Three billion lost birds, and what else don’t I know?

Image: Blackpoll warbler (one of the declining species), © Simon Barrette CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org

You saw the headline (and maybe you read the study): three billion lost birds.  Three billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 1970.  It’s eye-catching, isn’t it?  There are (as is usually true) some reasons to interpret the result with nuance, but that isn’t my point today – Brian McGill has covered that with admirable thoroughness over on Dynamic Ecology. Instead, I’ll dig briefly into what the study told me about my own ignorance. Three billion is the change.  How many birds remain – and could I have answered that question before seeing the study? Continue reading

Edit to polish the writing, or edit to polish the writer?

Image: Polishing the chimney of a Burrell Traction Engine.  © Oast House Archives, CC BY-SA 2.0.  What? You think this is only tenuously connected to the post?  My friend, tenuous connections are my thing.

One of the most exciting parts of being a mid-to-late-career researcher is seeing the scientific writing produced by the early-career researchers (ECRs) I’m mentoring: Honours undergrads, grad students, postdoctoral fellows.  It’s a treat to see a new manuscript (or more often, a new piece of a manuscript*) ping its way into my inbox.  A treat, but of course also a new obligation, because I put a lot of effort into editing ECR manuscripts.  The question, though, is how much effort?  And what kind of “editing”?

Once upon a time, I would simply take an ECR manuscript and make “track changes” edits until I was happy with the results.  In other words: I would polish the writing (albeit with the use of “track changes” so the ECR could see and learn from the edits I made).  I don’t do that any more.  Continue reading

The climbing metaphor, or where should we encourage students to send their papers?

This is a guest post by Bastien Castagneyrol.  This is an issue I’ve thought about (as have others), and like Bastien, I don’t quite know what action to take.  I like Bastien’s climbing metaphor.  In a related one, the journey from subscriber-pays paywall to author-pays-open-access crosses a very rugged landscape, with crevasses both obvious and hidden.

Disclosure from Bastien: what follows is not exhaustive and could be much better documented. It reflects my feelings, not my knowledge (although my feelings are partly nurtured with some knowledge). I’m trying here to ask a really genuine question.

The climbing metaphor

My academic career is a rocky cliff. Continue reading

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: a new title for my new book

I’ve mentioned this before: I’m terrible at titles.  That’s why there’s been a long series of title changes for my forthcoming book.  (Look for it in March 2020, from Yale University Press.  You can actually pre-order it now, but don’t worry, I’ll remind you as the publication date approaches.)  The book tells some of the fascinating stories behind eponymous scientific names (that is, species and genera that are named after people).  If that piques your interest, you can read a bit more about the book here.

I took at least four stabs at a title before settling on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels. Continue reading

Turning our scientific lens on our scientific enterprise: a randomized experiment on double-blinding at Functional Ecology

Image: Experiment, © Nick Youngson via picpedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0

I’m often puzzled by the reluctance of scientists to think scientifically and do science.  “Wait”, you say, “that’s a bizarre claim – we do science all the time, that’s why we’re called scientists”.  Well, yes, and no.

We love doing science on nature – the observations and experiments and theoretical work we deploy in discovering how the universe works.  What we don’t seem to love nearly as much is doing science on ourselves. Continue reading

Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about? Yes, but not the way Simon/Steve thinks

Image: You know what you’re walking into. © Gary J. Wood via flicrk.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

This is a joint post (argument and rejoinder) from Steve Heard and Simon Leather.  You can find it on either of their blogs.

Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about?  Yes, but not the way Simon thinks.

Steve opens with – A few weeks ago, Simon Leather blogged about one of his writing pet peeves: “titles of papers that give you no clue as to what the paper is about”.   I read this with great interest, for a couple of reasons – first, Simon is consistently thoughtful; and second, I’m terrible at titles and need to learn as much about good ones as I can!  Much to my surprise, I found myself disagreeing strongly, and Simon was kind enough to engage with me in this joint post.

I don’t mean that I disagree that a paper’s title should tell you what it’s about.  That’s exactly what a good title does!  My disagreement is, I think, more interesting.  Simon offered some examples of titles he scored as failing his tell-you-what-it’s-about criterion, and some he scored as passing.  I found myself scoring those examples exactly the opposite way: the ones that failed for him, succeeded for me; and vice versa.

What gives?  Well, most likely, I’m just wrong. Continue reading

I just organized a conference. OMG.

Image: Puzzle pieces CC0 via pxhere.com

Well, not just me, of course.  I co-organized* a conference (this one).  Still.

So, quick post this week – as I write, I’m procrastinating some last-minute tasks; and when this posts, I’ll be on the conference centre floor putting out (hopefully metaphorical) fires.

Here’s what I learned organizing a conference (and it won’t surprise any veteran of the task): the task is much, much bigger than you think; and even after you’ve adjusted what you think because you know it’s much, much bigger than you think, it’s still much, much bigger than that. Continue reading