Monthly Archives: December 2017

Arguing with myself

Image: arguing Northern Mockingbird (© Chiltepinster CC BY-SA 3.0). I’m the one on the left.  And also the one on the right.

It was bound to happen sooner or later.  I’ve written about 240 posts for Scientist Sees Squirrel, and the other day I busted myself: I discovered that I’ve written two contradictory ones.  They’re both about originality (and yes, I can smell the irony in having written two posts on originality).  The first one (We praise originality, but we don’t value it) argued that we undervalue originality in research.  The second (Originality is over-rated – even by me) argued that we overrate originality in research.  Nice job, Heard.

Now, I’ve re-read both posts carefully*, and I can just barely build an argument that they’re not quite as contradictory as that.  Continue reading


I’m about to teach a writing course, and I’m very scared

I start teaching a new course in just a few weeks.  For the first time, I’m teaching a whole course in scientific writing.  I’m supposed to know something about that – after all, I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – but nevertheless, I’m scared.

I’ve resisted teaching scientific writing for many years, despite agreeing with my colleagues who argue that it’s one of the most valuable courses a student (undergraduate or graduate) can take.  I’ve resisted in part because teaching a good scientific writing course is a lot of work; but mostly I’ve resisted because I’m not sure that I know how to teach a good scientific writing course.  I’ve never taken one, and so have no model to emulate or to avoid.  On top of that, I don’t actually think of myself as a very good writer.  I’m slow, and although I’ve worked hard to become an adequate writer, my papers are never going to be celebrated as outstanding in our literature.  So how can I teach writing? Continue reading

Defenders of the passive voice

I mention in my book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, that there are few better ways to get academics arguing than to bring up the topic of the passive voice.  I’m reminded of this every time I get into a discussion of voice, either online or in person, in my department.  As you’d expect for a topic provoking argument, there are strongly held opinions on both sides: that scientific writing should use the active voice, or that the passive voice should be used instead*.

In general, I’m a passionate advocate for the active voice (although I acknowledge that a reasonable person can disagree).  Either on Twitter or in real life, I’ll often say something about avoiding the passive, and almost always somebody will come back with an objection.  These objections take a number of forms, both among different objectors but also within a single objector’s argument.  Two things interest me about patterns in those objections. Continue reading

I don’t work for the people who pay me

Image: A bit of my salary. KMR Photography, CC BY 2.0.

I don’t work for the people who pay my salary.  Or at least, not always.  And this shouldn’t be a problem – but I worry that it’s becoming one. Continue reading

The J-shaped curve of blog-post popularity

Warning: navel-gazing.

Believe it or not (and I have some trouble believing it myself), I’ve written 235 posts for Scientist Sees Squirrel over the not-quite-three-years of its existence.  Some have made waves.  Others have vanished into the deep waters of the internet without the hint of a ripple.

I got thinking about this because last month I wrote a post called Statistics in Excel, and when is a Results section too short?.  It turned out, to my surprise, to be one of the “wave” ones: it was read just over 3,000 times in its first 48 hours.  I’m pretty sure that’s more eyeballs than my entire body of published work (79 papers plus The Scientist’s Guide to Writing) gets in a year*Continue reading

Things I teach that are not true

Image: Tribolium castaneum (red flour beetle), Peggy Greb USDA-ARS, released to public domain.

Teaching undergraduates is an enormous pleasure (most of the time), and getting paid to do it is a privilege.  Along with that privilege, of course, comes responsibility: I should work to teach my students things that are relevant; things that are important; and of course, things that are true.

Except that sometimes I teach my students things that are not true. Continue reading