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New astronomy journal keeps papers short and sweet

9 November 2017

The AAS-sponsored publication will share null results and updates on work in progress.

An unorthodox new astronomy journal is geared toward short, succinct updates of work in progress. Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society (RNAAS), which started accepting submissions on 16 October, publishes summaries of ongoing research, brief clarifications, and comments that don’t warrant a lengthy scientific paper. The online-only journal—currently free for both authors and readers—also accepts null results, which journal editors often frown on despite their importance for scientific progress.

“A lot of information that’s potentially valuable for scientists falls through the cracks of the current publishing system,” says Oxford University astrophysicist Chris Lintott, the journal’s editor. The underreporting of negative results, he says, means that other researchers waste time, money, and resources replicating the same experiments. At the same time, notable but not groundbreaking discoveries, such as that of a nondescript exoplanet, “probably wouldn’t make a whole journal paper these days, but instead could happily fit in the Research Notes.”

Papers on 1I/ʻOumuamua (dot at center), an interstellar asteroid first observed on 19 October, have already appeared in RNAAS. Credit: A Fitzsimmons, Queen’s University Belfast/Isaac Newton Group, La Palma

Inspired by similarly succinct outlets such as The Journal of Brief Ideas, Lintott helped to launch RNAAS after being approached by the AAS publications board. (AAS is a member society of the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics Today.) The journal doesn’t conduct formal peer review, posting papers online within 72 hours of acceptance. A team of editors carries out what Lintott calls a quick “sanity check” before papers, which adhere to a limit of 1000 words and one figure or table, go live.

Other outlets, like arXiv and the Astronomer’s Telegram, exist for rapid correspondence, but unlike these, RNAAS also provides some of the benefits of a traditional journal. Papers are assigned a digital object identifier and indexed in the Astrophysics Data System. Lintott expects the journal to become a useful database of notes that will be traceable when someone exploring an area scans through them. Those, in turn, will inform bigger studies that could appear in more orthodox journals, he says.

Stanford University cosmologist Risa Wechsler likes the new journal. “I think it will encourage both more early-stage open communication as well as a mechanism to credit such ideas and results,” she says. Those benefits are especially attractive for students and postdoctoral researchers, Lintott says, who may otherwise have trouble making it onto author lists of scientific papers.

Astrophysicist Peter Maksym at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts agrees that early-career scientists, who often grapple with whether to publish unfinished work, will benefit from RNAAS. “A submitted article looks good on a CV,” he says, “but one in progress is essentially worthless during a job hunt.”

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