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.


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.




New Cover Look

AGU has been changing the design of the cover layouts for all of its journals over the past year. Perhaps you’ve noticed. The cover of JGR Space Physics now looks like this:


Just for reference, the outgoing format looked like this:


There are some differences to notice. One is that the name of the journal is bigger – JGR Space Physics stands out better with a lot of white space around it. They have changed the dimensions of the cover art graphic, too – instead of a portrait-shaped block between two blue bars, it is now a landscape-style block with a curved upper limit. They have also moved the AGU logo from the footer to the header, making it more visible. They have also eliminated the “swoosh” logo from the upper right.

This is not only the cover art but also appears as the thumbnail graphic in the electronic alerts for the monthly issue table of contents, the early view notices, the accepted article announcements. If you don’t already get these alerts, it is easy to sign up or manage them across all AGU journals.

I have been picking the cover art since the beginning of my time as EiC, that is, since January 2014. This is a bit ironic because they stopped printing and mailing the paper version of JGR Space Physics just a year or two before this. Before that, it is was the monochromatic cover, giving JGR Space Physics its other name as JGR Blue.


I think it’s nice to have cover art. I keep track of what I pick in order to try to balance disciplines and image styles on the cover. Of the 61 selections I’ve made so far, the breakdown is 19 for ionosphere-thermosphere, 17 for magnetosphere, 14 for planetary space environments, and 11 for solar-heliosphere topics. Of the image style, I’ve picked 20 model output graphics, 26 data figures, 12 schematics, and 3 photos. Yeah, we don’t have many photos to choose from.

Each month I quickly glance at every figure in every paper in that issue, downselecting to a few (usually 5-10) and then somehow choosing from there. The runner-up images go on the image carousel on the journal webpage. I also carefully consider all of the author-contributed graphics. The acceptance letter informs you that you can submit a specially-made image for consideration as cover art. Some months I don’t get any such submissions and other times I get several. I think the most I’ve ever had is four, which makes the decision very hard because those are usually the really good ones. If you want to just submit one of the graphics from the paper, that’s fine. I will see it regardless in my quick search but your submission will ensure that it gets my attention. These author-submitted graphics do not have to be something from the paper, though, just related to it. It can be a completely new graphic that more artistically presents what is in your paper, or even just highlights the scientific topic.

We don’t take a lot of photos with our work but perhaps we should, because other journals have a lot more of those on the cover. GeoHealth, AGU’s newest journal, has had nothing but photos on its cover since its initial issue. I don’t know if a picture of “Dr. Space Scientist” sitting at their desk is compelling cover art, but GeoHealth regularly has people on its cover, like this:


I would think seriously about putting such images on the cover of JGR Space Physics, so please think about those field or lab photos the next time you get a paper accepted, and submit a good one for consideration as cover art. Or any graphic that you want to submit – I will consider everything you send.


Even More Year-End Stats for 2018

I have one last chart to share from the set for the JGR Space Physics editorial board meeting earlier this month. This is a chart of the authors of JGR Space Physics articles in 2015 and 2016, counting each individual person separately. Two things are shown on this chart: the bars show the number of articles with authors from that country publishing in these two years (scale on the left), while the line shows the citations to papers authored by people from that country in 2017 (the Journal Impact Factor calculation window), with values on the right axis (ICW = in-window citations).


Yes, JGR Space Physics is dominated by authors from the United States. China has about one-third the number of authors and it goes slowly down from there.

What I like about this is the relative flatness of the citations-per-paper line. It’s 3.00 for the US and hovers between 2.5 and 3.0 for all countries in the top 12 (down through Finland). A cynic might suggest that we should publish more papers with authors from Norway and Belgium, as they are near 3.3 average citation value.

Hey, I’m of Norwegian descent. We even made a big batch of lefse this past weekend. I should look into the average citations of my papers and see how they stand up to my counterparts in my ancestral homeland. But I digress…

Note that this chart is for a single year of citations to papers published in the two previous years. The ordering of the countries along the x axis shifts quite a bit from year to year, as does the average citations-per-paper, especially for those towards the right of the scale. This is a snapshot of early citations to recent publications.

In general, I am happy with the flatness of this line. Without doing more analysis into it, I think it means one of two things: (a) we publish with international author lists so these numbers are not independent or (b) we cite papers independent of the author’s country of origin. I hope both are true.

Happy New Year!