SRL: An Editor’s Farewell: SRL Is You


November/December 2006

An Editor’s Farewell: SRL is YOU

Lots of jobs are unlike any other, and, as John Ebel knows, and Luciana Astiz is about to find out, editing Seismological Research Letters is one of them. About half the job is familiar to scientists who have had the pleasure of serving as a journal editor: shepherding papers through the review process, acceptance/rejection decisions, that sort of thing. But conceived as something of a noble experiment, SRL is unique, a cross between a journal and a magazine, with a mandate not to publish papers the primary purpose of which is to present new research results.

What SRL does publish remains difficult to define, although the most straightforward category comprises papers that provide a clear service to the Seismological Society of America’s community by describing a newly available dataset or software resource. We publish other types of papers as well: informational reports on notable recent earthquakes, informal synthesis papers, papers about studies that might not be seismological research per se but are related to seismology in a way that interests the SSA community. One can point to examples of all these types more easily than one can define them succinctly. The difference, for example, between “informal synthesis” and “shoddy science” can be a bit like the old definition of pornography: You know it when you see it (but good luck explaining it.)

One of the real strengths of SRL is its flexibility to break out of the usually rigid mold for technical journals:

  • “Idea” is not a four-letter word. That creature of dark legend, the so-called “idea paper,” is welcome, as long as it stays on the right side of the law. We have a place for opinions; we have a place for humor.
  • Papers that break disciplinary molds are not shunned but rather welcomed. In recent years SRL has published a number of papers that describe some of the cutting-edge information technology developments that are now an integral part of our science. We also have published papers that explore the interplay between geological unrest and early human cultures.
  • History is welcome. Retrospective looks at important historical earthquakes and a new feature in 2006 that sings the praises of formerly unsung heroines and heroes in our field are items found in these pages.

SRL has flexibility in other respects as well. We welcome memorials that allow SSA members to share not news of a death but remembrances of a life (and no rigid formula prescribes the number of words a person is entitled to based on stature). The review process also is flexible enough that in some circumstances we can turn papers around very quickly, e.g., for late-breaking reports on notable earthquakes.

The flexibility of SRL does, however, pose certain challenges for its editor. In the absence of rigid guidelines, the qualifier “within reasonable limits” is implicitly appended to every guideline that we do have. Occasionally a submission pushes those limits, and then it falls to the editor to push back.

Then there are the good days, for example, when the advance copy of the next issue arrives, or when SRL is able to publish an interesting paper that other journals rejected, not because it wasn’t worthy but because it didn’t fit a well-defined, narrow mold. There are the days when one succeeds in soliciting an especially good article or thoughtful opinion column. There are the days when one has the pleasure of telling an author that his or her manuscript is well-crafted, appropriate in scope, and will be accepted for publication pending only minor revision.

And then there are maybe the best days of all, when one is reminded that science can be a rare beacon of hope and sanity in a world that too frequently seems short on both. I started handling new submissions in August 2001, a few weeks before the world came unglued. The week of 9/11, the first real work I did was to send Yefim Gitterman a (favorable) initial review of his paper on the Kursk submarine disaster. The paper was published in the January/February 2002 issue, the first issue for which I was editor of record. This November/December 2006 issue—the last regular one that I will be responsible for—features an article on the beginnings of a Libyan seismic network, with a first author who is now at Anbar University in Iraq. Another article in this issue presents a field report of an earthquake in Iran. Maybe the world is going to hell in a handbasket and everything else is window dressing; one takes hope where one can find it.

SRL leaves its mark on an editor and, no question, the editor leaves his or her mark on the journal. Over the past five years, SRL has reflected my affection for seismological history as well as the history of seismology; the face of SRL has in a couple of instances reflected my affection for bright young faces. And of the features I have tried to launch, it is possible that Earthquake Lites will remain the most enduring, and I am not altogether unhappy about that. (I am especially delighted with the Earthquake Lites feature in this issue; notwithstanding the indulgence we might have to beg from the Francophiles among us.)

When told that I was stepping down, one friend and colleague replied, “But SRL is Sue.” It was a kind and generous thought, but upon reflection, also wrong. SRL is not Sue.SRL is YOU. An editor can launch features and work to keep them going, but in the end, features such as Earthquake Lites and Unsung Heroines/Heroes—as well as the older EduQuakes and Electronic Seismologist columns—will survive and prosper if the community cares enough to keep them alive. An editor can solicit articles, but he or she cannot write them. An editor can invite thoughtful opinion articles, but he or she cannot craft them—and he or she certainly can’t make sure they are delivered on time. An editor can work to expedite the review process, but he or she can’t make the reviews come back on time or get the revisions done in a timely manner.

In consultation with Luciana, I have decided to not leave SRL entirely but rather to reinvent myself—one might say rematerialize—as the Historical Seismologist (an apt title if ever there was one). This new regular SRL feature will provide the opportunity to consolidate some of the centennial features and keep them alive, at a lower and hopefully more manageable baud rate. I will contribute some of these columns myself, but only some; like Rob Mellors and Tom Owens, who ably handle the EduQuakes and Electronic Seismologist columns, I will be on the lookout for good guest columns. (Most of the Unsung Heroine features have honored women I learned about in my own research on Charles Richter’s career, with a couple of features contributed by redoubtable SSA volunteer Bill Rinehart. There must be other unsung heroines, and heroes, out there; stories that could be shared with the SSA membership. If you know of one, let me know!) Eventually I will slip into the historical realm and SRL will be looking for another Historical Seismologist to keep the feature going.

Which leads to an important point: The SRL editor is by no means the only person who works to put SRL together. In addition to Rob Mellors and Tom Owens, Martin Chapman continues his capable leadership of the Eastern Section SSA pages, and Kim Olsen continues his stewardship of electronic supplements. On the production side, the business of putting each issue together is now in the capable hands of Managing Editor Mary George, with technical input from Rodney Sauer, Bo Orloff, and Laura Caruso, plus thoughtful oversight from Joy Troyer and Susan Newman at the SSA office. The editor works with this wonderful group of people to put each issue together, but most of what is put into each issue is up to you. SRL is like a magazine in the sense that it includes interesting features; it is unlike a magazine in the sense that it has no feature writers on staff. The feature writers, the contributors, the columnists, the essayists, the humorists—they are you. Like the editor, you will not be paid for your efforts; the bean counters at your institutions might or might not give you much credit for your work; time you spend working on SRL is not going to get you one step closer to the National Academy; at times you might be reminded of the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Clearly nobody in his or her right mind would take on an assignment under those terms, let alone on an ongoing basis, and yet some of us do. And while there are surely smiles on our faces when the work is done, the farewell is also bittersweet. I will miss this job. It has been a challenge and at times an ordeal; it has also been privilege and a pleasure.

Susan Hough
Email- hough [at]