Category Archives: scientific writing

Presenting statistical results: pointers in scientific writing

This semester, I’m coteaching a graduate/advanced-undergraduate level course in biostatistics and experimental design.  This is my lecture on how to present statistical results, when writing up a study.  It’s a topic I’ve written about before, and what I presented in class draws on several older blog posts here at Scientist Sees Squirrel.  However, I thought it would be useful to pull this together into a single (longish) post, with my slides to illustrate it.  If you’d like to use any of these slides, here’s the Powerpoint – licensed CC BY-NC 4.0.

(Portuguese translation here, for those who prefer.)

Here goes.

How should you present statistical results, in a scientific paper?
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The Disco Era of scientific writing

Image: Saturday Night Fever. If you were alive in the 1970s, you probably owned this album.  Acme401 CC BY-SA 2.0 via

From doo-wop to hip-hop, popular music has always evolved.  Styles shift, and when a song you don’t know comes on the radio* you can often place it, temporally, without much trouble.  Rock & roll, punk, new wave, indie folk, and dozens of other styles have come (and mostly gone); similarly, the styles that dominate airplay now will surely fade and be replaced. (Sorry, Taylor.) Occasionally, popular music has had a really bad idea, and we’ve all piled onto it, only to shake our heads ruefully a decade later.  Yes, disco, I’m talking about you**.

Scientific writing has also evolved.  Continue reading

How do successful academics write? Helen Sword’s “Air & Light & Time & Space” (review)

Helen Sword’s latest book, Air & Light & Time & Space, has a subtitle to make every academic salivate:  How Successful Academics Write.  Who among us wouldn’t like to know that secret?  Who wouldn’t like to know how academics can write more productively, and at the same time, take more pleasure from writing?  Continue reading

What does it mean to “take responsibility for” a paper?

Image: Responsibility, by Nathan Siemers CC BY-SA 2.0 via

 I spend a lot of time talking with students and colleagues about what authorship means, and about what criteria one might use for assigning it.  That’s partly because the nature of authorship is both complex and (especially for early-career scientists) critically important.  It’s also because my research has evolved in ways that mean I rarely write a single-authored paper any more.  In fact, I rarely write a 2- or 3-authored paper any more.

There’s nothing unusual about me (in this respect); the lengths of author lists have been increasing in almost every field.  In some fields, they’ve reached startling proportions, with author lists surpassing 5,000.  It’s not universally agreed exactly what contributions merit authorship, or what responsibilities coauthors bear.  However, one thing we often hear – and I’m pretty sure, one thing I’ve said – is that each coauthor should be willing to take responsibility for the entire paper.  Continue reading

Attempts to standardize the common names of species are deeply weird

Images: Canada jay, by Gavin Schaefer CC BY 2.0 via   Or maybe it’s a grey jay.  Or a whiskey jack.  Cougar, by Eric Kilby CC BY-SA 2.0 via  Or maybe it’s a puma. Or a painter. Or a mountain lion.  Or a catamount.  Or a screamer.  Or…you get the idea.

It caught my eye, and the media’s, last month: an announcement that the American Ornithological Society would be changing the “official” name of the North American corvid Perisoreus canadensis from “Gray Jay” to “Canada Jay”.  The grey/Canada jay* is a wonderful bird – handsome, intelligent, and inquisitive – and “grey jay” sells it short, so I’m completely down with using “Canada jay”.  But: the notion that there’s any such thing as an “official” common name, or that the AOU gets to say what it is, is deeply weird. Continue reading

Scientific writing, style, and the trolley problem

Image: Trolley by McGeddon CC BY-SA 4.0 via

Our scientific literature has a reputation for being not much fun to read: colourless, tedious, and turgid.  By and large, it deserves that reputation (and I would include my own papers in that assessment).  There are exceptions, of course, but they’re few and far between.  I’ve speculated before about some of the reasons for this.  But there’s a possibility I think I’ve been missing, and I’m going to use this post to think through it.

One thing I see fairly often is early-career writers struggling because they think there’s a single best way to write a given piece of text. Continue reading

Some journal covers - Nature, American Naturalist, Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata

How do you choose a journal when it’s time to submit a paper?

Image: Three choices – out of thousands.

Warning: long post. Grab a snack.

Having lots of options is a wonderful thing – right up until you have to pick one.  Have you ever been torn among the two dozen entrées on a restaurant menu? Blanched at the sight of 120 different sedans on a used-car lot? If you have, you might also wonder how on earth you’re going to choose a journal to grace with your latest manuscript.  There are, quite literally, thousands of scientific journals out there – probably tens of thousands – and even within a single field there will be hundreds of options.  (Scimago lists 352 journals in ecology, for example, but that list is far from comprehensive.)

What follows are some of things I think you might consider when you choose a journal.  Continue reading