Free e-Book on Scientific Writing

I have a free e-book for you: Writing Scientific Research Articles by Margaret Cargill and Patrick O’Connor.

Cargill_Writing_Book_Cover

I am not the source, just the conduit. This is compliments of AGU and Wiley. They have little credit-card-sized “coupons” for downloading and accessing a copy of this book. There is a special code on the back of each card coupon, so each person needs their own card. I think; I haven’t actually tested this, because I only needed one copy.

They actually offered this e-book a couple of years ago. I read it, liked it, and took a bunch of notes. I should pass some of the key points on to you here in this blog. Well, I have, but not specifically as a recap of this book. If you would like the full version from the original authors, then please find me here in New Orleans at the Fall AGU Meeting. I have a small stack of these cards in my pocket. I can probably get more if I run out.

As a teaser, the section headings:

Section 1: A framework for success – typical research article structures

Section 2: When and how to write each article section – a method for writing the first draft

Section 3: Getting your manuscript published – submitting and resubmitting

Section 4: Developing your writing and publication skills further – specialized writing topics, strategies, and advice

Section 5: Provided example articles – for reference, called out throughout the book

I liked the book a lot and found myself agreeing with nearly everything they suggest. I highly recommend it. Find me and I’ll give you a coupon card.

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Giving Tuesday 2017

Today has been designated Giving Tuesday, at least here in the USA. This comes on the heels of Thanksgiving Thursday, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. I’m not quite sure why Sunday was skipped over; a leftover from a bygone time when stores were not open on Sundays, I guess.

Many non-profit organizations are using today as a special 24-hour publicity campaign to raise funds. AGU is one of those organizations. You can find out more about their particular campaign here.

AGU-givingday2017

That link takes you to the main page about the Giving Day campaign; the direct page for individual donations is here.

I am not paid by AGU to make this announcement; I do it because I believe in what AGU does for our research community. I personally like to give to several of the accounts listed in the “student” and “special” funds categories on the “donate” page. Unfortunately, the website is set up to select only one fund from each category, so if you want to give to more than one fund in a category, then you have to do a separate order for each. It’s fast, though.

I’ve talked about this a number of times. AGU used to have it on the Thursday during the Fall AGU Meeting, but now they’ve moved it to align with the national Giving Day event. There are lots of good funds to which you can designate your donation, including some specifically for space physics, like the new Maha Ashour-Abdalla Scholarship. And yes, AGU still has the incentive program that provides extra funds to the section leadership, depending on the percentage of membership in that section that make above-normal-membership donations to AGU (of any size into any fund).

Donating to AGU doesn’t influence the publications process; it will have essentially no effect on JGR Space Physics. It will not help your paper get published. It does, however, have big importance to the “extra” things that AGU does for our community, like travel grants for students and those in developing countries, outreach and public engagement to increase scientific literacy and awareness, and prize money like the Basu, Scarf, and OSPA awards.

Trip to China

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.

Mike_with_SJTU_mug-cropped

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.

Heliophysics Division Director

We need a Heliophysics Division Director at NASA HQ. The application submission deadline is October 13, just under two weeks away. I would like to urge solar and space physicists that are senior to me to seriously consider this position.

NASA-meatball

            I know what you are saying to yourself: why would someone from outside of NASA HQ ever consider this job? Over the last ~6 years, we had two such people go to HQ from the outside only to have them not last through their Senior Executive Service probationary first year and leave the post. The most recent holder of this position, Steve Clarke, came from within NASA HQ and, while doing a great job for Heliophysics, only stayed a couple of years (he is now at OSTP).

One key difference is the presence of Thomas Zurbuchen at NASA HQ. He has been the NASA Associate Administrator in charge of the Science Mission Directorate for a year now. According to his recent Facebook post, he loves his job and fully appreciates the high quality team running the SMD activities at NASA HQ. He is committed to the success of NASA, which includes the success of the Heliophysics Division, and wants a qualified expert and leader in that post.

When he was a professor here at U-M, I worked regularly with Thomas on a number of academic and research activities. I told you a bit about that when Zurbuchen left for NASA HQ last year. If you would like to know more about my experiences working with Thomas and my perspective on what I think it would be like to have this position working with him at HQ, then please contact me. One email address for me is just below my picture in the right-hand column, and my office contact info is here.

We need a strong and capable solar and space physicist in this post. I urge those qualified for the position to think about this opportunity. Don’t let the past dissuade you; whoever is selected, Zurbuchen will want that person to thrive.

Here is the ad as it appeared in one of our e-newsletters:

Heliophysics_Div_Dir_jobad_2017.png

 

AGU’s Reddit AMA Series

For about a year now, AGU has been promoting and sponsoring its members to conduct Ask Me Anything sessions on Reddit’s Science page.

Reddit-1

This activity of AGU-arranged AMAs is part of their Sharing Science program. This page has many good resources for AGU members to learn how to connect with the public and policy makers, and I encourage you to join the Sharing Science Network.

AGU has arranged a couple of space physics AMAs so far, as well as a few planetary science ones. I am also aware of another AMA by one of our own, Liz MacDonald on Aurorasaurus.

AGU’s next AMA is with…yeah, you might have guessed…me. Next Thursday (October 5) I will be fielding questions from, well, whoever out there posts a question. I am told that it is a few hours of constant typing, so I should warm up my fingers with lots of paper writing over the next few days. I’m looking forward to it.

Liemohn_AMA_Fall2017

            As you might have seen in xckd this week, space physics and space weather has some societal appeal right now. We should take advantage of this traction with the public and do what we can to make our field better known to the world.

The Film Credit Model of Authors

AGU is moving towards the adoption of a new step in paper publication, assigning contribution roles to the names in the author list. At some point in the “near future,” you as an author will be asked to go through your author list designate who did what for the study. I don’t know when this will happen, but Brooks Hanson, a Senior VP of AGU, is a coauthor on this paper and AGU is gearing up to implement contribution designations. I also don’t know if this will be requested as optional metadata, perhaps as a mandatory submission step. I expect that the research community will have plenty of lead time before it becomes required.

As of now, AGU will still have author lists associated with each paper. There will simply be an extra set of information that provides details of the roles for each author in the list. For a single author paper, this is, of course, overkill, but most papers have more than one author and this extra information could be very useful.

But, what if we didn’t have the list anymore?

I was recently told about a rather radical yet intriguing extrapolation of this process. The original article is here describing the problem of paper authorship and the potential for frustration and annoyance at the placement of names in the list. The author notes that the issue is the fact that the authors names appear in a list and that we as a research community ascribe certain meaning to people’s placement within that list. The suggested solution is summed up in this graphic:

Papers_wo_authorlists_cropped

No more first author. No more last author.

They call this is the film credit model of authors. Names are listed next to the roles, jobs, or functions they performed to contribute to the final product. Who is first author of a film? As an example, for The Martian, is it Damon et al. (highlighting the lead actor), or maybe Scott et al. (highlighting the director), or perhaps Goddard et al. (highlighting the executive producer)? We never say any of these. Could that be the case with scholarly articles someday?

This would change the in-line citations of references, because there would no longer be a first author to name in the text. Reference list formatting in papers would also need to be revised because there would not longer be a clear order for the authors. CVs would change, as we list our contributions rather than just our placement in the author list of our publications. Like I said, this is a radical suggestion. It is also, though, a natural progression along the path that AGU is now undertaking.

I’d like to say thanks to Dr. Shane Hanlon at AGU HQ for pointing out this Medium article to me, via a response to my post at AGU Connect. This website, especially the “AGU Community” discussion page for everyone in AGU, is a place for geoscientists (including space physicists) to engage in conversation about scholarly topics. You can sign in with your AGU username and password. There are some topics, like paper authorship, that span well beyond the scope of JGR – Space Physics. Sometimes, I will be posting on such topics over there instead of here, especially if I pose my thoughts as a question rather than a comment. So, look for those discussions and, if interested, then please start responding and posting on that site.

EiC Life: Alex Dessler’s Editorship

Alex Dessler was the editor for JGR from 1966-1969, back when it was only split into two sections, each with a single editor covering many disciplines of AGU. My post last week inspired Dessler to post a Comment on this blog. His words are:

            “Many, many years ago, I was editor of JGR – Space Physics. I had many of the same problems that you face. But I had advantages: I had more power than editors do now, plus JGR was, of course, smaller. If you are interested in how it was handled in the good old days, see: Dessler, A. J., Editing JGR – Space Physics, EOS, 53, 4-13, 1972.”

The link to his Eos article is here. It’s 10 pages of triple-column small font of varying resolution (some pages are quite poor quality), but it is well worth the read. It includes a few photos of him and his staff, like this one:

Dessler_editing_JGR

            Alex Dessler’s Eos article covers the full sweep of editorial activities. If you don’t have access to it, don’t worry, because I am going to start going through it with you. This Eos article on the details of being an Editor is inspiring me to write my own thoughts on this topic. I will be starting a series within this blog, with “EiC Life” in the post titles, essentially walking through the points in Dessler’s article. Some things are still very similar, some things have drastically changed, so it is worthwhile to create an updated version of his explanation of his editorship. I’m making this post the first of the series, so readers can easily find Dessler’s Eos article.

A year ago, I thought to myself to start just such a series of posts, probably in early 2017, my fourth and supposedly last year as EiC of JGR Space Physics. When I agreed to a two-year extension, though, the impetus was removed and I have not started it yet. With Dessler bringing this article to my attention, this is as good a time as any to start this series. It will take me many months and I will interrupt it regularly with unrelated posts on journal news, writing and reviewing tips, and other topics that I write about here. The “EiC Life ” series will serve, though, as a good discussion point for anyone interested in knowing the thought processes and inner workings of being an editor. Like Dessler states in his article, hopefully it will dispel the mystery around journal editing and will inspire the next generation of editors.

And, of course: thank you, Alex Dessler, for your years of service as JGR, Reviews of Geophysics, and GRL editor and, among your many other scientific contributions, for that handy relationship between inner magnetospheric plasma energy content and ground magnetic perturbations!

 

The Platinum Rule

Happy Great American Eclipse day! My kids invited some friends over, eventually peaking at 14 high schoolers at our house. We ordered pizza, the clouds mostly cooperated, and we watched the progression (the eclipse was ~85% total here).

Because the news remains crazy here in America with people planning to be mean to others, I feel the need to follow up on my thoughts from the book Filter Shift by Sara Taylor. We had our dinner group/book club last night talking about this book, an evening which included ~30 minutes of Facetime chat with Ms. Taylor. It was a great discussion.

In addition to assuming positive intent that I discussed in my last post, a second big point that this book makes is that we should switch from the Golden Rule to the Platinum Rule. The Golden Rule, as you hopefully know, is “treat others the way you want to be treated.” The Platinum Rule goes a step farther, “treat others as they want to be treated.”

Platinum_Rule

            This is not a new concept but one that hasn’t gotten nearly enough traction, in my view, and deserves a post. It’s kind of like the old saying, “walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you judge them.” Everlast has a great song about that. It goes beyond not judging others, though, because it means taking a step back from your own world view and to consider how others might perceive what you are writing, saying, or doing. That is, it involves some thinking and reflection before you move on to action. Different cultures and backgrounds lead to different perspectives and interpretations

For JGR Space Physics readers, authors, and reviewers, this has direct application to your written correspondence. I wrote a bit of advice to you last time. Here’s some more. As you prepare your review or your response, think about how this other person will react to what you writing.

For reviewers, feel free to look up the author. It might help you understand why certain things were written in the paper a certain way. You might realize that your particular word choice will be especially provocative to the authors. I think that it means to remember to mention the good things about the manuscript, especially if the paper is by an early career author. I think it means to remember to offer constructive suggestions for passing the bar of acceptability for the journal; the authors might not have thought to do that analysis yet.

For authors, it’s harder because the reviewer is usually anonymous, unless they have revealed themselves in the review. For one, do not assume a gender of the reviewer. I think it also means that you should remember that the reviewer did their assessment of your manuscript as an unpaid service to the research community, which means that you should not get belligerent with them.

It also applies to your in-person conversations. We can raise the level of our discussion and debate, from international science meetings to group meetings. For me, the biggest thing that we can do is to catch ourselves before jumping into “bro culture talk” and realize that not everyone in the room is a white male and will find bro culture comments amusing or even acceptable.

In short, I strongly encourage you to think about where the other person is coming from before you write, speak, or act. Then, act with positive intent toward others and assume positive intent in others.

 

 

Be Cordial in Your Correspondence

I took in this weekend’s news from Charlottesville, VA, and read about the vitriol from the white nationalist protesters. While not anywhere near the same level, I occasionally here from JGR Space Physics authors and reviewers that a piece of manuscript correspondence lacked professionalism. Sometimes I see comments in reviews and responses getting a bit too negative and personal, and ask them to be changed. More often, I don’t catch them and the offended person let’s me know about it after I have sent it on.

This is, I think, an excellent time to remind all of you: please be cordial in your correspondence. I want you to work hard on your reviews and responses, yielding the best science advancements that we can achieve, and that could include being critical of a manuscript or refuting a potential concern raised by a reviewer. We should not forget, though, to also be nice. I keep this sign on my shelf:

WorkHardAndBeNice

Yeah, that’s my office carpet. This is not a small request; I want everyone to take it seriously.

One example of this that I have seen a few times is a reviewer making inappropriate comments about poor English usage. Yes, you can and should point out a need to improve English usage in a manuscript, but please don’t berate or belittle the authors for it. On a related note, please don’t assume that the English-speaking authors did not read the paper if there are English usage errors in the manuscript. I occasionally see lines like “clearly, Dr. XYZ did not see the manuscript” or “the English-speaking authors should know better.” Please remember that the authors have to initial a box in GEMS stating that all authors agree to the submission and then all authors get an email about the submission, so the corresponding author cannot submit without all authors knowing about it. I think nearly all authors take this seriously and wait for input from all coauthors before submission. That is, the hostile reviewer is usually wrong about the involvement of the English-speaking coauthors. Plus, not all native English speakers are good writers; it’s a learned skill that takes many years of practice.

Let me tell you a personal story about this. Before assigning reviewers for a manuscript submission to JGR Space Physics, I always read a couple of randomly-chosen paragraphs to decide if I should be sending the manuscript back to the authors for English language improvement before peer review. This catches most of the manuscripts with pervasive grammar or spelling mistakes. If I am sending it back, I usually mark up the Abstract (maybe even more) to show the kind of changes needed throughout the paper. On one recent paper, I just kept going and copy-edited the entire thing. The authors implemented all of my changes and sent it back in, at which time I assigned reviewers and sent it out. Yeah, you guessed it: both reviewers commented on the need for significant English usage improvement in the paper! I looked and, sure enough, the reviewers were right (and they were cordial in their requests, if I am remembering correctly). I consider myself pretty good at English usage, yet the paper still needed improvement even after my “thorough” read-through and mark-up.

My point with this story is that manuscripts are relatively long documents (especially compared to this blog post or a typical email) and often require multiple readings to eliminate all English usage errors. Authors: please read through the text several times to minimize errors. Reviewers: please understand that even a conscientious reader who is adept at English grammar can miss numerous mistakes in a manuscript.

Another example that I want to mention involves correspondence with student authors. Reviewers, if you don’t recognize the first author’s name, a little investigative internetting will usually reveal the person’s job status or title. If the first author is a student, then please strive to be helpful, not hurtful, in the tone of your review. Students are learning the art of scholarly writing, but like English usage, this process takes years of practice to master. Similarly, some features of academic writing that come naturally to the seasoned researcher are subjective or even vaguely defined, and are therefore often not caught on the first read-through. I am willing to bet money that every academic adviser is working closely with all of their students to teach them our unique method of writing. Mistakes will get through to submission, though. Please use the opportunity to mentor that student and show this new member of our community that we know how to treat each other with respect and tactfully offer criticism to improve one another’s work.

There are many other examples that I could list, but let me just say that nuance and subtlety are sometimes lost in written correspondence. So, it is important to write very clearly to convey your meaning, while also maintaining professional courtesy. I am asking that you go through multiple drafts of your review or response text to make sure that the snippy or combative phrases are removed. The extra effort will be worth it. If you feel like venting, then please feel free to spout off in the “Notes to the Editor” text box.

Readers of such documents should also take a new view of text that they find offensive. I recently read the book Filter Shift by Sara Taylor. Ms. Taylor is a management consultant specializing in effective leadership, a big part of which is getting people to talk nicely to each other. The book has an excellent recommendation related to this topic: assume positive intent. When you read something offensive, take a breath and think to yourself that the writer probably did not mean to make the text quite as bitter as you perceive it to be. Assuming positive intent helps you ignore your irritation about the delivery and reduce the comment to the nugget of change being requested.

In summary, please approach work correspondence, especially peer review with its one-way anonymity, with extra care and consideration about how the other person will perceive and interpret your written words. Leave the spiteful rhetoric (and tiki torches) behind.

Comparing the Impact of Journals

Yesterday the JGR Space Physics editors had their quarterly telecon and we talked a bit about the new Journal Impact Factor (JIF) that was just released. We want the journal to be very high quality but we do not want to be metrics manipulators. We agreed to monitor it for the next few years.

The topic of metric reliability is on the minds of many journal editors. Martyn Clark, the Editor in Chief of AGU’s journal Water Resources Research, just published an Editorial entitled, “The citation impact of hydrology journals,” coauthored by Brooks Hanson, AGU’s Director of Publications. It analyzes several metrics for 6 hydrology-related peer-reviewed journals for the past ~20 years. It’s a very nice examination of journal metrics for a geophysics field. I encourage you to read it.

Let me summarize the key findings. They show that all of the journals have the same temporal trend in their metrics, with the JIF steadily rising, in general, for all hydrology journals over the last 15 years. They also see significant variability in the JIF of smaller journals (i.e., those that publish < 200 articles per year) as a few highly-cited papers skew the JIF upwards for a year or two, quantified by resampling the articles to create a uncertainty spread on the metric. All of the journals had Lost Papers with zero citations and Super Papers with >100 citations. They find hydrology papers taking a relatively long time to “mature” and reach full influence on the field, a similar trend as in space physics, as evidenced by most citations occurring after the 2-year window of the JIF (compare their Figures 6 and 7 with a similar plot for JGR Space Physics here). The main finding of the article is that journal metrics, in particular the JIF, are temporally variable, have relatively large spreads of uncertainty, and are not representative of the influence of a specific paper on its research field.

The JIF is reported to 4 significant digits, but this Editorial clearly demonstrates that this level of precision is overkill. Here is a plot of the spread of JIF values for 3 of the journals:

Clark_WRR_2017_Editorial_Fig4

JHM is the smaller of these 3 and the uncertainty in its JIF is > 0.5. The other two journals publish 500-800 articles per year, so their uncertainties are lower, but they are still several tenths of a point.

They bring up a fantastic point that I want to repeat here: citations to a paper do not necessarily measure the quality of the paper, but rather represent the utility of the paper. Citations show that others are building on the findings of the paper but the number of citations does not capture the robustness of the analysis within the paper. I don’t think that we have a good measure for that yet.

If you look at the Acknowledgments, Jennifer Satten at Wiley provided the bibliometrics data for this article. She has given me much of the same information for the field of space physics. I could work up a similar article for our discipline. It’s on my to-do list. Maybe I will, or perhaps I’ll just show some plots in this blog as I make them.