In mid-October I went to China on a publications-awareness-building trip with AGU CEO Chris McEntee, AGU Senior VP for Pubs Brooks Hanson, JGR-Atmospheres Editor in Chief Minghua Zhang, and GRL Editor Andrew Yau. It was a full week of visiting universities and research institutes; 4 in Shanghai and then 3 more in Wuhan. We met many people conducting research in the broad swath of “geoscience” fields from students just beginning their projects to well-known senior members of the community.
I’d like to say thanks to all of our host institutions. The people we met were fantastic and it was a pleasurable week talking with so many researchers at all of these locations. I had a wonderful time visiting your country and your workplaces, I was well fed at every stop, and the hospitality was excellent. Shanghai and Wuhan are delightful cities and I highly encourage others to visit when given the opportunity. It was a really nice week.
Me and my new Shanghai Jiao Tong University mug
I’d also like to thank my travel buddies. Minghua, Andrew, Brooks, and Chris, you are an excellent human beings. I am really glad that I got to spend that week with the four of you.
At each institute, Dr. Hanson would give a talk about publishing in AGU journals. This would start with a few slides about the scope of AGU and its 20 journals, author demographic info, and some updates about AGU’s latest endeavors in scientific publishing. Then we transitioned into more of an author workshop mode, discussing the desired elements in a manuscript submission to an AGU journal. This is where the presentation gave way to conversation, with questions from the audience and with the editors chiming in with stories and advice. We spoke with full rooms at every institute, with the crowd varying depending on the size of the room, from ~30 to ~200.
Here are a few of the key highlights that kept recurring in our “advice to authors” tips:
- Talk to an editor. If you are unsure of whether your paper is suitable for a particular journal, feel free to contact an editor of that journal and ask. Some studies fall on the borderline between journals, or you might be questioning whether your result is significant enough for a particular journal. Either meeting an editor in person at a conference or sending them an email is a way to help you sort out which journal is the most appropriate for your work.
- Write a cover letter. For AGU journals, this is just a text box entry during the GEMS submission process, so it is straightforward and easy. This is a great opportunity to explain why your study should be in this particular journal. Less than half of submissions include a cover letter, which is a missed moment to positively influence the editor’s assessment of your manuscript.
- Write a clear Abstract and Key Points. Editors send the Abstract to potential reviewers, so this is a paragraph used to entice these people to accept the reviewing assignment. I strongly recommend making the finalization of the Abstract as one of the last things you do before submission, ensuring that it clearly yet concisely conveys the motivation for the study, the highlights of the methodology, the key findings, and mention of the significance of the results for the field. Similarly, the Key Points are displayed on the journal website table of contents, so these are one of the first things that potential readers will see, using their clarity and significance to assess whether to read the full article. Please make the drafting of the Key Points an element of paper writing, not something done at the last moment as you upload the paper into GEMS.
- Have a friend critically read the manuscript. Coauthors should be stepping up to this role, but even beyond that, it is highly encouraged to form a small group of “writing buddies” who will read each other’s papers. Getting feedback from someone not intimately involved in the research is usually highly beneficial to the paper’s chances of eventual publication.
- Spend time on the Discussion section. This is where the results of the new study should be placed in the context of what is already known, making the case that the new findings are a significant original contribution to the field. Far too many papers cut this section short, instead jumping straight to the summary and conclusions. A weak Discussion section can sink an otherwise compelling study.
- Scholarly writing is hard, so practice it. Academic writing for journals is a learned skill; no one has a natural-born talent for this task. Just about everyone struggles with scientific writing, has had to completely rewrite whole paragraphs or even sections in the editing process, and has had papers rejected. Even experienced writers get forgetful of the proper technique for good science communication. Do not be discouraged; you are not alone in your pain. What helps? Practice. Making scientific writing a regular habit will improve your ability to write well.
That’s a good start. I’ll write more on this in the coming weeks.