Image: Rube Goldberg design by Stivi10 CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org.
There are many reasons for “writing early” – for starting to write up a project before data collection and analysis are complete, or even before they’re started. (I discuss this in some detail in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.) This is particularly true for the Methods section, which is far easier to write when you’re doing, or even proposing, the work than it is when you’re looking back on the work months or years later. But one use for early writing often surprises my students: early writing as a “plausibility check” for methods I’m trying to decide about using.
Here’s what happens. I’ll be sitting with a student (or sometimes, just with myself) and we’ll be trying to decide on an experimental method, or perhaps on a point of statistical analysis. We’ll wonder, “should we do X?” And I’ll say: “OK, let’s imagine writing a Methods paragraph describing X. How would it feel?” Continue reading
Photo: Two giraffes by Vera Kratochvil, released to public domain, via publicdomainpictures.net. Two giraffes are definitely better than one.
Ecologists are perennially angst-ridden about sample size. A lot of our work is logistically difficult, involves observations on large spatial or temporal scales, or involves rare species or unique geographic features. And yet we know that replication is important, and we bend over backwards to achieve it.
Sometimes, I think, too far backward, and this can result in wasted effort. Continue reading
Photo: Mushroom arrays on the forest floor in a “play” experiment (S. Heard).
Much of science is a craft: doing it well involves the application of practiced skills, which can be honed (if never completely mastered) by anyone with time and experience. In an experiment, for example, we have powerful experimental design, meticulous repetition and recordkeeping, appropriate statistical analysis, and clear writing to report the results – all things we can become objectively better and better at with practice.
But there’s creativity in science too, and it lies in the source of our ideas. This part of science is more mysterious. Continue reading