Writing Plain Language Summaries

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the first human moon landing, I’d like to state how important it is to clearly convey our science to the general public. One way to do that is, with your next manuscript submission to JGR Space Physics (or any other AGU journal), to include a Plain Language Summary. These have been around now for about 3 years and I have written before about how to craft a good one. Today, being a significant anniversary of a momentous space event, is an excellent time to revisit this topic of how well we communicate space physics to people beyond our scientific niche.


            From my notes from the EiC meeting last March, Jenny Lunn, one of the Directors of Publications for AGU, gave a presentation that included a concise listing of the elements of a good PLS:

  • Understandable to non-specialist
  • Free of unexplained scientific jargon
  • Narrative that sets the scene for the research
  • Concise explanation of the article’s main aims and results
  • Discussion of the broader relevance of the findings

A big concept that summarizes these points: do not simply change a few words in your technical Abstract and paste that into the PLS text box at AGU’s GEMS site for manuscript submissions. This might actually do more harm than good.

This process of science communication to non-specialists is not an easy task for most space scientists. We are not trained to write this way. Instead, we have been trained to do the exact opposite of the first two bullet points. As we work towards brevity in our manuscript prose, we intentionally include jargon, which, by definition, is a shortcut word for something that researchers in the field would already understand. We often skip the longer definitions of the field’s common terms, and sometimes even have reviewers or editors telling us to remove verbose definitions. Writing for the non-specialist is systematically pounded out of us as we publish more scholarly articles.

It takes significant effort to rework our research article into something understandable for someone that might have had one physics or chemistry class in high school. And it takes practice, too. Do not be discouraged if your first attempt is not that good. Keep reworking it. This is definitely a skill that can be learned.

AGU has resources for you. One is their Sharing Science page, where there are many resources, such as a page on writing a PLS, another on avoiding jargon, advice for devising a good elevator pitch, and a science communication tips&tools PDF. On avoiding jargon, a question they prompt for us: would a ninth grader understand you? That’s hard to do with ultra-low-frequency pulsations of the Earth’s magnetosphere, or counterstreaming Alfvén waves in the solar corona, or the thermospheric quasi-six-day-wave. Your PLS needs a good introduction, yet it is mandated to be shorter than your regular Abstract (200 words for the PLS, instead of 250 for the Abstract).

At the same time, don’t overstate your findings in the PLS. It’s okay to state that “this study addresses a small part of this bigger picture.” Claiming that every paper is “a fundamental advancement of profound impact” will give the public discovery fatigue. I encourage you to write a PLS with every paper, but not all PLSes need to worded as a breakthrough moment for the field. Do it when it is appropriate, but save it for those times, and use less haughty wording for your other papers.

Finally, I’d like to say that takes a sustained and concerted effort to be good at conveying space science to the general public. So, start with the small stuff, like a PLS, that can be rewritten, revised, and honed as much as you need before it is released. The more you do it, the better you will become at it. The more of us that do it, the better we as a research community become at raising awareness of our field to the general public. And today is a great day to remember that most people love outer space and that our work has a pretty high “cool” factor in most people’s minds.


One Small Step

As the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing rapidly approaches, I would like to repurpose Neil Armstrong’s legendary words to, instead, refer to the Journal Impact Factor of JGR Space Physics. Yes, the 2018 JIF scores are out, and I could have written this post three weeks ago, but I was on travel at the GEM Workshop and didn’t take the time. By waiting, however, I get to use a funny but appropriate quote.

The new JIF score for JGR Space Physics is, to 4 digits, 2.821, up 0.069 from last year’s 2.752, which was up ever so slightly from the year before. So, it is climbing, very slowly, each year since the big split when each of the JGR titles received its own score. In fact, all of the various metrics that Clarivate Analytics calculates have been steadily on the rise for JGR Space Physics the last few years.

This is an excellent time for us to remember DORA, the Declaration on Research Assessment, which is publishing-community effort to deemphasize quantitative metrics like the Journal Impact Factor (JIF).

The basic message is that we should consider the stature of a journal based on how it fits within the landscape of journals publishing articles in that field. The DORA statement points out that is especially true when considering an individual researcher for hiring or promotion and assessing their contributions to their field. Instead of relying on metrics about the entire journal, you should consider the person’s individual papers for outstanding singular contributions as well as all of their papers as a collection, assessing their overall impact in the subject. The quality of the journals in which someone publishes matters, and it should be a considered, but the quantitative metrics about the journal should be only one part of that journal quality assessment. Perhaps another thing to consider is the retraction rate, as it has been shown that high JIF scores correlate with higher retraction rates, at least in one field (very interesting that this is a research highlight in Nature, a journal with a high JIF).

Remember that the 2018 JIF is calculated by dividing the citations in 2018 to papers published in 2016 and 2017. As a mean of positive definite values, it is susceptible to a few papers with very high citations, especially for smaller journals. Quoting 4 significant figures for the JIF is not meaningful. Really, we should say that both this year and last year were 2.8.

In other JIF news, Space Weather continues its climb to ever-higher scores, breaking the 3.0 barrier with an astonishing jump from 2.9 to 3.7. Outstanding! This is awesome news for that journal.

There are other journal metrics that take into account other values. One is the Article Influence score and another is the Normalized Eigenfactor Score, both of which take into account the “network” of the journal by considering the JIF of the journals citing a particular journal’s articles. The Article Influence is normalized by the number of papers in the specific journal of interest while the Normalized Eigenfactor Score is normalized by all journal eigenfactors so the average of the normalized scores is one. These are both calculated over a 5-year window, instead of the 2-year window of the JIF. For 2018, JGR Space Physics as an Article Influence score of 0.80 (an “okay” number in the middle of the pack) and a Normalized Eigenfactor Score of 4.8 (well above average).


            Journal size matters when considering these metrics. JGR Space Physics published over 800 papers in each of 2016 and 2017. Our JIF score is barely altered by a few papers with high citations, and it really reflects the baseline trend across the research community in how we cite recent articles. To continue using our sibling journal, Space Weather, as a counterexample, it published 79 and 109 papers those two years, so it can vary substantially more based on the citations to its top-most articles. Because of this size difference, Space Weather’s Article Influence Score is 0.92, slightly higher than that for JGR Space Physics, but its Normalized Eigenfactor Score is only 0.55, an order of magnitude smaller.

The take-away point is that it is really hard to create a fair and comprehensive metric that accurately reflects the importance of a journal. So, feel free to look at the numbers, but don’t put too much weight into any single score, because it was designed in a particular way to highlight a particular aspect of the journal.

Overall, JGR Space Physics is doing very well. Thanks for you continued support of this journal and space physics publishing in general. It could not be done without the army of peer reviewers, and our thank you editorial just appeared in print. Thank you very much! And, of course, I must make the plea, you can still apply to be the JGR Space Physics Editor in Chief.


EiC Post is Still Open

I just got this email in my inbox this morning:


“Buh-bye!” Love it! This is a funny yet informative email. The main thing is that they have extended the application submission deadline for another month, to July 31.

I have written several times lately about being EiC – the workflow, the duties, more duties, the good stuff, the not-so-good stuff, and the trade-offs. I think that I briefly mentioned before but want to emphasize about this EiC position: you also serve on AGU’s Space Physics and Aeronomy (SPA) section Executive Committee. This means an annual in-person meeting, usually Sunday evening dinner before the Fall AGU Meeting, and several flurries of emails throughout the year as items arise for that committee to discuss and decide. As EiC, you have a much bigger voice in the strategic direction of the community, helping to set policy for the section and other decisions that influence community cooperation, collegiality, coordination, and operation. You have a seat at the table where key decisions are made. Of course, discussing and developing policy can take time, so this can be a small or large commitment, as you are willing to invest in it, but I hope that you, as the next EiC of JGR Space Physics, fully embrace this extra roll and take advantage of your outsized influence on the direction of the research community.

As I write yet another post, I’d like to say that being EiC of JGR Space Physics does not mean that you have to regularly blog. This was my quirky little thing that I imposed on myself to increase communication between AGU HQ and the research community, raising awareness of publication policies and processes. You could do even more – Lou Lanzerotti, as the Founding EiC of Space Weather, wrote an Editorial article nearly every month over the solar cycle (and then some) for which he led that journal. Or, you could do much less, writing an editorial column every few years, like most of the JGR Space Physics EiCs have done over the decades. I get positive feedback about this blog, but whatever you decide to do as EiC regarding communication with the research community, I can assure you up front that it will be appreciated.

A final word about diversity of the applicant pool. I really like Prof. Cohen’s paragraph about this in his email above, so I will reiterate it here in a final publicity graphic.



Welcome Editor Mary Hudson to AGU Advances

As I have written about before, AGU is launching a new journal, AGU Advances, to be a highly selective journal publishing only a few papers each year from each field across all of the AGU disciplines. It is a bit like Geophysical Research Letters but ten times smaller and for full-length articles, not letters. They picked a very nice publicity graphic for it:


            This new journal now has a full editorial board, and included in the list is our own Prof. Mary Hudson! Here is her photo from the journal page, viewing the Sun with solar projection setup:


I think that Mary will be fantastic for this position. I guess I should not ask her to apply for my job, for which the application deadline was moved to June 30.

I am told that the journal is not accepting submissions yet. Hopefully soon. However, the website indicates: “for questions and presubmission inquiries, please write to advances@agu.org.” So, if you are working on a manuscript and think that it fits the aims and scope of this new journal, then you could send them an email to ask about the appropriateness of your study. While I am advocating submission to another journal and therefore might be losing a few submissions to JGR-Space Physics, we won’t that many and I think that it would be great to have several space physics papers in the first few issues of this new high-profile journal.

2018 Outstanding Reviewer Citations

The Eos article is out listing the 2018 outstanding reviewers, as cited by the editors of AGU’s 20 journals. I force the Editors of JGR Space Physics to make these selections as a group decision, so you will not see our individual names as the “citing editor” but rather the generic “Cited by JGR: Space Physics editors” wording. Other journals do it differently but I do this intentionally to provide one more layer of anonymity to these reviewers. Authors whose manuscript was assigned to a specific editor cannot try to guess if this person was one of their reviewers.


You can peruse the full list for all journals within the Eos article, but here are the honorees for 2018 from JGR Space Physics:

  • Nicholas Achilleos, University College London
  • Ingrid Cnossen, British Antarctic Survey
  • Michael Hartinger, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  • Marina Kubyshkina, Saint Petersburg State University
  • Astrid Maute, High Altitude Observatory, National Center for Atmospheric Research
  • Takuma Nakamura, Space Research Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences
  • Frantisek Nemec, Charles University
  • Jack Scudder, University of Iowa
  • Viktor Sergeev, Saint Petersburg State University
  • Vytenis Vasyliunas, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research
  • Rongsheng Wang, University of Science and Technology of China

In addition to saying thank you to these very special 11 referees, we also say thank you to all of the 1358 people that served as manuscript peer reviewers in 2018 for the journal. Collectively, you submitted over 3000 reports. This journal could not exist without you. Thank you very much!