Every paper tells a story – or at least, it should

Image: Storytelling chair © BeyondTimelines, CC-0 via pixabay.com

There are plenty of strong opinions and controversies about scientific writing: the active voice vs. the passive, how to describe a result with P = 0.06, even – and perhaps most spectacular for ratio of strength of feeling to importance – one space or two after a full stop.  But one controversy that astonishes me is that over whether or not scientific writing is “storytelling”.  Spoiler alert: of course it is.

It may seem odd to use the word “storytelling” for scientific writing, because we tend to think of that word as associated with fiction. Continue reading

Advertisements

Internet trolls and integration by parts

Image: Don’t feed the trolls, © Sam Fentress CC BY-SA 3.0; plus integration by parts.

I’m usually pleased when people read my blog posts and ask questions about them.  Usually – but not when they’re trolls.

I ran into a very-likely-troll a couple of weeks ago.  I’d written a post I called Charles Darwin’s Other Mistake, about Darwin’s disdain for the use of authorities with Latin names.  It’s more interesting than it sounds – really – and it was picked up by Real Clear Science and (partly as a result) attracted quite a bit of readership.  And one reader left a question that had a distinctly suspicious odour to it. Continue reading

Is my worst writing habit also my writer’s voice?

If I have a shortcoming as a writer – and believe me, the only thing wrong with that proposition is that I don’t just have one – it’s my fondness for parentheticals.  (See what I did there?)  I love them; as I say in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, “I use parentheses as if I’d gotten an irresistible deal on a bulk purchase of water-damaged ones”.  I even have a special step in revision of my early drafts in which I search for all occurrences of parentheses, with the intent of excising as many as I can.  Sometimes it even works. Continue reading

It’s been a while since I’ve been this proud of a paper

I don’t usually blog about my own papers, except in some rather meta ways, but last week saw the publication of a paper I’m really, really proud of.  And it has some interesting backstory, including its conception right here on Scientist Sees Squirrel.

The paper is called “Site-selection bias and apparent population declines in long-term studies”, and it’s just come out in Conservation Biology.  It started, back in August of 2016, with a post called Why Most Studied Populations Should Decline.  That post made a very simple point about population monitoring, long-term studies, and inferences about population decline.  That point: if ecologists tend to begin long-term studies in places where their study organisms are common (and there are lots of very good reasons why they might), then we should expect long-term studies to frequently show population declines simply as a statistical artifact.  That shouldn’t be controversial – it’s just a manifestation of regression to the mean – but it’s been almost entirely unaddressed in the literature.

A bunch of folks read that blog post.  Some were mortally offended. Continue reading

The dangerous temptation of acronyms

(My Writing Pet Peeves, Part 6)

Over the last two weeks, I’ve written peer reviews* for three different manuscripts (MSs).  All three included newly coined acronyms (NCAs) to substitute for repeated short technical phrases (RSTPs).  I’ve gotten in the habit, whenever I run across an NCA, to use my word processor’s search function (WPSF) to find and count occurrences of the NCA in the MS.  Frequently (including for two of the recent three MSs), my WPSF reveals that the NCA is used only once or twice more in the MS.  That makes it an RUA – a rarely used acronym – and RUAs are one of my writing pet peeves (WPPs).

By now that you probably suspect that I’m deliberately using a lot of acronyms to annoy you.  Continue reading

Charles Darwin’s other mistake

Images: Charles Darwin, age 33 (with his son William Erasmus Darwin), public domain; Leucospermum bolusii, photo by Andrew Massyn, released to public domain.

When I was a grad student, it was de rigeur to proclaim that every good idea was already in The Origin of Species, and to express amazement that Charles Darwin could have been so right about so many things.  It’s probably the astonishingly rightness of the Origin – along with the rest of Darwin’s writing – that makes his huge error stand out so conspicuously.  That huge error, of course, was the idea of blending inheritance.  It didn’t work in theory, it wasn’t (even then) consistent with available data, and Darwin should have known both of those things.  (His correspondence suggests that he probably did.)

I recently ran across* another Darwinian mistake. Continue reading

A tale of two jokes (one published, one not)

Image: Sun Records compilation; photo © Chris Light CC BY-SA 4.0

Most scientific papers (and definitely most of mine) are pretty dull.  That is, the results may be important and interesting, but the papers themselves – the text – tend to be dry, colourless, even tedious.  That’s partly because we work so hard to remove authorial voice; it’s partly because we favour complex passive-voice constructions laden with jargon and acronyms; and it’s partly because we avoid humour like the plague.  At least, most of the time.

I say “most of the time” because everyone can point to an example or two of a paper that includes a joke. Continue reading