Monthly Archives: February 2023

Brevity in scientific writing is a good thing – until it isn’t

Nearly all of us need to work at making our scientific writing more concise. I’m definitely part of “nearly all of us” – my usual first draft needs to be trimmed down by 30%, producing a second draft that needs to lose another 30%. In my experience, making a manuscript shorter nearly always makes it clearer and better, in part by forcing it to become less “science-y” (forcing it into active voice, requiring the jettisoning of long fancy words in favour of short simple ones, and so on). So my attention was caught the other day by a reference to the recent publication of the “second shortest” philosophy paper. That paper consists only of its title: “Can a good philosophical contribution be made just by asking a question?”*

Unfortunately, the answer to the paper’s title is pretty clearly “no”.** Continue reading


Giants of the eastern forests (and a new book about them)

As an entomologist, I’m often asked if I have a favourite insect. It feels like being asked to declare a favourite child, and so I usually say I can’t possibly pick just one.* Now that I work a lot in spruce-fir forests, I’m sometimes asked if I have a favourite tree. That’s a tough one – just in the forests where I live, there’s eastern hemlock, and sugar maple, and tamarack, and American beech, and butternut. But I have a favourite tree anyway, and it’s eastern white pine (Pinus strobus, although honestly, I wish it had a more interesting Latin name).

There’s something about a pine: majestic, soaring, the strong thick trunk with the delicate needles. Continue reading

The case of the disappearing author

As collaborations get larger, more international, and more likely to involve coauthors who don’t actually know each other well, a problem that’s always existed is getting more troublesome. I’ve just seen the next step, and it isn’t pretty. It arises from the case – and the consequences – of the disappearing author.

I think (I hope) that we all know that coauthorship involves both rights and responsibilities. Continue reading

My love affair with the footnote

If you’ve been reading Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, or if you’ve read The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, you’ll have noticed my tendency to footnote. Footnotes drive some folks up the wall; others love them. You can tell that I’m in the latter camp – but why?

I guess there are two ways to answer that question: historically and functionally.

Historically: I’ve always loved weird digressions and unexpected connections – things that might not quite be germane to the main point, but are interesting or surprising or funny. Continue reading