Plain Language Summaries

Since early fall, all AGU journals, including JGR Space Physics, now have the option at submission of including a Plain Language Summary of the work. This is intended for promoting the work to those beyond the specific discipline. I hope that you write one for every new submission. I mentioned this yesterday as one of the submission details that you should add to your manuscript template. This will make you think about it long before you are halfway through the submission process at the GEMS website and reach this text box and suddenly have to come up with words for it. Do it as your write the paper, and have the coauthors critique it and hone the wording of this paragraph. I think that this is an important development for AGU journals.

My unscientific reading of a bunch of manuscripts tells me that most Abstracts in JGR Space Physics are written at a level that can be understood by most others who conduct some kind of research across the broad field of space physics. That said, I think that not many beyond this discipline would really understand most of our Abstracts. AGU has recognized that this is a problem; scientists often write with themselves in mind for the readership, and this means that Abstracts contain too much detail and field-specific technical content for others to truly understand the work. This is a particularly acute problem for space physics, but even for other science disciplines within the AGU umbrella, various reasons (terminology, methodology, or the nuances of what is meaningful and important) make cutting edge scientific results difficult for the non-expert to decipher.

For most journals, this isn’t a big problem, as the readership often includes only those in the field. For journals like GRL or Earth and Space Science, however, which include papers from across all AGU sections and science disciplines, this poses a problem for the full journal audience (i.e., all of AGU) to at least get the basic premise and major findings of those papers not in their specific field.

In addition, AGU would also like to promote the papers in its journals beyond the normal intra-discipline readership circles. For a long time, AGU staff have been writing Research Spotlight articles about a few selected papers from each journal each month. This is time-consuming for them and they don’t have the budget to increase the workforce dedicated to it. The Plain Language Summary is a way for the authors to provide a concise write-up of the work for people outside of the immediate field. This promotion of papers goes beyond the scientist membership of AGU, too. It extends to science writers and journalists, science enthusiasts, and even science skeptics.

AGU has put a length limit of Plain Language Summaries: they can be 200 words maximum. This is a bit less than the 250-word limit on the “regular” Abstract for a manuscript in JGR Space Physics. You should strive to remove jargon and technical terms, remove complicated phrasing, leave out the details, and focus on the big idea of the paper. In this short write-up of your work, convey the reason you conducted the study, one or two key points about the methodology, one or two key findings, and a quick summary of the implications. A sentence or two per section of the paper, tops.

This isn’t just extra work for you, greater reach for our science results and helping scientists communicate their findings more broadly is something that AGU is actively promoting. Note that AGU has a blog dedicated to this topic called “The Plainspoken Scientist.”

plainspokenscientist

            Plain Language Summaries just became available for JGR Space Physics a couple of months ago and I haven’t actually seen one in print yet. I hope that they clearly display it with the paper, near or even above the technical Abstract. In my quick survey of recent submissions, it looks like over half of new manuscripts are including something in this GEMS text box during submission. That’s great! I hope that you will take this seriously and write well-crafted summaries of your work for the non-expert. I welcome this addition to the overhead of submitting a paper to an AGU journal because, over the long term, I think that it will help our field and the science literacy of the world.

 

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