On salmon and for-profit journal publishing

It’s hard to go a day without running into an outraged protest at the cost of publishing in for-profit journals – or, more or less equivalently, an outraged protest at the profit margins of for-profit publishers. And it’s true that publishing in some journals is shockingly expensive (I’m looking at you, €9,750 Nature open-access)  and it’s true that profit margins for some publishers are shockingly high (I’m looking at you, Elsevier, with £1.1 billion on £2.9 billion revenue in 2022, or 38% profit). Who, one might wonder, could intervene to make this stop?

Why, us, of course. We could. But we don’t. Continue reading

SOURs: Strong Opinions Unmoored from Rationale

Scientists really value evidence. Or at least, that’s what we all tell each other: we test hypotheses by confronting them with data, and our view of how the world works reflects the results of all these hypothesis tests. We get very, very upset when charlatans push irrational nonsense like intelligent design, ivermectin treatment for COVID, or the supposed dangers of vaccines. After all, in each case we have a well-founded rationale for declaring “nonsense”: there’s a mountain of evidence that all life on Earth has evolved through natural selection, that ivermectin is useless or worse against COVID, and that vaccines are safe and effective.* If we have a belief about the world, we ask if there’s data to support that belief; and if there isn’t, we change it. Right?

Well, surprisingly often, no. Continue reading

“A Gentleman in Moscow” and scientific writing

In a career, how many extraordinary papers might a scientist write?

I got thinking about this, believe it or not, after noticing a copy of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow in a neighbourhood Little Free Library. That novel is astonishing (in fact, it’s not at all clear why you’re reading this post instead of A Gentleman in Moscow; but thanks.) Since reading it, I’ve read Towles’ other novels (Rules of Civility and The Lincoln Highway); and while both were fine books well worth my time, neither grabbed me the way A Gentleman in Moscow did.*

Towles isn’t the only author to show this pattern. Continue reading

Brevity in scientific writing is a good thing – until it isn’t

Nearly all of us need to work at making our scientific writing more concise. I’m definitely part of “nearly all of us” – my usual first draft needs to be trimmed down by 30%, producing a second draft that needs to lose another 30%. In my experience, making a manuscript shorter nearly always makes it clearer and better, in part by forcing it to become less “science-y” (forcing it into active voice, requiring the jettisoning of long fancy words in favour of short simple ones, and so on). So my attention was caught the other day by a reference to the recent publication of the “second shortest” philosophy paper. That paper consists only of its title: “Can a good philosophical contribution be made just by asking a question?”*

Unfortunately, the answer to the paper’s title is pretty clearly “no”.** Continue reading

Giants of the eastern forests (and a new book about them)

As an entomologist, I’m often asked if I have a favourite insect. It feels like being asked to declare a favourite child, and so I usually say I can’t possibly pick just one.* Now that I work a lot in spruce-fir forests, I’m sometimes asked if I have a favourite tree. That’s a tough one – just in the forests where I live, there’s eastern hemlock, and sugar maple, and tamarack, and American beech, and butternut. But I have a favourite tree anyway, and it’s eastern white pine (Pinus strobus, although honestly, I wish it had a more interesting Latin name).

There’s something about a pine: majestic, soaring, the strong thick trunk with the delicate needles. Continue reading

The case of the disappearing author

As collaborations get larger, more international, and more likely to involve coauthors who don’t actually know each other well, a problem that’s always existed is getting more troublesome. I’ve just seen the next step, and it isn’t pretty. It arises from the case – and the consequences – of the disappearing author.

I think (I hope) that we all know that coauthorship involves both rights and responsibilities. Continue reading

My love affair with the footnote

If you’ve been reading Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, or if you’ve read The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, you’ll have noticed my tendency to footnote. Footnotes drive some folks up the wall; others love them. You can tell that I’m in the latter camp – but why?

I guess there are two ways to answer that question: historically and functionally.

Historically: I’ve always loved weird digressions and unexpected connections – things that might not quite be germane to the main point, but are interesting or surprising or funny. Continue reading

My most heterodox scientific-writing lecture (or, how I annoy my colleagues in a good cause)

I’m well into my Scientific Writing course now, and I’ve just given the lecture that consistently annoys my faculty colleagues the most (well, it annoys many of them). It’s the one on writing the Methods section, and it’s heterodox in two rather different ways. This lecture stands out a bit – I don’t think my approach to IMRaD structure, or the content of the Discussion, or outlining, or writer’s block is all that different from the approach anyone else might take. But the Methods is different.

I said what I teach about the Methods is heterodox in two different ways. Continue reading

Why my newest paper is paywalled

I’ve just returned the proofs for my latest paper. You can read about it, and access the preprint, here; or you can wait a little while and read the journal version in Proceedings B. Or, maybe you can. You see, it will be paywalled.*

Now, some folks find that scandalous: information should be free (or at least, that’s a common refrain. I have some sympathy, and I had the choice: I could have paid to make this paper open access. And all else being equal, yes: I’d rather my papers be open access than paywalled.

But that sentiment, noble though it may be, is uselessly naïve. Continue reading

What an ecologist learned observing COP15

This is a guest post from occasional contributor Emma Despland. If you’re like me, you know that UN conferences like COP15 (more formally, the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) are, but you’re a bit mystified about what goes on at one. Here Emma gives an ecologist’s perspective on both the process and the product of COP15. The agreement (provided that it’s followed, of course) has huge implications both for our planet and for our academic field. Read on for Emma’s impressions.

Last month, I attended COP15 in Montreal as part of my university’s delegation. I volunteered mainly out of curiosity and didn’t really know what to expect. Continue reading