Monthly Archives: April 2015

“Encouraging” solo authorship would be a really bad idea

Image credit: S. Heard.  Hand models: Ken Dearborn, Allyson Heustis (thanks!).

I just read an intriguing opinion piece, Garsten et al’s (2015) “Single authors: an exterminated race”, which argues that “the scientific community could benefit from encouraging solo authors”. By all means read the piece (it’s a short and easy read); you may agree. I don’t, and here’s why.

Garsten et al. begin with the familiar observation that the fraction of solo-authored academic papers has been declining for a long time, especially in the natural sciences. (I’m certainly no exception: in the last dozen years I’ve published just two solo-authored papers, and I don’t see many more on the horizon.) For multiply-authored papers, the average number of authors has been rising too (sometimes to silly extremes, with hundreds or thousands of authors*). There are many reasons for this, as Garsten et al. correctly point out, including increasing complexity of scientific work and (less admirably) author-list inflation arising from our metric-obsessed attempts to measure researcher quality through publication counts.

So far, not much to argue with. But things get interesting when Garsten et al. move from description to prescription, arguing that solo-authored papers are superior to multiply-authored ones**. Continue reading


Dealing with the defect in English

Image credits: Dinosaur comics #2079, © Ryan North

(This post will be of interest mainly to grammar buffs, language pedants, and people writing books.  You’ve been warned!)

English is a wonderful language, a difficult language, and a frustrating language. It has 350,000 different words, or maybe 1,000,000 (depending who you ask) – but it’s missing two really important ones: a pair of gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronouns. We have he/she and his/her, but no nongendered equivalents. That’s a real problem for a writer who wants his or her (see?) language to be inclusive, and in the 21st century it’s surely a defect in our language*. Continue reading

How should grad students learn to write?

Image credit: xkcd

Warning: long post!

Writing is an absolutely essential skill for grad students. I’ve seen many flounder (and some fail to finish the degree) not because their research was poorly conceived or their experiments didn’t yield data, but because they just couldn’t convert their data into theses and publications. With writing skills so crucial, it might seem surprising that most grad students never receive any formal instruction in writing. There isn’t even any consensus as to how or whether grad students should receive such instruction (and there’s little formal research on the topic).

So how should grad students learn to write? Continue reading

The dumbest thing I ever wrote to an editor

OK, so first a funny story; then maybe I’ll extract some kind of lesson from it.

Way back when I was a grad student, I had finished the first chapter of my thesis and was ready to submit it for publication. I thought of myself as an evolutionary ecologist (I still do); and without much more thought about it than that, I decided to send the manuscript to Evolutionary Ecology. Mike Rosenzweig was the Editor-in-Chief at the time, and Mike promptly* sent my manuscript back with an editorial decline, on the grounds that the manuscript was straight-up ecology, without any evolution in it.

So what did I do? Here comes the dumb part. Continue reading

Do scientists want beauty? Or, why I wrote my weirdest paper ever

Last summer I published the weirdest paper of my career. It’s called “On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed?”, and it asks whether humour and beauty are possible, and advisable, in scientific writing. (If this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because I mentioned it here). I want to explain how I came to write and publish the paper. This is not entirely self-indulgent: I think story reveals some interesting things about us as scientists and about our publishing system. Bear with me and I’ll get to that.

I became interested in humour and beauty in scientific writing while working on my guidebook for scientific writers (Princeton University Press, Spring 2016; details here). Here’s how that happened.

One major theme of my book is that the scientific writer’s most important goal is to produce writing that’s crystal-clear and thus effortless to read. In fact, nearly every linguistic and structural convention we use in our writing – from punctuation to our IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) structure – exists only because it helps us achieve that goal. This is hardly a novel message: a long line of writers on rhetoric have argued for clarity, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, who put it this way: “The greatest possible merit of style is…to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought”.

But after writing 28 chapters hammering away at clear writing, I found myself wondering if I was missing something. Does this obsession with function leave us with text that’s clear but artless and dull? Or is it possible for scientific writers to offer their readers some pleasure along with functional text? And might this be a good idea? Continue reading

On expressing our joy as scientists

My inner curmudgeon is on vacation, but he’ll be back next week.

This week on Twitter, #IAmAScientistBecause has been trending*. I’ve been enjoying it tremendously, and I tweeted the sentiment above (the link is to this post). If you missed the whole thing and want to see some of the tweets, here’s a nice collection to start with.

I was enjoying #IAmAScientistBecause so much, in fact, that I was quite taken aback to see some people tweeting their uneasiness with the whole business. Of course, that was naïve on my part: you can’t post even a cute kitten to the internet without getting some kind of pushback! But the uneasy people (whom I respect very much) made two interesting points, and they got me thinking. Continue reading

Our literature isn’t a big pile of facts

pile of journals smallI wrote recently about the reproducibility “crisis” and its connection to the history of our Methods, and some discussion of that post prompted me to think about another angle on reproducibility. That angle: is our literature a big pile of facts? And why might we think so, and why does it matter?

John Ioannidis (2005) famously claimed that “Most Published Research Findings Are False”. This paper has been cited 2600 time and is still frequently quoted, tweeted, and blogged.* Ioannidis’ paper made important points about the way natural variation, statistical inference, and publication culture interact to mean that we can’t assume every statistically significant result indicates a truth about nature. But I think it’s also encouraged us as scientists to over-react, and to mislead ourselves into a fundamental misunderstanding of our scientific process. To see what I mean, start with Ioannidis’ very interesting opening sentence:

“Published research findings are sometimes refuted by subsequent evidence, with ensuing confusion and disappointment.”

I say this is an “interesting” sentence because I think raises an important question about us and our understanding of the scientific process. That question: why should we experience “confusion and disappointment” when a published study isn’t backed up by further evidence? Surely this is an odd reaction, and one that only makes sense if we think that everything in a journal is a Fact, and that our literature is a big pile of such Facts – of things we know to be true, and things we know to be false. Continue reading

Vultures for England: A modest proposal

Image credits: Vulture, by Dori (, CC BY-SA 2.0. Zane Grey in 1895, in Penn’s baseball uniform (, public domain.

A couple of weeks ago I was in California, keeping my eyes peeled for interesting birds. Disappointingly, the first bird I saw was a starling – a bird I could have seen almost anywhere in the temperate world. The second was a turkey vulture. Vultures are common and ecologically important scavengers across most of the world*, although none occur in England or Scandinavia. There, eagles, kites, and corvids include carrion in their diets, but the avifauna lacks a carrion specialist – that niche is vacant.

This got me thinking. Continue reading