(My Writing Pet Peeves, Part 5.)
Last week, in a moment of grading-related frustration, I suggested on Twitter that there is never any good reason to use the word “utilize”. As scientists, we love to use it – and I’ll have more to say about that below – but my claim is that in every writing situation, “use” is a better choice. It’s shorter, it’s simpler, it sounds less pretentious.
I thought this was a pretty trivial claim, so I was surprised to get pushback. Maybe I’ll get some more once I’ve posted this.
Why the pushback? Continue reading
Image: The Writer in the Window, by Mark Heybo via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Scientific writing has a reputation for being dull (among other things). By and large, it deserves that reputation (although there are admittedly exceptions). I’ve become very interested in why our writing is dull. I don’t have a definitive answer, but in today’s post I’ll begin to explore one possibility: that pressure for conformity has prevented most scientific writing from having voice.
What is “voice” in writing? Continue reading
Image: an Enigma encoding/decoding machine (Greg Goebel, CC 0 via Wikimedia.org). Which, I admit, is only tangentially related to this piece, but it’s pretty cool.
I’ve celebrated many a Latin name on Scientist Sees Squirrel, sometimes for something as simple as the way it sounds, but more often for a story it tells. But this time, I’m celebrating the loss of a Latin name. Not because I didn’t like the lost name; I did. But its loss – or, more precisely, its replacement by a new name – has a lot to tell us about the process of naming and the progress of science. Continue reading
Image: Gandalf the Gatekeeper, CC 0 via goodfreephotos.com
Peer review is arguably central to what we do as scientists – to a considerable extent it’s what lets us recognize an authentic scientific enterprise. Consider, for instance, the distinction between peer-reviewed publications and hack pieces in predatory journals; or think about how peer-reviewed grant proposals differ from pork-barrel politics. Given this key role, it’s rather surprising to find a great deal of disagreement about what peer review is for, how it works best, or even whether it works at all.
Along these lines, I was very surprised a couple of weeks ago to see a flurry of tweets from some folks who wanted journals to give them a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down on their manuscripts. No comments, please, and no suggestions for improvement, thanks, just a writ of execution or an ennoblement. Continue reading
Image: Awaous banana, from a tributary of the Sibun River, Belize; photos © Eric Meng, with permission
I’m sure you’ll agree: this (above) is an utterly enchanting fish, strange and beautiful at the same time. It’s the river goby, a widespread fish of New World subtropical and tropical streams from Florida and Texas south to Peru. I ran across it* two weeks ago, while teaching my tropical ecology field course in Belize. It’s not just its gorgeous patterning; and it isn’t just its startling size (there are about 2,000 species of gobies in the world; few exceed 10 cm in length**, or about half the size of the colossus in the photo). It’s also, at least for me, its name: Awaous banana.
Awaous banana? What kind of psychedelic fever might lead someone to name a fish Awaous banana?
Image: One way? © Andrea Schafthuizen licensed CC 0 via publicdomainpictures.net
Last week I got the first two peer reviews of my new book (of the complete manuscript, that is*). I read them with equal doses of eagerness and trepidation (as one does), and before long something very, very familiar happened: I caught Reviewer 1 and Reviewer 2 offering exactly opposite and completely conflicting suggestions. It was a structural issue: according to Reviewer 1, the book has too many short chapters and I should combine them into fewer, longer ones, while according to Reviewer 2, shorter chapters are a plus because they make the material easier to absorb. So what do I do? Continue reading
So, I’m teaching my course in Scientific Writing, and I’m frustrated by something I didn’t see coming. I teach students to write in the active voice (“I measured photosynthesis”, not “Photosynthesis was measured”). That’s the modern best practice in scientific writing – not to use the active all the time, but to prefer it unless there’s a specific reason for using the passive in a specific sentence. But the way the course is structured, I’m running into conflict with my departmental colleagues. Continue reading