Monthly Archives: April 2017

Reviewing with imposter syndrome

Like most people, I often feel a little impostery. I’m convinced that sooner or later, people will notice that my work isn’t actually all that important, that my papers are somehow flawed, that I don’t really know what I’m talking about when I teach.  (People may even figure out that Scientist Sees Squirrel is seldom original, mostly wrong, and only occasionally interesting.)

I was part of some discussion on Twitter recently about imposter syndrome in the particular context of peer reviewing.  Some folks worry that they really aren’t qualified to review.  They worry that they may make the wrong recommendation: either miss a critical flaw or (conversely) see something as a critical flaw that really isn’t.  As an editor, I’ve had people whose judgement I respect decline to review on the grounds that they didn’t feel confident in their reviewing abilities.  Ironically, these are often the early career scientists who tend to be absolutely terrific reviewers.

For a variety of reasons, I think this fear is generally misplaced.  Continue reading


The botany of henna

Photos: Henna body art NYHENNA via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Henna flowers and leaves J.M. Garg via CC BY-SA 4.0

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.


Henna-based body art has thousands of years of history in India, Africa, and the Middle East, and it’s an increasingly common sight in the Western world too.  The intricate designs are beautiful, and many traditional designs are packed with symbolism and story.  But the henna itself has a story, too – a botanical one.  For those of us who love plants, history, and naming, there’s a lot to like about henna. Continue reading

Reproducibility and robustness

Image: Reproducible bullseyes, by andresmp via  Public domain.

You read a lot about reproducibility these days.  In psychology, it’s a full-blown crisis – or so people say.  They may even be right, I suppose: while it’s tempting to dismiss this as melodrama, in fact a surprising number of well-known results in psychology do actually seem to be irreproducible.  In turn, this has given rise to fervent calls for us to do “reproducible science”, which has two main elements. First, we’re asked to publish detailed and meticulous accounts of methodologies and analytical procedures, so that someone else can replicate our experiments (or analyses).  Second, we’re asked to actually undertake such replications.  Only this way, we’re told, can we be sure that our results are reproducible and therefore robust*.

Being reproducible, though, makes a result robust in only one of two possible senses of the word, and I think it’s the less interesting of the two.  What do I mean by that?  Continue reading

Things that are more important to me than reviewing your manuscript

Warning: I’m grumpy today.

Last week I got a review request from a major open-access journal.  It specified a 10 day deadline.  I thought that seemed a little quick – but the manuscript looked right up my alley, and I could see the beguiling glint of some available time coming up.  So I agreed.  But it turns out 10 days meant 10 calendar days, not 10 business days as I’d assumed, and now I’m late* and getting rather testy autogenerated messages from the editorial office about it.  This makes me rather testy in return. Continue reading

(Continued) From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post)

Image: The PhD monomyth.  Compare with the monomyth narrative structure, the Hero’s Journey (’s_journey).   Adaptation by J. Drake.

This is Part II of a guest post by Joe Drake, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Part I is here.  Joe’s own blog is The Secret Life of a Field Biologist, and you can email him at


Part II:  In which our hero returns…. “enlightened”?

Our story up to now: I am a student learning how to write (and to do science, which involves a batch of writing).  I haven’t been very good at it, and I’m still not that great, but through valiantly misguided (misguidedly valiant?) efforts, I’m here telling you how I’ve started to get better.  Perhaps this will help you too (for more details see part 1). Continue reading

Two tired misconceptions about null hypotheses

Comic: xkcd #892, by Randall Munroe

 For some reason, people seem to love taking shots at null-hypothesis/significance-testing statistics, despite its central place in the logic of scientific inference.  This is part of a bigger pattern, I think:  it’s fun to be iconoclastic, and the more foundational the icon you’re clasting (yes, I know that’s not really a word), the more fun it is.  So the P-value takes more than its share of drubbing, as do decision rules associated with it.  The null hypothesis may be the most foundational of all, and sure enough, it also takes abuse.

I hear two complaints about null hypotheses – and I’ve been hearing the same two since I was a grad student.  That’s mumble-mumble years listening to the same strange but unkillable misconceptions, and when both popped their heads up again within a week, I gave myself permission to rant about them a little bit.  So here goes. Continue reading