Monthly Archives: February 2017

Squirrels, serendipity, and the reach of a blog

Photo: Whitehead’s pygmy squirrel (Exilisciurus whiteheadi), © Chi’en C. Lee via, used by permission.

Inspired by similar exercises from Small Pond Science and The Lab and Field, I present a few more weird and wonderful search terms by which Scientist Sees Squirrel has been found.  These are all real, I swear – and they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

But while the searches are amusing, at the end I do want to draw a couple of serious conclusions – feel free to scroll right down there if you’re not in the mood for frivolity.

Search terms in bold italic:


squirrel simulations Continue reading


“Student competition sessions” at conferences are weird

Image: Part of the conference programme for the 2016 International Congress of Entomology.

I’m never surprised when I open up the programme for a conference and see a “Student Competition Session” – a bunch of grad (or sometimes, undergrad) student talks gathered together and judged for prizes*.  Not surprised, but mystified, because I find this distinctly weird. Continue reading

Why aren’t we agitating for open-access groceries?

Photo: Onions, own work.  The photo, not the onions, I mean.

Warning: very strange thought experiment.

Calls for us to make our literature open-access have become a routine thing, and many of them are quite impassioned.  I’m thinking, for example, of folks who announce that they will only review for open-access journals, or even those who announce (bizarrely) that they will only read open-access papers.  There’s a widespread belief that open-access literature is not just a social good (which it surely is) but an important social good, perhaps even a critical social good*.

But there’s something odd here.  It isn’t the argument itself (which we certainly ought to be having); instead, it’s where we stop making it.  Because you know what else ought to be open-access?  Groceries.

Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous; but there are actually some non-trivial parallels.  Stay with me for a bit. Continue reading

Life under the snow

Photo: Vole tunnels revealed by melting snow, © John Fowler (, used by permission.

 Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden.  I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

             On a cold February day, when breath hangs visible in the frigid air and even our winter-resident birds are huddling out of sight, it’s easy to think that life outdoors waits suspended for a thaw.  Think twice, though, because when that thaw comes it will bring evidence – like the networks of vole tunnels in the photo above – that this apparent suspension was just an illusion.  There’s a lot going on, even on the coldest days of winter; but a lot of it is happening out of sight, under the snow. Continue reading

Knowing, and naming, your audience (with “lay audience” poll results)

Last week, I asked for advice on preferred terminology for what’s often referred to as a “lay audience”.  I’d been uncomfortable with that term, because to some ears it carries an unfortunate implication of scientists as a priesthood.  I did wonder, to be honest, whether I might be the only one who cared, but that clearly isn’t the case – responses were thick and enthusiastic both in the Replies and on Twitter.  (Only 5% of poll respondents picked the option “Holy overthinking it, Batman”.)  I’ll report here on the poll results and on the other suggestions people offered for better terminology.  But I’ll also build from that to a more general and very important point about writing – one that emerged from discussion around the poll that was, happily, much more interesting that I expected.  Continue reading

One figure at a time, please

(My writing pet peeves, part 3)

When you’re reading a thesis or a paper, have you ever come across a sentence like this one?

“Diet overlap between species increased from 2004 – 2009 in four of six comparisons: ribbon snake – green snake, mud snake – milk snake, milk snake – ribbon snake, and milk snake – green snake (Fig. 2A-F, Figs. 3 – 6, Table 3).”*

I bet you have (unless you’re reading an entirely different literature than I am).  I come across such sentences often, and every time, they make me see red. Continue reading

Help! What term should we be using for a “lay audience”?

Stephen Jay Gould quote from

Over the years, I’ve frequently needed to refer to that set of people who are not trained as scientists.  It comes up in “broader impacts” sections of grants, in proposals to support science communication activities, in discussions of how to motivate societal and political support for science, and lots of other places besides.  It’s come up for me most recently as I work on a new book proposal.  My first book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, was written for scientists, but this one* will be written for – well, describing that audience of people who are something other than scientists is what this post is about.

My go-to term has been “lay audience”, but I’ve always felt a slight but nagging discomfort with it. Continue reading

Being an open-access advocate doesn’t excuse you from proper literature searches

Lock image: SimpleIcon, CC BY 3.0

Every week or two I see a tweet, or overhear a conversation, from somebody bemoaning the difficulty of accessing a paper.  Often it reads about like this:

Another day, another paywalled paper I can’t access and won’t cite. Moving on to read some open science….*

I get that open-access is an attractive model**.  I’d be pleased if we moved all our literature this way, although only if that meant that we had solved the (enormous) transitional funding problems and dealt with the inevitable unintended consequences.  But none of that matters to a simple and important point: I don’t care how fervent an open-access advocate you are; it’s still your job to use our literature properly.  It’s absurd to claim that a paper deserves to be read and cited if it’s published in The American International Journal of Ecography (a hypothetical open-access journal that’s predatory with fraudulent peer review***), but not if published in The American Naturalist (a subscription-model journal of very high quality published by a great society).  Absurd. Continue reading