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Geodynamics

Wit & Wisdom

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!

 

 

It doesn’t work! (Asking questions about scientific software)

It doesn’t work! (Asking questions about scientific software)

Numerical modelling is not always a walk in the park. In fact, many of us occasionally encounter problems that we cannot directly solve ourselves, and thus rely on help from others. In this month’s Wit & Wisdom post, Patrick Sanan, postdoctoral researcher at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics group at ETH Zurich, will talk about asking the right questions about scientific software. As an experienced scientific software developer, Patrick has often been at the “receiving end” of questions regarding numerical modelling and hopes to guide you through some important points that could make life for you as well as your ‘helper’ a lot easier.

 

Patrick Sanan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics group at ETH Zurich

Numerical modelling is essential for geodynamics; since we cannot directly measure relevant phenomena, we partake in the magic of making a set of reasonable assumptions, setting up a model, and letting a system evolve to produce insight. It’s beautiful. We gain an understanding of the subtle-yet-fundamental processes which shaped our apparently-so-special Earth. We turn our eye beyond, to other planets.

I’m not here to talk about that, though. I’m here to discuss an ugly part of the job, which can bring all the profundity to a screeching halt: what to do when the code doesn’t work.

You know the situation. You’re stuck. There’s no output. Segmentation fault. Error Code -123. You didn’t sign up for this…

You don’t know where to start looking. Is it your model parameters? Your physical assumptions? Are you using the code as intended? Is it your compiler? Can it be the cluster? Your .bashrc? Is your keyboard plugged in?

You’re frustrated. No one around you has a good suggestion. Why are these cruel computers doing this to you?

What to do? Ask for help, in the right way. In this blog, I’ll point out some facts about scientific software, try to use them to formulate an effective email in which you ask for help, and then try to extract some guiding principles.

Some Points on Scientific Software

First, I’ll list some observations I, as a developer, have made about scientific software:

  • Scientific software projects are usually short on maintainers and time.
  • Software designers are not psychic, but they are often experts at deductive problem-solving.
  • Reproducible, bisectable problems are surprisingly easy to solve. Other problems are surprisingly difficult.
  • Working reference cases are very valuable.
  • Sufficiently-complex computing tasks must be treated like lab experiments: one must document the setup and control as many factors as possible.
  • The solutions to most problems are obvious, once found.
  • Numerical software is harder to test than generic software, because floating point arithmetic and parallel computing lead to acceptable differences in numerical output. Higher-level understanding of physics or (parallel) numerical methods is often required to know if something is a “real problem”.

With these as a guide, let’s consider how one might try to resolve a confusing issue.

No pretty pictures here, just error messages (if you’re lucky).

Asking for Help: The Bad Way and the Good Way

Email is a common way to ask for help, as often the person who can best help you is across the world. Let’s say that I’m using a regional lithospheric dynamics code called Rifter3D. I’ve come across an error I have no explanation for. I can’t figure it out, so I write an email to developers of the code. You might also write to a dedicated help address.

Hello - I'm using Rifter3D but on our local cluster I get this error:

/cluster/shadow/.lsbatch/1559505025.92314771: line 8: 951 Segmentation fault (core dumped) ./rifter3d -options_file options.opts

Do you know what I'm doing wrong?

The person on the other end wants to help, but has no information to work with and doesn’t know how much of their time you’re asking for. There is a better way:

Hello - I'm having some trouble diagnosing a problem using Rifter3D and was hoping
you could give me some pointers.

I've been working with Prof. XYZ and have modified a rifting scenario from XYZ et al. 2017 to study the effects of varying A on B. When I run a small case on my laptop, the simulation finishes as expected. I use the attached options_small.opts and run mpiexec -np 4 ./rifter3d -options_file options_small.opts. I'd like to run a bigger case (512 x 256 x 64) for 300 million simulated years, on 64 cores on our cluster.
However, my job fails, producing a segmentation fault almost immediately. I attached the job submission script (job.sbatch), and output from my run (lsf.o92314771). I am using the cluster's existing PETSc 3.11 module, and version 1.0.3 of Rifter3D. I can successfully run a simple isoviscous setup on this cluster - see attached job_small.lsf, option2.opts, and lsf.o92314681

Do you have any insight as to how I might be able to run this simulation?

Best,
E. Scholar

Attachments: options_small.opts options.opts job.lsf job_small.lsf options2.opts lsf.o92314771 lsf.o92314681

The recipient will likely respond with more questions as you work towards resolving the issue. Perhaps they’ll ask you for more information about how you built Rifter3D, or point out some unusual settings in your options file.

Why is this second email better? It is not simply longer, but

  • It clearly describes the problem. Just trying to precisely describe a problem has an almost-magical clarifying effect, and the solution will often appear. Software engineers call this rubber ducking.
  • It explains the true objective and how the problem is to be resolved. This is important to avoid the XY problem, describing a problem with a method to achieve a goal, without mentioning the goal itself.
  • It gives concrete information to reproduce the problem: the version of the code, input files, and launch commands/scripts.
  • It provides enough output to allow deductive reasoning, more than just a copy-and-pasted error message.
  • It’s polite
  • It shows some effort has already been put into investigating.
  • It notes similar, working cases.
  • It’s not too long, but it is detailed enough to allow for quick, intelligent follow-up questions. Supporting data are included as attachments or links.
  • It doesn’t make too many assumptions about the cause of the problem.

Boiling it Down: 3 Questions to Ask Yourself

When asking for help, consider these three questions. They will help with the central objective: clearly describing the problem.

  • Why do you need it to work?
    What is the context? What is the goal?
  • How do you show that it doesn’t work?
    What are the steps to reproduce your problem?
    How will you know that the problem is resolved?
  • What does work?
    How far are you from a working state? What similar cases work?

Here is a 1-page pdf which you can print out, with some of this advice:

Pdf and LaTeX source on GitHub

The “Real” Answer

To conclude, I will try to avoid an “XY problem” of my own. The most efficient way to resolve bewildering problems is to avoid them. To make an alpine analogy, the most important topic in avalanche safety is not how to dig someone out, it’s how to avoid risky terrain.

Real-life debugging. Avoid if at all possible (from Wikimedia commons)

First, borrow techniques from software engineering. Version control (e.g. git) will encourage you to save working states, amongst many other benefits. Next, leverage your intuition and experience as a geodynamicist. Always be able to quickly run and verify small, quick, simple cases, and test and visualize often. Look out for simple cases where you “know the answer ahead of time”: established benchmarks and analytical solutions.

The points in this article can help everyone save time (and not just running geodynamical models!): problems will be resolved more quickly, bugs will get fixed faster, and more time can be spent exploring more interesting questions than “Why doesn’t it work?”.

 

On the resolution of seismic tomography models and the connection to geodynamic modelling (Is blue/red the new cold/hot?) (How many pixels in an Earth??)

What do the blobs mean?

Seismologists work hard to provide the best snapshots of the Earth’s mantle. Yet tomographic models based on different approaches or using different data sets sometimes obtain quite different details. It is hard to know for a non specialist if small scale anomalies can be trusted and why. This week Maria Koroni and Daniel Bowden, both postdocs in the Seismology and Wave Physics group in ETH Zürich, tell us how these beautiful images of the Earth are obtained in practice.

Daniel Bowden and Maria Koroni enjoying coffee in Zürich

Seismology is a science that aims at providing tomographic images of the Earth’s interior, similar to X-ray images of the human body. These images can be used as snapshots of the current state of flow patterns inside the mantle. The main way we communicate, from tomographer to geodynamicist, is through publication of some tomographic image. We seismologists, however, make countless choices, approximations and assumptions, which are limited by poor data coverage, and ultimately never fit our data perfectly. These things are often overlooked, or taken for granted and poorly communicated. Inevitably, this undermines the rigour and usefulness of subsequent interpretations in terms of heat or material properties. This post will give an overview of what can worry a seismologist/tomographer. Our goal is not to teach seismic tomography, but to plant a seed that will make geodynamicists push seismologists for better accuracy, robustness, and communicated uncertainty!

A typical day in a seismologist’s life starts with downloading some data for a specific application. Then we cry while looking at waveforms that make no sense (compared to the clean and physically meaningful synthetics calculated the day before). After a sip, or two, or two thousand sips of freshly brewed coffee, and some pre-processing steps to clean up the mess that is real data, the seismologist sets up a measurement of the misfit between synthetics and observed waveforms. Do we try to simulate the entire seismogram, just its travel time, its amplitude? The choice we make in defining this misfit can non-linearly affect our outcome, and there’s no clear way to quantify that uncertainty.

After obtaining the misfit measurements, the seismologist starts thinking about best inversion practices in order to derive some model parameters. There are two more factors to consider now: how to mathematically find a solution that fits our data, and the choice of how to choose a subjectively unique solution from the many solutions of the problem… The number of (quasi-)arbitrary choices can increase dramatically in the course of the poor seismologist’s day!

The goal is to image seismic anomalies; to present a velocity model that is somehow different from the assumed background. After that, the seismologist can go home, relax and write a paper about what the model shows in geological terms. Or… More questions arise and doubts come flooding in. Are the choices I made sensible? Should I make a calculation of the errors associated with my model? Thermodynamics gives us the basic equations to translate seismic to thermal anomalies in the Earth but how can we improve the estimated velocity model for a more realistic interpretation?

What do the blobs mean?

Figure 1: A tomographic velocity model, offshore southern California. What do the blobs mean? This figure is modified from the full paper at https://doi.org/10.1002/2016JB012919

Figure 1 is one such example of a velocity model, constructed through seismic tomography (specifically from ambient-noise surface waves). The paper reviews the tectonic history of the crust and upper mantle in this offshore region. We are proud of this model, and sincerely hope it can be of use to those studying tectonics or dynamics. We are also painfully aware of the assumptions that we had to make, however. This picture could look drastically different if we had used a different amount of regularization (smoothing), had made different prior assumptions about where layers may be, had been more or less restrictive in cleaning our raw data observations, or made any number of other changes. We were careful in all these regards, and ran test after test over the course of several months to ensure the process was up to high standards, but for the most part… you just have to take our word for it.

There’s a number of features we interpret here: thinning of the crust, upwelling asthenosphere, the formation of volcanic seamounts, etc. But it wouldn’t shock me if some other study came out in the coming years that told an entirely different story; indeed that’s part of our process as scientists to continue to challenge and test hypotheses. But what if this model is used as an input to something else as-of-yet unconstrained? In this model, could the Lithosphere-Asthenosphere Boundary (LAB) shown here be 10 km higher or deeper, and why does it disappear at 200km along the profile? Couldn’t that impact geodynamicists’ work dramatically? Our field is a collaborative effort, but if we as seismologists can’t properly quantify the uncertainties in our pretty, colourful models, what kind of effect might we be having on the field of geodynamics?

Another example comes from global scale models. Taking a look at figures 6 and 7 in Meier et al. 2009, ”Global variations of temperature and water content in the mantle transition zone from higher mode surface waves” (DOI:10.1016/j.epsl.2009.03.004), you can observe global discontinuity models and you are invited to notice their differences. Some major features keep appearing in all of them, which is encouraging since it shows that we may be indeed looking at some real properties of the mantle. However, even similar methodologies have not often converged to same tomographic images. The sources of discrepancies are the usual plagues in seismic tomography, some of them mentioned on top.

410 km discontinuity

Figure 2: Global models of the 410 km discontinuity derived after 5 iterations using traveltime data. We verified that the method retrieves target models almost perfectly. Data can be well modelled in terms of discontinuity structure; but how easily can they be interpreted in terms of thermal and/or compositional variations?

In an effort to improve imaging of mantle discontinuities, especially those at 410 and 660 km depths which are highly relevant to geodynamics (I’ve been told…), we have put some effort into building up a different approach. Usually, traveltime tomography and one-step interpretation of body wave traveltimes have been the default for producing images of mantle transition zone. We proposed an iterative optimisation of a pre-existing model, that includes flat discontinuities, using traveltimes in a full-waveform inversion scheme (see figure 2). The goal was to see whether we can get the topography of the discontinuities out using the new approach. This method seems to perform very well and it gives the potential for higher resolution imaging. Are my models capable of resolving mineralogical transitions and thermal variations along the depths of 410 and 660 km?

The most desired outcome would be not only a model that represents Earth parameters realistically but also one that provides error bars, which essentially quantify uncertainties. Providing error bars, however, requires extra computational work, and as every pixel-obsessed seismologist, we would be curious to know the extent to which uncertainties are useful to a numerical modeller! Our main question, then, remains: how can we build an interdisciplinary approach that can justify large amounts of burnt computational power?

As (computational) seismologists we pose questions for our regional or global models: Are velocity anomalies good enough, intuitively coloured as blue and red blobs and representative of heat and mass transfer in the Earth, or is it essential that we determine their shapes and sizes with greater detail? Determining a range of values for the derived seismic parameters (instead of a single estimation) could allow geodynamicists to take into account different scenarios of complex thermal and compositional patterns. We hope that this short article gave some insight into the questions a seismologist faces each time they derive a tomographic model. The resolution of seismic models is always a point of vigorous discussions but it could also be a great platform for interaction between seismologists and geodynamicists, so let’s do it!

For an overview of tomographic methodologies the reader is referred to Q. Liu & Y. J. Gu, Seismic imaging: From classical to adjoint tomography, 2012, Tectonophysics. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tecto.2012.07.006

Demystifying the Peer-Review Process

Demystifying the Peer-Review Process

Adina Pusok

An important and inevitable aspect of being in academia is receiving a request to peer-review a paper. And much like the papers we write and submit, retaining structure and clarity for the review itself is important. This week Adina E. Pusok, Postdoctoral Researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD, and our outgoing GD ECR representative, shares some detailed and helpful tips for writing a concise, efficient, and informative review. Do check out her very helpful Peer-review checklist PDF for download!

 

It is somewhat surprising that the peer-review process, a fundamental part of science (which prides itself on technical and objective methods), is usually left up to the individual reviewing scientist. Everyone agrees that there is little formal training in peer-reviewing, and many times it takes years until scientists become thorough and efficient reviewers (Zimmerman et al., 2011). Personally, I prefer to invest some of my time learning from other people’s experiences and best practices. For example, before my first review, I spent approximately two weeks researching material on how to deliver good reviews. But what are good reviews? And mostly, how does one write good reviews efficiently? In this blog post, I will attempt to synthesize some of the material I’ve come across, and share my personal guidelines that help me get through the peer-review process.

1. What is the peer-review process?

The peer-review process is in some ways like a legal trial. A judge (the editor) will take an informed and educated decision about the case (to publish/not to publish the manuscript in current form) based on the recommendations and arguments brought forward by lawyers (reviewers).

In reality, the journey of a manuscript (McPeek et al., 2009) through the peer-review process is as follows:

  1. The manuscript is submitted to a scientific journal.
  2. An editor reads the abstract/paper and decides whether it is suitable for potential publication at the journal.
  3. If approved, it is assigned to an associate editor who will handle the actual review process.
  4. The associate editor then compiles a list of potential reviewers, often partially based on recommendations from authors.
  5. Those reviewers are asked whether they would be willing to review the paper in a timely fashion.
  6. The reviewers then read the paper, consider the methods, data, analyses, and arguments, and write reviews containing their opinions about the paper, and whether the paper should be published in that journal.
  7. The associate editor reads the reviews, usually two or more, and may write a third review, and makes a recommendation to the editor.
  8. The editor then writes the authors a letter about the disposition of the paper.
  9. Depending on the outcome, the manuscript will have successfully exited this journey (accepted for publication), or will have to restart the process again (by resubmitting a modified version to the same or a new journal).

 

Basically, each manuscript submission depends on the work of volunteers (editors, reviewers) (McPeek et al., 2009). Indeed, peer-review, which lies at the cornerstone of advancing science, is primarily a volunteering exercise (also referred as “community work”). But this process is such a valuable mechanism to improve the quality and accuracy of scientific papers, that some people think the system would collapse without it, as there would be little control on what gets published.

What’s the purpose of it?

The goals of peer-review are clear: to ensure the accuracy and improve the quality of published literature through constructive criticism. Hames (2008) points out that every peer-review process should aim to:

  • Prevent the publication of bad work.
  • Verify that the research was conducted correctly, and there are no flaws in the design or methodology.
  • Ensure that the work is reported correctly and unambiguously, with acknowledgement to the existing literature.
  • Ensure that the results have been interpreted correctly and all possible interpretations were considered.
  • Ensure that the results are neither too preliminary nor too speculative.
  • Provide editors with evidence to make judgments as to whether articles meet the criteria for their particular publications.
  • Generally improve the quality and readability of a publication.
2. Who gets to do it?

The editor decides who should complete the review based on recommendations from the manuscript authors (nowadays, it’s a submission requirement for most journals), relevant literature cited in manuscript, or their own professional networks. The reviewers are generally considered experts in a given field (extensive peer-review and/or publishing experience), qualified (typically awarded with a Ph.D.) and able to perform reasonably impartial reviews. For example, because I am an early career scientist, I have been asked to perform reviews mostly on topics relating to my Ph.D. work (both the methods and the science).

3. What do you get out of it?

While the peer-review process seems more of an obligation for the greater good of science and society, it has its own perks (albeit not many), and one can benefit from them:

  • Whichever way you look at it, the peer-review process will improve your scientific work. On one hand, authors receive valuable feedback from experts in their community. On the other hand, reviewers get to reflect on what constitutes high-quality science and incorporate lessons learned from reviewing into their own work.
  • Following the above point, reviewing does make you a better writer. You learn so many lessons from reading excellent to bad manuscripts, and in particular, you learn how to/not to write. It is very frustrating when you struggle with someone else’s unclear explanations or weak arguments. In my experience, that definitely makes you promise yourself to avoid those errors.
  • Reviewing trains your critical thinking, impartial judgment, and diplomatic skills. A review is not useful if it is not civil and contains personal or destructive criticism. In general, you learn to clearly argument your points and be diplomatic about the strengths and weaknesses of a paper.
  • You get to see the latest work before it is even published. Do make sure, though, that you respect the integrity of the review process and do not communicate any aspect of the paper to other people. In any case, this helps you stay on top of your field or expand/learn new science.
  • It does look good on your CV! Everyone agrees that community service (such as reviewing) is a positive for those aspiring for an academic career.
  • Most editors are senior scientists, and by entering the reviewers’ network, you become known. Better yet?! You become known as an expert in a certain field. Fortunately (or unfortunately), since academia relies heavily on prestige and reputation, that will pay off in the longer term.
  • Some journals will provide credit for your review, by acknowledging all reviewers once a year, or by awarding exceptional community service at meetings. While this is great for some, many scientists feel it is insufficient for the amount of work involved in reviews. Therefore, in recent years, it is possible to keep a general record of your reviews using ORCID and/or Publons (pay attention that only the journal and the year of each review is made public). This allows scientists to have something of a review index (complementing the usual publication index – e.g., Google Scholar).
4. How to undertake a peer-review?

Before I even started reviewing, I was somewhat familiar with what reviews looked like – I had already received them for my own submitted research papers. One of the first things I noticed is that each of the reviews had different styles: annotated PDFs or text files with line numbers, brief and not so useful/detailed reviews, short or long reviews etc. Since scientists receive little peer-review training, they are also likely to develop their own review style with time and experience. In principle, the style should not matter as long at the review is thorough, clear, and constructive.

There are many ways to complete a review, but just like writing an article, if you have a plan and structure, the entire process becomes easier and even more enjoyable. Moreover, establishing some good practices will ensure a robust review done in a timely manner. Plus, if you are like me (writing is not my favourite activity), you want to find ways to get the job done, as fast as possible and return to more exciting tasks. I find that checklists come in useful, whether it is about academic writing, presentations or reviewing.

Therefore, what I will attempt in this blog is to create a Peer-Review Checklist that anyone can download as a PDF and help them navigate through the review process. It is a checklist I initially created for my own use, and I hope these tips in turn are relevant for first-time/early reviewers that are still in search of their styles. The checklist may also be useful to other experienced reviewers as a refresher. I would like to note that this is a suggested checklist and workflow, and depending on the journal or field, some elements may be different or missing. People should adapt the checklist to suit their needs, personal style, and the journal’s guidelines. I am also happy to receive suggestions (comments below/email), in order to improve the checklist over time.

Before I present the checklist in more detail, I want to highlight some resources that can help anyone improve their reviews:

  • Talk to colleagues, advisors, and friends about the reviewing process.
  • Pay attention to the reviews of your own papers. I actually modeled mine after one of the most constructive reviews I received.
  • Check journal guidelines. Many journals have extensive and good advice available online.
  • Published material (the most useful material that I found, especially Nicholas and Gordon, 2011, Stiller-Reeve et al., 2018a,b, and McPeek et al., 2009):
Peer-Review Workflow and Checklist

This checklist has been compiled from the advice of various articles and guides, and personal preferences. The aim is to give early reviewers a quick workflow of questions and tasks (that you can mark as completed) for any manuscript review. By following all the points, anyone can produce a constructive and thorough review in a timely manner.

Step 1: Pre-Read – Received an invitation to review

✓ Read abstract.

✓ Appropriate expertise.
Does my area of expertise and experience qualify me to critically evaluate the manuscript? Sometimes it will fit exactly with your expertise, whereas other times it will only just brush your field. One instance, I accepted a review that implemented a technical novelty in a method that I was familiar with. I decided it was still largely within my expertise, but I took the opportunity to learn something new. I made sure I went over the background studies, until I was comfortable asking questions and clarifying points. If you feel less confident, and your expertise allows you to comment meaningfully only on key sections of the paper, you can offer to review these areas and let the editor know you cannot comment on other aspects outside your expertise.

✓ Conflict of interest.
Can I provide a fair and unbiased review of this work? Am I able to evaluate the manuscript with an open mind, without being either negatively/positively predisposed? Check the journal’s guidelines for more specific guidance on avoiding conflicts of interest.

✓ Time and deadline.
Do I have time to write a complete review? Most journals suggest a timeline of a couple of weeks from the moment the invitation was accepted (usually 2-4 weeks). While this may seem sufficient time to return the review, most scientists have a large workload, and end up allowing only a few days for the review. Moreover, it can take more than 8 hours to provide a thoughtful, thorough, and well-referenced review (can depend on the paper type of course, so also pay attention to that). If you are unable to meet the deadline, contact the journal so that the editors can determine the appropriate course of action (some extensions can be granted at the discretion of the editors).

✓ Check journal guidelines and adjust your workflow.
It is better to do this early on in the review.

✓ Respond as soon as possible: Accept/Decline.
Explain to editor the reason for decline, and offer, if possible, suggestions for other reviewers.

Step 2: First Read – Gaining an overview

✓ Set up the structure of review
Prepare a document (I prefer to have a simple text file at hand) containing the following structure of the review:

R0. Review details
R1. Introduction (3 paragraphs)
R2. Major issues (numbered items)
R3. Minor issues (indicate line, figure, table numbers)
R4. Other suggestions (regarding supplementary material, etc.)
Notes (not included in final review)

✓ Read the entire paper. Take notes as you go
The first reading is to get an overall impression of the paper: motivation, approach, overview of results, and conclusions. Take some notes as you go. I usually like to print a copy and make annotations as I go along. However, don’t worry too much with corrections, spelling, punctuation, or references. It’s supposed to be a ‘casual’ reading (kidding).It might be a challenge, but at this point do your best to understand the paper. Some papers read (and are written) better than others, and it would be a shame to miss an interesting study, just because of language barriers. And it is perfectly normal (apparently!) to struggle reading a scientific article with “ultra-congested and aggressively bland” text. This article might help and amuse you: the 10 Stages of Reading a Scientific Paper.

✓ Go through all figures and tables
Do they complement the approach, results section, and conclusions?

✓ Readability
Sometimes it cannot be helped but to ask: is the English/writing so bad that you can’t understand the arguments? If the manuscript needs copyediting by a proficient English speaker before you can evaluate it on its scientific merits, it is legitimate to make such a suggestion to the editor at this stage. You can point out that you cannot give the paper a fair review in its current form, and suggest the paper to be withdrawn from review until the English is improved.

✓ Identify goals, method, findings, and relevance
The questions below might help:

  • What is the main question addressed by the research?
  • Is this question interesting and important to the field of study? How, specifically, will the paper contribute to the science?
  • Do the Abstract and Introduction clearly identify the need for this research, and its relevance?
  • Does the Method target the main question(s) appropriately?
  • Are the Results presented clearly and logically, and are they justified by the data provided?
  • Are the figures clear and fully described?
  • Do the Conclusions justifiably respond to the main questions posed by the author(s) in the Introduction?
  • Is the paper within the scope of the journal?
  • Is the paper potentially publishable based on its contribution to the field?

✓  Write introductory paragraphs (Section R1 – first 2 paragraphs) [“The study investigates/uses/finds/contributes”]
Answering the above questions will help you start the written review. In general, the most helpful review to everyone is one that first provides an overall summary of the main contributions of the paper and its appropriateness for the journal, and suggests what major items should be addressed in revision. This summary can also help you reveal what this paper is really about, if you weren’t sure until now. Or you might end up, writing back “It was difficult to understand the precise point(s) the authors were trying to make.”

The first paragraph should state the main question addressed by the research, and summarize the goals, approaches, and conclusions of the paper. Try writing one sentence for each of these points. The second paragraph of the review should provide a conceptual overview of the contribution of the paper to the journal. Some people suggest trying to also include here the positive aspects in which the paper succeeds, since there is enough space for negative aspects for the remainder of the review. The authors will have a sense of what they have done well, and will not be too discouraged.

✓  Evaluate whether the manuscript is publishable/or not (Section R1 – 3rd paragraph)

[“I recommend the manuscript not/to be published in Journal X with minor/major modifications, and I provide below the reason for my decision and some comments that are necessary to address….”]

You have three decision options: the manuscript is/has

  1. publishable in principle -> Continue review to Step 3: Second Read.
  2. major flaws, but addressable -> Return manuscript to authors for corrections, but document and substantiate the flaws, indicate willingness to provide full review if authors address them (continuing to Step 3: Second Read may still be helpful to reply to editor/authors).
  3. fatally flawed/unsuitable -> Reject, but document and substantiate why. You consider the manuscript is flawed in a way that cannot be fixed and/or is unsuitable for publication in the target journal (high impact journals like Nature or Science reject most submissions solely based on the suitability of study to the journal).

Some manuscripts can have flaws that cannot be overlooked or improved easily. Examples of such fatal flaws might include drawing a conclusion that is contravened by the author’s own statistical evidence, the use of a discredited method, or ignoring a process that is known to have a strong influence on the system under study. Whatever the decision, remember to carefully explain your reasoning and provide clear evidence for it (including citations from other scientific publications).

Assuming there is no fatal flaw, you can continue to a second reading. Personally, I like to let the paper sit for a couple of days after the First Read, and let my mind digest the information. It will be surprising, but you allow some time for your brain to synthesize the major aspects (strengths and weaknesses) of the paper, and you want to focus primarily on those aspects in the next stage.

Step 3: Second Read – The science (major/minor points)

✓  Take detailed Notes (end of review file) indicating section, line, figure, and table numbers

Read the manuscript in detail from start to finish. Pay attention to assumptions, methods, underlying theoretical frameworks, and the conclusions drawn and how well they are supported. Refer to figures and tables when referenced in the text, making sure that the text and the graphics support rather than repeat each other, use your careful study of the figures at the end of the first reading to avoid too much disruption to the flow of your assessment.

I have found it useful to dump in the review file all the comments I have (brainstorming as I re-read the manuscript), including specific comments, thoughts or issues I want to return to. Indicate the line or figure numbers for all comments. There is a reason why most journals ask authors to add numbers to their submissions: to be specific about various comments and suggestions. For example, “line 189 contradicts the statement in line 20”, “paragraph 45-52 is unclear and convoluted, should be rephrased”, “Figure 2a needs X,Y labels”, etc. Plus, most of the review will have the important details written by the time you are done with the second reading. Another tip, it helps to classify your comments as major or minor flaws. Major flaws will need considerable time to explain or correct.

Note: some journals allow reviews as annotated PDFs – I found they are not that helpful because in the Reply-to-reviewers as manuscript author, I had to transcribe many of those comments again. Plus, a single read of the paper might not give enough insight into the strengths/weaknesses.

A sub-checklist:

  • Check every section individually (my preferred order): Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusions, Abstract, Other (e.g., Key points, Appendices). Make notes also on structure and flow of arguments.
  • Check method (i.e., equations, the experimental setup, data collection, details needed for reproducing results, and if that is not possible, is it stated why?).
  • Check all figures and tables, so that you understand all units, axes, and symbols. Do the figures reflect the main text?
  • Check References/referencing is done correctly.
  • Check any supplementary material.
  • Remind yourself the journal’s guidelines. Most importantly, does the manuscript comply with the journal’s data policy and best practices?

✓  Identify major and minor points (Sections R2 and R3)

Now it’s time to organize all those notes and comments. I usually sort them in 2 categories: major and minor issues (Sections R2, R3 of review). In general, the minor issues (e.g., line 21 – missing reference to the referred study, line 32 – sentence not clear, line 56 – typos) do not need further work at this stage.

Major points, on the other hand, require some work. First, organize major points clearly and logically, using separate numbered paragraphs or bullets to make each point clearly stand out. Make use of your numbered notes to provide evidence. It is the reviewer’s obligation to point out the weaknesses in the underlying science. If the methods are suspect, or if the authors over-interpret the data, or if they overlook important implications of their work, or more analyses are needed to support the conclusions, you should point that out as major points.

Is it possible to have too many major points? Could it be because they are not that major (overestimation of importance), or are they really major and cannot be overlooked? This might make you re-evaluate the review (major/minor, largely flawed). In general, I was not given more/found more than 10 major points in a manuscript, but exceptions can happen. Very importantly, try to advise the authors with concrete, actionable ways to address the problems.

✓ Add Other Points (Section R4 – Optional)

If there is anything else to add to the review, neither fitting the category of major nor minor points, such as suggestions for future work, add them at the end of review. If you have no further comments, it’s fine to leave this section empty.

Step 4: Final Read – The writing and formulation

Briefly read through the paper a third time, looking for organizational issues, and finalize the review.

✓ Check organization and flow of arguments

While you probably already noted down many of such issues (because if the manuscript is poorly written, then the arguments will often not make sense either), it’s still a good idea to quickly go over the writing and presentation (section headings, details of language and grammar). Suggest ways how to make the story more cohesive and easily reasoned.

However, was the paper hard to read because the paragraphs did not flow together? Did the authors use excessive and confusing acronyms or jargon? In these cases, I actually include improving the structure of the manuscript as a major point. However, do not feel obligated to catch every typo, missing reference, and awkward phrase – your scientific assessment of the paper is more important.

✓ Read and polish your own review
Read the review carefully, and preferably aloud, imagining you are the editor or the authors of the study. What’s the tone of your arguments? How would you feel receiving it back as the author? Will you find the review helpful and constructive? Or fair? This will draw your attention to how your criticisms might sound to the ears of the authors. Make sure to keep the tone civil and include both positive and negative comments.

✓ Upload your review using the link provided
I usually copy and paste my review (Sections R1-R4) in the provided boxes by the journal, or upload the polished review file.

✓ Answer specific questions regarding the manuscript and its presentationYou will probably also be asked specific questions or rate the manuscript on various attributes (answers in drop-down selections).

✓ Remarks to the editors
Any issues that the editors should be aware of can be indicated separately in Remarks to the editors, which remain confidential.

✓ Submit review to editor
You are done! You will probably hear back from the editor about their decision to accept or reject the manuscript. Important to understand, is that the editors take the final decision. Your role was only advisory in the whole process. However, you may be asked to review another version of the manuscript to assess whether the manuscript has been modified sufficiently in response to reviewers’ comments.

5. Etiquette of reviewing

I hope by now you have a clear idea of what constitutes the peer-review process and how to perform a review. Again, there are many ways how to undertake a review, but maybe you will find the checklist useful. It most surely requires considerable time and effort, but the checklist allows me to be confident that I gave my best consideration for the work submitted. By also ticking off tasks, I can perform the review in an efficient way, without worrying that I forgot something.

However, I am aware that we tend to be over-critical of other peoples work (and the workflow proposed here is quite lengthy). I’ve heard a couple of times the comment that “young scientists provide very lengthy and harsh reviews”. That has some grain of truth in it, as from a desire of being thorough, we might ask for extra-work for revisions that go beyond the scope of the manuscript or resources (time, material, etc.). We need to be aware of that, but at the same time invite authors to discuss potential avenues for the work.

What I will discuss next, is the etiquette of reviewing: what to do/not to do, fairness of reviews, providing/receiving criticism, and the Golden Rule of reviewing. As you will see below, they are interconnected with each other.

5.1 What to do/not to do when peer-reviewing

Top 3 To do:

– the review does not have to be long, but make sure you did a thorough and fair review, as you would want others to do it in return.

– be critical, argumentative, and straightforward: explain the problem, why it’s a problem, and suggest a solution.

– finish before the agreed upon deadline.

Top 3 Don’t do:

– be sarcastic, dismissive or other such tones. The review should be constructive and not offensive.

– be biased or let personal prejudices influence your assessment of the manuscript (e.g., poor English, excessive self-citations). In such cases, it’s better to decline to review and explain potential conflict of interest.

– write a too short review (even if it’s a great study). The authors might be happy to hear that, but the editor will not find it useful.

5.2 Working towards a transparent and fair peer-review process 

Scientific peer-review is regularly criticized as being ineffective, broken or unfair. However, journals are generally committed to take active steps in order to ensure the fairness of the process. For example, most journals have clear ethical guidelines (i.e., AGU, EGU), and all participants in the review process are expected to uphold these guidelines.

While most of the review interaction happens privately between the authors-editors-reviewers, some journals (e.g., EGU journals, Nature Communications) have taken a step forward to make the peer review process more transparent, such that manuscript authors are given the option to publish the peer review history of their paper. This is great for making the process more open and fair! However, making things public can, in some cases, create unethical practices. For example, to ensure the impartiality and confidentiality of the peer review process, you should not discuss your review of the paper with anyone before or after publication. Also, apparently revealing yourself as a reviewer to the author or authors after review might create the wrong impression, as if you’re asking for favourable treatment in the future.

This last aspect brings the questions: “Should we reveal ourselves as reviewers or not?” and “Anonymous or signed review?” (see this perspective and another one). A senior editor and the author of Geoverbiage, Judy Totman Parrish, says that whether you sign your reviews is a personal decision, and that she has always signed her reviews in order to ensure the transparency, and the free exchange of ideas. She also says that she’s never experienced any backlash for any of the reviews she wrote.

I write my reviews anonymously, for exactly the same goal as above: to work towards a fair peer-review process. I find that there are many instances in which biases can form during the peer-review process (i.e., based on gender, age, nationality, but also experience, affiliation, or even prestige/prominent names) (see this article). My personal take on these issues, is that I believe reviews should be double-anonymous (authors do not know who the reviewers are, and reviewers do not know who the authors are), and the review history should be made public. I think this would reduce biases (probably not completely, as some authors/research groups can still be identified by the work submitted), while a transparent review history could ensure the fairness and civility of the review process. Also, with the rise of review statistics (ORCID and/or Publons), one can still be acknowledged for the work performed, without having to sign their names. This might not be possible in some fields (i.e., medicine or other fields where ethical guidelines are stricter), but in geophysics and geodynamics this shouldn’t be a problem.

5.3 Providing and taking criticism

This section might seem out of place for this blog post, but imagine for a moment that you are an author, and you’ve just put a lot of work to write the best paper so far. Your co-authors have read and re-read the paper, generating multiple improved versions with their comments. You finally submit the manuscript for review and, after a seemingly a long amount of time, you get the reviews back. Would you take the delivered message(s) as intended, or be hurt by it? With time you learn to not take things personally, but it’s unavoidable not to feel the tiniest bit affected by major criticism for the study you’ve worked so hard on.

The peer-review process puts you at the other end of writing papers. Therefore, I think scientists need to try their best to provide and receive constructive criticism, and identify and avoid destructive criticism (usually, directed at a person). What helps is to ask yourself: “Is it fair point? Could I use it to make a better version of the manuscript?”. If the answer is ‘yes’, then take the comment and use it to improve your work.

5.4 The Golden Rule

I would like to finish with the Golden Rule of reviewing. In their interesting read, McPeek et al. (2009) suggests reviewers to perform reviews with this in mind: “Review for others as you would have others review for you”.

I think as a more general rule, we can use some ancient wisdom: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself!”. It goes for reviewing and many aspects of life.

References:

Hames, I., (2008), Peer review and manuscript management in scientific journals: guidelines for good practice. John Wiley & Sons, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9780470750803

McPeek, M.A., DeAngelis, D.L., Shaw, R.G., Moore, A.J., Rausher, M.D., Strong, D.R., Ellison, A.M., Barrett, L., Rieseberg, L., Breed, M.D., Sullivan, J., Osenberg, C.W., Holyoak, M., and Elgar, M.A., (2009), The Golden Rule of Reviewing, The American Naturalist, Vol. 173, No. 5, 155-158, https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/598847

Nicholas, K.A., and Gordon, W. (2011), A quick guide to Writing a solid peer review, EOS, Vol. 92, No. 28,  https://sites.agu.org/publications/files/2013/01/PeerReview_Guide.pdf

Stiller-Reeve et al. (2018), A peer review process guide, https://www.scisnack.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/A-Peer-Review-Process-Guide.pdf

Stiller-Reeve et al. (2018), How to write a thorough peer review, Nature, doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06991-0,nhttps://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06991-0

Zimmerman, N., R. Salguero-Gomez, and J. Ramos (2011), The next generation of peer reviewing, Front. Ecol. Environ., 9(4), 199, doi:10.1890/1540-9295-9.4.199, https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1890/1540-9295-9.4.199