I have made my support for special sections in JGR-Space Physics very apparent in these blog posts. However, in the modern, electronic age, the need for the “preface” article has been questioned (sometimes called the introduction or foreword). They are not research articles presenting an original contribution to the field, so they could be viewed as superfluous. I would like to publicly come out in support of such articles, as long as they are appropriate and useful.
With the help of my editorial board, we have identified several key ways in which a preface can be effectively employed. A big reason is to provide the reason behind the need for the special section. This is briefly written in the request form for the special section, and the preface allows the organizers to expand this reasoning and present it alongside the research articles. Another reason for a preface is to provide historical context about the topic. Individual papers often take a very focused view of referencing past work, usually only citing those that directly lead to the need for their study. A preface can be a place for a broader perspective that relates the history together across many of the papers in the special section. The inclusion in a good preface is an explanatory diagram (observational, numerical, or schematic) that illustrates a main concept is also a good use. Yet another reason can be to provide an overview of the advances included in the papers. However, it should not simply be a listing of all of the papers in the special section, but a more generalized version that is understandable to the non-specialist. I think that’s the key: make it approachable for a non-expert.
One of the arguments against their use is that readers can simply look up the specific articles of relevance to their research interests. This is certainly true and allows readers to circumvent both the preface and the special section page at the JGR website (like this example). However, one of my defenses of the continued use of special sections is that dedicated page at the JGR website. If readers use a search engine and find one of the papers in the special section, there is always a link available on its page to the special section page, listing all of the papers, including the preface. I think that this second step of readers continuing on to the special section page is worth the effort to create that page, and in some cases might be more useful than the original search that found the single paper.