A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Your Saturday Newspaper

I don’t know about other newspapers, but every week my local -- the Los Angeles Times -- devotes about a half a page to a few science stories. I love these, not just for learning a little bit about the universe around us, but also for getting a quick glimpse into the life of some scientist somewhere finally getting his or her paragraph of fame. This week: estrogen may ease psychosis; mummified fetuses from King Tut’s tomb are going to have their DNA tested, a hidden tribe of gorillas was found, virus can get sick from other viruses, and Antarctica used to have moss. Having a paragraph or two of your science appearing in your daily newspaper is both exciting – “my research is interesting to the world” – and depressing – “I spent two years on this project and all that makes the newspaper is that schizophrenic women should take estrogen.”
The route from doing research to that Saturday paragraph is indeed a long one, and one of the important steps after the research is all completed is publication of the results in the right scientific journal. Scientific journals are not all the same. Some are trade journals that specialize in a specific field (I publish much of my research in, not surprisingly, “The Astronomical Journal”) and accept most of the papers submitted to them (after a sometimes lengthy review and revision process). Others are more general with the implicit promise that the papers published there are more interesting, more important, and will get more notice. And, of course, it is much harder to get a paper published in one of these. Reporters know which journals are those top exclusive general ones, and so, when looking for stories for that Saturday column, they peruse those journals (and read press releases, presumably) and never bother with the trade journals.
The two top general journals in which everyone seems to want to get papers published are Nature and Science. If you start looking at those Saturday columns you will be amazed by how many of the stories come from papers published there.
Interestingly, though, along with publishing important ground-breaking papers appears to come the requirement that a larger than usual fraction of the conclusions published in these journals turn out to be incorrect. This leads to the semi-joking line that you often hear amongst astronomers: “Just because it is published in Nature doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong.” But it also leads to the real ambivalence that some feel for results published in those journals. People sometimes consider them to be flash and hype with no real substance and turn their noses up at the papers published inside.
I’ve been known to fall into this camp myself.
So it might be amusing to know that, tomorrow, my hope is to have a new paper ready for submission to Science. Why would I do this when I then turn around and scoff at others? Hypocrisy, I think is the answer. Or, as my friend Caltech oceanographer Jess Adkins likes to say: Nature and Science are the People Magazine of science. And like People, no one wants to admit to reading it, but everyone wants to be in it.
And so I submit.
The process is an interesting one. By tomorrow, I should have the full manuscript describing all of the results and with a few figures demonstrating important points and a slew of references to previous work all written in the precise format demanded by Science. I’ll log on to their web site and do all of the submission there. And then I’ll wait.
I think the rest of the process goes something like this (I may have some of the precise details mixed up here, but you’ll get the general idea). The paper will first go to an editor in the field of astronomy/planetary science who will decide whether or not there is even a chance that the results are interesting enough to warrant publication in Science. If the editor doesn’t think so, I will get a rejection notice within days. If the editor likes it, the paper will go to an editorial staff meeting with all of the other editors where it can again be voted up or voted down. I can again get that rejection notice (this one would be in, perhaps, two weeks).
If the editorial board likes it, the editor will send it out for peer review. The manuscript will get mailed to (typically) two experts in the field who will offer their detailed advice on the technical merits of the paper and whether or not it warrants publication in Science.
As is often said: peer review is a highly flawed system, but it beats all of the alternatives. It is easy to imagine some of the problems that could arise at this stage. A few that I have run across: reviewers who are competitor, reviewers who just don’t like you, reviewers who aren’t knowledgeable enough about your field. With only two reviewers for most manuscript, the process can be thoroughly random. The same paper sent to twenty different reviewers would get twenty different reviews. But, sadly, it beats all of the alternatives.
With luck, the two reviewers will like the paper and, with even more luck, suggest ways to improve the paper. They may point in flaws in the paper and how those flaws can be fixed. Or they may point in flaws in the paper and say they are not fixable.
If the reviewers don’t like the paper sufficiently that is the end of the line and you are rejected. If they potentially like it but with reservations you are given a chance to respond to their suggestions or complaints and modify the paper accordingly and then they get to review it again.
Finally, again, with luck, the editor send you that email saying the paper is accepted, and you sigh from relief. Or you get the rejection email, and you decide what to do next: another general journal? Reformat to go to a trade journal? Sulk in irritation for a while? I have done all of these and more.
The whole process can take a long time. If I submit the paper tomorrow, there is a chance that it might appear in your newspaper in, perhaps, January. Keep your eyes peeled to that Saturday section. But don’t look for an article on dwarf planets or on the Kuiper belt or on the early solar system. I’m taking a break from those this summer to pursue research on what I think of as my hobby field, Titan. Titan is a fascinating world with methane lakes at the north pole, dark dunes at the equator, a thick atmosphere that is almost like the Earth’s (it’s just missing a minor component [oxygen] that we like so much), and a Los Angeles-like haze that makes the surface hard to see. It’s my favorite body inside the Kuiper belt, and, when I get a little tired of studying the little points of light that make up the Kuiper belt, I move in to the relative warmth of the Saturn system and see what’s new on Titan. During my break this summer I think I discovered something pretty interesting. Interesting enough to be published in Science, even. But we’ll all have to wait to see if I can navigate that laborious publication paper and make it to that one paragraph in your Saturday newspaper.


  1. Why would I do this when I then turn around and scoff at others?

    And here was I hoping that the answer was going to be "because, although my work is sound and my conclusions stand up to scrutiny, I also believe they're wrong."

    Ah, well, the Sokalisation of Nature and Science will have to wait for another day.

  2. We have the terminology "dwarf planet" which lets us make a distinction between the round objects orbiting the sun and objects which are not round. Why don't we have simular terms for satellites of a planet or dwarf planet? Large round satellites like Titan deserves a title like "giant moon".

    Then the fifth grade science class could have a debate over Charon: is it a "giant moon" or a "dwarf planet".

    It just isn't right to use the same term for Titan that we use for Deimos.