Tag Archives: research

Three things a university might be for

Thoughts on “A Critique of Universities” – Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts inspired by reading a little book full of very big ideas: Páll Skúlason’s A Critique of Universities (University of Iceland Press, 2015). Skúlason was a philosopher who served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and for 8 years as Rector, of the University of Iceland. A Critique of Universities (his last English-language book*) collects some essays and thoughts on the nature, aims, and organization of universities. The book is thought-provoking and extraordinarily lucid. In the series I’ll share a few points from the book, with my own thoughts, but these in no way substitute for reading the book yourself (links below the post).

Three things a university might be for

Universities are odd places. Despite the fact that an increasing large fraction of the public has spent at least some time attending one, I’d guess that very few people could enunciate concisely what they’re for – and among those who could enunciate something, there would be little agreement. Perhaps more surprisingly, I’d have the same problem. Continue reading


Creativity, play, and science

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

The joys of other people’s field work

Photos: Pulling in a gill net in Vatnshlíðarvatn; and a male arctic charr in spawning colour (S. Heard).

I’ve just come back from gill-netting arctic charr in Vatnshlíðarvatn, a small, shallow lake just west of Varmahlíð in northern Iceland. The charr in this lake are a pair of morphs (a diet specialist and a diet generalist), and the aim was to collect fish of each morph for stable isotope and genetic analysis. It was a sunny July morning (about 7 ºC, which isn’t bad for Iceland), the fish were beautiful, and I enjoyed the work thoroughly.

Those of you who know me are, by now, smelling a rat: I don’t work on fish. Continue reading

“Encouraging” solo authorship would be a really bad idea

Image credit: S. Heard.  Hand models: Ken Dearborn, Allyson Heustis (thanks!).

I just read an intriguing opinion piece, Garsten et al’s (2015) “Single authors: an exterminated race”, which argues that “the scientific community could benefit from encouraging solo authors”. By all means read the piece (it’s a short and easy read); you may agree. I don’t, and here’s why.

Garsten et al. begin with the familiar observation that the fraction of solo-authored academic papers has been declining for a long time, especially in the natural sciences. (I’m certainly no exception: in the last dozen years I’ve published just two solo-authored papers, and I don’t see many more on the horizon.) For multiply-authored papers, the average number of authors has been rising too (sometimes to silly extremes, with hundreds or thousands of authors*). There are many reasons for this, as Garsten et al. correctly point out, including increasing complexity of scientific work and (less admirably) author-list inflation arising from our metric-obsessed attempts to measure researcher quality through publication counts.

So far, not much to argue with. But things get interesting when Garsten et al. move from description to prescription, arguing that solo-authored papers are superior to multiply-authored ones**. Continue reading

I have the best job on the entire planet

An opinion column in the Toronto Star got me riled up the other day. It wasn’t the topic of the piece (TA and sessional labour strife at an Ontario university). It was that the columnist seemed to completely misunderstand, and thus misrepresent, the nature of the job I do as a tenured academic. This is, depressingly, utterly routine in the lay media: university professors are “a coddled elite…among the best-paid on the planet… teaching fewer courses than ever, and sloughing off research duties” (Ha!), and we “enjoy paid summer breaks from May through August” (double Ha!). Continue reading