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GeoSciences Column: Improving together – science writing and football

GeoSciences Column: Improving together – science writing and football

Writing is something that those pursuing a career in academia are expected to be good at. It is a requirement of the job, yet it is a skill few get any formal training in and simply rely on the old saying that practice makes perfect. But what if there is another way? Mathew Stiller-Reeve is a co-founder of ClimateSnack, a writing group organization, which aims to tackle the problem. In today’s post Mathew considers how the workings of a football team might reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project.

The premise behind the ClimateSnack project is simple: We need to improve our writing in science. But many young researchers do not have access to good training initiatives, especially not continuous ones. So, maybe we should just mobilize ourselves; we can mobilize ourselves by starting writing groups and working together to improve. In ClimateSnack, early career scientists (ECS) start writing groups at their home institute. Participants write short popular science articles (usually 400-500 words), read them aloud, get feedback, and publish online. Several ClimateSnack writing groups sprouted up all over the world, however, only a few truly blossomed. What made some groups work and some not? We analyzed the answer to this question in our new paper. The style of a peer-review paper didn’t allow us to make fancy, lengthy analogies. But on GeoLog, I feel safe using football as an analogy to explain the workings of a writing group, and maybe infuse some of my own personal opinions too.

Football is a team sport, but you can play football completely alone and still become an expert. You can see this when you watch football freestylers (like Indi Cowie in the video) do their incredible tricks. Most of these tricksters likely play football with a whole team, but they don’t have to. The same applies to science writing and communication. You can become an expert in these skills by yourself, and some people prefer this. But for ECS’s who like to work together, ClimateSnack would give them the opportunity to improve as part of a team: a writing group.

But what was needed for the teams to work successfully? And what did we learn from the teams that disbanded after a few training sessions?

Successful football teams have good leadership, and in particular good captains. Good captains bring out the best in their players, encourage them when things get hard and manage conflict. These elements were reflected in the ClimateSnack writing groups. The strong leaders guided the groups and encouraged participants to contribute in sensitive ways. However, strong leaders don’t stick around forever. Just as other football clubs often buy captains, writing group leaders also moved on; they finished PhDs and got jobs far, far away. New captains needed to be found, but this was always a challenge.

Can the workings of a football team reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project? Credit: Syaza , distributed via gify.

Can the workings of a football team reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project? Credit: Syaza , distributed via gify.

I am absolutely not saying that the leaders of the disbanded other groups were poor captains! Even a potentially good captain cannot lead a team if he/she doesn’t know the rules of the game. If the rules are not clear then the whole team cannot play properly together. They need to know where the goal is; they need to understand the game’s objectives. And this is where the ClimateSnack management team (where I am most to blame!) was shortsighted. We failed to properly communicate the objectives and aims of a ClimateSnack writing group and the writing process we suggested.

Even if a football team knows the rules and has a good captain, they won’t get far if morale is low, or if the players haven’t got time to train or turn up for matches. We noticed that a lot of the motivation within writing groups was linked to socializing. Just as some amateur football teams might go to the pub after training, one successful writing group planned their meetings just before the Department coffee break so everyone could socialize after the hard work was done.

What other elements need to be in place for a football team to work?

The right number of players is an absolute necessity. Most people have seen how a football team struggles after a couple of players have been sent off. You may have also heard about players going to other clubs if they don’t get to play enough matches. The ClimateSnack group meetings also faced challenges with the number of participants. One group had so many participants to start with that it became difficult to manage. It is difficult for everyone to get something out of a peer feedback discussion if too many are involved.  In this instance, participants lost interest and numbers decreased steadily and finally to a level where too few attended and the group disbanded. In our Bergen group, we always find that the best discussions happen with 4-6 people at the meetings. If we get far more than this in the future, then we will likely split into smaller discussion groups which work more effectively.

Effective writing groups demand some kind of time commitment from the participants. Good writing requires practice, just like football. Football players often train several times a week. With ClimateSnack, we did not have the luxury of asking the members for this level of commitment. Students are already under pressure from a variety of different sources. They need to complete mandatory courses, collect data, attend conferences, and work as teaching assistants. People who play football have a passion for the game and make time for it. Unfortunately, few young researchers have a passion for writing (cards on the table: I was exactly the same. It took a lot of time before I started enjoying writing). Therefore, something voluntary like a writing group will often fall by the wayside when to-do lists are being compiled.

A football team celebrates together after scoring a goal!

A football team celebrates together after scoring a goal! ( Lewes Ladies 2 BHA 1 4 May 2014. 645 , credit: James Boyes distributed via a href=” https://www.flickr.com/”> flickr).

Some ClimateSnack teams started scoring goals! ClimateSnack participants have published over 100 articles online, some of which articles have appeared in newspapers here in Norway. Many participants feel that their writing has improved. Some participants have even started receiving better peer reviews for their scientific publications. Other participants have also used their new network to organize science communication workshops. Even if many writing groups didn’t find a footing, for some people the concept worked really well. And many people have made good friends!

Just like with many football teams, they are more likely to score more goals if they have generous sponsors. Football clubs need to buy kits, pay for pitch maintenance and travel to play other teams. A writing group project like ClimateSnack ideally needs some funding to let new ideas flourish and allow different groups to interact and learn from each other. The ClimateSnack founders had big ambitions to create an international online community where ECS would interact and peer-review each other’s articles across borders. We secured some funding to update the website, but never to implement the kind of things needed to properly promote an international community.

Despite the challanges we encountered, we have seen that writing groups can be a really effective way to learn writing skills together (like ours in Bergen in the photo). Maybe they are so effective that universities should consider implementing them in curricula for all students at all levels. With this in mind, I’ll indulge with a final football-related analogy. When I was a child, we had to play football at school. I didn’t like it! However, now I appreciate that I got fit and healthier, and I learned skills that I could apply to other sports in the process. You see the link to learning basic writing skills?

Indeed, if you think about it, I could have applied the football team analogy to any aspect of research education: We can learn anything alone, but it can be more enjoyable and rewarding if we learn together. However, I think the analogy works well with communication. After all, this is the part of the research process where we really have to put ourselves out there, we have to receive feedback, debate our results, and defend our conclusions, often in open forums. These are all elements at the forefront of writing group dynamics.

Read more about the highs and lows of our ClimateSnack project in our paper in the recent HESS/NHESS special issue on Effective Science Communication and Education in Hydrology and Natural Hazards.

By Mathew Stiller-Reeve, co-founder of ClimateSnack and researcher at Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Bergen, Norway

Reference

Stiller-Reeve, M. A., Heuzé, C., Ball, W. T., White, R. H., Messori, G., van der Wiel, K., Medhaug, I., Eckes, A. H., O’Callaghan, A., Newland, M. J., Williams, S. R., Kasoar, M., Wittmeier, H. E., and Kumer, V.: Improving together: better science writing through peer learning, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 2965-2973, doi:10.5194/hess-20-2965-2016, 2016.

The Sustainable Geoscientist – how many papers should academics really be publishing?

The Sustainable Geoscientist – how many papers should academics really be publishing?

In this guest blog post, Nick Arndt, Professor at the Institut des Sciences de la Terre, Grenoble University, reflects on the pressures on academics to publish more and more papers, and whether the current scientific output is sustainable.

Imagine a highly productive car factory. Thousands of vehicles are built and each is tested as it leaves the factory; then it is stored in an enormous parking lot, never to be driven. Science publication is going this way. It is becoming an industry that produces without reason or limit, with no consideration whatsoever of whether the product is ever consumed.

A successful scientist is now required to publish 5 or more papers per year, the pressure coming from the need to foster the H-index and boost the total number of citations. Twenty years ago, to publish a paper in Nature or Science was all very well, but nothing that special; now, according to persistent rumours, a Chinese researcher can buy a used car with his share of the reward his university receives for such a publication.

Some months ago, a geoscientist (let’s call her Tracy) saw that Earth and Planetary Science Letters (EPSL) had published over twice as many papers in 2014 (about 630) than in 1990 (about 250). She recalled that twenty years ago there was just Nature; since then the publishing house has spawned Nature Geoscience, Nature Climate Change, Nature Arabic Edition and 36 other siblings, not to mention Nature Milestones, Networks, Gateways and Databases. In 2001 Copernicus Publications launched its first highly successful open-access journal; now it publishes about 50. Each day Tracy receives an email invitation to contribute to, or edit, a newly launched publication; such as the Comprehensive Research Journal of Semi-Qualitative Geodesy, impact factor 0.313, which “provides a extraordinary podium where scientists can share their research with the global community after having traversed numerous quality checks and legitimacy criteria, none of which promises to be liberal”. An editor of one well-known biology journal now handles 4300 manuscripts per year.

The explosion in the number of new journals means there are quite enough portals for Tracy to publish her annual quota, but are these papers ever consumed? What proportion is ever read? One well-known geoscientist published 114 papers in 2014, more than two per week. Did he have time to read them?

Imagine an artisan in a Morgan car factory, carefully hand-crafting V6 Roadsters, each car taking two full weeks to finish. Some of these become collection pieces, stored and never driven. Geoscience papers are going in the same direction – the time taken to write them is far, far longer than the time dedicated to reading them.

Many of us now admit that the only time we read a paper from cover to cover is when we do a review (the equivalent of the test drive). Tracy knows from talking to others that her own papers are never read thoroughly, even those that are remarkably highly cited.

Citation report for two highly productive researchers prepared by N. Arndt using Web of Science.

Citation report for two highly productive researchers (Prepared by N. Arndt using Web of Science).

Tracy has resolved to become sustainable, which means that she will publish no more than 2 papers per year and will train no more than two PhDs during her career. By avoiding shingling and taking care with the writing, the two papers will be quite sufficient to report the results of her research (at least those that warrant publication). The fate of some of her PhD students worries her; does a thorough knowledge of Semi-Qualitative Geodesy really help Judith, who now works in a bank, or Christophe, a mountain guide? She thought that 2 PhDs would be quite sufficient, one to replace her when she retired and the other reserved for that one student who was brilliant.

The sustainable geoscientist has a very mixed opinion of the science funding industry. She applauds the measures taken to help assure that money goes to the best science, but deplores the time and effort that is consumed. She spends a third of her time writing proposals to one agency or another, knowing that the chances of success are far less than one in ten. Another large slice of time is spent reviewing the proposals of others, a exercise she suspects is futile because the final decision will be based mainly on the H-index. She looks forward to the time when her grant proposals will be judged from the content of her two publications per year, which will be read thoroughly by all members of the evaluation committee.

 

By Nick Arndt, Professor at the Institut des Sciences de la Terre, Grenoble University & EGU Outreach Committee Chair

 

Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post that expresses the opinion of its author, whose views may differ from those of the European Geosciences Union. We hope the post can serve to generate discussion and a civilised debate amongst our readers.

Introducing the new EGU logo!

New logo

As part of a long-term effort to modernise EGU’s overall look, today we are introducing a new EGU logo. You will find the new logo on all EGU websites (including General Assembly and journal websites) and social media pages, as well as in Vienna in April, at the EGU 2016 General Assembly.

The new logo retains elements of the previous one, including the circle with a tilted axis representing the Earth’s rotation axis, but the letters ‘EGU’ are larger and more easily discernible than in the old logo. When used in its simplest version (without the claim ‘European Geosciences Union’ shown above), the logo works in both large and small sizes, and is easy to view even on small-screen devices such as tablets and smartphones. We’ve also changed the EGU font. We previously used Verdana on our main website and the General Assembly page, but are now changing to Open Sans.

These changes are part of a long-term effort to make EGU’s visual identity more modern and more suitable for the increasing number of people who interact with the EGU and its products not only on paper and desktops, but also on laptops, tablets and smartphones.The next step will be to redesign the EGU website: we aim to make the page easier to navigate and suitable for desktop and mobile interfaces within the next few months to a year.

The EGU colours (blue and yellow) remain the same in the new visual identity. To find out more about EGU’s new look and view the various versions of the new logo, please check https://www.egu.eu/visual-identity/.

We thank André Roquette for creating the new EGU logo and visual identity.

This post is a shorter version of a full news announcement which you can read, in full, on our website.

 

 

All you ever wanted to know about EGU publications

All you ever wanted to know about EGU publications

Did you know that, the EGU, through Copernicus Publications, publishes 17 peer-reviewed open-access journals? The journals cover a range of topics within the Earth, planetary and space sciences: with publications spanning the cryospheric sciences, soil system sciences, through to non-linear processes in geophysics, there is something for everyone. Whatever your area of research, chances are you’ll be represented within the range of EGU publications!

Better still, the EGU is a signatory of the Berlin Declaration. This means we believe that scientific literature should be publicly available and free of charge. Anyone wishing to read, download, copy, distribute, search or print research findings is able to do so without encountering any financial, legal or technical barriers. Authors of research articles are fully protected, too! They retain full copyright for their work via the Creative Commons Attribution License, which requires that full credit for any distribution of the research is given and any changes made to figures and or/data is highlighted, too.

Most EGU Publications also extend the traditional peer-review process by applying the Interactive Public Peer Review system. This means that a manuscript is subjected to two stages of review. The figure below helps to illustrate the process.

Two-stage public peer review as practised in the scientific journal Climate of the Past (CP) and its discussion forum Climate of the Past Discussions (CPD). 1. Submission; 2. Access review; 3. Technical corrections; 4. Publication as Discussion paper; 5. Comments; 6. Final response; 7.Post-discussion editor decision; 8. Revisions; 9. Peer-review completion; 10. Final revised publication.

Two-stage public peer review as practised in the scientific journal Climate of the Past (CP) and its discussion forum Climate of the Past Discussions (CPD). 1. Submission; 2. Access review; 3. Technical corrections; 4. Publication as Discussion paper; 5. Comments; 6. Final response; 7.Post-discussion editor decision; 8. Revisions; 9. Peer-review completion; 10. Final revised publication.

In the first stage, the manuscript undergoes a rapid pre-screening and is immediately published as a ‘discussion paper’, in the journal discussion forum. During the next eight weeks or so, the paper is reviewed by the referees, as well as the scientific community. Referees and other scientists can leave comments which are published alongside the paper. The referee’s comments can be anonymous, or signed, whilst the public comments are always signed. Authors can actively participate in the discussion by clarifying remarks and offering further details to those reading the discussion paper.

The second stage of review follows: if the editor is satisfied with the author’s responses to the comments, the manuscript can be accepted for publication. If the editor still has some concerns about the publication, further revisions will be carried out until a final decision is reached. If necessary, the editor may also consult referees in the same way as during the completion of a traditional peer-review process. In order to increase transparency, some journals also publish a report that documents all changes to the paper since the end of the public discussion.

The system offers advantages to the authors, referees, editors and even the reader. The publication of the ‘discussion paper’ means that research is rapidly disseminated. Added to which, the interactive peer review and discussion means that authors receive feedback directly and can participate in the discussion. The final published research undergoes a full peer-review process, in addition to comments from other scientists, assuring the quality of the research, that is published in EGU journals.

On average, it takes approximately 200 days for a manuscript to complete its journey from submission to publication. However, this time can vary from journal to journal and manuscript to manuscript. This video, produced by our publisher Copernicus, shows the review times for various EGU Journals. Not only that, the average length of time the manuscript spends at each of the stages from submission to publication is broken down, too.

Maybe next time you come to publish your research findings you’ll consider submitting your manuscript to one of the EGU journals. You can learn more about the EGU publications by following this link. To submit your manuscript, head over to the website of any of the EGU journals, and look for the author guidelines and resources for reviewers.

Some food for thought to finish off this post: Have you ever considered the global journey a manuscript goes on after it is submitted? Using an article from Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Copernicus produced a video tracking its globetrotting journey: from its birth in Norway and collaborations in eight different countries, to its editor in Switzerland and referees spanning Europe and Asia, the global impact of this manuscript is truly remarkable.

Did you know you can follow many of the EGU journals on Twitter, too? With links to useful journal information, highlight and discussion papers, the social media platform provides a quick way to keep up to speed with the journals. Please follow this link to find out which journals are on Twitter.

Do you have any questions about EGU journals that were not answered in this post? Get in touch through the comments below.

References

Pöschl, U.: Multi-stage open peer review: scientific evaluation integrating the strengths of traditional peer review with the virtues of transparency and self-regulation, Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, 6, 33, 1-16, doi:10.3389/fncom.2012.00033, 2012.

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