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Grace Shephard / Tobias Meier

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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!

 

 

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.

 

The past is the key

The past is the key

Lorenzo Colli

“The present is the key to the past” is a oft-used phrase in the context of understanding our planet’s complex evolution. But this perspective can also be flipped, reflected, and reframed. In this Geodynamics 101 post, Lorenzo Colli, Research Assistant Professor at the University of Houston, USA, showcases some of the recent advances in modelling mantle convection.  

 

Mantle convection is the fundamental process that drives a large part of the geologic activity at the Earth’s surface. Indeed, mantle convection can be framed as a dynamical theory that complements and expands the kinematic theory of plate tectonics: on the one hand it aims to describe and quantify the forces that cause tectonic processes; on the other, it provides an explanation for features – such as hotspot volcanism, chains of seamounts, large igneous provinces and anomalous non-isostatic topography – that aren’t accounted for by plate tectonics.

Mantle convection is both very simple and very complicated. In its essence, it is simply thermal convection: hot (and lighter) material goes up, cold (and denser) material goes down. We can describe thermal convection using classical equations of fluid dynamics, which are based on well-founded physical principles: the continuity equation enforces conservation of mass; the Navier-Stokes equation deals with conservation of momentum; and the heat equation embodies conservation of energy. Moreover, given the extremely large viscosity of the Earth’s mantle and the low rates of deformation, inertia and turbulence are utterly negligible and the Navier-Stokes equation can be simplified accordingly. One incredible consequence is that the flow field only depends on an instantaneous force balance, not on its past states, and it is thus time reversible. And when I say incredible, I really mean it: it looks like a magic trick. Check it out yourself.

With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk

This is as simple as it gets, in the sense that from here onward every additional aspect of mantle convection results in a more complex system: 3D variations in rheology and composition; phase transitions, melting and, more generally, the thermodynamics of mantle minerals; the feedbacks between deep Earth dynamics and surface processes. Each of these additional aspects results in a system that is harder and costlier to solve numerically, so much so that numerical models need to compromise, including some but excluding others, or giving up dimensionality, domain size or the ability to advance in time. More importantly, most of these aspects are so-called subgrid-scale processes: they deal with the macroscopic effect of some microscopic process that cannot be modelled at the same scale as the macroscopic flow and is too costly to model at the appropriate scale. Consequently, it needs to be parametrized. To make matters worse, some of these microscopic processes are not understood sufficiently well to begin with: the parametrizations are not formally derived from first-principle physics but are long-range extrapolations of semi-empirical laws. The end result is that it is possible to generate more complex – thus, in this regard, more Earth-like – models of mantle convection at the cost of an increase in tunable parameters. But what parameters give a truly better model? How can we test it?

Figure 1: The mantle convection model on the left runs in ten minutes on your laptop. It is not the Earth. The one on the right takes two days on a supercomputer. It is fancier, but it is still not the real Earth.

Meteorologists face similar issues with their models of atmospheric circulation. For example, processes related to turbulence, clouds and rainfall need to be parametrized. Early weather forecast models were… less than ideal. But meteorologists can compare every day their model predictions with what actually occurs, thus objectively and quantitatively assessing what works and what doesn’t. As a result, during the last 40 years weather predictions have improved steadily (Bauer et al., 2015). Current models are better at using available information (what is technically called data assimilation; more on this later) and have parametrizations that better represent the physics of the underlying processes.

If time travel is possible, where are the geophysicists from the future?

We could do the same, in theory. We can initialize a mantle convection model with some best estimate for the present-day state of the Earth’s mantle and let it run forward into the future, with the explicit aim of forecasting its future evolution. But mantle convection evolves over millions of years instead of days, thus making future predictions impractical. Another option would be to initialize a mantle convection model in the distant past and run it forward, thus making predictions-in-the-past. But in this case we really don’t know the state of the mantle in the past. And as mantle convection is a chaotic process, even a small error in the initial condition quickly grows into a completely different model trajectory (Bello et al., 2014). One can mitigate this chaotic divergence by using data assimilation and imposing surface velocities as reconstructed by a kinematic model of past plate motions (Bunge et al., 1998), which indeed tends to bring the modelled evolution closer to the true one (Colli et al., 2015). But it would take hundreds of millions of years of error-free plate motions to eliminate the influence of the unknown initial condition.

As I mentioned before, the flow field is time reversible, so one can try to start from the present-day state and integrate the governing equations backward in time. But while the flow field is time reversible, the temperature field is not. Heat diffusion is physically irreversible and mathematically unstable when solved back in time. Plainly said, the temperature field blows up. Heat diffusion needs to be turned off [1], thus keeping only heat advection. This approach, aptly called backward advection (Steinberger and O’Connell, 1997), is limited to only a few tens of millions of years in the past (Conrad and Gurnis, 2003; Moucha and Forte, 2011): the errors induced by neglecting heat diffusion add up and the recovered “initial condition”, when integrated forward in time (or should I say, back to the future), doesn’t land back at the desired present-day state, following instead a divergent trajectory.

Per aspera ad astra

As all the simple approaches turn out to be either unfeasible or unsatisfactory, we need to turn our attention to more sophisticated ones. One option is to be more clever about data assimilation, for example using a Kalman filter (Bocher et al., 2016; 2018). This methodology allow for the combining of the physics of the system, as embodied by the numerical model, with observational data, while at the same time taking into account their relative uncertainties. A different approach is given by posing a formal inverse problem aimed at finding the “optimal” initial condition that evolves into the known (best-estimate) present-day state of the mantle. This inverse problem can be solved using the adjoint method (Bunge et al., 2003; Liu and Gurnis, 2008), a rather elegant mathematical technique that exploits the physics of the system to compute the sensitivity of the final condition to variations in the initial condition. Both methodologies are computationally very expensive. Like, many millions of CPU-hours expensive. But they allow for explicit predictions of the past history of mantle flow (Spasojevic & Gurnis, 2012; Colli et al., 2018), which can then be compared with evidence of past flow states as preserved by the geologic record, for example in the form of regional- and continental-scale unconformities (Friedrich et al., 2018) and planation surfaces (Guillocheau et al., 2018). The past history of the Earth thus holds the key to significantly advance our understanding of mantle dynamics by allowing us to test and improve our models of mantle convection.

Figure 2: A schematic illustration of a reconstruction of past mantle flow obtained via the adjoint method. Symbols represent model states at discrete times. They are connected by lines representing model evolution over time. The procedure starts from a first guess of the state of the mantle in the distant past (orange circle). When evolved in time (red triangles) it will not reproduce the present-day state of the real Earth (purple cross). The adjoint method tells you in which direction the initial condition needs to be shifted in order to move the modeled present-day state closer to the real Earth. By iteratively correcting the first guess an optimized evolution (green stars) can be obtained, which matches the present-day state of the Earth.

1.Or even to be reversed in sign, to make the time-reversed heat equation unconditionally stable.

Geodynamics in Planetary Science

Geodynamics in Planetary Science

It is a question that humankind has been asking for thousands of years:

Are we alone in the Universe or are there other worlds like our own?

As of today, it is unknown whether or not inhabited planets exist outside of our own solar system. With the discovery of the extrasolar planet 51 Peg b in 1992, it was confirmed that our sun is not the only star that hosts planets and therefore the search for extraterrestrial life has expanded beyond our own solar system.
However, before we look for an inhabited exoplanet, we must understand what makes a planet habitable.
Of course, the best example of an inhabited (and hence habitable) planet is our Earth and therefore it is a reasonable approach to first look for Earth-like planets. So, the question we should ask is

What makes Earth habitable?

  • The planet should be in the so-called habitable zone: the zone where the planet contains liquid water on its surface. One usually calculates this zone assuming an Earth-like atmosphere.  [e.g. Lammer et al., 2009]
  • The planet also needs to have an atmosphere that protects it from radiation but also keeps the planet warm with greenhouse gases. [e.g. Seager, 2013]
  • The planet should be made of rock and should have a molten core. A convective outer core gives rise to a magnetic field that protects the planet from solar winds and cosmic rays. [e.g. Shahar et al., 2019]

Interestingly, we can couple all three points: greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can heat a planet that is too far away from its host star and therefore make it habitable. On the other hand, they can also heat a planet too much such that it becomes inhabitable.
The third point (a planet made of rock with a molten core) brings geodynamics into play: plate tectonics and volcanic outgassing contribute to burial and recycling of atmospheric gases [Seager, 2013].
In our solar system, Earth is the only inhabited planet, and it is also the only planet we know of that exhibits plate tectonics (including exoplanets).
For example, Venus, our neighbouring sister planet, is very similar to Earth in terms of size, mass and composition. Some studies even suggest that Venus might have been the first habitable planet of our solar system [Way et al., 2016].
But present-day Venus is an inhospitable planet with a very thick carbon dioxide atmosphere (90 times denser than that of Earth) and an extremely hot surface temperature (up to 750K) which is mainly because of runaway greenhouse gases. But why did Earth become habitable and Venus did not?
To explain their different evolutionary paths, plate tectonics might play a major role. Through plate tectonics, Earth can efficiently recycle carbon back into its surface (deep carbon cycle) and this may help to prevent a runaway Greenhouse effect.

The importance of plate tectonics on the habitability of a planet is still being studied, and it is not yet fully understood how efficient this recycling is.

Plate tectonics also influences the generation of a magnetic field. Plate tectonics efficiently cools the mantle by subducting cold slabs into the deep interior, which leads to high heat flow out of the core. Therefore, the style of mantle convection controls the convection in the outer core. This then generates the magnetic field of a planet. The magnetic field acts as a protective shield from the solar winds, which otherwise might erode the planet’s atmosphere. As discussed above, the atmosphere controls the climate mainly through greenhouse gases. The resulting climate influences the tectonic regime: cool climates are favourable for plate tectonics because they facilitate the formation of weak shear-zones in the lithosphere [Foley et al., 2016].
This coupling between the climate, mantle and the core is called the “whole planet coupling” [Foley et al., 2016] and as a whole, it might explain why Earth and Venus have evolved so differently.

Whole planet coupling“: The atmosphere controls the climate which influences the tectonic regime. Subducting slabs cool the mantle which leads to high heat flow out the core. Therefore, the mantle convection controls the type of convection in the outer core which can generate a magnetic field. The magnetic field protects the atmosphere from solar winds and cosmic rays.

To understand the habitability of exoplanets, we therefore need to investigate all the components of the whole planet coupling. Most interestingly for geodynamicists, it is the interior dynamics of a planet’s mantle that couples all these different components!

In the past years, astronomers have discovered many exoplanets, and we expect many more to join this list. For some of them, astronomers and astrophysicists can measure its size, mass, and sometimes even the atmospheric composition and/or surface temperature.
This is very different from studying the Earth, where we can gather a lot of information about the interior through, for example, seismology. Geophysicists, Astronomers, Astrophysicists and many other research disciplines have to collaborate such that they can understand an exoplanet’s whole planet coupling and potential habitability. For geodynamicists the challenge will be to infer the exoplanet’s interior dynamics from a limited amount of data only.

References:
Foley, B. J. and Driscoll, P. E.: Whole planet coupling between climate, mantle, and core: Implications for the evolution of rocky planets, Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, Vol. 17, 2016.
Lammer, H., et al.: What makes a planet habitable?, The Astronomy and Astrophysics Review, Vol. 17, 2009.
Seager, S.: Exoplanet Habitability. Science, Vol. 340, 2013.
Shahar, A., Driscoll, P., Weinberger, A. and Cody, G.: What makes a planet habitable?, Science, Vol. 364, 2019.
Way, M. J., et al.: Was Venus the first habitable world of our solar system?, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 43, 2016.