My goodness that’s a lot of squirrels

This is my 500th post on Scientist Sees Squirrel*, and my goodness, that’s quite the logorrheic accomplishment.

When I started this blog, back in January of 2015, I really didn’t know where it was going. (Like many of my major life decisions, starting a blog wasn’t thoroughly thought out.) It’s astonishing to me that I’m still at it, nearly 7 years later; and that I’ve written 500 posts and thus, roughly, 550,000 words. That’s just a little bit less verbiage than War and Peace, and a little more than Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the doorstopperiest of the series) and Moby Dick (which, by the way, carries an important lesson for scientific writers) combined.

Like Dynamic Ecology, I know I’ll eventually stop spelling ‘banana’; but not yet. Continue reading

Peer review, CVs, and what is Publons for?

Something a bit different today: this post is mostly just a link to a piece I’ve just published on There, I ask why early-career folks might get involved in peer reviewing, given that they aren’t paid to review (unlike many, if not most, more senior academics, for whom reviewing is part of the service component of the job). There are clear benefits to reviewing (which you can read about in the piece I linked to above*) but I don’t think one of them is giving you something you can list to good effect on your CV. Which raises the question: what is Publons for? Continue reading

Should peer reviewers comment on writing style?

There seems to be a pretty widespread agreement that peer review should (even if it can’t always) identify flawed reasoning, improper statistical tests, and other serious issues with the inferences a manuscript makes. But should reviewers also make suggestions about writing style? About use of the active voice vs. the passive; about the use of contractions and other informality; about metaphors or even (gasp) humour? A lot of authors seem to think they shouldn’t, arguing that writing style is a personal decision that should be left up to a writer. Actually, I have some sympathy for that argument – the role of reviewers in crushing individual style is one reason that our literature lacks much individual voice, and pushback against beauty and humour is one reason it’s (mostly) so tedious. But in matters of style, should reviewers mind their own business? Continue reading

Can we please stop paying attention to grant funding on researcher CVs?

Given how much time and energy we academics put into evaluating each others’ CVs, it’s a bit startling to realize that we’re doing it wrong. Hiring decisions, promotion decisions, tenure decisions, grant funding decisions – all of these draw heavily on the candidates’ records of “excellence” as documented on their CVs. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – there’s no other way science could be the meritocracy we like to think it is, and that it ought to be (but isn’t yet).  But nearly every time I’ve been involved with evaluating CVs, the process has involved an enormous mistake: we’ve* paid attention to the candidates’ past records of grant funding.

There’s a very simple reason why grant funding should receive absolutely no attention in our assessments of each other: Continue reading

Metaphors in scientific writing: vagueness and confusion, or something better?

One of the foremost virtues – probably the foremost virtue – of good scientific writing is clarity. (I make this argument at length in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.)  In service of this goal, writers are often advised to be cautious about using metaphors (see Olson, Arroyo-Santos, and Vergara-Silva (2019), A User’s Guide to Metaphors in Ecology and Evolution, for an interesting analysis of metaphors and their strengths and weaknesses). A metaphor names or describes one thing by referring to another, and our literature is studded with them*: the tree of life, the Big Bang, electron shells, biological invasions, chaperonins, tectonic plates – and these are just a few that came to my mind right away.

Critics of metaphors often rest their case on three major grounds. Metaphors are held to be vague, to be misleading, or to resist cultural translation. Do these grounds hold water?** Continue reading

Are we watching the death of volunteerism in science?

I hope not; but maybe. Warning: old man yells at clouds.

One of the interesting consequences of being pretty far along in a career is that you see trends*. No, this isn’t a complaint about Auto- Tune in pop music (although to be honest, it could be); this is, after all, mostly a science blog. Instead, what I’m ranting every-so-gently about today is what seems like increasing reluctance to do anything without payment – a gigification of science, if you like.

It’s usually foolish to try tracing trends to their first spark, but I’m tempted to speculate that the furor over “unpaid” peer review was at least an early symptom. Continue reading

We’re (nearly) all untrained at SciComm. So, some resources.

If there’s one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced for scientists, it’s that we desperately need the general public to understand, or at least accept and respect, what science has to tell us about the way the world works. There are a number of ways that can happen. It can happen through skilled and passionate teachers in K-12 education. It can happen through the work of science journalists (Ed Yong, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Carl Zimmer being three superb examples). Or, it can happen through scientists taking on the job themselves, speaking or writing directly to the general public. This last one is science outreach, or as it’s more often called these days, science communication or SciComm. What’s interesting about SciComm is that we (scientists) all seem to think it’s important, and many of us do it – but almost none of us have any training for the job. Continue reading

My writing pet peeves: “As previously mentioned…”

If you’re like me, there are probably things you notice in writing that set your teeth on edge. Today, I’m going to vent a little bit about “as previously mentioned”.

“As previously mentioned” is an example of “metadiscourse” – writing that’s about the writing. We use metadiscourse to help readers find their way through what we’ve written – “signposting” is a less formal term. I’m actually a big fan of metadiscourse, because when used well it helps writing be crystal-clear. Continue reading

Raisin buns, leaf packs, acronyms, and thinking

I made some raisin buns the other day, and I swear there’s a connection to science coming.

The recipe called for, among other things, 2 eggs, 3½ cups of flour, ½ cup of brown sugar, and 2¼ tsp of yeast. Two and a quarter teaspoons – that’s quite precise, isn’t it? One can imagine a test kitchen industriously experimenting, through dozens and dozens of batches, to nail down just the right quantity of yeast for this recipe. 2 tsp isn’t quite enough; 2½ is definitely too much. But if you bake a lot, you might smell a (metaphorical) rat. Continue reading

Nerdy thrills: “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle” is in my local public library

Warning: navel-gazing AND trivial, all in one tidy package

I spent a fish-out-of-water hour last Friday, hanging an art exhibit. Nothing in my career made me suspect I’d ever do that – and given my complete lack of artistic ability*, you’ll be relieved to know that it’s not my art. Instead, I was hanging an exhibit of the illustrations from my book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. They’re gorgeous, thanks to the expert work of science illustrator Emily Damstra, and if aren’t in Fredericton to see the exhibit, then you can come close via this post and the online exhibit it links to.

I did feel like a fish out of water Continue reading