Too Many Papers?

Senior Editor Tamas Gombosi’s second editorial, published in November 1992, just a month after his first introductory editorial that I wrote about last week, is a fascinating fulmination about a perennial topic – too many papers of too little scientific value. He even touches on the larger issue of being “expected to do more science with fewer resources,” which perhaps drives the first problem of publishing incremental advancements in order “to create the appearance of increased scientific productivity.” He also laments a decline in subscriptions as the journal gets bigger each year. Remember that this came at a time before online publishing, when journals were physical magazines and took up space on your shelf. Finally, he notes that more papers means more refereeing work for the community.


JGR Space Physics has exceeded 10,000 pages for all 5 years that I have been Editor in Chief, and is on track to do this again in 2019. Its page count had not broken into the 5-digit realm until then.

Gombosi concludes like this:

“I would like to convince all of you to write concise papers with clear scientific motivations, papers which not only are interesting to read but also address and advance the subject in a meaningful way…I hope that as a community we will reverse the present trend and will find reading papers almost as enjoyable and rewarding as writing them.”

Did we reverse it? Are we reading more than we used to? I have no hard evidence easily available on this point, but I suspect not, even with the advent of online publishing and the digital availability of everything we write.

This article was followed, just a month later, by a guest editorial by George Withbroe from NASA HQ. He wrote to concur with Gombosi’s assessment of the issue and voice concern about measuring productivity with the number of papers from a person or group rather than the quality of those papers. The quantity versus quality issue runs parallel to the debate over the growing physical expansion of the journal on people’s office shelves. Withbroe highlights his own experience being faced with a choice of publishing one large paper or several shorter ones. He would have us choose one comprehensive paper, but urges us to write it in as concise a manner as possible to minimize the page count.

This all goes with the Brevity editorial of Alex Dessler twenty-four years earlier. Apparently, the issue of publishing more than any one person can read has been an issue for many decades.

The question begs to be asked: do we have a problem?

I agree in general with the “brevity” mantra and being “concise” in your writing. I think that removing excess verbiage is a skill that we need to hone. Some will argue that disk space is cheap, so why not write verbose papers? Why not include everything relevant, and even some parts that are only marginally useful? Why have a Publication Unit limit on JGR Space Physics articles, above which fees kick in? Someone might want to read it, so it should be there, right?

I think that we should strive for being as focused as we can. You will engage better with your readers if you keep the writing targeted at a central theme.

Which brings me to the other point – I disagree that there are too many papers published. Yes, JGR Space Physics publishes more papers than I want to read in a year, but this is not a problem because the journal spans more than any one person’s specific research interests. With the current editorial workload and workflow, there is always the chance of a few LPUs getting through to acceptance (the LPU, or “least publishable unit,” is a term I have heard Andy Nagy say, and warn against, since my first year in grad school). Could we be more selective in what we accept for publication at JGR Space Physics? I leave that to the next EiC (rumor is that the announcement is close).

I do not think that we want to go the other extreme from LPUs and publish only long treatises with so many findings that they risk becoming confusing, rambling, and tedious. Furthermore, very long papers with many findings make it difficult to summarize the key take-away points. Personally, I really like the length of paper that we typically publish. Furthermore, I really like AGU’s adoption of Key Points because I think they help us focus each paper on only a few significant new findings.

A final comment: I find it interesting that these editorials were written many years before Hirsch proposed his famous h-index (in 2005). Although it has its drawbacks, the h-index attempts to balance quality and quantity to assess a person’s productivity and impact on a field. It seems to be the dominant metric for this task right now. The h-index does not penalize you for publishing lots of short papers, but a long and comprehensive one might accumulate more citations because its numerous findings have a multi-faceted appeal. Which path is best to bump up your h-index? There is probably a study in existence about which of these styles (many short papers versus fewer but more robust ones) will optimize your h-index, but I don’t have it handy.

Feel free to comment below on these topics.



Letters and Commentaries

I recently reread Tamas Gombosi’s inaugural address to the space physics community when he became Senior Editor (the old term for Editor in Chief) of JGR Space Physics in 1992. He lays out several new initiatives that he wanted to or did implement with the journal during his term.

One of the things that he mentions are Letters to the Editor. He can correct me if I am wrong but I could only find three examples of “guest editorials” in JGR Space Physics during his tenure. The first was by George Withbroe in December 1992, just two months after Gombosi announced the new policy, offering praise for Gombosi’s Editorial in November on JGR publishing too many papers. I’ll write a separate post on that pair of editorials in the near future.


The second was by Philip Abelson in March 1993, which I wrote about a couple months ago, recounting the early history of JGR, from its inception as Terrestrial Magnetism and eventual adoption by AGU as its flagship journal. The third was really by Gombosi, in January 1995, in which he reprinted L. Bauer’s initial editorial in the first issue of the first volume of Terrestrial Magnetism. This was done in honor of the 100th volume of JGR, published that year. Appropriately, the citation for this reprinting lists Bauer as the author, not Gombosi, so I’ll count it as a “guest editorial.”

It appears that other editorial teams after him did not continue this practice. I cannot find a guest editorial appearing any time after the Bauer reprinting. Actually, we won’t have “letters to the editor” and “guest editorials” anytime soon, either. It’s not because this is a bad idea; quite the opposite! It’s because AGU has formalized this type of contribution as its own paper type, the Commentary. The official description is here (scroll down to Paper Types and click on Commentaries), but I will reprint it because this is just a short paragraph:

Commentaries provide readers with context on a recent publication or meeting, a notable anniversary or event, an update on a paper of importance, or special collection in an AGU or other journal. Commentaries are submitted to a specific journal but the audience is the broad Earth and space science community. The maximum length is up to six publication units and up to two tables or figures. Read our author guidelines on commentaries.


The full details are in the guidelines PDF at the link above. While Commentaries are short (capped at 6 Pub Units), they are less of a letter or editorial and moreso a perspectives article, making a pitch to the scientists in the field. They should inspire us towards some action or research focus, with just a bit of background detail. In fact, making it even more paper-like, AGU requires a short Abstract and highly encourages a Plain Language Summary, so that its message can be understood not only by the readership of the specific journal to which it is submitted (like JGR Space Physics) but also by the broader Earth and space science research community. AGU even posts them all together in a special all-journal collection, in addition to being on the specific journal website.

Note that submitting a Commentary requires approval from the journal’s Editorial Board. You do this by sending an email with a brief description of your article concept (a paragraph or two is enough). For JGR Space Physics, any editor can approve the submission of a Commentary, but sending this inquiry email to will ensure that gets to all of us. Note that approval to submit does not guarantee publication; these articles are sent out for review. The acceptance criteria are different than a Research Article paper type, because they do not have to contain a significant new advancement of knowledge but rather they need to contain something significant for the community to know. So, sometimes, Commentaries are declined publication, even though they were invited to be submitted.

This is the modern “letter to the editor,” and I think that most AGU journals (except GRL and Reviews of Geophysics) are now open to the submission and publication of Commentaries. If you are interested and feel compelled to do so, then please think about sending us an inquiry pitch for a Commentary idea.

You Will Be Missed Chris

I saw the headline of the From the Prow post and my brow furrowed. I read the article and my fear was confirmed. Chris McEntee, AGU’s CEO and executive director, is stepping down from these roles. I greatly admire her, she has been an effective spokesperson for the society, she has guided and elevated AGU to new heights, and she has expanded the role of AGU’s chief administrator into one of leadership on national science policy. We still have her for 6 more months, but this news makes me sad. She will be sorely missed.


            I met Chris at my first Editors in Chief meeting in early 2014. I distinctly remember being surprised that the executive director of AGU flew to the meeting and spent two days with us. I did not expect that level of commitment and involvement with that group from someone in her position; I soon learned that this was because she was keenly interested in our perspectives and input. She was fully engaged with the group and attended the EiC Meeting every year during my term with JGR Space Physics.

One exercise we did was to discuss the possible future scenarios of scholarly publishing. It was a fascinating exploration of what could be, and I remember Chris spurring us on to deeply dive into the posed future scenarios. She really wanted us to envision the consequences of the “what ifs” we were contemplating so that AGU could develop a strategy for successfully navigating through whatever reality lay ahead. Coincidentally, that was when I realized that I enjoy discussing policy and long-range strategic planning; bring on the committee work – I’m ready. Anyway, this is one example of how Chris proactively sought to place AGU in the best possible position to maximize its impact, not only in the moment but also far down the timeline.

One of my best memories of Chris is the week I spent with her and others touring through China in October 2017. Visiting Shanghai and then Wuhan, we met with 7 or 8 institutes and universities over 5 days. She is a skilled diplomat that astutely represented AGU as the leader of our troop. I was very impressed with her ability to connect with our hosts, convey our message of openness, and to encourage active participation of Chinese researchers in AGU publications. It was a very full week but a fun one, and I am especially grateful for the time getting to know her and the others in that entourage.

Robin Bell, AGU’s President, says it very well in her post: “We will miss her energy, commitment, and friendship.” It will be a difficult task to find a comparable replacement for the seniormost post at AGU, and I do not envy Dr. Bell’s role of chairing the search committee.


Space Weather to be Open Access

Yes, as the incoming EiC of Space Weather, Noe Lugaz, noted in a response to yesterday’s post, there is more news about that journal – as of January 2020, it will be a fully Open Access journal.


            Right now, Space Weather has Hybrid Open Access, with each author deciding whether to make their paper Open Access or not. According to the Pub Fee chart, the author could choose to pay nothing (except perhaps excess length charges) and then readers must have a subscription or pay a fee to see the full article during the first 24 months after publication. The other option is that they pay a fee ($3500 for most articles) and make it available to all readers immediately upon publication. Under the new plan, all authors would have to pay a $2500 fee to publish and all articles would be open to all readers immediately.

My quick glance through some of the recent issues of Space Weather reveal that less than half of the authors choose Open Access. I hope, however, that this change will not result in a lower submission rate to this journal. Space Weather is a very nice complement to JGR Space Physics, with the latter focusing on the science of the space environment and the former focusing on forecasting the state of the space environment and the impact of geomagnetic activity on humanity and our technological assets. The two journals serve distinct yet neighboring communities.

More about AGU’s Open Access policies can be found here and the full Author Resources page is here.

New EiC of Space Weather

JGR Space Physics’s sibling journal, Space Weather, has a new Editor in Chief – Noe Lugaz from the University of New Hampshire. Please join me in welcoming Noe into this position!


            He is undergoing a rather fast transition into this role – his  official start date is October 1, Next Tuesday. The outgoing EiC, Delores Knipp, has already stepped down as of September 15. So, Editor Mike Hapgood is serving as acting EiC for the two-week interim.

Here is Noe’s new picture from the Space Weather editorial board page:


            I have not heard any news about my replacement as EiC of JGR Space Physics. I am not on the search committee and know nothing about their deliberations. The only thing I know is that the search committee has closed the application submission window and is interviewing finalists. I hope that they make an announcement soon so that the new EiC has time for a proper search for new editors, because most of my current editorial board has terms expiring at the end of the year, like mine.