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.

“Do your own research” and open-access publication

There’s a fascinating shift going on in scientific publishing, as our fundamental model for who pays for the necessary apparatus of journals shifts from subscribers to authors. The shift is slow (because the way science is funded isn’t set up very well to facilitate such a shift), and bits of it spark outrage (just last week, Nature Neuroscience announced that publishing open-access there will cost €9500, and the combination of ridicule and outrage was exactly what it should have been). But I think it’s fair to say that if we can get there, an open-access literature offers major advantages for the communication of science.

But not for science communication – the distinction being that by “science communication”, we generally mean communication of what we do to non-scientists. You see, the pandemic has demonstrated in spades why the last thing we need is to make it easier for the general public to access scientific papers.  I know, that’s a bit of a hot take, but hear me out. Continue reading

Writing “an” Introduction is a lot easier than writing “the” Introduction

OK, not that sort of introduction.

Last week I was drafting the Introduction to a new paper*, and I was struggling. People often assume that because I’ve written a book about scientific writing, I must be a gifted writer to whom the task comes easily. Nothing could be further from the truth: I’m just like most scientific writers. Yes, I find writing much easier than I used to (thank goodness); but I still have many days when producing the next sentence is like pulling teeth. My own teeth.

I find Introductions particularly hard. Continue reading

P = 0.05 and a teaspoon of baking powder

I made scones this morning, and it made me think about statistics, and about thinking. No, really, I have a point: it’s that P = 0.05 and a teaspoon of baking powder are the same thing, in an important way. Am I stretching an analogy to its breaking point? Read on to find out.

My scone recipe calls for 4 cups of flour, a cup of sugar, a teaspoon of baking powder, a teaspoon of baking soda, half a teaspoon of salt, four tablespoons of butter or shortening, and then raisins and buttermilk to make a dough.* The quantities are interesting. Continue reading

Why are university strategic plans almost always meaningless?

If your university is like mine, it has a strategic plan. It put hundreds of hours of work (some of them yours!) into developing it, consulting widely and wordsmithing through dozens of drafts. It shouted excitedly about the release of the plan, and how it prepares the university as a leader into the future. And that plan? Essentially meaningless.

Most of the university strategic plans I’ve seen are pretty similar. They identify some lofty but vague goals,* but not how they will be attained.** They promise all things to all people: we’ll prioritize research, and teaching, and community service, and being an economic engine for our region. They might identify some special areas of scholarship in which the university will attempt to excel – but they’ll combine that with language indicating that they don’t mean it (usually, something about “while retaining comprehensive excellence”), and they won’t identify any area of scholarship that the university won’t pursue. In other words: they’re essentially meaningless. Prioritizing everything means prioritizing nothing; and it isn’t strategic to fight a war on every front all at once.

Why does this happen? Continue reading

Stop buying my book! (Because the second edition is nearly out)

People are doing something weird: they’re buying my book.

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I mean – it’s not weird at all that people are buying Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. (So please keep buying that one. It’s fun, I swear.*)

But The Scientist’s Guide: people are still buying it (I can tell from its Amazon sales rank, which I expected to start cratering before now, but which hasn’t), and that’s weird. Continue reading

Those journals may be “fake”, but I don’t think they’re “predatory”

If your email inbox is like mine, you’ve seen more than a few invitations like the one above. There are thousands of “journals” offering to publish pretty much anything, without peer review or with only the pretence of it. They tend not to bother with such things as copy-editing or secured long-term web hosting either – and why should they? They’re not in business to help drive scientific progress; they’re in business strictly to collect authors’ money (normally in the form of article processing charges, but notice the slick little grift in the teaser email illustrated above).

Journals like this get labelled “predatory”, but I don’t think that’s the right label. Continue reading

My goodness that’s a lot of squirrels

This is my 500th post on Scientist Sees Squirrel*, and my goodness, that’s quite the logorrheic accomplishment.

When I started this blog, back in January of 2015, I really didn’t know where it was going. (Like many of my major life decisions, starting a blog wasn’t thoroughly thought out.) It’s astonishing to me that I’m still at it, nearly 7 years later; and that I’ve written 500 posts and thus, roughly, 550,000 words. That’s just a little bit less verbiage than War and Peace, and a little more than Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the doorstopperiest of the series) and Moby Dick (which, by the way, carries an important lesson for scientific writers) combined.

Like Dynamic Ecology, I know I’ll eventually stop spelling ‘banana’; but not yet. Continue reading

Peer review, CVs, and what is Publons for?

Something a bit different today: this post is mostly just a link to a piece I’ve just published on jobs.ac.uk. There, I ask why early-career folks might get involved in peer reviewing, given that they aren’t paid to review (unlike many, if not most, more senior academics, for whom reviewing is part of the service component of the job). There are clear benefits to reviewing (which you can read about in the piece I linked to above*) but I don’t think one of them is giving you something you can list to good effect on your CV. Which raises the question: what is Publons for? Continue reading

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