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The Sassy Scientist – Fake Scientists

The Sassy Scientist – Fake Scientists

Every week, The Sassy Scientist answers a question on geodynamics, related topics, academic life, the universe or anything in between with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Do you have a question for The Sassy Scientist? Submit your question here.

Martin asks:


I feel like an imposter when doing research. Any tips?


Dear Martin,

Own it. First, get yourself into a place where you feel as uncomfortable as you can about your research. Rationalise yourself down the drain. Stop just before you get an actual depression. Then, list all the things you are doing in your research. Why are you taking these specific steps to prove that specific research question? Is it worth to look into this research question? Why are you looking at this detail, but are you simplifying that process? Why are you allowed to do so? Do your results/conclusions have a fundamental impact on other research? Is that research flawed, or did those authors simply overlook details they did not yet know existed but you can now prove are a fundamental part of the process? Et cetera, et cetera

Hopefully you have stepped over the threshold of self-scrutiny after this cathartic exercise and found that what you’re doing actually makes sense. If you’re still hovering in a bleak realm, howling with self-doubt, try this: force yourself into a conversation with a friendly face in your research department (no, not your supervisors or direct colleagues!) and explain to them what you do. Do they get it and think that your research is worth the effort? If the answer is no, circle back to the first paragraph and look for the question you have not properly answered yet. If you cannot convince yourself by preparing legitimate answers to these questions, think of some new proper responses.

Still insecure? One final tip: buck up! We’ve all been insecure, the rest of us can simply hide it better. Fake it till you make it!

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written as a cathartic exercise.

Writing your own press release

Writing your own press release

Do you have an upcoming publication and would like to extend its reach through a press release? Maybe your university doesn’t have a media office able to help, you are short on time, and/or don’t know where to start. Don’t fret, this week Grace Shephard (Researcher at CEED, University of Oslo) shares some tips for writing your own press release and includes a handy template for download. She also spoke to experts from the EGU and AGU press offices on writing a pitch to the media.

A press release is a really easy way to maximise the reach and impact of your latest paper. However, you might think that press releases are only reserved for papers in “high impact” journals or are written by magical gnomes that live in everyone else’s science garden but your own. But I think every research output deserves to be, and can be, shared in a concise, digestible, and fun way. Plus, without an enthusiastic journal handling editor or university media office on hand, it is often up to you – the author or co-author – to write it. Need a few more reasons? Well, the taxpayer likely pays for some of your funding, and science should be accessible for everyone. You’ve spent a long (*cough* sometimes very long) time and expended a lot of effort preparing and publishing that manuscript so spending a little extra effort with outreach won’t hurt. And even if your paper is behind a paywall this is a great way to share the main results and context in a format that isn’t the scientific abstract.

And finally, your own friends and family are much more likely to click on it than that boring looking DOI hyperlink that may have crawled its way onto your social media page. And who knows, they may actually ask you about your research sometime…

This gnome is too busy working on someone else’s press release. Credit: Craig McLauchlan (Unsplash)

What should a press release include?

You’ve all read press releases or science news write-ups before (examples included at bottom) but here are some tips for writing your own. The template is located just below:

    • Catchy headline – We’re not in the business of click-bait, unless it is nerdy scientific click-bait! Think informative but catchy and concise.
    • Cover image – Possibly more important than the headline. Find a fun photo or schematic image that is enticing. You could adapt one from your paper (but please not that snore-fest of an xy plot – keep that in the paper), or why not check out the EGU Imaggeo photos, or other online photo repositories for inspiration? Remember copyright/attribution.
    • Ingress – Ok, so they’ve clicked on your link and then will next read the first ~3-4 sentences. The ingress should summarize the main finding(s), the journal it was published in, and key author info. You can think of this like a tasty hint for the main body of the press release.
    • Jargon – Keep the tricky lingo on the down-low. Remember, you are writing for a diverse audience and should avoid jargon – or when it is unavoidable, define it! This is relevant for both the ingress and the main text. For tips on avoiding jargon see here. Being able to identify jargon is also applicable when writing those Plain Language Summaries that are increasingly featuring alongside published articles. The EGU Communications Officer Olivia Trani also provides some wise advice “When writing blog posts for the general public, science writer Julie Ann Miller says it best: ‘Don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence, but don’t overestimate their knowledge of a particular field.’ As you discuss certain regions, processes, ideas, and theories, make sure you clearly show why they are important and what implications are present”.
    • Main text – Keep it short-ish – it is much more likely to be read in its entirety at 3-4 short paragraphs, or somewhere between 500-800 words. Writing in the third person and an active voice is probably the easiest and feels less like one is ‘tooting one’s own horn’. Mention the key results, some background and context, how the results were obtained (e.g. methods – keep it in logical order). Finally, the press release could mention what is novel about this work and maybe even what the study doesn’t address and any avenues for future research. Include subheadings to break it up or frame it around questions. Nanci Bompey, Assistant Director for Public Information at AGU suggests: “For scientific studies, the news should tell the reader what the researchers found – their main discovery or conclusions. Don’t let the study itself be the news; the study’s results are the news.
    • Think “big picture” – Remember to place your results in the broader context – why should the reader care? Hot topics like earthquakes, volcanoes, climate, sea-level, or Mars, may seem to quickly attract the readers so your challenge is to be creative and find nerdy analogies and indirect consequences no matter what your topic!
    • Images and video – Include 2-3 images to explain processes and highlight the results. A video or animation will collect bonus points too (check out this amazing video about the Iceland Hotspot). Include a caption and remember attribution. Another tip is if you’re creating original image content, consider adding a little watermark or signature in the image. Also consider putting yourself in the picture too – readers often relate more if they see the human face(s) behind the research (see also ‘Scientists who Selfie Break Down Stereotypes’).
    • Proof read – Ask a colleague or friend, either within or outside of the geosciences, to proof read.
    • Contact author – Include again the reference and link to the article, and who to contact for more info.
*Download the press release template and check-list here as a PDF *
When should it appear online?
    • As soon as possible – It’s up to you, of course, but ideally as close to the online publication date of the article as possible. You might like to wait until the nice proof versions are online, however, that can take weeks to months and you may run out of steam by then. 
Where to post the press release?
  • University webpage – If you have a media/communications office at your institute or university do get in touch with them to ask about options. Your post will likely appear on a university webpage and they will likely have an account that will re-share the press release on the likes of Phys.org and other news websites.
  • Personal website – In the event that a university-hosted platform doesn’t exist you could upload the release to your own personal page or blog. You’ll probably like to re-post it there anyway.

A short clip from – Film about the Creation of Iceland – by Alisha Steinberger and associated with press release for Steinberger et al. (2018; Nat.Geosci).

Maybe you want pitch your press release (or a shorter/alternative version of it) at an even bigger platform – here are some more possibilities.

  • EGU blogs – There are more options here than you can poke a stick at. Along with the other EGU Division Blogs we here on the GD blog welcome content related to your latest paper – just look up an editor’s contact details! You can also approach the EGU Communications and Media team directly:
      • You can send in a pitch for the EGU GeoLog which can include reports from Earth science events, conferences and fieldwork, comments on the latest geoscientific developments and posts on recently published findings in peer-reviewed journals.  For example, I tried my hand at GeoLog with ‘Mapping Ancient Oceans’ and received some really useful feedback from the EGU team!
      • If you are publishing research in one of the EGU journals that you believe to be newsworthy, you can pitch your paper to media@egu.eu . They regularly issue press releases on science published in EGU journals – as EGU’s Media and Communications Manager Bárbara Ferreira notes, “however, that we would prefer to hear about it even before the paper has been accepted: preparing a press release can take some time so it’s useful to know well in advance what papers we should be looking at. Naturally, any press release would be conditional on paper acceptance and would only be published when the final, peer-reviewed paper is published in the journal.”
  • AGU’s Eos Eos is another ‘Earth and Space Science News’ platform to send your pitch for an article.
    Heather Goss, Editor-in-Chief of Eos, suggests that when writing a pitch to the media you “keep your pitch between 200 and 500 words. (You can link to your research, or include more detail at the end of the message.) Begin with a sentence or two that highlights the article’s focus: Do you have an exciting finding? Is it a new method? Did it raise an interesting new question? Explain both the focus and what it is right up front. Then break down your research into 2-3 key points that you want to get across to the journalist. This might be your research method, a challenge that you had to overcome for the result, or it might simply be breaking down your research finding into a few digestible pieces. If there is a fun detail that adds colour, here is the place to add it. Finally, explain in a sentence or two why the publication’s audience should care. It helps the journalist put your work in context, and shows that you understand the outlet you’re pitching to—this is a crucial step if you’re actually writing the piece that would be published, as with Eos.”
  • Other Science news outlets – you could approach freelance journalist, local radio or news station, or those behind the popular sites like ScienceAlert, The Conversation (more in-depth), IFLS, National Geographic, Science Magazine etc. However, they receive a lot of mail and only follow up on selected pitches so just see what happens! 
Some additional tips before we part:
  • You can also use a little glossary or side bar to explain unavoidable technical terms (for example, “subduction” and “plate tectonics”, are terms I find hard to avoid).
  • Writing in English would reach a wide audience but consider including a shorter summary or translation to other languages.
  • Add hyperlinks and references for more info.
  • Include some direct quotes – if you write in third person then it makes it a little less awkward to quote yourself. You could also add a quote from a co-author or someone not-related to the study.
  • Need more inspiration? – head over to your favourite science news website, EGU GeoLog, or check out EGU/AGU’s social media accounts and take a look on how others write-up science news and press releases.

A couple more examples of press releases or similar-style science news articles:

I hope you find some of the tips above of use, and good luck with writing!

 

Thanks very much to Olivia Trani and Bárbara Ferreira (EGU), and Heather Goss and Nanci Bompey (AGU) again for their press release, pitch and outreach tips!

 

 

The Sassy Scientist – Jekyll and Hyde

The Sassy Scientist – Jekyll and Hyde

Every week, The Sassy Scientist answers a question on geodynamics, related topics, academic life, the universe or anything in between with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Do you have a question for The Sassy Scientist? Submit your question here.

Senna asks:


I’m torn between mantle dynamics and lithosphere dynamics as a research topic. Which shall I choose?


Dear Senna,

Could you follow my little Jekyll and Hyde routine over the past two posts, railing about lithosphere dynamics and mantle convection? Some people did not, as my inbox will testify. This is basically what it has been over the past few decades. Let’s be clear: we don’t live in the 70’s anymore. We’re capable of more subtlety and have to live in the in-between: the world is full of grey tones (yes, also shades of grey).

Numerical modelling of mantle convection systems that includes oceanic and continental lithosphere has greatly improved. Producing tessellation of the Earth’s surface and long-term supercontinent cycles in combination with realistic surface kinematics is a big step forward. Does this mean we completely understand the solid Earth system? Definitely not. Do mantle convection modellers have to realise that the relative importance of the mantle on surface kinematics may only be a transient feature on a regional scale, and that surface motions may be unrelated to mantle flow? Maybe. Do lithosphere dynamics modellers have to realise that the relative importance of the mantle on surface kinematics may only be a transient feature on a regional scale, and that this doesn’t mean that the mantle definitely always or never influences surface motion? Maybe. Does everybody involved need to realise that their idea of the truth may not be the whole truth? Definitely. Is there a place for both lines of inquiry into understanding the solid Earth system? Undoubtedly.

I’ll come back to your question. There is no mutual exclusivity between mantle convection and lithosphere dynamics. It’s all part of the same system. So whatever you choose, just realise this: do not blindly step into the mantle convection gateway or lithosphere dynamics portal to the maze of solid Earth dynamics and kinematics. Both alleyways will probably end up in the same central square of enlightenment.

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written after getting hammered repeatedly by the Editor-in-Chief over my previous two posts.

Let’s talk about plagiarism

Let’s talk about plagiarism

Hey you! Do you have 5 minutes to talk about plagiarism?
Have you ever wondered if some parts of a thesis that you have supervised are simply a copy-paste from another thesis or article? This week, an anonymous guest author will tell us about their personal experience with plagiarism in science and what can be done against it.

Granted, it is not the most fascinating topic. Until recently, I really thought there was nothing to say about it. Everybody agrees that plagiarism is bad, and one shouldn’t do it, right? Plagiarism is just for a pair of lazy bachelor students or maybe one or two entitled old professors who believe they are untouchable, right? Right?! Oh boy, was I naive!

For me, it all started with reading a few words that do ring a bell on a master student thesis that I had co-supervised. After some more investigation, I realized that this student did indeed copy and paste sentences and even paragraphs from my PhD thesis, as well as from other articles. He did also plagiarize in former assignments and in a scientific article he published in a journal at the beginning of the year. Uh uh.  At this point, the student had already defended his thesis and just got his master degree validated. In the process, the thesis had been evaluated by two independent reviewers and also had been read by my two PhD advisors. Nobody suspected anything. And this happened at THE top Earth science research institution of a country which is renowned for the quality of its research. No problem, I think, I contact the co-supervisor and the director of studies. For sure they’ll know what to do. Hahaha. I spare you the details, but, to sum it up, the master degree had already been awarded, so there was no way whatsoever to change anything about it.

I didn’t make friends this past few weeks by insisting and playing the self-righteous scientist card. The student still got his master and will soon be enrolled in the PhD program of the same institution. However, my complaining seems to have had some effect. In the institution in question, they will buy the rights to a plagiarism scanner software and create a special commission to deal with plagiarism cases. From now on, master students will have to include a declaration of originality for their master theses, and they will have a course on research integrity. If the same situation arises, there will be official tools to deal with it, and hopefully the education the students will receive will help prevent plagiarism.

So yes, sometimes it’s worth it to be (a bit) annoying. Here are a few other things you might want to consider in order to avoid this kind of situation.

Plagiarism and “self-plagiarism” (also called text recycling) are not allowed by most journals, however, there is quite a large part of the scientific community that does not see the problem with self-plagiarism and does it regularly in articles. Some copy whole paragraphs from former articles of theirs and, sometimes, these articles pass the plagiarism scan that journals generally do. So it is really worth it to scan for plagiarism every paper you receive to review. That’s how I gave my fastest peer review ever: 5 minutes to scan the article, 5 min to realize that a whole section was a copy and paste from another article, and 5 min to write a rejection message.

Check every thesis, every draft and every paper you receive with a plagiarism software. You might have some surprises. If you do so, you’re making students/co-authors a favour. Had I done that check with my student prior to his thesis submission, he could have had the chance to make things right, avoided cheating on an exam, and got his master degree fair and square. Instead of this, he has to walk around with a master diploma he didn’t really earn. Not a good start in one’s professional life. Same with co-authors:  if you catch their plagiarism, you save all your team the embarrassment of getting your paper rejected by a journal because of this.

It might be a good idea to check the policy of your institution on plagiarism before you’re faced with the situation I described earlier. If there is nothing planned, urge people in charge to set up some procedure. You don’t want to be in the situation of catching a student after his master has been validated and not being able to do anything about it.

Finally, to people who practice text recycling: if you want to copy a sentence from another article because it is the best sentence to describe your thoughts… Why not putting quotes? If you don’t, you’re just being dishonest.