An Experiment: Can Keywords Help Science Writers Capture the AGU Zeitgeist?

Figuring out what talks to attend at AGU can be tough.

The crux of the problem: there are more than 15,000 individual abstracts to pick through, not to mention no small number of other lectures, plenary sessions, and events vying for attention. It is simple enough if you’re a scientist — just focus on the talks and posters related to your area of expertise. It’s a bit trickier if you happen to be a science writer trying extract the zeitgeist of the whole meeting. Indeed, on deadline, the exercise of choosing talks can be near maddening.

To figure out how to focus the bulk of my time and energy this year, I decided to try something new. Rather than simply thumbing through the master list of talks highlighting the those that looked interesting, I am opting for a more quantitative approach. Last night, I downloaded a handy program called Word Counter that, among other things, can tally up the most frequently-used words in a document.

I ran the titles for each day’s sessions (both posters and oral) through the program to see what turned up. The output was fascinating: a bird’s eye view of the topics that scientists are talking about the most. Take the Monday morning session. Word Counter reports that the five most cited words are water (109 mentions), aerosol (100), climate (77), mantle (67), and ice (66). Not exactly shockers (though I wouldn’t have expected aerosol to be so high), but knowing that what these most “buzzed-about” topics did make it much more interesting to go back and pick through abstracts.

Stayed tuned. At the end of the meeting, I will be post more keyword results from Word Counter. Also, a hat tip to the Highly Allochthonous blog for this post, which was the source of inspiration for the graphic above. 

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team