The Switch to Electronic Submissions

Joshua Sokol, an award-winning freelance science journalist, planned to submit three stories to the Science Communication Awards of the American Institute of Physics in 2017. But he quickly hit a snag.

The AIP competition requires that every applicant mail in nine hard copies of each submitted story. Not having a way to do this on his own, Sokol searched for an online service that would print and mail his stories for him and discovered that it would cost him roughly $200. He decided he couldn’t afford to submit his work.

Given the cost and complexity of printing and shipping multiple color copies, it’s no wonder Sokol — and others — have skipped over what may be the last science-journalism competition to require paper entries. In an era where most content is published online, the requirement seems retro at best but Sokol argues that it actively discourages freelancers from entering. Indeed, other award programs saw an uptick in the number of entries after shifting to electronic submissions. And that is only one of the noticeable benefits.

A Shift into the 21st Century

Peter Weiss, the special projects editor at the American Geophysical Union (which offers three awards geared toward science journalists), says that the switch to electronic submissions was a “no-brainer” for AGU. Not only was submitting entries for AGU’s Walter Sullivan award, which focuses on features, an especially heavy burden, but there were also inevitable problems that arose with snail mail. Packages often got lost or damaged or arrived late, affecting both the submissions and the distribution of entries to the selection committee members.

Earl Lane, executive director of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards, says his team had no choice but to upgrade to an electronic system. Much like the AIP, AAAS required submitters to send in nine printed copies for written stories, nine CDs for radio entries and nine DVDs for television entries. But after a jump in the number of entries in 2012, the process became far too demanding. “The result was many courier boxes full of paper as the deadline neared, and file boxes full of entries on the floor of my office and the floor of my associate’s office,” Lane says. In 2014, AAAS moved to an electronic system.

Among other advantages, the shift eliminated paper waste. Indeed, Tinsley Davis, executive director of the National Association of Science Writers, notes that NASW’s Science in Society awards program generated at least 120,000 sheets of paper every year, excluding book entries and packaging. “Eliminating the need for paper entries immediately reduced waste, and it streamlined the entry process for entrants and for us,” she says. NASW made the shift in 2012.

At the same time, the switch has allowed many programs to grow. In 2014, the AAAS Kavli program received 605 entries, compared to 485 in 2013. And many awards programs also found that they were able to easily expand further. In May 2014, CASW was asked to take over managing submissions for the Clark/Payne Award for Young Journalists, a move made easy by the online system CASW had set up for fellowship applications. And in 2015, AAAS opened its awards contest to journalists worldwide. They received 1,158 entries from 44 countries during the first year. “It would have been a logistical nightmare without the online system,” Lane says.

To boot, now judges can pore over the material “wherever it is convenient, from an airplane, a hotel, etc., which hopefully outweighs what can sometimes be an inconvenience: reading lots of material online,” Davis says.

A Retro Workaround

The torrents of awards nominations and entries coming into online systems create their own burdens. The AAAS Kavli program had to limit the number of entries that each individual can submit. They also had to schedule more screening sessions before selecting the finalists for the judging panels. And in addition to the challenges some judges face in reading online, there are technical challenges: paywalls and other online barriers can sometimes make accessing content tricky, so that submitters still often need to print their work — but to a PDF file.

Still, most experts say that there have been few drawbacks. AGU’s Weiss and John Carey, who organizes and moderates the judging panel for the annual Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, say there have been zero.  

So will the AIP follow suit? Jason Bardi, AIP’s news director, agrees that Sokol’s concerns are valid. “I don’t want anything to be a hardship on any person for entering the awards,” he says.“I think that we should be reviewing our own requirements every year and making sure that they both make sense in terms of the standards followed in the field and that they make sense for our own purposes.”

Bardi and his colleagues will review the submissions process for 2019. Meanwhile Sokol, who was deterred from applying for AIP’s award in 2016 and 2017, has finally submitted. As the 2018 deadline approached, he begged a magazine editor to print and send the nine hard copies for him.