Monthly Archives: January 2015

The best writing in science papers: Part II

(Photo: Polyommatus bellargus (Lycaenidae), by Ettore Ballochi – CC BY-SA 3.0) Over 2 years ago now, over at the Tree of Life blog, Jonathan Eisen posted “The best writing in science papers: Part I”. I stumbled across that post and searched excitedly for Part II – only to discover there wasn’t one. So I wrote one (which Jonathan kindly let me guest-post there). It’s gotten a fair bit of attention, which is fun – so it’s time I posted it here.

I’m still titling it “Part II”. Jonathan’s Part I identified the butterfly-taxonomy papers of Vladimir Nabokov as containing flashes of beautiful writing Continue reading


Story behind the paper: Integrating phylogenetic community structure with species distribution models

(Crossposted with edits from the Ecography Blog; original post July 8, 2014)

In July 2014, we (my collaborator Jeremy Lundholm, our joint PhD student Oluwatobe “Tobi” Oke, and I) published a paper in Ecography: “Integrating phylogenetic community structure with species distribution models: an example with plants of rock barrens”.  (And kudos to Holly Abbandonato for 1st-rate field help).  I wrote the following “story behind the paper” for Ecography’s blog. I like reading this kind of thing, so you’ll probably see more on the blog in future.

Our paper combines approaches from phylogenetic community ecology and species distribution modeling to understand the assembly of plant communities on rock barrens.  It was enormous fun to be involved with the work, in part because before we started I knew nothing about SDMs and next to nothing about rock barrens.  That we ended up with what I think is a pretty good paper is a testament to the value of collaboration and coauthorship. Continue reading

What’s a “publication power-of-attorney”, and why should you have one?

Here’s a problem you might not have thought of: did you know you can submit and publish a paper with a coauthor who’s deceased, but not with one who’s in a coma and might recover?

I’m going to guess that you don’t think this is a problem worth worrying about, but please bear with me. I think it’s a more important problem than most of us realize – but it’s also one that’s easily avoided.

The unavailable-coauthor problem is actually more general than my coma example. Continue reading

Wonderful Latin Names, Part I: Upupa epops

(Image by Dûrzan cîrano, from

Our subject today is formal scientific names for species (or “Latin names”, although they need not actually be derived from Latin).  Few things about biology seem to puzzle and annoy laypeople, not to mention undergraduate students, more than our habit of using long, arcane, and sometimes unpronounceable names for the species we study.  (Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis, anyone?).  We can explain why these names serve an essential purpose, and we can handle them more adroitly with experience; but if truth be told, we don’t necessarily enjoy using Latin names.  But there are exceptions, and this post is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series celebrating wonderful Latin names. Continue reading

When not to read the literature

That’s the shelf in my office where I pile new journals still in their mailers. It’s embarrassing for two reasons.  First, it betrays my age that I still subscribe to print journals.  Second, there must be 2 years worth of unread issues in that pile!

Looking at the pile every day led me to think about my literature-reading habits, and then to ask myself a question: when should one read the literature, and when should one not? Continue reading

Does an academic need an attention span?

I’m calling my new blog “Scientist Sees Squirrel” in anticipation.  You see, I’m not sure what I’ll be writing about tomorrow, much less next month or next year – but I’m pretty sure that it will resist nice tidy categorization.  I’m interested in insect host-race formation, of course (my research bread-and-butter these days).  But I’m also interested in phylogenetic tree shape, in the evolution of plant tolerance to herbivory, in aggregation and coexistence, and in the ecology of invasions and outbreaks.  More broadly, I’m interested in science as a way of learning (and its use by non-scientists), in the culture and sociology of science and of academia, in science outreach – and increasingly, in scientific writing, including the use of humour and beauty in technical writing.  At least, those are the things I can think of just now.

And that brings me to my topic: these aren’t the same things I would have listed two years ago, or five, or ten.  My career has hopped from research area to research area: Continue reading