During my long experience as a journal editor (Journal of Climate and Applied Meteorology, Journal of Geophysical Research, Reviews of Geophysics) for a total of 17 years and a paper reviewer for more than 40 years, I have seen more than my fair share of good papers and bad papers. I would like to share some of the lessons I have learned about communicating science clearly.
For AGU journals, there are text requirements and guidelines and a style guide for authors, which all submissions are expected to follow. My recommendations here go beyond these, with the goal of not only avoiding errors, but also helping you to have a smoother review process by making it as easy as possible for the reviewers. Here in Part 1, I address issues of formatting, titles and abstracts, and acronyms. In Part 2 , I cover grammar and figures.
The layout and visual ease of reading matter to a reviewer. The following recommendations are simple guidelines to follow to make it easier for reviewers to read and assess your paper. Avoid annoying the reviewer, and you will get a better review.
Use 12 point type. Tiny text is hard to read. Double space the text. Many reviewers need space to insert their own comments as they read the paper. Use page numbers and line numbers (continuous for the entire paper). Many reviewers need to refer to the place in the text they are addressing.
After the reference list, use one page for each table and one for each figure. On the page with each table, include a caption above the table. On the page with each figure include a caption below the figure on the same page. Some journals request a separate list of figure captions and that you submit the figures as separate files. That’s fine, but in addition, include the figures as pages at the end of the manuscript, with a caption on the same page as the figure. It is really burdensome to have to switch back and forth between the page with the caption and the page with the figure, and this just annoys the reviewers. It may even be a subconscious effect, which will result in a harsher review of your paper.
Some submission systems, such as AGU’s GEMS system, build a manuscript by adding together all the separate figure files to the end of the text pdf. However, it is easy to tell the system not to merge those figure files with the final file that goes out for review. Even if the manuscript has figures with captions, it is annoying to have a second set of figures at the end, some of which are very large.
Just before submission, review the final file that will be sent to the reviewers. Think of reading it as if you were the reviewer, and make sure it is something that is easy to read.
Titles and Abstracts
First impressions count. The title and abstract are the first things that a reviewer will see. They are more likely to decide to review a paper that starts off with a clear scientific message. Here are some simple things to avoid.
Titles need to be about the science and findings, and not about how you did the science. For example, avoid titles with “Disentangling Impacts of …” or “Analysis of …” or “Revisiting …” or “Study of …” or “On the …” or “Insights into …” or “Toward the …” or “Assessing …”.
Abstracts should not have sentences such as, “The results of the analysis are discussed” or “the impacts are studied quantitatively.” Give the actual new science, and not a description of what you will discuss in the paper. You have to explain your methods, but then tell what you found.
Many scientists are immersed in a community where terms such as SST are used so much they need not be defined. But SST can mean sea surface temperature or supersonic transport.
I often start with the title of a paper to see whether I want to read it, and then look at the key points, but if I cannot understand the acronyms I usually just go on to the next paper. You should want to entrain the maximum number of readers, even from related fields.
So here are some simple guidelines:
- Acronyms must be defined the first time they are used and they should not be defined more than once.
- They should not be used in paper titles, abstracts, or key points (without definition).
- Acronyms should only be used if they are repeated at least twice. Never define an acronym if it will not be used later in the abstract or in the paper.
- It is a burden for readers to learn and remember the acronyms in your paper. Use as few as you can.
- Acronyms used as names for projects and models need to be defined the first time they are used, too. But if the model name is only used once or twice, then do not use the acronym at all.
- Even if you define acronyms in your abstract, they have to be defined again in the main text, as some will read the paper without reading the abstract.
On a related issue, if you are making up names and codes to refer to different data sets or different computer model runs, make up ones that are easy to understand or make sense physically, rather than arbitrary numbers or letters. For example, use Control run and 4xCO2 run, rather than run A and run B. Similarly, all variables need to be defined the first time they are used. Variables need to be in italics and units cannot be in italics. For example, T (K) is correct and T (K) is not.
Read more recommendations in Part 2 about good grammar and written style, and presenting clear figures.
—Alan Robock, Editor, Reviews of Geophysics, and Department of Environmental Sciences, Rutgers University; email: [email protected]