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.


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.

Now There’s a GEMS-to-ESSOAr Link

AGU is implementing a feature in GEMS for authors to seamlessly submit their manuscript to ESSOAr, the Earth and Space Science Open Archive. In case you haven’t heard about ESSOAr, it is a preprint server specifically for our field. It is developed by Atypon with AGU being the lead society behind its creation, and another dozen or so societies on the ESSOAr advisory board participating in its design and implementation (including EGU). My initial blog post about ESSOAr gives some details about this preprint server, and I have written a couple other posts about preprint servers in general.


I am told that this new transfer from GEMS to ESSOAr would occur right after the quality control check by AGU staff. As it is sent to me for editor assignment, the author will get an email asking if they want a PDF of the manuscript to be uploaded for public availability to ESSOAr. If they agree, it would then be forwarded to the ESSOAr editorial board for approval before being posted. A serious submission to JGR Space Physics should not be denied from ESSOAr.

I am excited about this and I agreed to let JGR Space Physics be one of the first journals to pilot this option. It goes live next Monday (June 17).

I hope that you like this new feature and I hope that you confirm simultaneous submission to the ESSOAr preprint server. Posting to a preprint server is not considered dual publication by AGU and overlap from manuscripts at such servers is ignored in the cross-check report. The historical average is that ~70% of manuscripts submitted to JGR Space Physics eventually being accepted, simultaneous release at ESSOAr will make your study available to readers a few months sooner than the current editorial-publication timeline.

Also regarding ESSOAr, after you log in with your ORCID account info (via the button in the upper right of the page):


you can conduct searches. After you run a search, you can then save it by clicking the “search-plus” icon in the upper left:


You can then set the frequency of receiving new content alerts from ESSOAr with these search terms. Like getting an email from Wiley with the JGR Space Physics table of contents (they send out three levels of TOC alerts: accepted, early view, and issue info), you can also get content alerts for new manuscripts uploaded to ESSOAr. I hope that you take advantage of this feature and the earlier availability of manuscripts submitted to JGR Space Physics.




You can still apply to have this job

AGU has extended the deadline for accepting applications for the Editor in Chief positions for both JGR Space Physics and Space Weather. The new deadline is June 30.

While I am certain that some applications have been received, this delay is necessary because the positions were not widely publicized until just a week or so before the original deadline. To have a full-scale and fully-open search process, with proper time for people to contemplate the pros and cons of being EiC, they have pushed the timeline back a month.


This image lies; I had nothing to do with extended the deadline. It seemed fitting because I am guessing that many of you were in a panic about this deadline slipping by you. (Just smile and nod.)

I have written about the EiC and editorial workload, and even advice for applicants, in recent weeks.  Here, I will mention one more good thing and one more bad thing about being EiC.

The good thing: when at a conference, a lot of people will simply come up and talk to you. Okay, this is a good thing for me, being slightly more extroverted than introverted. Or, conversely, I can walk up to strangers, introduce myself, and be nearly always admitted to their conversation circle. This means that you get to meet a lot of people in the field that you otherwise probably would not have met. Since I am one that, in general, likes other people, this has been a hugely positive experience and a much appreciated added bonus perk of being EiC of such a major journal in the field.

The bad thing: I have lost time with my family and friends. I took this job with the assurance of a reduced service load in my department, but that didn’t last all 6 years of my tenure. Plus, I have accepted other service roles, like being the chair of NASA’s Heliophysics Advisory Committee and serving on the Jack Eddy Steering Committee. I took on the development of a new course during my EiC term, too, which was not particularly easy to squeeze in there. The time to be EiC and do these other tasks has to come from somewhere. Some of the time has come at the expense of my first-author publications, but only some. It has definitely cut into my time to “do my own research,” and I am now even more into the manager mode of guiding my students and only occasionally getting to conduct my own investigations. In addition, though, I think this job has also cut into my time away from the normal work hours.  I spend quite a few hours during evenings and weekends doing editorial tasks.

How to make room for being EiC is your choice, of course, and perhaps my fate will not be yours. My choice is certainly not the only one that could be made; other things could have been shrunken in my schedule and some of the new things I did while EiC could have been postponed. You will definitely have to think about this, though, and strongly encourage you to do that thinking before taking the job. If my memory is correct, then I am pretty sure that I was asked about this time management issue during my interview with the search committee.