Geophysical Research Letters: Celebrating 40 years of excellence


1 Gestation, Birth, and Early Childhood

Geophysical Research Letters (GRL) launched its first issue in May 1974 after a gestation period of almost a year. It took that long for the AGU publications committee under the leadership of AGU Executive Director Fred Spilhaus to foster the concept, work out the approach to obtaining Associate Editors, soliciting articles, acquiring reviewers, and publishing rapidly. Rapid publication was the key requirement as the mainstream AGU publications were taking too long (typically half a year to nine months) to go from receipt to publication. The GRL goal was five to nine weeks from manuscript receipt to publication. The four-page limit was intended to force a focus on succinct new science results and to ease the burden on reviewers. Our first issue had 16 articles covering the gamut of AGU member interests. The first year was free to AGU members to help build the brand.

This all sounds, in retrospect, a relatively easy thing to do. Oh no, it wasn't. First, as a member of the publications committee, I was conned (well, sweet-talked) into accepting the editorship. No big deal: I had recently (1972) joined NASA's lunar program in Washington, which was not a major time burden as Apollo was ending and we were diddling primarily with data analysis issues and keeping the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Packages alive. And of course we had no sensible idea of what the GRL submission traffic and the challenges of meeting our publication goal would be. The eight Associate Editors helped solicit and review articles and Production Editor Judy Proffitt of AGU did a fantastic job of running the day-to-day publication business. The greatest impediment to rapid publication was the US Postal Service: typically 2 to 5 weeks consumed by the swarthy men in blue. Remember, email did not exist and telephoning was subject to the usual hit-and-miss delays. Suddenly in May 1974 my leisurely life went to pot (not today's kind) when I became Associate Administrator for Space Science with oodles of work. In a desperate lunge for help, I recruited Frank Martin, also in NASA, to become the Assistant Editor, a godsend. Frank saved my butt.

Founding GRL was a fabulous experience which I'd do all over again. I congratulate all the GRL contributors, Editors, Associate and Assistant Editors and AGU staff for a superb 40 years of GRL.

2 Into Adulthood…

Geophysical Research Letters is publishing its 754th issue this May 2014, precisely 40 years after its birth, and approximately 31,000 papers later. GRL has been on a steady course since its inception with a founding concept that has remained equally appealing to authors through time: “rapid publication of timely, high-quality, short letters of broad research interest” as GRL's first Editor-in-Chief Noel Hinners wrote in his 1974 opening editorial. A must read, by the way: everything still holds – well, except for the “U.S. Postal Service fritters,” now replaced by Internet outages. Amazingly, the ambitious goal of 5 to 9 weeks from submission to publication set in 1974 is still met today, while the impact factor (50% increase in the past 10 years) and number of citations (doubled in the past 10 years) are at record highs. This must be credited to excellent authors, dedicated reviewers, a professional and efficient journal staff, and a cohesive team of Editors engaged in continuously improving the journal – the GRL family, so to speak… Growth has not been without some pain, the “transition to electronic” in 2002 was perhaps a late teenage crisis and, as most, ended with a more mature status. Today, GRL is well established into adulthood and has carved a very strong mark in the geoscience publication landscape.

The selection of (only!) 40 papers for this 40-year anniversary special collection was fun, and owes a lot to Editor Bill Peterson's efforts and leadership. Contributions were solicited from all former and current Editors, while AGU contributed citation metrics. The result is a blend that illustrates GRL's characteristics: impact, timeliness, breadth, innovation, and interdisciplinarity (see also Figure 1 below). From atmospheric ozone to the confines of the solar system, from tectonic plate motions to wetlands, this special collection illustrates 40 years of discoveries and service to the geoscience community. GRL has always been early adopter of new fields – Climate, Hydrology and Land Surfaces, Cryosphere – Earth and Space sciences are fast-moving disciplines and GRL's evolution over the past 40 years reflects that pace. In the fast-evolving landscape of scientific publications, GRL – put on the right trajectory at inception – remains committed to embracing changes while striving for utmost scientific quality.

Figure 1.

The footprint of GRL: This word cloud, composed using the titles of the 1000 most cited GRL papers over the past 40 years (the more often a word appeared, the more prominently it is displayed), exemplifies the breadth and impact of the journal - its “footprint”. All major Earth and Space's envelopes appear prominently, as well as observations, measurements, and models - the bread and butter of our disciplines.