Barf-and-buff writing, and cherry-picking citations

I’m a big fan of a writing strategy that, in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I call “storming the beach” – but that’s sometimes more vividly termed “barf and buff”.  The idea is simple: early in a writing project, don’t stop to make things perfect. Instead, charge ahead with getting something – anything – on the page. Rough, awkward, incomplete – it doesn’t matter, you can fix it later. Did you write some crap? That’s OK: you can fix crap much more easily than you can fix a blank page. So barf out something terrible, and buff it later.

Like most good advice, “barf and buff” has a few dangers lurking in it. Continue reading

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Wonderful Latin Names: Allobates niputidea

I have a new favourite frog.

I’m late to this, as it was described and named 13 years ago (and makes regular rounds on Twitter), but I’m rather enamoured with the western Colombian frog Allobates niputidea. Not because of its looks: it’s a small brown frog with a stripe, looking almost exactly like its sister species A. talamancae and, less specifically, rather a lot like dozens upon dozens of small brownish frogs everywhere. But its name: chef’s kiss. Continue reading

What if the way Covid-19 forces us to teach is actually better?

Well, I survived – barely – my first full semester of teaching online;* and I’ve jumped into my second. Will it be the last? My colleagues certainly hope so, with “I can’t wait to get back in the classroom” beginning to be the most distinctive vocalization of Homo professorius. And you don’t have to look far to find media articles condemning online teaching: it’s lazy, it’s short-changing students, it’s unfair, it reduces learning to watching YouTube.

What if all that is wrong? Continue reading

Three reasons for the red pen

I’m gearing up for the latest offering of my Scientific Writing course, and that’s got me thinking about my (metaphorical) red pen. As scientists, we spend a lot of time commenting on other folks’ writing. I do it extensively in my writing course, but I also do it for my grad students writing thesis drafts, for my coauthors, for my colleagues who want friendly review of manuscripts and proposals, and for other colleagues when I’m a peer reviewer. I’m also often on the other side of the exchange, as my own drafts get marked up by coauthors, colleagues, and reviewers. I’ve been in this game for a while, and one thing I’ve learned is that most of us wield our red pens instinctively rather than deliberately. And that’s not a good thing. Continue reading

A year of books comes to an end

This is it: the last instalment of #AYearInBooks (in which I’ve been tracking the non-academic reading I do).  Here’s why I decided to do this. After I report on my year’s last few books, I’ll wrap up with a few comments on the experience.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955). There’s a certain feeling of dread when you pick up a book you loved 30 years ago and haven’t opened since. Will it hold up, or will you lose that happy memory? (Rewatching the first few seasons of M*A*S*H had this problem; as much as I loved the show, the early episodes, at least, didn’t age well.) I’m happy to say that The Chrysalids really is that good. It’s post-apocalyptic building-new-society science fiction, with a strong message of tolerance for the different – a message that hasn’t lost any importance in the 65 years since The Chrysalids was written.. I’m encouraged now to re-read Chocky, which was always my favourite of Wyndham’s books. One more thing. Usually I use the current book covers to illustrate – but check out the lurid cover of my Penguin edition! Remember when science-fiction book design boiled down to “paint me something alien, and if it’s totally unrelated to the book, that’s a bonus”? My Penguin edition does. Continue reading

2020 was weird for blogging, too

Warning: navel-gazing.

Did anyone else notice that 2020 was a really weird year?

OK, yes, you probably noticed. Lunatic wannabe despots trying to subvert elections; overwhelmed professors desperately struggling to move entire curricula online on a moment’s notice; idiots insisting that a scrap of cloth covering their mouth and nose is a fundamental infringement on their freedom. It was that kind of a year – thank goodness there’s now light at the end of the tunnel.

But you don’t want to read about that serious stuff, not this week, and not when you’d rather be enjoying that glimpse of the light.  So instead: 2020 was weird for blogging, too.  I mean, what on earth do you people want? Continue reading

How to review an NSERC Discovery Grant

This is a guest post by Jeannette Whitton, Group Chair for Group 1503 (Ecology & Evolution) of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (Canada) (and Professor of Botany, University of British Columbia). She has extensive experience with the review and evaluation of NSERC Discovery Grants (among other things!) While Jeannette writes here specifically about reviewing proposals for Discovery Grants, much of her advice will serve you well in reviewing other kinds of grants, or grants for other agencies*. It will also serve you well in writing grants – because if you know what reviewers and evaluation panels are looking for, you can deliver just what they need.  Dig in!

Some weeks ago, you graciously agreed to review an NSERC Discovery Grant (DG) proposal, or possibly two or three**, which makes you an awesome person, especially in 2020. Because of confidentiality issues, we don’t get much training with reviewing grants – but just as for manuscript reviews, it takes time and care to provide a thoughtful grant review. How I review DGs changed after I served on the evaluation panel and got to see what was most useful, so I thought I would write down some thoughts about what to focus on. I hope this helps those who are new to NSERC DG reviews – or to reviewing grants more generally.  Comments are most welcome! Continue reading

Do people really not know about research ethics boards?

Warning: I’m feeling cranky today.

It’s great to see scientists getting excited about doing interdisciplinary work – for example, in science studies.*  It’s embarrassing, sometimes, to see how bad they are at it. Continue reading

The teaching book I’ve always needed

I taught my first undergraduate course in 1992 (I think it was), as a final-year PhD student. I had no idea what I was doing.

28 years later, some days I feel like not much has changed.*

I’m like most university instructors, I think, in three important ways.  First, I’ve never had any formal instruction in how to teach.** Second, while I know there’s an enormous literature on the scholarship of teaching, I’ve read very little of it, and when I try, I usually find it impenetrable. Third, I care about my teaching and want to do it better. (Yes, I’m aware of the apparent tension between the third statement and the first two – but that will have to be a blog post of its own.)

What I needed desperately, 28 years ago, and still need now, is a user-friendly book that could orient me to best practices in teaching. Continue reading

Opinion, evidence, and preprints

Perhaps you’ve noticed that scientists, like other humans, can hold very strong opinions about certain things.* Perhaps you’ve also noticed that those opinions are sometimes backed up by voluminous evidence (gravity points down; climate change is real and caused by humans; vaccines are safe and effective) – but that sometimes they are not. Here’s a great example related to preprints.

Preprints are probably the most interesting development in scientific publishing in the last 100 years.** Continue reading