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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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.

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.

gender-neutral-pronouns-singular-they

            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.

The “Technical Reports” Paper Type

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

MTSSP_webpage_title

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.

Paper_Types_banner

            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.

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:

lerback_nature_banner

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:

content_alert

            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.

Should we do more for our JIF?

In my last post I presented my estimate of the 2015 Journal Impact Factor for JGR-Space Physics. The number is below the all-sections JGR impact factor by about half a point.   I also showed that this section-specific impact factor has been lower than the all-section value for, well, as far back as I calculated it (~10 years). While I am not that concerned, it is a little troubling to think that space physics, as a field, isn’t as good as other fields, like atmospheric science or astrophysics, at citing recently published papers in our new studies.

The ultimate responsibility for this is with the authors of papers. Each of us should be a conducting literature search with every new paper we write, including citation of relevant papers that either build up to the question addressed or place the findings in the context of existing knowledge, in the Introduction and Discussion sections, respectively. As I have written before, please do this with every new paper you submit.

In addition to this, should we who gate-keep and publish the papers, meaning the Editors, reviewers, AGU, or Wiley, be doing more to increase the impact factor of JGR-Space Physics? I guess we could, but it seems a bit unethical and manipulative, as mentioned in the Physics Today article I highlighted earlier this month. We can do something, though, especially the reviewers.

Reviewers, as the expert assessors of the quality of the work, are the best people to be addressing this issue. They should include an examination of the citations in the manuscript, especially the Introduction and Discussion sections, and determine if the study properly motivates the study with respect to existing knowledge of the topic as well as places the findings into the context of other similar or competing findings from other studies.

At the reviewer instructions at GEMS, AGU brings this up to reviewers in two places. First, it is asked of reviewers in the question set they must answer when submitting their review: “Is the referencing appropriate?” GEMS only provides three answers to choose from: yes; mostly yes, but some additions are necessary; and no. By asking the question, though, it really is just prompting the reviewer to think about this aspect of the paper and encourage suggestions of additional relevant papers to cite. The second place is in the question set for the reviewer to think about in the formal review: ” Does this paper put the progress it reports in the context of existing published work? Is there adequate referencing and introductory discussion?” Again, making sure that the reviewer assesses this aspect of the paper.

See the reviewer instructions for more details on this. There is also a 2011 Eos article about writing a good review. This Eos article has a spiffy flow chart about the review process:

peerreviewguide-flowchart

It suggests that you read the manuscript up to 3 times. The article states that reviewers are not there to catch “to catch every typo, missing reference, and awkward phrase.” I agree. The reviewer should, however, catch glaring omissions of clearly relevant studies.

This idea of you-don’t-have-to-force-citation-of-everything is reflected in the GEMS questions to reviewers. Neither of these questions listed above explicitly ask the reviewer to look for citations to recent articles, nor is there a requirement to cite some minimum number of recent articles. I am glad, because I think that would be stepping over the line of ethical acceptability. In the process of thinking about all relevant literature on which the manuscript builds, though, the reviewer should also consider the recently-published studies as well as the older, and perhaps better known and more familiar, studies.

Defining Plagiarism

Happy Halloween; one of the most bizarre holidays ever invented (in my opinion).

To go with my last post, I’d like to continue the conversation on plagiarism. Lots of people are talking about this topic, , and I have several times before. Here’s a graphic on the usage of the word “plagiarism” in the last 200 years:

plagiarism_usage_googlebooks

How did I make this plot? Google has a site that does this.

Here’s a definition of plagiarism from Dictionary.com:

plagiarism: an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author:

            It is not just “language” but “thoughts” as well. AGU can and does check for language overlap, and I and the other editors of JGR Space Physics occasionally send manuscripts back to authors for revision before review to have them rewrite text that is too close to already published papers.

Checking for “idea overlap” is very difficult. The closest that we can come to this is if an editor or reviewer notices that references are missing to key studies of direct relevance. If it is published, then you should give those authors credit for the ideas that they have discussed.

So, I have two pitches to the community.

Authors: please include references all relevant papers. Conduct a literature search at AGU’s EASI database, Harvard’s ADS astronomy abstract service, or Google Scholar. You have lots of resources for this. This is an important step in the scientific method that greatly helps to refine your message to what it truly new and original in your study.

Reviewers: please scrutinize the references, especially in the Introduction and Discussion sections, to ensure that key papers are being cited. It’s one of the questions we ask of you (“Is referencing appropriate?), hoping that this spurs you to read the manuscript with this issue in mind.

Because it’s almost election time here in America, grabbed some hat images and I made up some baseball cap designs that I think we all should be wearing, figuratively if not literally.

citations_election_hats_small