Author Archives: ScientistSeesSquirrel

About ScientistSeesSquirrel

I'm an evolutionary ecologist and entomologist at the University of New Brunswick. I think about a lot of random things... some of them appear here.

The 2nd edition “Scientist’s Guide to Writing” is available for pre-order!

I’m excited: the second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing is now available for pre-order!

I’ve been working on this second edition for a year and a half now. While you can’t have it on your shelf just yet (it’s slated for publication January 11, 2022), you could in principle order a copy today.* For anyone who just can’t wait, here it is directly from the Princeton University Press, and here it is on Amazon (that’s the US link; here’s the Canadian one, and the UK one).

What’s in the second edition, and why might you be as excited as me?  Well, OK, I can pretty much guarantee you aren’t as excited as me. But I think folks will find that the new edition has some worthwhile additions. Quite a few of them, actually, but here are some highlights:

  • A new chapter, “Journals and Preprints”, provides advice on how to choose a journal to which to submit a paper. It considers things like journal scope, reputation (and how to judge it), speed, cost, publisher profit model, and access. It also covers preprint servers – a rather shocking omission from the 1st edition, I’d have to admit.
  • Another new chapter, “Three Kinds of Reading: Reference, Survey, and Deep”, expands on reading. We all need techniques for efficient and effective reading, because we’re all drowning in the literature. This chapter outlines ways to read to extract particular bits of information (reference reading), to assess a paper for possible closer attention (survey reading), or to thoroughly understand a paper (deep reading).
  • The chapter on “Writing for Speakers of English as an Additional Language” is expanded. This is an important chapter, because globally, most scientists aren’t native speakers of English – but nearly all publish in English. I’ve updated and expanded this chapter to give EAL speakers the best guidance I can. And importantly – native English speakers should be thinking about this guidance too, because all of us will mentor or collaborate with EAL speakers!
  • I’ve almost doubled the Exercises following the chapters. I’ve been surprised how valuable people find these – but I guess I shouldn’t be, or at least not any more, as I use them in my own Scientific Writing course and they work really well there.
  • The advice on writing Abstracts and titles is greatly expanded. I include coverage of recent literature on how features of titles may influence citation rates – a fascinating literature that’s (to me) quite counterintuitive.
  • I provide better guidance on how to frame discussion of study limitations. I’ve learned that many students need help in presenting limitations without rhyming off every possible thing that might have gone wrong, and thus leaving a reader convinced the study is worthless. It’s important to be transparent about limitations – but it’s also important to show how conclusions can be drawn despite those limitations.
  • I offer new advice about handling disagreement among reviewers, as well as the situation where an early-career writer disagrees with suggestions from a supervisor or mentor. We’ve all been there; and such disagreements can be either frustrating or very productive, depending on your approach to them.
  • I’ve greatly improved coverage of science communication (writing for the general public). It’s not at all the same thing as writing for our literature; and while we won’t all indulge in SciComm, it’s crucially important that some of us do, and do it well.
  • A new cover that doesn’t feature the unusual Z-structure for DNA. OK, this really doesn’t matter to most folks. But there’s a non-trivial number of people knowledgeable enough to notice the left-handed helix, but not knowledgeable enough to know that the Z-structure exists and is biologically fascinating. I will admit to having tired of such people.

Intrigued yet? I hope you are. While I’m proud of the 1st edition and stand behind everything in it, I’m sure you’ll find the 2nd edition is better.

Now excuse me while I spend the next six months fidgeting furiously with impatience, waiting for publication day. Maybe this isn’t really the hardest part of writing a book – but sometimes it feels that way.

© Stephen Heard  July 28, 2021

*^The “in principle” is because to be honest, I really don’t know why you would order a copy today, six months in advance of publication. Now, pre-orders are very important for trade books (those aimed at the general public), with pre-order data feeding bookstore placements, publisher investment in promotion, and the like. These things are less important with a more technical book like The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, and so I’m not going to wheedle, beg, or plead with you to order in advance. You can wait!  In the meantime, though, why not pick up a copy of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider?  It’s a bargain these days, and I think it’s worth reading.


Music Mondays: Out Past the Timberline

It’s Music Monday again.

Today: some entomology.  Yes, you knew I’d get there eventually.

Here’s Canadian folksinger Murray McLaughlan, with Out Past the Timberline (from his terrific 1983 album Timberline). It’s a reflection on Canada’s North, and beautifully atmospheric; it’s a real shame there isn’t a video for this song. I’ll admit the science content is a bit fleeting.

What strikes me is this lyric:

When spring waters run
The black flies come
Like a cloud of hungry dust

There are several kinds of insects one might liken to “hungry dust”, but Continue reading

How long is a manuscript? All answers are wrong.

This week I got to do one of my favourite things: shorten a manuscript.* This one we’re targeting for a journal that has a 30 page limit on manuscript length. We started at 37 pages, and I was immensely pleased to hit about 29.7 (giving my coauthors just a little wiggle room to reject one or two of my cuts).

But it was a little weird.

The thing is, Goodhart’s Law exists. If you set up a metric and reward people for using it (in this case, for limboing just under the 30 page limit), they’ll do just exactly what you’re rewarding them for – and there will be unexpected, and maybe undesired, consequences. Continue reading

Music Mondays: Endless Forms

It’s Music Monday again.

Today: evolutionary biology!

Here’s the Finnish heavy-metal band Nightwish, with Endless Forms – quite likely the only heavy-metal song ever to quote Darwin and mention Tiktaalik:

Beyond aeons we take a ride
Welcoming the shrew that survived
To see the Tiktaalik take her first walk
Witness the birth of flight

My parents would have assumed that every metal song is about drugs, sex, violence, or most likely, all of those at once. Continue reading

Butterflies, mustard seeds, and misplaced critical thinking

I’ve just read Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night, a novel based on the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over AC vs DC electrification in the 1880s. This was a fascinating story*, but I’m taking off from it on a tangent today. The epigraph for Chapter 23 is a quote attributed to the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller: “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly”. Now, given my cringeworthy memories of what I was like in high school, I should be 100% behind this quote. The problem: as an entomologist, Buckminster Fuller was an excellent architect.

The quote, you see, is nonsense. Continue reading

Music Mondays: Mandelbrot Set

It’s Music Monday again.

Today: math!

Here’s Jonathan Coulton, with “Mandelbrot Set” – a song about the fractal set of complex numbers we call, eponymously, the Mandelbrot Set. Continue reading

You can’t “stay in your lane”. So you have to know how to drive in your neighbour’s.

I was tidying up old paper files in my office last week (don’t ask) when I came across the records from my tenure review, 20 years ago. You’d think 20 years of perspective would make me less angry – but you’d be wrong. What 20 years of perspective has done, though, is let me diagnose exactly what I was angry about, and convince me that there’s an important lesson there for academia. And life.

First, I guess, a little history. Continue reading

Music Mondays (new summer series)

Welcome to Music Mondays – something a little different I’m trying this summer.

If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ll know that one of the (way too many) things that interests me is points of contact between science and the arts. Continue reading

Why I don’t want to be part of “open peer review”

Warning: header image captures this post pretty well.

Should peer review be open and transparent?  Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?  Who’d want to go on record as saying anything shouldn’t be made more open and transparent? Well, I’ll give it a go, because I’ve recently declined to review two manuscripts that looked interesting, for a reason that’s entirely new to me.* In both cases, the journals specified that by agreeing to review, I was consenting for my reviewer comments, and the authors’ response, to be published as a supplementary file with the paper. Sorry – I’m not having any part of that. Continue reading

Blogging, writing practice, and self-discovery

I’ve been writing Scientist Sees Squirrel for almost 6½ years now – something on the order of 450 posts. With blogging being (supposedly) a dying form, and with a non-trivial amount of effort involved, you might wonder why I persist. There are lots of reasons, actually, but today I’m going to mention two: writing practice, and self-discovery.*

First, writing practice. As scientists, we write a shocking amount; in fact, being a writer is as much, maybe more, a part of our jobs as stats or teaching or experimental design. It’s not just papers – I write grant proposals, reports, administrative documents, and as you may have noticed, I’ve also written two books. So it might seem odd that I spend some of my time doing more writing. Continue reading