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Should peer reviewers comment on writing style?

There seems to be a pretty widespread agreement that peer review should (even if it can’t always) identify flawed reasoning, improper statistical tests, and other serious issues with the inferences a manuscript makes. But should reviewers also make suggestions about writing style? About use of the active voice vs. the passive; about the use of contractions and other informality; about metaphors or even (gasp) humour? A lot of authors seem to think they shouldn’t, arguing that writing style is a personal decision that should be left up to a writer. Actually, I have some sympathy for that argument – the role of reviewers in crushing individual style is one reason that our literature lacks much individual voice, and pushback against beauty and humour is one reason it’s (mostly) so tedious. But in matters of style, should reviewers mind their own business? Continue reading

Can we please stop paying attention to grant funding on researcher CVs?

Given how much time and energy we academics put into evaluating each others’ CVs, it’s a bit startling to realize that we’re doing it wrong. Hiring decisions, promotion decisions, tenure decisions, grant funding decisions – all of these draw heavily on the candidates’ records of “excellence” as documented on their CVs. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – there’s no other way science could be the meritocracy we like to think it is, and that it ought to be (but isn’t yet).  But nearly every time I’ve been involved with evaluating CVs, the process has involved an enormous mistake: we’ve* paid attention to the candidates’ past records of grant funding.

There’s a very simple reason why grant funding should receive absolutely no attention in our assessments of each other: Continue reading

Metaphors in scientific writing: vagueness and confusion, or something better?

One of the foremost virtues – probably the foremost virtue – of good scientific writing is clarity. (I make this argument at length in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.)  In service of this goal, writers are often advised to be cautious about using metaphors (see Olson, Arroyo-Santos, and Vergara-Silva (2019), A User’s Guide to Metaphors in Ecology and Evolution, for an interesting analysis of metaphors and their strengths and weaknesses). A metaphor names or describes one thing by referring to another, and our literature is studded with them*: the tree of life, the Big Bang, electron shells, biological invasions, chaperonins, tectonic plates – and these are just a few that came to my mind right away.

Critics of metaphors often rest their case on three major grounds. Metaphors are held to be vague, to be misleading, or to resist cultural translation. Do these grounds hold water?** Continue reading

Are we watching the death of volunteerism in science?

I hope not; but maybe. Warning: old man yells at clouds.

One of the interesting consequences of being pretty far along in a career is that you see trends*. No, this isn’t a complaint about Auto- Tune in pop music (although to be honest, it could be); this is, after all, mostly a science blog. Instead, what I’m ranting every-so-gently about today is what seems like increasing reluctance to do anything without payment – a gigification of science, if you like.

It’s usually foolish to try tracing trends to their first spark, but I’m tempted to speculate that the furor over “unpaid” peer review was at least an early symptom. Continue reading