight it whatever else is in the issue, and then develop the best cover that we can for it. Witness the February 15  human genome issue."
Eye of the Beholder
Unlike newsstand magazines, the sales of journals do not depend on a strong cover. Most people who read journals are scientists who subscribe or who access them through libraries. "Nature's cover is not driven by a news agenda," Campbell says. "However, we do want people to be as attracted as possible to opening it."
Journal editors meet regularly, usually weekly, to talk about cover possibilities and available art. At Nature's meetings, Campbell says, "all options for covers are displayed, and the cover chosen in an open discussion."
Sometimes the choices are obviousthe human genome papers, for example. Those issues "are conceptual, and we often do [the covers] in-house or hire a freelancer," says Monica Bradford, managing editor of Science.
"There are times when something has to be on the cover, but the scientist really has nothing interesting to offer," art director Smith says. "I see that as a great challenge. Once I got an image that was a neuron, but you couldn't see anything. It looked like a fluorescent dyed blob."
Smith used special graphics software to bring out details in the image that couldn't be seen on the original, making it more attractive. She was nervous about the changes she had made, so she ran it past the author. He was thrilled. "He said he was able to see things he hadn't seen before," Smith recalls. "It was all there. I was just bringing out more of it."
But those times are rare. Usually, "if [the authors] can do the art, they've got a much better shot," Bradford says, although "art is in the eye of the beholderwhat some scientists think is beautiful, we don't."
The need to strike a balance among disciplines portrayed on the cover is another important factor, editors say. "We try to avoid an excess of covers with visually appealing subjects like furry animals or an excess of molecular structures," Campbell says.
Sometimes that can't be helped: for example, when two or more papers on similar subjects are published in the same time frameand all are important enough to be on the cover. When that happens, editors try to use illustrations that tell the story without looking too much alike. Science, for example, produced two back-to-back covers featuring crystal structures (in the August 4 and 11, 2000, issues). "Both were very important papers, but the covers were strikingly different, considering they both were crystal structures," Bradford says.
This may explain why Steitzauthor of the August 11 paper, which described for the first time the structure of the large ribosomal subunit (part of the factory that makes proteins)lost a bet with his colleagues over which of two art submissions the journal would select.
The winner was a computer-generated drawing that showed four representations of the ribosome "done like an Andy Warhol piece of art, with different colors in the background and different colors of the molecule," Steitz says. "The one I was betting on was a single image, mostly in white and gray, with the proteins in yellow. It was stunning."
It may have been stunning, but it was also too much like the picture that had run the week before. The corresponding paper described the work on rhodopsin, a light-sensitive protein, done by scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle and Japanese colleagues.
"I suspect what [Steitz] thought was simple and eloquent just looked too much like the August 4 cover," Bradford says. "That's what I mean. There are so many more things that go into these decisions than the author is even aware of."
Biggest Bang for the Buck
Some wonder whether the importance of cover placement has diminished in recent years with the rising popularity of online journals. But even that phenomenon hasn't dampened scientists' cover mania.
"It used to be that everyone opened their journals in the mailroom, and a great cover would hit you in the face and you would look up the article," says HHMI investigator Chris Q. Doe, a biology professor at the University of Oregon who runs a lab at its Institute of Neuroscience. "Now I get most of my articles online and never even see the cover of a journal. All that said, I must admit that I try hard to get a cover every time, even now."
Doe believes "great images are a good tool for introducing the science to a new audience. Also, I like having covers hanging in my officethey remind me of old students or projects. And I guess I can't really accept the dawn of the e-publishing world and the lack of cover impact."
The competition to get on the cover may be intense, but it usually doesn't get nasty. No threats are involved. Money does not change hands, although an occasional box of chocolates from a grateful scientist may appear on an art director's desk after the fact.
"It's not hardball," Science's Bradford says. "But they do try to see how far they can go. It's their big moment, being published, and they want to get the biggest bang for the buck. Some of the authors who have a very strong paper try to shop it around, as in 'I can send it to youif I get a coveror to Nature.' It's like buying a car. They're trying to make a deal."
Zuker, however, jokes that it was easy to get Cell's editors to use his photo on the cover. A piece of cake, one might say.
"I only had to promise them a slice," he says, laughing.
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
June 2002, pages 10-13.
©2002 Howard Hughes Medical Institute