Originality is over-rated. (Including by me.)

Image: Tulips, Vera Kratochvil CC-0 released to public domain.

Last week I reviewed a grant proposal for one of the European national granting agencies.  It was an interesting piece of work, which – if funded – would gather probably our best dataset so far to test some longstanding questions in my field.  It was ambitious, thorough, and well planned.  But it didn’t blaze any particularly new path: the techniques were standard, the questions have been in the literature for decades, and every planned analysis has been done before (albeit with smaller and less suitable datasets).

Before I’d even quite noticed, I found that I’d written a sentence in my review saying “There’s nothing original about the proposed research”.  But as I looked at that sentence – and as it glared back at me from the screen – I felt like it was judging me more than the applicant.  And it should have.

You see, originality in science is highly over-rated.  Continue reading

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My weirdest job interview – and assumptions from familiarity

Image: Still from “Silly Job Interview”, Monty Pythons’ Flying Circus, Season 1 Episode 5.

Years ago, I went on a really, really weird job interview.  I’ve told the story many times since, but I’ve realized that the way I tell it has shifted.  There’s a moral there, only part of which is that I was dumb.  (Readers of Scientist Sees Squirrel really like stories about how I was dumb, and fortunately, it’s a deep well.)

As a postdoc, back in the mid-1990s, I applied for a lot of jobs (all of them in the university professoriate, at universities with at least some research emphasis).  Most of them, of course, I didn’t getContinue reading

Statistics in Excel, and when a Results section is “too short”

Every now and again, you see a critique of a manuscript that brings you up short and makes you go “Huh”.

A student of mine defended her thesis a while ago, and one of her examiners commented on one of her chapters that “the Results section is too short”*Huh, I said.  Huh.

I’m quite used to seeing manuscripts that are too long.   Occasionally, I see a manuscript that’s too short.  But this complaint was more specific: that the Results section in particular was too short. I’d never heard that one, and I just couldn’t make sense of it.  Or at least, not until I realized that it fits in with another phenomenon that I see and hear a lot: the suggestion that nobody should ever, ever do their statistics in Excel. Continue reading

Three witches in the woods

Photos: witches’ butter © Daniel Neil CC BY 2.0; witch-hazel © Mike Peel CC BY-SA 4.0; witches’ broom © Scot Nelson CC BY 2.0.

Happy Hallowe’en!

Tonight, you’ll no doubt see neighbourhood children traipsing door-to-door in costume, shrieking and laughing along the way.  You’ll see superheroes and scarecrows, pirates and police officers, wizards and witches. Some costumes go in and out of fashion; but there are witches every year.

There are witches in the woods, too. Continue reading

Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Latin names

Image: Gnorimoscheme gallaesolidaginis (Lepidoptera: Gelechiidae), © Tom Murray CC BY-ND-NC 1.0

 Warning: judgy and subjective.

 If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ll know I have a strange and nerdy fascination with Latin names of plants and animals. People often think (my undergraduates always think) Latin names are long, obscure, boring, and unpronounceable.  But they’re wrong.  Latin names can be wonderful – and I have a series of posts saying so.  They can be delightful to say.  They can celebrate scientific heroes or pop-culture ones.  They can keep alive the memory of people otherwise forgotten.  Sometimes they can do all those things at once.  I think of Latin names as loose threads that, when pulled on, often reveal unexpected and fascinating stories.

But. Continue reading

The coauthors I’ve never met

As of two weeks ago, I’ve published 76 peer-reviewed papers, and I’ve published them with 114 different coauthors.  Among those coauthors are my graduate and undergraduate students, my colleagues, my friends, my wife – and quite a few people I’ve never met. Continue reading

Negative-news bias and “the disaster that is peer review”

Peer review is a dumpster fire, right?  At least, that’s what I hear – and there’s a reason for that.

Last month, I got reviews back on my latest paper.  Opening that particular email always makes me both excited and depressed, and this one ran true to form: a nicely complimentary opening from the editor and Reviewer 1 – followed by several pages of detailed critiques from Reviewer 2 – and Reviewer 3 – and, believe it or not, Reviewer 4.  Continue reading