Tag Archives: scientific writing

Pick & Mix 38 – a very mixed bag

The problem with ‘Sugar Daddy’ science, why state funding is better

Simon Leadbeater on rewilding a planation woodland

Did you know that Scotland has rain forests?

Some advice on writing papers from novelist Cormac McCarthy

Making cities greener – what we can do and what benefits result

If you like the Moomins you will appreciate this

Clothing accessories that pay homage to the insect world; some other animals too 😊

Freedom of press and environmental protection – did you know that they are linked? Jeff Ollerton and colleagues explore this interesting topic

Working from home might not be as stress-free as you think – go to work instead

Did you know that there are more male specimens of birds and mammals in museum collections than females? Press release here, actual paper here

 

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What it says on the tin – should the titles of papers tell you what the paper is about?

I have recently discovered a new bugbear; titles of papers that give you no clue as to what the paper is about, even to the extent that reading the abstract still leaves you wondering if the paper is about an animal or a plant or whatever!  I may be exaggerating slightly, but perhaps not. My impression is, however, that in ecology, the higher the Impact Factor of the journal, the more likely you are to find papers with titles that are opaque to say the least.  Take a look at these for example, all taken from current issues of the journals and not involving a lot of searching or filtering.

Towards a unified framework for connectivity that disentangles movement and mortality in space and time

This one from Ecology Letters, it takes until line 9 of the abstract before you find out that it is about an insect herbivore, but you have to wait until the introduction to actually find out which species the authors are using as their exemplar.

Faster movement in nonhabitat matrix promotes range shifts in heterogeneous landscapes

Here from Ecology, it isn’t until line 8 of the abstract that you know what the subject organism of the paper is; on the plus side you do get the species name, a butterfly.

Seasonal host life‐history processes fuel disease dynamics at different spatial scales

Not an entomological example this time 🙂 This one from the Journal of Animal Ecology,  takes until line 7 of the abstract to reveal that the paper is about wild boar, not that you would have guessed from the title.

Non‐resource effects of foundation species on meta‐ecosystem stability and function

Another non-entomological example, this time from Oikos; you only have to read to line 6 of the abstract to find out that the paper is about mussel beds.

Contrast this with the next two journals, both lower impact than the previous examples, but still leaders in their fields with impact factors over the magic 2;

Ecology and conservation of the British Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio machaon britannicus: old questions, new challenges and potential opportunities

from Insect Conservation & Diversity, you know exactly what this paper is all about

The responses of wild jacamars (Galbula ruficauda, Galbulidae) to aposematic, aposematic and cryptic, and cryptic butterflies in central Brazil

and the same here for Ecological Entomology.

So what is it with these “guess what the hell this paper is about” titles?  There is a very obvious answer, but isn’t there always? It’s all about marketing. As authors we live in a crowded marketplace, as academics we are ducking and diving for tenure, grants, promotion and kudos in general; our currency is publications and the value of our currency is judged by citations, clicks and chutzpah. Back in the day, titles that began with the words “The effect of, the influence of …”, were, especially in the applied world, de rigueur. Nowadays, scientific writing courses and books about how to write paper, will all tell you that titles like that are the kiss of death, and won’t even get you past the Editor-in-Chief’s triage, let alone in the reviewers in-box. You need to sell your story, and ironically, it appears that selling your story means obfuscating it!

I’m as guilty of this as the next author.  My first papers stuck rigidly to the time-honoured applied format of titles such as “The effect of cereal growth stage and feeding site on the reproductive activity of the bird‐cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi and “The effect of previous defoliation of pole-stage lodgepole pine on plant chemistry, and on the growth and survival of pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) larvae”, even, when, as in the case of the latter, it was in a very ecological journal. Now, yes, I still do produce papers with similar titles, if I am aiming at a general ecology journal I succumb to the obfuscatory and hyperbolic, with the obligatory colon and question mark. I too have sold out. For many years I ran a paper writing course for postgraduates and final year undergraduates, part of which dealt with titles, and of course, I dealt harshly with the old fashioned, tell it as it is title, giving a personal example. Here is a paper I published with the informative title unlikely to grab the attention of a general audience:

“The effect of two lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon) seed origins (South coastal and Alaskan) on the growth, survival and development of larvae of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) in the presence and absence of predators in a Scottish field site.”

Here, however, is the snappy title that it was published under in Oecologia.  It used every trick in the trade, including hooking it on to, what was at the time, the latest ecological fad;

Sub-lethal plant defences: the paradox remains

In my defence line 1 of the abstract told you the plant species and by line 3 you knew it was pine beauty moth 🙂

The question that I would like you,  as fellow authors, to answer, is, have we gone a step too far, is it time to return to the honest, tell it as it is title, or are we doomed to an endless treadmill of devising ever more bizarre and over the top titles in that attempt to get ourselves noticed from the rest of the crowd?

 

Post script

I have, according to the Web of Science, published 207 papers, twenty of which include the words The Effect of and six, The influence of, in their titles, the most recent of which was in 2012.

Afterword

If you are interested in title structure and choice, albeit from a social science point of view, then I thoroughly recommend this post by Patrick Dunleavy.

 

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Pick and Mix 32 – something for everyone?

Can writing poetry make you a better scientist?

A great story about the history of a butterfly’s name from Steve Heard and it has a poetical connection

Here Judy Fort Brenneman writes about keeping your writing short and sweet

Is it just me or do conservation biologists need to learn to write without jargon?

Some species of wasps are capable of logical reasoning

An interesting Open Access paper about how being on social media and taking selfies helps make scientists appear more human to the general public

With the population of the distinctive species in decline, cities around the U.S. are trying to add monarch-friendly spaces.

Novel approaches to crop protection – replacements for conventional insecticides?

Terry McGlynn on the joys of not having to worry about publishing or chasing grants

Jeremy Fox over on Dynamic Ecology discusses the results of his poll on the biggest problems facing ecological research

 

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Journals of Irreproducible Research – downgrading reproducibility and fact checking

As far as I am concerned, good science is about communication and reproducibility, or, as Stephen Heard argues, at least being able to believe that it is reproducible.  I would argue a bit more strongly than Stephen, in that I think you should, at the very least, be able to be confident that you could reproduce the experiment without having to contact the author(s) and that you can also easily check the cited literature.   In this context, there are two things that really annoy me about some of the so-called ’high impact’ established print journals and their on-line would be rivals.  First, the way in which the methods and materials section is relegated to the end of the paper, often in smaller font, and in some cases to the supplementary material section  In other journals e.g. Nature, the methods section is also very minimal and I defy anyone to repeat those experiments!  My second bugbear is the habit that some journals have, possibly to reduce space, in making you use numbers to denote references, placing them either in parentheses or superscript in the main text.

Perhaps I am alone in this, but I do like to know whose work is being cited without having to constantly refer to the references section.  What  particularly annoys me, are those journals that not only insist on numbered references but then list them in number order and not in alphabetical order!  I once wrote a review paper for Annual Review of Entomology, which has the numbering system, but subverted it by listing my references alphabetically – the editor never noticed 😉

You may say that what all these journals are doing is merely structuring the paper in the order that people tend to read them which is, I admit, a valid point. To me however, they are saying to the scientific community, perhaps not overtly, but certainly subliminally, that methods and materials are something you don’t really need to bother about, somewhat akin to those things that you store in an attic or basement, just in case you might want them at some time in the future, but probably not often, if at all.

Hidden methods

This sends a strong and erroneous message to authors that despite the methodology being the most important part of how we do our science, as long as they report the general gist of how they did things it is fine.  To referees the subversion of the methods section sends an equally strong signal; you don’t really need to spend a lot of time reading about the methodology as long as the rationale for the work is justified and that the results are significant and well presented.

As someone who works on insect-plant interactions I constantly come across inadequate methods and materials sections both as a referee and as a reader of published work.  The thing that perhaps causes me the most annoyance are descriptions of plant phenology.   Herbivorous insects have a very intimate relationship with their host plants and the growth stage of their host plant or the age of the plant tissue that they are feeding on can have very marked effects on their development, survival and fecundity (Awmack & Leather, 2002).  I so often came across methods descriptions along the lines of “10 day-old cabbage seedling” “ 3 week old pepper plant”,  “2 week-old wheat plant”, that in desperation I wrote an editorial (Leather, 2010) explaining how important it was to use a measure that didn’t depend on the temperature,  photoperiod, nutrient or water status that the plants were grown at i.e. the BCCH scale.  I also compiled a virtual issue of Annals of Applied Biology, with relevant examples drawn from the journal which has a long and distinguished history in publishing such articles.  If you can’t find your host plant in past issues of the Annals you will find that most plants have a published version somewhere, even if only on Wikipedia.  Despite my efforts however, I still often have to remind authors to describe the phenological stage of their host plants accurately and precisely.

Methods and materials, please come back, we need you!

 

References

Awmack, C. S. & Leather, S. R. (2002). Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology 47, 817-844.

Leather, S. R. (2010). Precise knowledge of plant growth stages enhances applied and pure research. Annals of Applied Biology 157, 159-161.

 

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Quaint titles and memorable lines in ecology and entomology

I am always struck when reading the old entomological and ecological literature by how much the style of our writing has changed over the last 100 years or so, and not necessarily for the better 😉 I am not advocating a return to the writing style of the Victorian 3-volume novel but do think that we might try to be a bit less dry when reporting our science in mainstream journals. With the establishment of on-line publishing perhaps there will be less emphasis on word limits from Editors and publishers, but then on the other hand, we are all busy people and the number of papers published seems to be increasing at an exponential rate.

Here for your edification is a title from the mid-Victorian period; penned by John Curtis an English entomologist

Curtis, J. (1845) Observations on the natural history and economy of various insects etc., affecting the corn-crops, including the parasitic enemies of the wheat midge, the thrips, wheat louse, wheat bug and also the little worm called Vibrio. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, 6, 493-518.

NPG P120(36); John Curtis by Maull & Polyblank

John Curtis  1791-1862  (Photograph from Wikipedia)

 

There are also some great sentences in this paper that give you an insight into the character of the man and the conditions under which he worked, which we do not get in modern papers.

“I had hoped, during the past summer, to make some progress in the further development of the economy of the Wheat-midge; but although the little orange larvae were abundant in some wheat-fields in August in this neighbourhood, owing to the wet and cold season I presume, I did not discover a single midge on the wing, and the larvae appear to have all died as usual”

Later on writing about aphids; I couldn’t possibly not mention aphids 😉

“The corn-crops do not escape the visitations of this extensive tribe: indeed, what crop does?”

 

And from that great entomologist A R Wallace writing in 1865 on species distribution, Wallace, A.R. (1855) On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Journal of Natural History, 16, 184-196.

“Fully to enter into such a subject would occupy much space, and it is only in consequence of some views having been lately promulgated, he believes in a wrong direction, that he now ventures to present his ideas to the public, with only such obvious illustrations of the arguments and results as occur to him in a place far removed from all means of reference and exact information”

Obviously a man of great probity and conviction.

 

We all know of Darwin’s story, (Darwin, 1929), about having to put a beetle into his mouth having gone collecting beetles without suitable containers but how many of us know about this side of his character, also from the same source,

A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better

It is a great little book and well worth reading.

Darwin, F. (1929) Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Watts & Co., London

 

Norman McIndoo, the inventor of the insect olfactometer writes in his 1926 paper, McIndoo, N.E. (1926) An insect olfactometer. Journal of Economic Entomology, 19, 545-571

“To the writer a potato plant has a characteristic smell, although not as strong as those from some other plants. When enclosed in the plant chamber, its odors are perhaps emanated along with the water vapour, which judged from the condensed portion, was considerable.”

 

And here in a relatively modern paper, from that intrepid entomologist Philip Darlington, P.J. (1970) Carabidae on tropical islands, especially the West Indies. Biotropica, 2, 7-15

Mr Hlvac’s (1969) paper should be consulted for further details and discussion. But a very great deal still remains to be done on Scarites in Puerto Rico. Here obviously is another opportunity for exciting ecologic work, to be done under exceptional circumstances of comfort and convenience

Non-entomologists will no doubt be familiar with Darlington from his classic species-area work on Caribbean herpetofauna.

 

So dear readers, which are your favourite memorable sentences and titles from the scientific literature?  Please let me know.

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Sitting in judgment – Calling the shots – Peer review – A personal view

I have just finished refereeing four papers from four different journals with different approaches to the peer review system. As a result I now feel moved to share my thoughts about the way journals ask us to review papers. In earlier posts I have written about my experiences as an editor and also about why and how many papers we should referee as good citizens of the scientific community. The four journals for which I have just acted as a reviewer are Ideas in Ecology & Evolution, Physiological Entomology, and Journal of Insect Behavior and Animal Behaviour. Ideas in Ecology & Evolution operates a completely open review process and allows authors, should they wish, to solicit their own reviews in exchange for a reduced processing charge. As a reviewer you can, as well as submitting your review, submit a response article free of charge. As someone who is usually unable to publish in open access journals as my usual funding sources rarely, if ever, provide funding for page and processing charges, I took the opportunity to do so and am now waiting to see if my offering will get published 😉 Animal Behaviour on the other hand operates a double-blind system where the referee is supposedly as blind as the author(s).

Blind author and referee

This is achieved by removing the names and addresses of the authors. As however, the references and acknowledgements are usually left untouched, it is, in my field, comparatively easy to work out who wrote the paper with some confidence.  The other two journals give you the option of revealing your identity should you so wish.

I have for my sins reviewed a lot of papers over the years; sadly as a data nerd, I have kept a record not only of how many papers I review a year but for which journals (I really should get a life).

Papers refereed

In all those years last week was the first time that I have ever unambiguously revealed my identity. I say unambiguously, because, during the 1990s when Oikos used to give you the opportunity to sign your review, I did use to scrawl my totally illegible signature at the bottom of the page, confident that no-one could actually read it! So why do I opt for anonymity when reviewing papers?

I am confident that I would write exactly the same review if I did it openly and in fact sometimes I am sure that the authors can guess that I was the reviewer. I choose to be anonymous because I feel that a generally open review system would tend to make some, if not most reviewers, pull their punches. How many young post-docs would dare to reject a paper by an established academic knowing that they could be on their next interview panel or reviewing their next grant application or be the editor of the journal they submit their next paper to?  We are all supposed to be dispassionate scientists able to take constructive criticism, but even the most laid-back of us will probably remember the name of the young whippersnapper who dared reject our paper.  I am pretty sure that when I was at the beginning of my career I would never have dared criticize, let alone reject, a Southwood or Lawton paper in an open review system.   As an Editor who occasionally submits papers to my own journal I have to take this ‘fear’ factor into account and have rejected my own papers when for other authors I would have allowed a resubmission.  In my experience as an Editor, I rarely see reviewers using the confidential comments to the editor section to say something very different from the review they have provided for the authors to see. So I think that the traditional system works pretty well.

I also think that by revealing our identities to authors we could end up with a you scratch my back I will scratch yours situation in that if A gives B a favourable review then B will in turn give A one back and the whole system will be subverted.

So in conclusion until someone proves otherwise I will continue to remain anonymous except in exceptional circumstances.

 

Post script

For a less personal and more scientific viewpoint see this article

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/information-culture/2014/04/19/introduction-to-traditional-peer-review/

and for an alternative viewpoint see this from Dynamic Ecology

https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/tag/peer-review/

Post-post script

In case you are wondering why I was so lazy in 1991, I was desperately applying for jobs in the university sector.

 

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The Three Rs of Science – Reading, Writing and Reviewing

And before anyone jumps in and says there are 4Rs in Science i.e. Reading, Research, Writing and Reviewing, I am including research as part of writing as without research you would have nothing to write about.  This post is mainly about writing for publication as I have written about refereeing and reading in earlier posts.  Almost twenty-five years ago I designed and implemented a scientific paper writing class for the undergraduate course that I used to run at Imperial College; later I re-tooled it as part of our postgraduate training programme and it was later rolled out across the university graduate school as part of the Doctoral Training Programme.

The first question I would ask students was “Why do scientists write papers?”  Undergraduates usually responded that scientists wrote to tell the world and their peers about what research they had done and thus advance science and prevent duplication of effort.  My response to this was that if they really wanted to publicise their research and make it accessible to the world they would publish their work in the popular press which has a lot more reach than a scientific journal.  After a bit of prodding they would then decide that perhaps it was for peer recognition and subsequent scientific validation via the review process.  Postgraduate students reached this stage more quickly and also understood that they needed to publish to make their cvs competitive and also of course to stake a claim to a particular research area to help with obtaining funding.

The first step in this journey is to do some good science!  Before setting out on the publication trail I also think that one should ask yourself if your work is important, although of course this is pretty subjective.  I am sure that all of us if asked, would consider that what we do is important enough to be published.  Next ask yourself if the experimental design or methodology is sound and if the work has been done well.  This will save time and remove some of the pain likely to be met during the review process.  Most importantly, at least in my opinion, is to ask yourself if there is a story.  There needs to be a strong narrative if you want to get people to read and cite your paper.

As a first time author you definitely need to ask advice about who does what, where you will send your paper and it is usually a good idea to get some agreement on authorship order earlier and not later.  Even as an experienced author I think that this sort of discussion can be very useful.  At the very least it will help you decide what particular slant your story will have.

Remember, have a clear story to tell and also remember that complexity is not the same as learning; keep your language simple, concise, precise and incisive and even at this early stage, make sure you follow the journal style!

At this point in the course I would put up this table and ask the students what each column represented.

Paper table

They would quickly guess that the first column represented the traditional layout of a scientific paper.  The other two columns took a bit longer, especially for the undergraduates until I asked them how they read papers when gathering material for their assignments and they were then able to identify the third column as how they, and most of us tend to read papers.  If the title seems interesting then we read the abstract, zip down to the results, see what the authors said about them, then check the introduction and then check the references for follow-up literature.  Methods and materials usually trail in at the end and then only if you have some doubts about what the authors have said or if you want to do something similar.  Then you look at the results again and you might look at the acknowledgements to see where they got their funding and to guess how many times they had to revise the paper (how many anonymous referees they acknowledge).

The middle column represents how most of us now write papers especially in these days of cut and paste. We follow the line of least resistance, start with the title to give us a starting point, our methods should have been written already in our lab books, the results come next and then we get on to the harder bits, the Introduction and the Discussion; acknowledgements flow logically from this and then it is a matter of adding the references and perhaps the hardest bit of all, the abstract or summary.    By the time you have done all this, your initial title almost certainly will no longer appeal to you so you come up with something new and more fitting.

Although this tends to be how we write papers I am not sure that it is actually the best way.  In the days before personal PCs some of us had access to typing pools and even if we didn’t, we either wrote our first drafts in long-hand or at a typewriter.  This meant that we got all our material together, had a long think about what we wanted to say and actually started at the beginning and worked our way through the paper in the same order as it would be printed.  Some people argue that this meant that ‘flow’ of those papers was smoother and more coherent.  I don’t think I know anyone who actually writes like that anymore, but I am happy to be contradicted.

Regardless of the fact that most of us live in a cut and paste world I am going to work through the various bits of a paper in the usual printed order.  Remember you are telling a story and there are a lot of rival authors out there competing for space in the top journals and you have to convince the journal editor and two or three referees that your paper is the one that should see the light of day in their journal.

You need a title; ideally it should be short, snappy and very importantly informative, although perhaps not too informative.  In the course I ran, I presented this to the students as a somewhat tongue in cheek example;

The effect of two lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon) seed origins (South coastal and Alaskan) on the growth, survival and development of larvae of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) in the presence and absence of predators in a Scottish field site.

This although informative is not necessarily going to gain you readers or publication in a high impact journal.  In fact the external pre-REF (Research Excellence Framework – UK academics will know what this is) consultant employed by my university to help decide which papers should go forward for assessment was very clear that titles beginning with The effect of were very unlikely to receive high scores by the external assessors.

As it happened, the work I had done which is very clearly described by the informative title above was actually published as

Leather & Walsh title page

Not very informative but it certainly got a readership.

The abstract is perhaps the least favourite bit of a paper for authors; I certainly find them difficult and invariably save them to last.  They are however, extremely important and according to Wiley-Blackwell, publishers of the journal that I edit (Insect Conservation & Diversity) they are much more important than we as authors realise – they and the title are the ‘hook’ that gets your paper downloaded and hopefully read and then cited.  You should thus not just rush it off in a couple of minutes.  Think hard about what you want to say and what it is that is likely to get someone to download and read your paper.

Next is the Introduction, here you should put your work in context, remembering that it is not a literature review but make sure that you do cite some of the earlier relevant work as well as the more recent literature.  State the problem clearly and indicate who else has tried and failed and why your work is special and how you have succeeded where others have failed.

Now for the Materials and methods section, which to me is the most important part of the paper.  This is where you as a referee or reviewer should go first.  This is the detail that matters.  If the methodology is flawed then it doesn’t matter how great the writing is or how fancy the statistics, the paper should be rejected.  I think it is deplorable that there are now a number of ‘high impact’ journals that have relegated the methods to a subsidiary position, almost hiding them away and placing the results at the front end of the paper.  This is tantamount to telling reviewers that the methods don’t matter, just look at the results.  I have heard however, that some of these journals are now reconsidering this policy after some embarrassing publicity.

My advice to students is that the methods should contain as much detail as would be required for someone else to repeat your work without having to contact you.  So for example, the species involved, cultivars and phenological stage of the plants used, the sample size; for field work, the site details, the equipment used but not necessarily the supplier, unless of course it is very specialist, and the statistical treatment and assumptions.

The results section is your showcase.  Decide which display method is best for the message you want to get across and then pick out the most important points from your tables and graphs and turn them into a commentary, but DO NOT discuss them.  For the figures and tables do make sure that you follow the journal style.  Make sure that the figure and table titles are informative and comprehensive; in the days before Japanese journals published in English, the only English bit of the papers were the figure and table legends and it was possible to get a very good idea of know what the paper was about from them. Keep symbols simple and check line thickness.

The Discussion section is where you discuss YOUR results, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your approach, underline your most important results, compare them with similar data and interpret your results in the broader view.  It is always a good idea to show how you addressed your initial hypothesis.  This and the methods section are the two sections where you can try and pre-guess the reviewers and get your retaliation in first.  If you can answer the reviewers before the questions are raised in their reports it increases the chances of getting your paper accepted.

Again, DO NOT use convoluted and obscure language and do AVOID jargon and pretentious statements.  As scientists our job is to communicate, not just to our peers, but to a wider audience. Quite often the reason our results are misinterpreted by the popular press is not because they are doing it on purpose but because we have obscured what we have said by using over-complicated language.  Be clear, use simple everyday words where possible, e.g.  laid rather than oviposited and be concise.

Speaking as an Editor I like acknowledgements to be brief, but do appreciate that there are funding agencies and helpful colleagues to thank.  I would advise against too much flippancy as after all you are advertising yourself and some people do read them.

Finally, the references; are they COMPLETE? Do they follow the journal style?  Editors do check and if you have had the misfortune to be rejected by your first choice journal, it does not go down well with the Editor of your second choice journal if you haven’t made the effort to change the formatting!  Do text citations and bibliography agree?  Check and recheck!

So now are you ready to release your pride and joy into the wild to suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” more commonly known as editors and referees?  Actually no, that was just the first draft!  DO NOT SUBMIT IT YET.  Pass it around for comments; if you are a PhD student your supervisor definitely needs and wants to see it!  Let colleagues read it too and for communication test, get a non-specialist to read it.  If they can understand what you did and what your central message is then you have cracked the communication barrier.  Do listen to what people say, rewrite it!!  Be brutal in revision!  It is better to revise before submission than to have your paper rejected without the chance to revise.  Pass it around again. Then and only then, log on to the journal site and start the submission process, but do remember to read the guidelines for authors before you press the submit button!

Submit button

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