Monthly Archives: November 2016

The three functions of a thesis

Photo: rows of theses in UNB’s library (S. Heard)

PhD theses are weird things.  Now, it may seem weird that a person is expected to spend five years labouring to produce a single document that determines their career prospects* – but that’s not what I mean.  Instead, I mean that they’re a weird writing form.  They’re important, but nobody ever reads them.  They’re singled-authored, except that they’re not**.  They’re bulked up with trivia, but judged by their importance.  They’re considered publications, except that republishing their content later doesn’t count as double-publication.  What on earth is going on? Continue reading


No, your field isn’t “broader” than mine

Photo: Railway tracks and vanishing point, by annymoamo via, CC0.

It happened again last week.

I was sitting in a meeting, and someone explained that our cell biology course is different from our other courses (like my ecology course) because cell biology “is such a broad field”.  This has been explained to me over the years about cell biology, molecular biology, physiology, earth science, and I’m sure a few more I’m not remembering.  It’s been explained in the context of undergraduate curriculum, faculty hiring priorities, funding levels for granting agencies, library journal budgets, and more.  Every time, it makes me see red. Continue reading

About last week

There’s not much to say about recent global events that hasn’t been said already, and better.  But:

I believe each of us has just one important job: to make the world a better place for others (especially, of course, for those less privileged or less fortunate than us).  We do this in large ways and in small ones; we do it at work and at home; we do it locally and around the world.  It’s why we do science; it’s why we teach; it’s why we parent; it’s why we sing Happy Birthday. It’s why – or it should be why – we do pretty much everything.

Sometimes, events (or our own actions, or those of others) make this job a little easier.  Sometimes they make it a little harder.  Sometimes they make it a lot harder.  None of that changes what our job is, and we all need to go on making the world a little bit better tomorrow than it is today.

© Stephen Heard ( Nov. 14, 2016, licensed CC-BY-4.0

Nametag with knotted lanyard

Are you wearing your conference nametag wrong?

Well, that’s a stupidly arrogant thing I just asked, isn’t it?  Who am I to tell you you’re wearing your nametag wrong?  But here’s the thing: you may not be, but I can make a good case that many of your colleagues are. Continue reading

Why do we mention stats software in our Methods?

Image: Excerpt from Heard et al. 1999, Mechanical abrasion and organic matter processing in an Iowa stream. Hydrobiologia 400:179-186.

Nearly every paper I’ve ever written includes a sentence something like this: “All statistical analyses were conducted in SAS version 8.02 (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC)*  But I’m not quite sure why.

Why might any procedural detail get mentioned in the Methods?  There are several answers to that, with the most common being: Continue reading

Please don’t “make science transparent” by publishing your reviews

Image: “Transparency”, CC BY-SA, flickr/freepress

Note: This is a modestly revised version of my original post, which was not written very clearly. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony.)  It was easy, reading the original version, to think I was primarily objecting to journals publishing peer reviews.  I’m ambivalent about that (and my arguments below apply only weakly to that situation).  It should be clearer now that I’m focusing on authors publishing their peer reviews.  If you’d like to see how my writing led folks astray, I’ve archived the original version here.

We hear a lot about making science more transparent, more open – and that’s a good thing.  That doesn’t mean, though, that every way of making science more transparent should be adopted.  It’s like everything else, really: each step we could take will have benefits and costs, and we can’t ignore real impediments.  I worry that sometimes we lose sight of this.

One place I suspect we’re losing sight of it is in the movement for authors to publish their (received) peer reviews.  (There are also journals that publish peer reviews, such as Nature Communications; I think this is a lot of work with dubious return on investment, but that’s a topic for another day).   What I often see is the suggestion that whenever I publish a paper, I should post the full history of its peer reviews on Github or the equivalent. This lets readers see for themselves all that went into the making of the sausage.  It’s worth reading a good argument in favour of this, and I’ll point you to Terry McGlynn’s, which I think puts the case as well as it can be put.

I don’t agree, though.  Here’s why I won’t be posting my (received) peer reviews: Continue reading