Monthly Archives: March 2022

Effective grant proposals, Part 2: Feasibility

Today, the second part in my series on writing effective grant proposals. I’ve pointed out the importance of careful thought about what a grant proposal is for. In brief, the function of any grant proposal is to convince its readers of three things:

  • that the work you’re proposing is worth doing;
  • that the work you’re proposing can be done;
  • and that the work you’re proposing can be done by you.

Or (in order): novelty and significance; feasibility; and qualifications.

Having dealt with the first bullet, it’s now time to think about the second: feasibility. A funding agency will want return on its investment in the work, which means that they’ll want to be convinced that the work can actually be done. Continue reading


I’m on the “Scholarly Communication” podcast, talking about (what else) scientific writing

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I have the occasional thought about scientific writing. I recently had the pleasure of expressing a bunch of those thoughts in a wide-ranging conversation with Daniel Shea, one of the hosts of the Scholarly Communication podcast series from the New Books Network. You can listen to the episode here.

The interview was spurred by the recent release of the second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, but our conversation wasn’t limited to that. Continue reading

Do funny titles increase or decrease the impact of scientific papers? New preprint!

Is science a laughing matter? That could mean a lot of things, I guess, but one place the question gets raised is around the construction of titles for scientific papers. Is it OK for a title to be funny?

I’ve had a longstanding (but admittedly weird) interest in the issue of humour and beauty in scientific writing. Not much gets written about that (except by me), but one place there’s just a little bit of literature is where humour intersects with the construction of titles. That’s in part because titles are important, and in part because the availability of easily-extracted data connecting titles with citation rates has given birth to something of a cottage industry in trying to associate features of titles with high or low citation fates of the papers in question. For title features suitable for automated scoring, like length, lots of data and analyses are available. But humour isn’t like that. This lack of data doesn’t stop authors of writing guides from advising against humour in titles (not mine, of course, but this one, and this one, and this one, for instance). How good is this advice? Continue reading

Maybe it’s time to stop teaching “the scientific method” in 1st year biology

Recently, my department held a search for a new instructor to oversee our 1st year labs. An important part of our search process is a “teaching talk”, in which we pretend (poorly) to be students, and the candidates give a lecture they might deliver in one of their assigned courses. We set the topic (so it’s the same for all candidates), and this time, we asked them to deliver a lecture for 1st-year biology on “the scientific method”.

We were lucky to interview three wonderful candidates (I’d have been happy with any of them), and I think they did the best job possible with that lecture topic. But the experience crystallized something that’s been bothering me for many years. I’m becoming convinced that even the best job possible of teaching “the scientific method” to first year biology students simply isn’t worth doing. Or, to be a bit more forceful: it probably does more harm than good. I know, that’s nothing short of heresy. Continue reading

My proceeds from the Russian translation of my book are going to Ukraine

I’ve just received my author copies of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider in Russian translation. When I heard that there would be a Russian translation, I was (perhaps naively) pretty excited. By the time my copy got to me – somehow, not so much. So: I’ve just donated all my proceeds from the Russian translation* to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, to support humanitarian relief in the wake of the Russian invasion. Continue reading

Effective grant proposals, Part 1: Novelty and significance

Last week I promised to begin a series on writing effective grant proposals. This is the first in that series; but for context, remember that I suggested that good grantwriting means asking yourself three questions. The first of those was, on its face, rather simple: what, in general, is a grant proposal for? Simple, but so critical.

It will take a few posts to work through that question; but in brief, the function of any grant proposal is to convince its readers of three things: Continue reading

Three questions to ask yourself, if you want to write a successful grant

I’ve just finished my third year sitting on a major grant panel (the Discovery Grants evaluation group for ecology and evolution, for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada). (No, I won’t tell you if I reviewed your grant.). This experience had me reading and then debating over 100 grant proposals (over the 3 years) – some of which blew my socks off, and some of which didn’t. Continue reading