May/June 2009

BSSA: Worth Thinking About


The Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA) is a powerful community project that has helped us share the information necessary to keep our field moving forward since 1911. In some ways, BSSA is much like it has always been, and each issue provides us with a collection of research that has been improved by the peer review process and copyedited, typeset, and printed to make it easily readable. But BSSA has also constantly evolved, and the online edition with full-text searching of all content back to volume 1 and linked references that speed our navigation through the related literature is unlike anything J. C. Branner could have imagined when he edited the first issue.

The value our community places on BSSA is evidenced in ever-increasing numbers of submissions, the rate at which our articles are cited, and even the ferocity with which some authors rebut rejections instead of submitting their work to other journals. Preserving and improving the value of BSSA requires facing our current challenges and careful planning for the future as we adjust to our science’s increasing emphasis on large-scale collaborations and to journals’ decreasing dependence on print. As a small society, SSA tends to change slowly, so some of these issues have already been faced by other journals we read. This gives us the opportunity to observe their approaches and consider how we can improve on the existing options.

The value our community places on BSSA is evidenced in ever-increasing numbers of submissions, the rate at which our articles are cited, and even the ferocity with which some authors rebut rejections instead of submitting their work to other journals.

Each change impacts how we submit and read articles, and many changes also have critical financial implications. Beyond printing and mailing the printed issues, we pay for the online submission system, the compositor’s work (this mysterious term encompasses the people who copyedit and typeset the articles, lay out the issue, and produce the files for the online and print versions you receive), BSSA’s online site, and the salaries for several staff members. Managing Editor Carol Mark and Editorial Assistant Stephanie Yeamans keep the articles flowing from submission to publication and maintain the quality of how articles appear, while every SSA staff member at the headquarters in El Cerrito also contributes to BSSA’s operations.

As editor, I receive many comments about BSSA and spend a lot of time thinking about its future. I will discuss several topics that all of us may wish to consider, because BSSA is truly a community project and the major decisions are made by our representatives on SSA’s Board. Thus this article is more of a call for thought than an expression of my own opinions.


The peer review system is often seen as a benefit to readers, but it is also a gift to us as authors, even if it often seems more like combat. A reviewer once called my writing a “cruel form of mental torture” (I hope this opinion piece doesn’t prove their point) and wasn’t supportive of the science either. At times like that the only “gift” seems to be that if we survive the process, our work gets released to the community. If our work gets rejected, then we don’t even get that.

After several years as BSSA editor, I view the peer review process as collaborative and supportive, even if it is sometimes a painful form of tough love. With suggestions from the reviewers and guidance from the associate editors, errors, omissions, and confusing sections can be corrected before the paper is published, thus allowing the authors to appear so much smarter than they might otherwise. Of course, the peer review process has its flaws. For instance, the process has a stochastic component because assigning a paper to an associate editor and finding reviewers depends on who is in town and who has the time to take on the work. Due to these practical issues and honest differences of opinion among people, there are some inconsistencies in the decisions made from paper to paper. These inconsistencies seem like mistakes to the authors whose papers are being held to a higher standard than a paper they have seen published. It can be difficult to make decisions that seem unfair, especially when the aggrieved party is complaining. The best advice I received on this issue was from my colleague Stephanie Ross, who told me, “Don’t make mistakes you know about.” And so my philosophy is that we accept the inconsistencies and do the best we can at each moment. Because Stephanie is also my wife, I try to follow that advice at home, too.

Reviewers also can be biased and simply wrong. One author, after receiving BSSA’s peer review, e‑mailed us to say, “Our thinking is that we probably should withdraw the manuscript from BSSA short notes and go to another journal because with a single reviewer so solidly in one camp, we are going to lose a lot of time trying to respond, and the deck is fairly well stacked against the paper anyway.” After convincing these authors to stick with us, we ended up with a new message when the paper was accepted: “Thanks guys—We absolutely want to acknowledge the reviewer and the associate editor for their good sportsmanship and careful reviewing (saved us from messing up in a couple of ways!).” The result was an improved paper that still captured the authors’ point of view.

Despite this flawed process, we get from the first message to the second because of our wonderful associate editors. Reviewers are often called “referees,” but if publishing scientific papers is a game, then the associate editors truly are the referees: the impartial observers who call fouls, whether on reviewers seeking to impose their biases or authors making excessive use of the phrase “beyond the scope of this study.” Thanked with only sincere words and a small honorarium from SSA and too rarely included in an author’s acknowledgments, associate editors devote countless hours to their task and are the people most responsible for ensuring the high quality of the science in BSSA and for making the peer review process work despite its flaws.

How do we maintain the value of peer review as science evolves toward large-scale collaborative projects? In peer review, independent experts sit down and appraise work after it has been completed. This appraisal takes place quietly and alone, a situation that is well-suited for careful thought. In large collaborations, quiet inspection is sometimes replaced with consensus at meetings. Consensus can be a product of group dynamics dominated by charismatic (a.k.a. loud and talkative) individuals, while a soft-spoken person with a brilliant idea might be lost in the crowd. Sometimes traditional peer review is delayed until a project is done, at which point it may be too late to make significant revisions. When I reviewed the scenarios developed for the southern California ShakeOut (Jones et al. 2008) I criticized the slip model used for the main shock rupture. Regardless of whether or not I was right and whether or not it would have affected the results very much, both of which are debatable, my comments were essentially pointless. By the time the report was reviewed, it included a cascade of dynamic rupture calculations, shaking models, ground failure models, building and lifeline damage models, and economic implications, all of which depended on the slip model. With so much work completed, there was no way to revise the starting points. The ShakeOut went on to great success as the largest earthquake preparedness activity in U.S. history, and I make this point not to undercut that success but to stimulate ideas for future projects.

How do we maintain the value of peer review as science evolves toward large-scale collaborative projects?

The Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities (WGCEP) did include a scientific review panel in the development of the Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast (Field et al. 2008) and individual model components were peer reviewed, although this was done under WGCEP’s oversight rather than at an independent journal. While these large projects don’t involve the journals as the work is in progress, the collaborators often do want to publish an article once the work is completed. Such articles can be problematic because such large studies are difficult to review and revise. Could a journal be involved in the ongoing review process for these large-scale collaborations? Not all work done in these collaborations is appropriate for publication in a journal, but journal review could be sought for some components. A key issue is maintaining the independence of the journal while simultaneously recognizing the unique needs of these large-scale projects, such as meeting final deadlines and the interdependencies among project elements.


BSSA has had an international scope from its debut issue, when a book in Spanish on the seismicity of Costa Rica was reviewed by J. C. Branner (1911). More recently, Wang et al.’s (2006) review of the Haicheng prediction inspired me to organize the June 2006 issue as a global tour. I found that 16 articles concerned work outside the United States, eight articles were on methods or general issues, and only seven focused on areas within the United States.

We are an international publication, but writing in English is a challenge for some authors. As much as we admire the effort it takes to write in a foreign language, some authors receive e‑mails that say: “It would be a disservice to you to put your paper through the review process as it is now. If the meaning is obscured by grammatical errors, the reviewers will not be able to give the paper the attention it deserves.” Unfortunately, our message continues by saying, “We regret that the Bulletin’s editorial office does not have any mechanism for assisting authors in this regard. We encourage you to ask for help from a colleague whose native language is English.” But not all authors can find a helpful colleague, and some cannot afford professional copyediting services. Solving this problem requires either finding funding for such services or setting up a pool of volunteers willing to help with this task.


Paying page charges is difficult for some authors, and SSA waives page charges for enough papers that this is not an absolute barrier to publication. However, we cannot waive the color fees, so authors who request a waiver cannot include color figures. One reason for this policy is that while we release each article in print and online, the printed BSSA is the “journal of record” and it must convey all of the information.

In only 25 years, color figures have gone from impossible to ubiquitous and perhaps gratuitous. Authors produce graphs with colored lines when different line types would do, maybe because this is the default in current plotting programs. Color images of quantities such as seismic wavespeed or ground motion amplitudes are standard because they allow us to creatively and effectively illustrate our findings. However, color can give us too much latitude, because a carefully chosen color scale can create sharp visual contrasts in what is really a smoothly varying field. In black and white we used to use contours, which are far more objective even if they restrict the number of elements that can be overlain on a single plot. While it is possible, and sometimes even preferable, to design figures in black and white, some authors find this as challenging as writing in a foreign language.

If we switch the journal of record to the online journal, then color charges could be paid only by authors who want their color figures in the print journal. Otherwise, the figures would appear in print as grayscale versions of the color figures. This would degrade the print version of the journal, impacting readers who prefer that format. Beyond allowing all authors to publish color figures, there are other possible benefits to focusing on the electronic edition. The online formats, including HTML and Adobe PDF, can include multimedia such as movies and interactive three-dimensional models, which are now relegated to electronic supplements. Including them in the papers would expand the ways that we can communicate.

There are other ways we could take greater advantage of online publication. Currently, our workflow is organized such that all papers in an issue are released, both online and in print, simultaneously. This requires a four to six month delay between acceptance and publication. We could make accepted articles available sooner with a “publish ahead of print” process; this involves posting an uncopyedited version of the paper on the online journal site until the final version is available. With our current online submission and publication systems this could be done, but it costs money and staff time to set up and use these processes.

It seems inevitable that we eventually will publish only online; as a computer-savvy community I believe that we will be able to make that change smoothly. Already half of our members choose to receive BSSA only in its online form. In a completely online journal the concept of “issues” is not necessary; a completely online journal would allow the final, copyedited versions of papers to be posted without waiting to paginate an entire issue.

It seems inevitable that we eventually will publish only online; as a computer savvy community I believe that we will be able to make that change smoothly.

Online-only publication could also allow us to reconsider how BSSA is organized. Currently, the presentation is oriented toward the print version, and each issue clusters articles on similar topics (such as ground motion, seismotectonics, verification, or paleoseismology). An online journal could display each paper under a few topics and by region. Presenting each paper in multiple ways could help readers find papers that might otherwise escape their attention.

Even if an online journal can be better than the print version, I worry that online journals can fall victim to the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome. At more than 400 pages, BSSA is hard to miss when it arrives with your snail-mail. But in a flood of e‑mails it’s easy to forget that new articles are now online. Maintaining BSSA’s impact requires reminding readers to look at it, and physical reminders can be very powerful. Seismological Research Letters always publishes BSSA’s upcoming table of contents, but it is easy to miss these few pages (see page 508 in this issue). We could expand the presentation with a page per article showing the abstract and one figure. These advertisements for each paper could be included in SRL or even sent out separately if that is affordable. Or if online readers do not need physical reminders, then we should focus on making sure that our electronic reminders are effective.


Another concern in the online world is access to the articles, which currently requires a membership in SSA or an institutional subscription. SSA does reduce membership costs for people from countries listed by the World Bank as low-income countries, who then receive electronic access to BSSA. The board is considering expanding this program, and one possibility is to start a fund where members could sponsor a subscription in a low-income country.

The Public Library of Science journals have promoted open access to scientific research. And the combination of people posting their papers on personal Web sites and the power of Google searches provides a form of informal, partial open access to even subscription journals. We allow that to happen. SSA’s policy allows you to post your papers on a personally maintained Web page but does not allow an institution to post all BSSA articles by its authors on an institutionally maintained Web site. However, some institutions, such as Harvard, are starting to develop large repositories of their works and the evolution of such projects may create conflicts between SSA’s policies and those at the authors’ institutions.

Unfortunately, the laudable goal of open access conflicts with financial reality. Page charges alone are not enough to cover the costs of even online publishing. The Public Library of Science relies on philanthropic grants and SSA relies on membership fees and subscriptions. Susan Newman (2006) described how SSA gives members much more than a subscription to BSSA, but it is likely that open access would lead some people to drop their memberships and would also mean losing institutional subscriptions.

There are mixed approaches to open access, such as only providing open access to articles older than a certain date; this approach is common for medical journals. Or if open access is most important for scientists in low-income countries, perhaps this can be addressed through the international programs discussed above. This is a topic that deserves some creative thinking. After all, it doesn’t help to increase access to something that can’t afford to exist.


For almost 100 years, BSSA has fostered innovation and professional growth in seismology and the earthquake sciences. So that we can fulfill and improve on that legacy, I hope that you will give the future evolution of BSSA careful thought and share your ideas with the SSA board, officers, publications committee, staff, and even me in person, by e‑mail, or via http://www.seismosoc.org/publications/bssa/feedback


Reviews by Stephanie Ross, Jeanne Hardebeck, and Luciana Astiz and editing by Carol Mark and Mary George allow the author to appear so much smarter than he might otherwise.


Branner, J. C. (1911). Review of Temblores, Terremotos, Inundaciones y Erupciones Volcanicas en Costa Rica 1608–1910, compiled by C. González Víquez. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 1, 23–24.

Field, E. H., T. E. Dawson, K. R. Felzer, A. D. Frankel, V. Gupta, T. H. Jordan, T. Parsons, M. D. Petersen, R. S. Stein, R. J. Weldon II, and C. J. Wills (2008). The Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast, Version 2 (UCERF 2). USGS Open-File Report 2007- 1437, California Geological Survey Special Report 203, 104 pps.

Jones, L. M., R. Bernknopf, D. Cox, J. Goltz, K. Hudnut, D. Mileti, S. Perry, D. Ponti, K. Porter, M. Reichle, H. Seligson, K. Shoaf, J. Treiman, and A. Wein (2008). The ShakeOut Scenario. USGS Open-File Report 2008-1150, California Geological Survey Preliminary Report 25, 312 pps.

Newman, S. (2006). Looking backward, facing forward. Seismological Research Letters 77, 643–645.

Wang, K., Q. Chen, S. Sun, and A. Wang (2006). Predicting the 1975 Haicheng earthquake. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 96, 757–795; doi: 10.1786/0120050191.

Andrew J. Michael
Editor-in-Chief, BSSA
U.S. Geological Survey
bssaeditor [at] seismosoc [dot] org


To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, you may contact the SRL editor by sending e-mail to
<lastiz [at] ucsd [dot] edu>.



Posted: 24 April 2009