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:


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 Sarah 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.

New AGU Style Guide

As reported by Brooks Hanson in his Editors’ Vox article last week, AGU is unveiling a new style guide for papers next month. The last major change was in early 2014 when AGU dropped the print version of nearly all of its journals and then made the switch from double to single column in the PDF formatted version of each paper.

The major change is the adoption of and adherence to APA Style. I had to look it up, too: APA is the American Psychological Association. It is already used across quite a few scholarly journals, including most of those published by Wiley, so this will help their production staff and reduce the inadvertent errors sometimes introduced in this final publication step.


            For you, the authors of AGU papers, the biggest changes are with citations and references. First, the adoption of APA style means that AGU is making the switch from brackets around citations to parentheses. Second, we get to use an ampersand, &, when citing a paper with only two authors. Third, when a paper has 8 or more authors, the reference list should include the first 6 names, then an ellipse, and then the last author’s name. Yes, that’s right, if there are only 8 names, then just the seventh name in the list is replaced with a series of dots. There are a few other small changes, but these are probably the most notable ones. Okay, one more little thing: APA style recommends usage of the serial comma, so I am happy guy.

AGU as two useful websites for you on this, the brief guide and the full style guide. I think that it should be an easy transition.

One notable deviation from APA style: the use of “et al.” for citing papers with 3 or more authors. AGU will continue its custom of using “et al.” after the first author’s name for all citations to such papers. The official APA style, however, says to list all coauthors on first citation of each paper. I am glad that AGU is not following this formatting rule.

New manuscript templates are not yet available. I’ll have another post on this when they are ready and online, which should be later this month. Wiley staff will start implementing the APA style on papers accepted in AGU journals starting September 1.

Remember, AGU accepts initial submissions in just about any format so you don’t have to switch right away. At some time in the near future, though, these new guidelines will become the norm. So, you should try to follow them as soon as you can.


Transparency In Authorship Roles

There is an ongoing discussion about if and how to change the way we attribute authorship on academic publications. I wrote about it long ago but the discussion is still going on. Here is a recent development: AGU Past President Marcia McNutt (the current president of the National Academy of Sciences) and AGU Publications Director Brooks Hanson are coauthors on this paper arising from a recent NAS workshop. Click on the “Preview PDF” button just below the author list to see the full manuscript. It’s not policy yet, but they want feedback, so please feel free to leave a comment on the preprint site or even contact the authors.

The main point: AGU, and many other leading scientific societies and academic publishers, would like to move towards a new model of authorship. Specifically, all authors on a paper would click items in a pull-down list of possible author roles. Even more specifically, the academic publishing leadership is honing in on CRediT, Contriubtor Roles Taxonomy, as the “best available” list of authorship options. More details on CRediT can be found here.


            CRediT was developed by CASRAI, the Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information, is a nonprofit group with the mission of creating uniformity in academic research, not just standardization in paper authorship roles but CV content, research data management, research output types, and other academic research related activities. ORCID is working with CASRAI and the thought is that your ORCID account would list this information alongside each of your papers.

As far as I know, each author would still get full credit for every paper in their h-index and other such research impact metrics. This makes me like it much better than I used to, because I don’t think that author credit should be reduced when additional authors are added to a paper. That might cause people to omit coauthors that deserve to be listed. However, I like the role designations, as it would hopefully reduce honorary authorship additions, which is a bad practice I hope all of you avoid.

Here is a good article about this proposed change in authorship attribution. I think that this line really clarifies the need for adopting this change: “The project will help to improve accessibility and transparency around who did what to support peer reviewer selection and help researchers identify suitable potential collaborators.” That is, it’s about enabling future work. For example, a reader likes a certain methodology used in a paper, but the list of coauthors alone isn’t that helpful in knowing who came up with this. The reader can look at the CRediT role listings and contact the authors that actually came up with the methodology.

This change is above my pay grade as an editor of a specific journal. So, if you have feedback on the general process of academic paper contributor role taxonomy, then contact the authors of the paper linked above. I do, however, have some small say in how quickly it is adopted at JGR Space Physics. If you have input on this specifically for JGR Space Physics, then let me know.

Take Care With Authorship

AGU has information posted about the rights and responsibilities of authors. I’ve written about this a few years ago, but there is more news to share, so I’m writing another post about it. But first, a recap: at the Author Resource Center there is a link a short Eos article on AGU’s Authorship Guidelines. The main point distills down to two quotes from the article: “only those who have significantly contributed to the research and preparation of the article should be listed as coauthors,” and “all of these coauthors share responsibility for submitted articles.” As a first/corresponding author, it is up to you to decide what constitutes a significant contribution to either the research or the manuscript preparation. As a coauthor, it is your job to read the paper and agree with its content.

I have a cautionary tale for you about authorship. Back in February at the AGU EiC Meeting, we discussed several real (but anonymized) case studies of sticky ethical situations for editors. One of them was about authorship, in which an editor received an email stating that this person saw a draft of a now-submitted paper with additional authors listed on it. Should the editor follow up with this person, with the first (or corresponding) author, or with the now-removed potential author? Or do nothing? An interesting point was made by AGU staff – if the issue rose to the level of a legal proceeding, an unpublished draft of a manuscript is a document that could be subpoenaed as evidence. Woah.


The website from which is came has nothing to do with science; I just like the picture and think its very appropriate for this topic.

So, I have this advice for you: add authors to the manuscript only after they have confirmed their acceptance of such a role. That is, just use “…and possible additional coauthors” in the draft, and as coauthors confirm their role, then insert their name into the list.

Here is another related point about this: if you add or subtract authors after the initial submission of a paper, then you must indicate this within GEMS – there will be a question and a text box specifically about this – and explain why the person’s role has changed. Please don’t just restate that you have added so-and-so to the list, but give a reason. Unfortunately, authorship malfeasance exists and AGU must check this to ensure proper authorship ethics on papers in AGU journals. If you do not adequately explain an authorship change, then either AGU staff or the Editor will send you an email and the paper will be held until this is resolved.

For more on authorship ethics, there is a link at the Author Resource Center to a page about this topic. AGU is also a follower of the standards from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).


More Acceptance of Singular They

Two more writing style guides have officially accepted the usage of “they” as a replacement for “he/she” and all the other singular gender-neutral pronouns out there. In their newest editions, both the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook include this usage of “they.” The main usage for the JGR Space Physics crowd is in responses to anonymous reviewers. Manuscript authors can and do guess, but the when it comes down to writing the responses to the referee reports, please do not assume a male reviewer. Using “they” instead keeps is free of sexism.


            The “singular” adjective just means that “they” is standing in for an individual person, and because you do not know their gender (hey, see, I just used it!), “they” is becoming an acceptable pronoun choice in this context. Furthermore, even though it’s being called the “singular they,” you still use plural verbs with it. This is what we do with “you.” We don’t say “you is” even when referring to a singular you, we still say “you are.” The same is true for “they.” Please make it plural and write “they are” or “they were” or whatever verb you choose.

I’ve written about the singular they before and several other times about gender-neutral wording. Please don’t assume the masculinity of your reviewer, or in any writing where the person’s gender is unknown. This is offensive to me and, probably, to most women in space physics who don’t need the bro culture bias.

Once again, I have to thank Grammar Girl for letting me know about this. I often listen to podcasts when I jog and earlier this month she had one devoted to this topic. In fact, most of the content of this post is straight from her podcast. It’s worth repeating here. I’m even reusing her very nice graphic.

AJE Technical Editing for AGU

Occasionally, manuscripts need some extra help with English language usage. While it is great when a reviewer takes on the task of copyediting a manuscript, the main request on reviewers is an assessment of the science in the paper, not the grammar, diction, and spelling. As Editor, I sometimes return a paper for English corrections before I will send it out for review. I often just mark up the first couple pages of the manuscript, hoping that the authors see the problems and make similar corrections throughout the rest of the paper. Or, even better, the authors should get a native-English-speaking colleague to proofread the text. Yet another option is to use a technical editing service. AGU used to have a list of such services, but now just lists one: American Journal Experts (AJE). Why the change? Because AGU and AJE have struck a deal so that potential authors to AGU journals can get a 20% discount on AJE services. Details are found here

and here.


Here is the direct link to the AJE-for-AGU site:

For a typical JGR Space Physics manuscript in the 5000-10000 word range, their “standard service” costs between $250 and $400. With it, you get an “editing certificate” that verifies to the journal that the manuscript has been edited by a native English speaker and that it is ready for submission. AGU selected AJE for this deal because the AGU Pubs staff and Pubs Committee believe that AJE offers a high quality service at a fair price. This is a small cost compared to the publication fee and I hope that those authors that are unsure about their English usage will opt to use this (or another) service to make the manuscript as clear and readable as possible.

AJE also does illustration formatting to ensure readability, clarity, and compliance with journal specifications, again at the 20% discounted price (if you go through the AGU link).

The “Technical Reports” Paper Type

During our reviewing and publication of the special sections on Measurement Techniques in Solar and Space Physics,


the JGR Space Physics editors sometimes received questions about the appropriateness of “instrument papers” in this journal. The fact is that JGR Space Physics has accepted Technical Reports: Methods and Technical Reports: Data paper types for many years. The fraction of such papers, though, has been small, with most papers in this journal being the Research Article paper type. When we accepted the proposal for the MTSSP special sections, we knew that reviewing the expected ~150 manuscripts on space instrumentation would be a bit different for those receiving the reviews. It’s not a paper type that we normally get, so some in the space physics community were a little confused about this paper type being in this journal.


            I’ve written about the Technical Reports paper type before, but since we’ve reassessed what we want for this paper in JGR Space Physics, it is good to remind the space science community about the expectations for a manuscript in this paper type. The paper must describe a significant original contribution to the field, but this new contribution is the method, technique, or data set. Yes, that’s right: it does not have to include an original contribution to our scientific understanding of the space environment, as is the case for a Research Article paper type. It has to be applicable to scientific study of the space environment, but does not have to actually include such a study.

That said, the manuscript must have these elements:

  1. A section at the beginning why to I need to study the relevant aspect of space physics. You must motivate the publication of this technical advancement in JGR Space Physics by convincing readers that the science area to which it pertains is interesting.
  2. A series of clear statements about the novel elements of the method, technique, or data set. You must place the technical advancement in the context of existing technology or data in order to convince readers that the report contains an original and significant contribution in this area.
  3. A section on what new science is likely to accrue. You must include “at least one illustrative example,” to quote from the paper type description website above. This section closes the gap between the earlier two “must have” sections. That is, given the the current state of scientific discovery in the relevant subdiscipline of space physics and the cutting edge aspects of this new technique or data set, you must then discuss how this new technique will eventually lead to better scientific understanding.

So, authors: if you are writing a Technical Reports manuscript, then please ensure that it includes these three elements.

Also, reviewers: if you are assessing the publishability of a Technical Reports manuscript, please carefully consider these three elements.

AGU has a relatively new journal that is specifically targeted at this manuscript type: Earth and Space Science. Just entering its fourth year, E&SS spans all of AGU’s scientific disciplines, especially requesting papers on “methods, instruments, sensors, data and algorithms” for our field and across the AGU discipline spectrum. I had a recent blog post about signing up for E&SS table of content e-alerts.

A final point to make: Technical Reports paper types are limited to 13 Publication Units rather than the normal 25 for a Research Article paper type. This is to keep the description of the new method, technique, or data set focused. Extra figures and explanation can be put into the online Supplemental Information accompanying the published paper, if needed. You can go over a bit, though and no one should complain or send it back. That is, this limit is not a strict cutoff but is more like a guideline.

Get TOC e-Alerts From Earth and Space Science

Three years ago, AGU launched a journal called Earth and Space Science. If you haven’t already, it’s worth the time to sign up for table of content alerts from E&SS. This is easily done by clicking on the link in the in the upper right corner of the journal webpage, here:


            E&SS is a journal that spans the entire AGU scope of disciplines, a lot like GRL but not at that very high, cutting edge, must-publish-immediately level. It serves several functions but here are the top two: (1) it is a place for the publication of cross-disciplinary studies that don’t quite fit the scope of other AGU journals; and (2) it is a place for sharing and describing data sets, methods, and tools that might be of interest to those in more than one discipline.

It just released issue 1 of volume 4, which has a space physics paper in it. Not every issue has a space physics paper, but the others are often worth a perusal. One of my favorite recent articles is this one on the “geoscience paper of the future,” addressing the often-neglected topic of documenting your research, methods, and data. Yes, I have submitted to E&SS and it was published. This two-year-old paper already has 7 citations, so I am going back; I am closing in on completion of another manuscript for this journal.

It’s a fully Open Access journal, which means all papers are free to all readers. The nominal publishing fee is a bit higher than that of JGR Space Physics, $1800 instead of $1000 for a ≤25 Pub Unit Research Article, but this isn’t a fair comparison. JGR Space Physics actually charges $3500 for a new paper to be Open Access. So, really, E&SS is not twice but half the cost of publishing JGR.

I am not trying to persuade you to submit all of your space physics papers to E&SS instead of JGR Space Physics. For one, it doesn’t yet have an Impact Factor and its brand recognition is not fully established. It is a place for publishing descriptions of new methods and data sets for which the paper doesn’t have a substantial new science component. While JGR Space Physics will consider such papers, E&SS allows for an expanded readership beyond just our field, and many methods and data sets have a broader appeal, making E&SS a good journal for such articles. Similarly, if your study crosses over into other fields and doesn’t naturally fit in any particular section of JGR, then E&SS is a good place for that.

So, let me say it again: I highly encourage you to sign up for TOC e-Alerts to Earth and Space Science. It’s relevant and its paper titles are worth the glance each month.

Women Reviewers

While there have been a few good-press stories about women in science lately, with the viral blog post about a woman’s experience at Uber and today’s story about this issue in The Conversation, I thought it was finally time to write up another post on the topic of women and bias in publishing.

Specifically for geoscience and readers of JGR Space Physics, there were two recent Eos articles or relevant, one on scientists at the Women’s March on Washington and another on the obstacles facing women in our field and another. This second article is an especially worthwhile read, including parts of particular interest to scientific publishing. AGU HQ staff wrote an article that just appeared in Nature last month about gender bias in reviewing, finding that women do not serve as reviewers as much as they write first-authored papers. For researchers in their 20s, this gap doesn’t exist, but it slowly widens, almost monotonically, with each additional decade of age.

As you can see from the paper title:


I’ve described the article’s findings too generally. The title nicely links the finding to the cause. That is, the gap is not the fault of the researchers; the review-request decline rate is identical between men and women. It is the fault of the editors, who send out the review requests, and manuscript corresponding authors, who suggest potential reviewers. The proportion of women in these two categories (those getting review requests and those listed as potential reviewers) is lower than the proportion of women in the field. We need to do better. I need to do better.

Science did a related study looking at the proportion of women authors of their papers, finding that it is substantially lower than the proportion of women among potential authors. So, it isn’t just geosciences, but across science as a whole, that a gender bias in publishing exists.

How can we change this? In addition to me and the other editors getting our requests in line with the research population, I have one idea to share here for all of you.

Manuscript corresponding authors: please think about your list of potential reviewers before signing in to GEMS to submit your paper. GEMS asks you for lots of information and you should think about all of these questions before sitting down to submit, but I especially encourage you to put some effort into the potential reviewer list. If we do it “on the fly” while in the process of submitting, then the usual suspects of senior people, often men, will most likely come to mind. These people are often busy and decline. Please spend some time on this list and think about the full range of potential reviewers. It will help you because it helps us find highly qualified reviewers that much faster.

Subscribing to journal e-alerts

Here is one more post in the series about my estimate of the 2015 JGR-Space Physicsspecific Journal Impact Factor and the need for citing recent articles. This could be my last on this for a while. I’m off to the AGU Editors in Chief meeting tomorrow, so there will probably be new topics to discuss here from that meeting.

How do we know about the recently-published literature? How do we put our new studies in the proper context of the latest research in that field? How do we prepare ourselves to be good reviewers and know about the full range of papers that the author should be citing?

Simply relying on our memory will systematically bias our recollection of what papers to cite to the “famous” and “classic” papers, which are usually the older ones. They are the ones we have seen cited more times in the past and the ones we have probably read several times during our career. Unless we make the recent papers fresh in our minds, we will probably not think about them.

On this note, a big thing that I think we can (and should) be doing is subscribing to journal table of content alerts. More than this, we need to be giving them a quick scan for relevant new papers in our fields of expertise and clicking on those articles. I like to download them and collect these PDFs in a “Papers to Read” folder. Most of the time, the contents of this unread-papers-folder expands with time simply expands with time but every now and then I read through one of these papers and move it to my “Electronic Reprints” folder. Okay, clearing out this folder often comes in little binge reading sessions, usually when I am with my laptop but isolated from the internet. At this point, though, I’ve seen the paper at least twice and I hope that something about it sticks in my head, ready to be recalled the next time I am talking about that topic.

Nearly all journals have TOC e-alerts now. At JGR Space Physics, it’s over on the right-hand side on the main website:


            The other big thing we should be doing is not relying on our memory to populate the cited references in the Introduction and Discussion section of a new manuscript, but conducting a rigorous literature search for relevant papers. I wrote a post on that last fall.