There’s no such thing as “an unrelated genus”

 Image: Osmia rufa, André Karwath, CC BY-SA 2.5; Boletus edulis, Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0; Volvocales, Aurora M. Nedelcu, CC BY 2.5; Chimp, Aaron Logan, CC BY 2.5; Ranunculus asiaticus, Leif Stridvall, CC BY-SA 2.5; Isotricha intestinalis, Agricultural Research Service/USDA CC 0; Compilation, Vojtěch Dostál, CC BY-SA 2.5.

 (My writing pet peeves, part 4)

There I was, at the physiotherapist, reading a new manuscript by a friend and collaborator to distract myself from the indignities being visiting on my calf.  There I was, thoroughly enjoying what I was learning, when I was brought up short by a construction that drives me up the wall:

“this species, therefore, cannot be not congeneric with A. jonesi.  Instead, it actually belongs to Ethereum, a similar but unrelated genus”.*

 I gasped.  Unrelated?  No two genera on Earth are “unrelated”.  There are closely related genera and distantly related ones, but because all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, there are no unrelated ones. Continue reading


“Guest-post SPAM” is a thing now

Image: SPAM-flavoured macadamia nuts (own work; CC BY 4.0).  Look, these nuts horrified me as much as they horrify you – but I have to admit, they were pretty good.

We’re all accustomed to fake-journal spam and fake-conference spam by now.  But I’ve started to get a new flavour of spam in my inbox: guest-post spam.

Here’s the thing: I’ve had some really nice guest posts on Scientist Sees Squirrel*, and I’d be happy to have some more.  Guest posts offer some different perspective, and the world certainly needs more than just mine.  But here’s the latest guest-post spam to come my way: Continue reading

Adventures in coauthorship networks: my Erdős number

Photo: Paul Erdős. (c) Topsy Kretts, CC BY 3.0

Warning: very nerdy.

 Sometimes I get distracted and go down a rabbithole.  Sometimes the result is fun.

I’ve been lucky, over my career, to have a large number of coauthors (some of whom are good friends; but many of whom I’ve never even met).  Coauthorhip makes my work better, but it has other benefits too.  A somewhat abstract one is that it makes me feel that I’m part of something larger than my own research program, or even my own discipline.  I belong (as we all do) to a global and cross-disciplinary network of collaborating scientists.  And to prove it, I have an Erdős numberContinue reading

Three years without an attention span

Photo: Eurasian red squirrel © Peter Trimming CC BY-SA 2.0

Warning: navel-gazing.

Today, Scientist Sees Squirrel is three years old.  This is somewhat startling to me, as is the fact that I’ve written about 240 posts on the blog.  In honour of this blogoversary, I went back and re-read my very first post: Does an academic need an attention span?  I was relieved to discover that, while it’s a little clunky, it doesn’t hold up too badly. Continue reading

Arguing with myself

Image: arguing Northern Mockingbird (© Chiltepinster CC BY-SA 3.0). I’m the one on the left.  And also the one on the right.

It was bound to happen sooner or later.  I’ve written about 240 posts for Scientist Sees Squirrel, and the other day I busted myself: I discovered that I’ve written two contradictory ones.  They’re both about originality (and yes, I can smell the irony in having written two posts on originality).  The first one (We praise originality, but we don’t value it) argued that we undervalue originality in research.  The second (Originality is over-rated – even by me) argued that we overrate originality in research.  Nice job, Heard.

Now, I’ve re-read both posts carefully*, and I can just barely build an argument that they’re not quite as contradictory as that.  Continue reading

I’m about to teach a writing course, and I’m very scared

I start teaching a new course in just a few weeks.  For the first time, I’m teaching a whole course in scientific writing.  I’m supposed to know something about that – after all, I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – but nevertheless, I’m scared.

I’ve resisted teaching scientific writing for many years, despite agreeing with my colleagues who argue that it’s one of the most valuable courses a student (undergraduate or graduate) can take.  I’ve resisted in part because teaching a good scientific writing course is a lot of work; but mostly I’ve resisted because I’m not sure that I know how to teach a good scientific writing course.  I’ve never taken one, and so have no model to emulate or to avoid.  On top of that, I don’t actually think of myself as a very good writer.  I’m slow, and although I’ve worked hard to become an adequate writer, my papers are never going to be celebrated as outstanding in our literature.  So how can I teach writing? Continue reading

Defenders of the passive voice

I mention in my book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, that there are few better ways to get academics arguing than to bring up the topic of the passive voice.  I’m reminded of this every time I get into a discussion of voice, either online or in person, in my department.  As you’d expect for a topic provoking argument, there are strongly held opinions on both sides: that scientific writing should use the active voice, or that the passive voice should be used instead*.

In general, I’m a passionate advocate for the active voice (although I acknowledge that a reasonable person can disagree).  Either on Twitter or in real life, I’ll often say something about avoiding the passive, and almost always somebody will come back with an objection.  These objections take a number of forms, both among different objectors but also within a single objector’s argument.  Two things interest me about patterns in those objections. Continue reading