Category Archives: research

Originality is over-rated. (Including by me.)

Image: Tulips, Vera Kratochvil CC-0 released to public domain.

Last week I reviewed a grant proposal for one of the European national granting agencies.  It was an interesting piece of work, which – if funded – would gather probably our best dataset so far to test some longstanding questions in my field.  It was ambitious, thorough, and well planned.  But it didn’t blaze any particularly new path: the techniques were standard, the questions have been in the literature for decades, and every planned analysis has been done before (albeit with smaller and less suitable datasets).

Before I’d even quite noticed, I found that I’d written a sentence in my review saying “There’s nothing original about the proposed research”.  But as I looked at that sentence – and as it glared back at me from the screen – I felt like it was judging me more than the applicant.  And it should have.

You see, originality in science is highly over-rated.  Continue reading

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What’s in an idea?

Image: Idea by Alexas_Fotos, CC-0, via pixabay.com

This is a guest post by Quinn Webber, a 2nd-year PhD student at Memorial University (MUN) in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Quinn is an avid science blog-reader and has begun writing for the MUN Graduate Studies blog. His post there on the origin of ideas struck a chord with me, and I asked him if he would adapt it for Scientist Sees Squirrel.

As a 2nd-year PhD student, I seem to spend most of my time coming up with ideas and plans for thesis chapters. As of now, the plan is for five chapters: a conceptual review that integrates the ideas underlying the rest of my thesis (currently in revision), followed by four ‘data’ chapters. Some of the ideas that make up these chapters have been rattling around in my brain for a few years, while others were conceptualized and refined in recent months after reading new literature and chatting with colleagues, lab-mates, and my supervisor. It’s the process of conceptualizing and acting on ideas that I’m interested in and excited about. Ideas become the blueprint that guide data collection, analysis, and ultimately the thesis or manuscript. Continue reading

Being an open-access advocate doesn’t excuse you from proper literature searches

Lock image: SimpleIcon http://www.simpleicon.com, CC BY 3.0

Every week or two I see a tweet, or overhear a conversation, from somebody bemoaning the difficulty of accessing a paper.  Often it reads about like this:

Another day, another paywalled paper I can’t access and won’t cite. Moving on to read some open science….*

I get that open-access is an attractive model**.  I’d be pleased if we moved all our literature this way, although only if that meant that we had solved the (enormous) transitional funding problems and dealt with the inevitable unintended consequences.  But none of that matters to a simple and important point: I don’t care how fervent an open-access advocate you are; it’s still your job to use our literature properly.  It’s absurd to claim that a paper deserves to be read and cited if it’s published in The American International Journal of Ecography (a hypothetical open-access journal that’s predatory with fraudulent peer review***), but not if published in The American Naturalist (a subscription-model journal of very high quality published by a great society).  Absurd. Continue reading

My most influential paper was a complete accident

Images: selections from Heard 1992, Patterns in tree balance among cladistic, phenetic, and randomly generated phylogenetic trees. Evolution 46:1818-1826. Orchid photo (Belize) © S. Heard.

 While I think my research is interesting and important, I’m well aware that few of my individual papers are likely to change the world.  Really, this is a normal feature of science: most progress comes from the accumulation and synthesis of many small results, not from a single mind-blowing paper.  But some of my papers have been more influential than others.  It’s interesting (and to be honest, a bit galling) that what I think is my most influential* paper (Heard 1992, Evolution, Patterns in tree balance among cladistic, phenetic, and randomly generated phylogenetic trees) was an accident. Continue reading

Creativity, play, and science

Photo: Mushroom arrays on the forest floor in a “play” experiment (S. Heard).

Much of science is a craft: doing it well involves the application of practiced skills, which can be honed (if never completely mastered) by anyone with time and experience. In an experiment, for example, we have powerful experimental design, meticulous repetition and recordkeeping, appropriate statistical analysis, and clear writing to report the results – all things we can become objectively better and better at with practice.

But there’s creativity in science too, and it lies in the source of our ideas. This part of science is more mysterious. Continue reading

Are “side projects” self-indulgent?

Many scientists (most?) have side projects; but when we talk about them, we often minimize them in an offhand way – as if we’re just slightly embarrassed to have taken them on. It’s considered somehow virtuous to focus with laserlike intensity on your core research, and a little bit sinful to let yourself be distracted by unrelated side projects.

If pursuing side projects isn’t virtuous, it must be because they waste effort that might otherwise go to your core research. And if they’re “wasting” effort, that suggests that time spent on side projects has a lower return than time spent on core research. Pursuing side projects, then, is self-indulgent: something you do even though you know your lifetime contribution to Science would be higher if you could somehow resist the temptation. I think this belief is pretty widespread (my experience at tenure review suggests so); but is it accurate? Continue reading

Are scientists “we” or “they”?

Last week I blogged about what used to be one of my pet peeves: the apparent inability of senior academics to finish conference talks on time. I’ve been forced to move this off my pet-peeve list partly because I’ve joined the ranks of those ramblers-on. That means I’ve got room to add something new to the list, and here it is: why are students (both undergraduate and graduate) so reluctant to identify themselves as scientists?

It may not be obvious what I mean by that, so bear with me. Continue reading