Can you change a species’ common name?

Content warning: Discusses common names based on ethnic and other slurs and on the names of people with potentially upsetting histories.

Other warning: considerably longer than usual. But, I think, also considerably more interesting than usual.

Is the common name of a species (cougar, daisy, blue mussel, Swainson’s thrush) an unalterable part of our language, or can we change one? (We might want to, sometimes – most obviously, when a name is offensive.) The answer is more complicated than you might think. Today, a little background to explain those complications, and then some analysis of three cases where organizations have attempted to drive changes in common names.

We share the Earth with millions of other species, and they’re both fascinating (all of them!) and directly important to us (many of them). Continue reading

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It’s not lazy to do the easy writing first

I’ve used jigsaw puzzles as a metaphor for writing before, and today I’m returning to that surprisingly fertile ground. If you’re not into jigsaws, don’t worry: as an alternative framing, I can offer Things My Mother Told Me That Were Not True. (Also ground I’ve ploughed before.)

When I was growing up, my family put a lot of stock in what’s sometimes described as a Protestant work ethic. My mother in particular was pretty strong on this one point: if you have an easy job and a hard job ahead of you, don’t be lazy: do the hard job first. To return to the jigsaw puzzle metaphor: start with the sky, not with the deck chairs. Well, there are surely tasks for which that advice makes sense, but I’m here to tell you that neither jigsaw puzzles nor writing are (usually) among them.

When I write a new paper (or anything else), I ease myself in. Continue reading

Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test (book review)

I’ve just finished reading Marlene Zuk’s newest book, Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test: How Behavior Evolves and Why it Matters. Now, before we do anything else, can we stop for a moment and admire that title? Is there a human being on Earth who wouldn’t want to know more?

Dancing Cockatoos is a book about the evolutionary ecology of animal behaviour. Continue reading

Exciting news: I’m (co-)writing another book!

I’ve been itching to share this news, and now I can: I’m writing another book! Actually, even better: I’m co-writing this one, with Bethann Garramon Merkle. It’s been hard to keep this quiet for so long, but we’ve just signed a contract (with the University of Chicago Press), so now it’s official. Hooray!

What’s it about, you ask? Well, our working title is Helping Students Write in the Sciences: Strategies for Efficient and Effective Mentoring of Developing Writers. Writing is a huge part of the job of a scientist, and it’s hard – but teaching and mentoring writing is too, and it’s harder. Continue reading

University support staff should understand universities

Warning: I’m grumpy today.

Every so often I reread one of my old blog posts (usually, it’s one I’ve forgotten that I wrote). Almost all the time, I find myself nodding in agreement – which, I suppose, won’t surprise you.* But this morning I reread University administrators should understand universities, and realized I had it wrong.

Well, not actually that wrong. I’d argued that higher-level university administrators (not Deans and Chairs, I mean, but Directors of Information Technology Services and their ilk) ought to have some idea what a university actually does, and how those of us who actually do it go about the doing of it. I’m still quite convinced that’s right! But then, about 2/3 of the way in, I found this howler: Continue reading

Preprints, peer review, and the eLife experiment

The “journal” eLife (more about the quotation marks shortly) made a splash last week, announcing a major change in their publication process. In a nutshell, eLife will no longer let peer review influence whether they accept or reject a manuscript. Instead, if they send it out for review at all, they’ll publish the manuscript along with its peer reviews. Authors can respond to peer review either by revising their manuscript or by writing a rejoinder – but they needn’t. You should read eLife’s rather breathless editorial (Eisen et al. 2022) to get the full picture.

It’s a major change for eLife, but I think it’s less revolutionary than it’s painted. Continue reading

Two trivial writing mistakes that really grate on me

Like most academics, I read a lot. And I mean a lot: student papers, draft manuscripts and thesis chapters, manuscripts I’m peer reviewing, grant proposals, blog posts, and yes, newspapers and magazine articles and novels. So I see polished writing, and unpolished writing, and rough-draft writing. And I have that academic instinct to spot writing errors. I see lots of those, believe me – including, of course, in my own writing.

Some errors impede communication, and some are trivial. You’d think I’d rant about the former and forgive the latter, but I’m afraid I’m not that rational. Continue reading

How to boost a book, and an author – and why you should

Last week, I reassured you that you don’t need to buy my books – I’m perfectly content if you borrow them from a library, or from a friend. I suspect most authors are the same – most of understand very well that writing books isn’t going to make us wealthy!

But let’s imagine that you’ve read a book and liked it, and you’d like to thank the author in some small way. You can do that, in ways that won’t cost you a single penny, and I can guarantee you your gesture will be gratefully received. Continue reading

I don’t mind at all if you get my book from the library

If you’ve been reading Scientist Sees Squirrel at all, you know I’ve written a couple of books: The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, and Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider (so far). When I’m talking with folks about these books, there’s a bit of awkwardness that often comes up. Someone will politely mention their interest in reading one of the books, and I’ll tell them that I have copies for sale. That’s not the awkward part, though! The awkward part, instead, comes when I mention that they can also borrow either book from their university or public library. Folks seem to think that they shouldn’t show interest in that option – that I’d be upset if they borrowed my book rather than buying a copy. Continue reading

How circular expectations damage our scientific writing

I’m revising a manuscript, and once again dealing with a peer reviewer who wants my writing to look and sound just like all the other writing in our scientific literature. There’s a problem there – and it’s a pervasive one.

The thing is, our scientific literature has a reputation for being tedious and turgid. It’s a reputation that’s mostly well deserved. There are straightforward ways we could make our literature better – but we can’t do that if we’re tied to the ways we’ve written before. Unfortunately, folks are so tied, very strongly. Continue reading