Monthly Archives: June 2016

Sign: "survey crew ahead"

How much time do you spend writing? Survey says…

Photo: Survey Crew by Rusty Clark via, CC BY 2.0

Last week I asked you how much time you spent writing.  In my writing book I suggest that most academics spend a large fraction of their time writing.  I’d been surprised to hear a few people argue the opposite – and to find this estimate of 2% to apparently back that up.  Hence last week’s post, in which I gave a few reasons for doubting that 2% number; but had to admit I didn’t have any real backup for my claim that most of us spend a lot of time writing.  So, I included a completely, 100% unscientific poll, and I promised I’d come back with the results. Continue reading

A passage of text, edited to remove passive voice

Write as I say, not as I do

Image: what every one of my Methods sections looks like after my passive voice search-and-destroy!

Heard_Scientist'sGuide cover I probably should have seen this coming, but ever since people found out I was working on a book on scientific writing, I get mistaken for a good writer.  I get asked for advice; I get asked to give writing workshops and teach writing courses; and people turn to my own papers looking for examples of excellent writing (and even for touches of humour and beauty).  You may find it odd, but all this has taken me somewhat aback. Continue reading

"The Passion of Creation", by Leonid Pasternak

How much time do you spend writing?

Image: The Throes of Creation, by Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945). Public domain.

I spend a lot of time writing, and I think most scientists do.  In fact, I think many scientists spend more time writing than they do on any other part of their jobs*. In The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I put it this way:

 You probably aspired to a career in science because you liked puzzling out proofs, making chemicals react, tracking wolves through the woods by moonlight, or working with students in the classroom or lab – but most likely you’ve already discovered that you spend more of your time writing than doing any of those things.

I’ve been surprised to encounter a fair bit of disagreement about this claim. Continue reading

Theses, nailed to plank

The “opponent” system: my experience at a Swedish PhD defence

Photo: A “nailed” thesis abstract (photo S. Heard)

 I recently returned from a trip to Stockholm, where I went to be the “opponent” (in North America, we would say “external examiner”) for a PhD defence. Get this: at the defence, the PhD candidate didn’t present his work – I did.  Curious? Read on. Continue reading

Meme: Inigo Montoya, You keep on using that Latin abbreviation. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Friends don’t let friends use “cf.”

(My writing pet peeves, part 2)

Scientific writing is sprinkled with Latin.  Yes, there are “Latin” (or “scientific”) names of organisms, and those can be unexpectedly fascinating; but that’s not my topic today.  Instead, it’s those little words and phrases, often abbreviated: i.e., e.g., versus, sensu lato. Danger lurks for those who don’t use them carefully – and it lurks in cf. especially, it seems. In fact, the misuse of cf. is high on my list of writing pet peeves. It also carries a broader lesson, which I’ll get to.

So what’s the problem with cf.Continue reading

The most useful statistical test that nobody knows

Image: Plaque commemorating Fisher on Inverforth House. Peter O’Connor via, CC BY-SA 2.0

Do you know Fisher’s method for combining P-values?  If you do, move along; I’ve got nothing for you. If you don’t, though, you may be interested in what’s surely the most useful statistical test that – despite the fame of Fisher himself – nobody knows about.

Fisher’s method is the original meta-analysis.  When I was a grad student, and nobody had heard of meta-analysis (or cell phones, or the internal-combustion engine), I had a supervisory committee member who liked to make strong statements.  One of his favourites was “A bunch of weak tests don’t add up to a strong test!”  Continue reading

Writing on writing makes me nervous

Photo: Scorpion stonework, house on Lilla Nygatan, Stockholm, Sweden; photo S. Heard. How many legs is that again? Oh well, at least the error isn’t carved in stone.  Oh, wait….

It wouldn’t surprise me if every paper I’ve ever published contains an error. Mind you, it wouldn’t bother me all that much, either. Continue reading