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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Start Authorship Discussions Early

While on our AGU Pubs trip through China last month, a good piece of advice that AGU Senior VP Brooks Hanson made in his “author advice” presentation was to start conversations about authorship early in the research process. As a researcher goes through the scientific process, the person will most likely discuss the research with colleagues or even get help and resources from colleagues. The interaction could be at the initial stage, when they see something strange in the observational or numerical data and have those initial conversations about what it could be. The interaction could occur at the literature search stage of seeing of the weird thing is already explained by some previously published study. That is, the term “literature search” could be asking a colleague down the hall about a topic and following whatever leads they suggest. The interaction could be at the time of developing the initial hypothesis of what is happening in this strange thing. It could also be in the formulation of the experiments to test that hypothesis, or in the act of conducting those experiments (whether they be data analysis tasks, numerical model runs, new lab or field data collection, or a new theoretical derivation). Or, the interaction could happen very late in the process, at the stage of writing up the study for presentation or publication.

There is a very broad spectrum for this level of interaction of the researcher with all of these different people. It could be participation in a group meeting, where the person chimed in with a few comments or suggestions. It could be a 5-minute talk in the hallway. It could be an hour of flipping through plots on a screen together. It could be writing a new chunk of analysis software or a new subroutine in a model. It could be making plots. Not only should the time involvement be considered, but the significance of the involvement should also be considered. A five-minute conversation that completely changed your thinking on the subject might be worth coauthorship, while many hours of regular participation in a group meeting at which you mentioned the work might not rise to the level of coauthorship. As a research community, we’ve been making this judgment for a long time but, even still, there are no hard and fast rules on what contribution warrants coauthorship.

Dr. Hanson’s advice: broach the question of authorship early. With the CRediT list of author contributions handy, as well as the AGU ethical guidelines of who should be an author, including AGU Council’s thoughts on this topic, researchers should have frank and honest conversations with colleagues making contributions to their work. When you think that someone’s involvement is rising to the level of coauthorship on the eventual presentation and publication of the work, then talk with them about it. Most of us wait until the paper is written before we start to have these conversations with those outside the immediate “primary author” core group (which could just be one or two people). Author role #10 on the AGU page above is worth repeating here:

Author_Guideline_number10

All coauthors are responsible for the “quality and integrity of the submitted and published manuscript.” Which means that, to be a coauthor, you pretty much have to participate in the “writing – reviewing and editing” CRediT role. That could be your only involvement, but those that participated in the “conceptualization” of the study should also review and edit the manuscript before submission. If someone isn’t prepared to take on the reviewing and editing task, then their contribution has to be very strong in one of the other contributor roles to warrant coauthorship.

So, researchers honing in on results worthy of a manuscript:

  • Make an agreement with potential coauthors, saying something like this: “I think that what you’ve contributed so far warrants coauthorship on my future paper, but there is still more for you to do to get your name on the paper – please read the paper.” You should extract from them a promise to read and comment on the manuscript; without it they probably should decline to be a coauthor.
  • Offer coauthorship to all colleagues that significantly contributed to the work. Think about who impacted the research at each stage of the scientific process and offer them the chance to be a coauthor, with, or course, the additional work of “reviewing and editing” the manuscript.

The question still remains, what amount of interaction rises to the level of a “significant scientific contribution to the work?” I’ve addressed it here but it’s a subjective judgment call.

CRediT Is Here

Contributor Roles Taxonomy, CRediT, is now implemented for new submissions to AGU journals. I had a post on this a few months ago and it’s been in place with Water Resources Research for a year or so, but now it is implemented for all AGU journals, including JGR Space Physics. They have a page listing the various CRediT author roles but a much better description of them is in this Google doc. Here is the main chart from that document:

CRediTlistofroles

Corresponding authors, when submitting their manuscript through GEMS, now have the option to fill out these contributor roles for all coauthors on the paper. You don’t have to do it, at least not yet. Also, the current plan is to start displaying these contributor roles as part of the paper’s online information in January 2018, or whenever Wiley completes its software upgrade enabling display of these contributor role designations.

You don’t have to worry about the film credit model of authorship; that is not being implemented anytime soon. We will still have an ordered listing of authors, we will still be citing multi-authored papers by the first author’s last name, and all authors will still be getting full credit in their CVs and h-index calculations. This is just an extra layer of information about the study that will not only increase transparency about the contribution of each author to the study but also make corresponding authors aware of the different roles within a study and think about who should be an author of the eventual paper.

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.

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.

Brevity

In his Eos article, Alex Dessler noted the existence of an Editorial about brevity in paper writing. The full article is here but it is, well, extremely brief, so here it is.JGR-Brevity-Editorial

            “The growth of the Journal of Geophysical Research has brought new problems to both authors and readers. Scientific output has increased markedly; yet the amount an individual can read and understand hasn’t. The fraction of papers being read is declining. Authors who wish their work to be read, understood, and referenced would serve themselves well if they would present the results of their research in a clear, terse format. Such writing may require as much thoughtful effort as the scientific investigation itself.

“To quote Charles Darwin, ‘A naturalist’s life would be a happy one if he had only to observe and never to write.’ The writing and polishing of drafts of papers submitted for publication is usually the most distasteful part of a scientific investigation. However, the need for brevity and clarity has never been more acute. In an effort to better assist authors and serve readers, we will ask the Journal’s referees to be particularly alert to both unnecessary materials and digressive prose in typescripts submitted for publication.”

It’s one of the shortest papers I have ever read. Fantastic!

The main point is still true today: there is more written each year than we can possibly hope to read and understand. Being consice and clear is a skill that requires practice to be developed and maintained. It is good advice to authors to strive for brevity, cutting what isn’t necessary to make the point you want to make. It is also good advice to reviewers to look for ways to trim a paper down if it is excessively wordy. For everyone at both ends of the scholarly publishing process, please take Dessler’s advice.

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.

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.

apastyle_header_tcm11-193894

            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.

CASRAI-logo

            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.