For the love of all that is holy, stop writing “utilize”

(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

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Do scientific writers have “voice”?

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

Aenigma, enigmas, and the progress of science

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

Reconciling the two functions of peer review

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

Please help me with the weird Latin name of a wonderful fish: Awaous banana

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
Continue reading

I love it when reviewers make conflicting suggestions

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

On teaching writing, and being overruled: a passive-(voice)-aggressive rant

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