Reading the latest scientific articles in planetary sciences is the best way to prepare yourself for grad school research. Obviously, there's just not enough time in the day to read every paper in every journal, but there are some simple ways to narrow this task:
- Skim the table of contents in the latest journals to give yourself an idea of what's going on. The major planetary science journals are Icarus and the Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR) Planets (the green-covered one). Depending on your specific interests, you may also want to look through the other JGR's (Solid Earth [red], Space Physics [blue], Oceans [teal], Atmospheres [purple]), Meteoritics, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Astrophysical Journal, Geophysical Research Letters, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, or Eos. Everyone should read Nature and Science. All of the above are available in the LPL library.
- Also, some journals allow you to sign up for an e-mail list that announces the new articles that are being published every week or every month. Be sure to sign up if you are interested in staying current on developments in your field.
- When you spot an article that's related to your work, read the abstract. The abstract is specifically designed to give you a quick summary of the work done, the results, and their significance, and is usually only a paragraph long.
- If the abstract hints that the paper will be significant for you, skim through the entire thing and photocopy the abstract. Include the full reference, and mark the abstract with the date you read it and a keyword or two. This will save you some agony when later, you'll think of an idea you read somewhere but didn't bother to get the article because it was only marginally related at the time (this really happens!).
- If the article is really interesting, or your advisor recommended this article, photocopy the entire thing. Again, include the full reference. Then sit down and read through it carefully. Read it with questions in mind, like "how is this related to x?" or "how did they get y result?" or "is this calculation really valid?" and mark up your copy.
- If you come across a promising-looking reference, be sure to mark it and go back to look it up. Papers that are cited frequently are probably worth reading, and other references may give you a better background. References can also be intriguing trails--you may find another whole section of information you hadn't thought about or see that there are two groups working on the same topic. It's very valuable to understand as many approaches as possible, sometimes more so than understanding one approach in great depth.
When you finish a particularly interesting paper, send copies to a few people who you think might like to see it. If they see that you're interested, they're likely to return the favor and thus save you time searching for relevant articles.
There are two key properties of a good scientific paper--content and style. The degree to which the paper's content has to be "significant" depends on the forum. Preliminary ideas and works in progress are better suited to a workshop or symposium abstract book, while well-developed, extensively tested work is journal material. Read papers in abstract collections like the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) and in journals like Icarus and JGR Planets to get an idea of what's appropriate where.
If you have a great idea but present it poorly, your paper probably won't be accepted. Style refers less to your choice of vocabulary than to your structure. Be sure you know what the point of your paper is and state it explicitly and repeatedly. Don't make your reader work to figure out what's important--tell them; otherwise, they might get it wrong or stop reading the paper altogether. State the problem you're addressing, why its important, how you're solving it, what results you have, how other researchers have addressed the same or similar problems, and why your method is different or better. Keep in mind what audience you're writing for; include more background or more technical details depending on the forum. Use a running example if possible, especially if your paper is packed with equations.
It is critical that any paper you plan to submit be read by other people first, to check for typos and grammatical errors, organization, and content. The more tightly refereed the publication you're submitting to, the more you should have your paper pre-reviewed. If your paper comes back with comments--either from your pre-reviewers or from the journal--take those comments and rewrite your paper. If there are serious or debatable content comments, discuss them with your advisor before changing your paper. If your paper is rejected, keep trying! A really good idea will have its time.