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MJA chief embraces latest career twist

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When the position as Editor in Chief for the Medical Journal of Australia became vacant last year, Nick Talley’s wife told him, “You should take that role”.

At the time, Professor Talley was well ensconced in his position as the University of Newcastle’s Pro Vice Chancellor (Health) and, with much already on the go, let the idea slide.

But, as has happened at other times in his life, a call out of the blue set Professor Talley’s career on a new path.

The Board of AMPCo, which publishes the MJA, approached him about becoming its Editor in Chief – an offer he happily accepted.

“My wife was right, that I would enjoy the role,” he told Australian Medicine.

Becoming the MJA Editor in Chief is not, on the face of it, an obvious move for Professor Talley, a gastroenterologist who has enjoyed a stellar career as a medical researcher and administrator, with more than 1000 publications to his name.

It is not the first time he has been head-hunted for a position that has taken his career – and life – in an unexpected direction.

In the early 1990s, while working at the Mayo Clinic in the United States, he was approached to become Foundation Professor of Medicine at Nepean Hospital in Western Sydney.

As he himself describes it, it was a significant challenge.

“I was 37 years old, had virtually no administrative experience, and was charged with the daunting task of developing teaching and research plus new clinical departments in a hospital that didn’t even yet have a physician’s training program,” he recalls.

After nine years in the position he was lured back to research and the Mayo Clinic Rochester in 2001.

Five years later, he was “tapped on the shoulder” to transform the Department of Medicine at Mayo’s Florida centre into “a cohesive academic entity”.

It was, Professor Tally says, an exhilarating experience: “I learnt more about the science of leading and management than at any other time in my career”.

This knowledge was to stand him in good stead when he was poached in 2010 to become Newcastle University’s Pro Vice Chancellor (Health), a post he has held ever since.

But, while overseeing the University’s research and education programs, Professor Talley is excited about the opportunities and demands of guiding the MJA in coming years.

It is a testing time to be assuming the helm of such a publication.

The rise of the internet has changed the way people access information, and vastly increased the amount that is available.

It has led many to question whether the days of MJA-style publications, particularly in their hard-copy format, are numbered – doubts sharpened by plunging ad revenues.

Questions are also being asked whether then process of peer review, used by the MJA to help verify the quality of the research that it publishes, is any longer suitable.

But Professor Talley looks on the task ahead of him with enthusiasm.

“We are in the middle of a digital revolution,” he says. “The way people obtain and use information is rapidly changing and evolving. It’s a very challenging and interesting time to be in the field of publishing.”

Armed with years of experience as a researcher and educator, Professor Talley has clear ideas about what the MJA needs to do.

“To provide important information and updates to clinicians at the coalface; to be a publication for first-class research of relevance to Australia; and to make clinicians aware of developments that will impact on what they do,” he says. “That is an enormously important role.”

Some believe the proliferation of open-access online journals in recent years may marginalise, if not kill off, publications like the MJA, but Professor Talley doubts this.

Though welcoming the idea that study data and results be open to all, he questions whether many such publications will survive, particularly because concerns about quality will have many doubting their usefulness.

While he is not sure that, in 10 years’ time, the journal will still be a print publication, he has no doubt that the MJA in some form has a strong future.

“There is a very important place for peer reviewed journals of high quality that act as gatekeepers for advances in science and scientific knowledge,” Professor Talley says. “There will still be a critical role for journals like the MJA, which has a pretty rigorous process of peer review, modelled on the best in the world.”

Adrian Rollins