We generally ignore the big issues

11 08 2014

I’ve had a good week at Stanford University with Paul Ehrlich where we’ve been putting the final touches1 on our book. It’s been taking a while to put together, but we’re both pretty happy with the result, which should be published by The University of Chicago Press within the first quarter of 2015.

It has indeed been a pleasure and a privilege to work with one of the greatest thinkers of our age, and let me tell you that at 82, he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. While I won’t divulge much of our discussions here given they’ll appear soon-ish in the book, I did want to raise one subject that I think we all need to think about a little more.

The issue is what we, as ecologists (I’m including conservation scientists here), choose to study and contemplate in our professional life.

I’m just as guilty as most of the rest of you, but I argue that our discipline is caught in a rut of irrelevancy on the grander scale. We spend a lot of time refining the basics of what we essentially already know pretty well. While there will be an eternity of processes to understand, species to describe, and relationships to measure, can our discipline really afford to avoid the biggest issues while biodiversity (and our society included) are flushed down the drain?

Read the rest of this entry »





Great biodiversity cartoonists

1 07 2014

smiling fur sealAnyone who reads CB.com knows that I like to inject a bit of humour into my (often gloomy) messages. Sniggering, chortling, groaning and outright guffawing are useful ways to deal with the depressing topics conservation scientists examine every day. This is why I started the ‘Cartoon of the Week’ series, and now I have a compendium of quite a few biodiversity-related cartoons. Cartoons can also serve as wonderfully effective political tools if they manage to encapsulate the preposterousness of bad policies, navel-gazing politicians or Earth-buggering corporate tycoons. A good cartoon can be far more effective at transmitting a deep and complex message to a wide audience than most scientific articles.

Who are these gifted artists that bring together wit, humour and hard environmental truths into something that practically every scientist wants to include in conference presentations? I am inspired by some of these people, as I’m sure are many of you, so I decided to put together a little list of some of today’s better biodiversity cartoonists.

In no particular order of fame, relevance, focus on biodiversity, productivity or otherwise, I present to you my list of 10 great biodiversity cartoonists:

  • I suspect not many living outside of Australia would be familiar with the silly, yet extremely witty cartoons by First Dog on the Moon (also known as Andrew Marlton). I first came across this Melbournian when he was working for the newspaper Crikey, although he recently joined The Guardian Australia. He’s by no means what one would call an ‘environmental’ cartoonist, but there is a fair dose of (mainly Australian) biodiversity content in his cartoons. He is a self-entitled ‘marsupialist’, whatever that means (marsupial fetish, I think). I’ve even had the immense honour of having my own work immortalised in cartoon by this wonderful cartoonist.

© First Dog on the Moon

Read the rest of this entry »





Don’t torture your readers III

23 06 2014

TortureIt has been quite some time since I did one of these kinds of posts (see Don’t torture your readers and Don’t torture your readers II). However, given how popular they seem to be, I have decided to do a follow-up post on grammar problems that I tend to see far too often in science writing.

COMPOUND ADJECTIVES: This is a particularly abused component of scientific writing. Although it’s fairly straightforward, I’m amazed just how many people get it wrong. Most people appear to understand that when an adjective (that’s a qualifier for a noun, just in case you are a grammarling) is composed of more than one word, there is normally a hyphen that connects them:

  • e.g., ’10-m fence’, ‘high-ranking journal’, ‘population-level metric’, ‘cost-effective policy’

If two or more adjectives are given in a row, but none modifies the meaning of the others, then it is simply a case of separating them with commas:

  • e.g., ‘a long, high fence’, ‘an old, respected journal’, ‘an effective, enduring policy’

However, if the compound adjective is composed of a leading adverb (that’s a qualifier for a verb), then there is NO hyphenation:

  • e.g., ‘an extremely long fence’, ‘a closely associated phenomenon’, ‘a legally mandated policy’

There are other instances when no hyphenation is required, such as when the qualifiers are proper nouns (e.g., ‘a Shark Bay jetty’), from another language such as Latin (e.g., an ‘ab initio course’) or enclosed in quotation marks (e.g., ‘a “do it yourself” guide). Note in the last example, without the quotations, it would become ‘a do-it-yourself guide’).

A quick way to recognise whether a compound adjective should be hyphenated is to examine the terminal letters of the leading word; if the leading component ends in ‘ly’, then it is likely an adverb, and so the compound should not be hyphenated (although watch for sneaky exceptions like ‘early-career researcher’!). Read the rest of this entry »





Be a good reviewer, but be a better editor

6 06 2014
© evileditor.blogspot.com.au

© evileditor.blogspot.com.au

Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been at this for a while, or maybe it’s a real trend. Regardless, many of my colleagues and I are now of the opinion that the quality of editing in scientific journals is on the downhill slide.

Yes – we (scientists) all complain about negative decisions from journals to which we’ve submitted our work. Being rejected is part of the process. Aiming high is necessary for academic success, but when a negative decision is made on the basis of (often one) appalling review, it’s a little harder to swallow.

I suppose I can accept the inevitability of declining review quality for the simple reason that there are now SO MANY papers to review that finding willing volunteers is difficult. This means that there will always be people who only glance cursorily at the paper, miss the detail and recommend rejection based on their own misunderstanding or bias. It’s far easier to skim a paper and try to find a reason to reject than actually putting in the time to appraise the work critically and fairly.

This means that the traditional model of basing the decision to accept or reject a manuscript on only two reviews is fraught because the probability of receiving poor reviews is rising. For example, a certain undisclosed journal of unquestionably high quality for which I edit does not accept anything less than six recommendations for reviewers per manuscript, and none that I’m aware of is accepted or rejected based on only two reviews. But I think this is the exception rather than the rule – there are simply too many journals now of low to medium quality to be able to get that many reviewers to agree to review.

I won’t spend too much time trying to encourage you to do the best job you can when reviewing – that should go without saying. Remember what goes around comes around. If you are a shit reviewer, you will receive shit reviews. Read the rest of this entry »





I still fucking love biodiversity

2 06 2014
ifuckinglovebiodiversity © Bastien Laurent

© Bastien Laurent

One year ago, I launched the Facebook page “I fucking love biodiversity” (IFLB) with a post here on ConservationBytes. My goal was to get people talking about biodiversity in a positive and light-hearted way (absolutely no ‘doom and gloom’). Today, IFLB now has about 17500 fans/followers across three social media platforms. It has been an amazing experience.

I will start by admitting that I created IFLB under the assumption that “if you build it, they will come”. I thought a catchy name, goodwill and a few bells and whistles would land me a huge audience. I was wrong. It took some very serious work. And IFLB is still pretty small in the global social-media landscape.

Gladly, I don’t have to manage IFLB by myself. I have a crack team of admins that share the load. Kudos go to Laure Cugnière, Phoebe Maund, Lydia Tiller and Romina Henriques and our own in-house designer, Hannah Conduit, all of whom work on a totally volunteer basis. Thanks everyone – IFLB wouldn’t be possible without you.

During this last year, I estimate we have invested in IFLB the equivalent of nine working weeks to put out 2-3 posts every single day (yes, xmas and New Years included). That was the first lesson I learned: being part of an effort like this requires serious dedication. Not only because you need to find the most interesting content and the best photos to go with it, but because you also need to ensure all photos have copyright information, that what you are posting is not the result of Photoshop wizardry and of course, that your fans’ comments and messages don’t go unanswered. Read the rest of this entry »





Scientists should blog

27 05 2014
© Bill Porter

© Bill Porter

As ConservationBytes.com is about to tick over 1 million hits since its inception in mid-2008, I thought I’d share why I think more scientists should blog about their work and interests.

As many of you know, I regularly give talks and short courses on the value of social and other media for scientists; in fact, my next planned ‘workshop’ (Make Your Science Matter) on this and related subjects will be held at the Ecological Society of Australia‘s Annual Conference in Alice Springs later this year.

I’ve written before about the importance of having a vibrant, attractive and up-to-date online profile (along with plenty of other tips), but I don’t think I’ve ever put down my thoughts on blogging in particular. So here goes.

  1. The main reasons scientists should consider blogging is the hard, cold fact that not nearly enough people read scientific papers. Most scientists are lucky if a few of their papers ever top 100 citations, and I’d wager that most are read by only a handful of specialists (there are exceptions, of course, but these are rare). If you’re a scientist, I don’t have to tell you the disappointment of realising that the blood, sweat and tears shed over each and every paper is largely for nought considering just how few people will ever read our hard-won results. It’s simply too depressing to contemplate, especially considering that the sum of human knowledge is so vast and expanding that this trend will only ever get worse. For those reasons alone, blogging about your own work widens the readership by orders of magnitude. More people read my blog every day than will probably ever read the majority of my papers. Read the rest of this entry »




School finishers and undergraduates ill-prepared for research careers

22 05 2014

bad mathsHaving been for years now at the pointy end of the educational pathway training the next generation of scientists, I’d like to share some of my observations regarding how well we’re doing. At least in Australia, my realistic assessment of science education is: not well at all.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but only now decided to put my thoughts into words as the train wreck of our current government lurches toward a future guaranteeing an even stupider society. Charging postgraduate students to do PhDs for the first time, encouraging a US-style system of wealth-based educational privilege, slashing education budgets and de-investing in science while promoting the belief in invisible spaghetti monsters from space, are all the latest in the Fiberal future nightmare that will change our motto to “Australia – the stupid country”.

As you can appreciate, I’m not filled with a lot of hope that the worrying trends I’ve observed over the past 10 years or so are going to get any better any time soon. To be fair though, the problems go beyond the latest stupidities of the Fiberal government.

My realisation that there was a problem has crystallised only recently as I began to notice that most of my lab members were not Australian. In fact, the percentage of Australian PhD students and post-doctoral fellows in the lab usually hovers around 20%. Another sign of a problem was that even when we advertised for several well-paid postdoctoral positions, not a single Australian made the interview list (in fact, few Australians applied at all). I’ve also talked to many of my colleagues around Australia in the field of quantitative ecology, and many lament the same general trend.

Is it just poor mathematical training? Yes and no. Australian universities have generally lowered their entry-level requirements for basic maths, thereby perpetuating the already poor skill base of school leavers. Why? Bums (that pay) on seats. This means that people like me struggle to find Australian candidates that can do the quantitative research we need done. We are therefore forced to look overseas. Read the rest of this entry »





Ecological processes depend on …

14 05 2014
© Cagan Sekercioglu

© Cagan Sekercioglu

I have been known to say (ok – I say it all the time) that ecologists should never equivocate when speaking to the public. Whether it’s in a media release, blog post, television presentation or newspaper article, just stick to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In other words, don’t qualify your answer with some horrid statistical statement (i.e., in 95% of cases …) or say something like “… but it really depends on …”. People don’t understand uncertainty – to most people, ‘uncertainty’ means “I don’t know” or worse, “I made it all up”.

But that’s only in the movies.

In real ‘ecological’ life, things are vastly different. It’s never as straightforward as ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because ecology is complex. There are times that I forget this important aspect when testing a new hypothesis with what seem like unequivocal data, but then reality always hits.

Our latest paper is the epitome of this emergent complexity from what started out as a fairly simple question using some amazing data. What makes birds change their range1? We looked at this question from a slightly different angle than had been done before because we had access to climate data, life-history data and most importantly, actual range change data. It’s that latter titbit that is typically missing from studies aiming to understand what drives species toward a particular fate; whether it’s a species distribution model predicting the future habitat suitability of some species as a function of climate change, or the past dynamics of some species related to its life history pace, most often the combined dynamics are missing. Read the rest of this entry »





Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers

11 03 2014

ALERTIf you’ve been following this blog or my Twitter feed over the last few weeks, you’ve surely noticed a few references to A.L.E.R.T. – the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers. You might also have asked yourself, what exactly is ALERT, and is it something I should pay attention to?

Today’s post attempts to explain this new organisation, and hopefully convince you that the answer to the second question is ‘yes’.

Several months ago, a slightly cryptic e-mail from eminent conservation biologist, Bill Laurance, arrived in my inbox. It asked – what do you think of this logo (see associated image)? A few e-mails later and a couple of minor tweaks, and we ended up with what I thought was a pretty cool logo for this new ‘ALERT’ thing. It wasn’t until quite some time later that I finally understood what Bill was attempting to create.

Is ALERT a news aggregator, a blog, an advocacy group, a science-communication resource or a science-policy interface? Why, yes it is!

Read the rest of this entry »





Work-life ‘balance’ – can academics achieve it?

16 12 2013

WorkLifeBalanceA little over a week ago I was asked by the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus) to sit on a panel with Professor Tanya Munro to speak about achieving that elusive ‘life-work balance’. The event was part of the ECRchat network.

The evening was well-attended, and even more so online; now the video is available and I reproduce it here for your viewing pleasure.

I hope you have some interesting insights that we didn’t have – essentially the conclusion is that there really isn’t one; you’ve got to find your own system that works, and nothing works perfectly. Read the rest of this entry »





Biowealth: all creatures great and small

4 12 2013

Curious Country flyer“So consider the crocodiles, sharks and snakes, the small and the squirmy, the smelly, slimy and scaly. Consider the fanged and the hairy, the ugly and the cute alike. The more we degrade this astonishing diversity of evolved life and all its interactions on our only home, the more we expose ourselves to the ravages of a universe that is inherently hostile to life.”

excerpt from ‘Biowealth: all creatures great and small’ The Curious Country (C.J.A. Bradshaw 2013).

I’ve spent the last few days on the east coast with my science partner-in-crime, Barry Brook, and one of our newest research associates (Marta Rodrigues-Rey Gomez). We first flew into Sydney at sparrow’s on Monday, then drove a hire car down to The ‘Gong to follow up on some Australian megafauna databasing & writing with Bert Roberts & Zenobia Jacobs. On Tuesday morning we then flitted over to Canberra where we had the opportunity to attend the official launch of a new book that Barry and I had co-authored.

The book, The Curious Country, is an interesting experiment in science communication and teaching dreamed up by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. Realising that the average Aussie has quite a few questions about ‘how stuff works’, but has little idea how to answer those questions, Ian engaged former Quantum star and science editor, Leigh Dayton, to put together a short, punchy, topical and easily understood book about why science is good for the country.

Yes, intuitive for most of you out there reading this, but science appreciation isn’t always as high as it should be amongst the so-called ‘general public’. Ian thought this might be one way to get more people engaged.

When honoured with the request to write an interesting chapter on biodiversity for the book, I naturally accepted. It turns out Barry was asked to do one on energy provision at the same time (but we didn’t know we had both been asked at the time). Our former lab head, Professor David Bowman, was also asked to write a chapter about fire risk, so it was like a mini-reunion yesterday for the three of us.

Read the rest of this entry »





King for a day – what conservation policies would you make?

29 11 2013

CrownI have been thinking a lot lately about poor governance and bad choices when it comes to biodiversity conservation policy. Perhaps its all that latent anger arising from blinkered, backward policies recently implemented by conservative state and national governments in Australia and elsewhere that leads me to contemplate: What would I do if I had the power to change policy?

While I am certain I have neither the experience or complete knowledge to balance national budgets, ensure prosperity and maintain the health of an entire country, I do have some ideas about what we’re doing wrong conservation-wise, and how we could potentially fix things. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list – it is more a discussion point where people can suggest their own ideas.

So here are 16 things I’d change or implement (mainly in Australia) if I were king for a day:

Read the rest of this entry »





Making the scientific workshop work

28 10 2013
I don't mean this

I don’t mean this

I’ve been a little delayed in blogging this month, but for a very good reason – I’ve just experienced one of the best workshops of my career. I’d like to share a little of that perfect science recipe with you now.

I’ve said it before, but it can stand being repeated: done right, workshops can be some of the most efficient structures for doing big science.

First, let me define ‘workshop’ for those of you who might have only a vague notion of what it entails. To me, a workshop is a small group of like-minded scientists – all of whom possess different skills and specialities – who are brought together to achieve one goal. That goal is writing the superlative manuscript for publication.

So I don’t mean just a bog-standard chin-wag infected with motherhoods and diatribes. Workshops are not mini-conferences; neither are they soap boxes. It is my personal view that nothing can waste a scientist’s precious time more than an ill-planned and aimless workshop.

But with a little planning and some key ingredients that I’ll list shortly, you can turn a moderately good idea into something that can potentially shake the foundations of an entire discipline. So what are these secret ingredients? Read the rest of this entry »





Making science matter

14 10 2013
© XKCD

© XKCD

I’ve been home from my last overseas trip now for nearly two weeks, but despite not feeling caught up, it’s high time I report what I was up to.

Some of you who follow my Twitter feed or who saw a CB post about cartoonist Seppo Leinonen know that I was visiting the University of Helsinki to participate in a three-day short course for PhD students entitled ‘Making Science Matter‘. I was so impressed with how well Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin put together the course, that I thought I’d share the format with CB readers (just in case any of you out there can be convinced to design a similar course at your university).

I think it’s important first to discuss the philosophy of the course and what it hoped to provide those early-career researchers.

Most science PhD students will tell you once they’ve completed their degree that they feel completely unprepared to launch themselves into the extra-curricular world of communicating their science beyond the ‘traditional’ (peer-reviewed journals) outlets. Swamped with learning how to write concisely and clearly, getting up to speed with the entire body of theory on which their projects are based, mastering advanced modelling and statistical approaches and learning how to apply efficient computer code, it’s no wonder that many students find precious little time for anything else (including families, good food and proper hygiene).

Once they do land that precious post-doctoral fellowship though, they are immediately expected to interact professionally with the media, embrace social media and give fantastic public lectures to engage the uninformed. Right. Read the rest of this entry »





Science immortalised in cartoon Version 2.0

24 09 2013

© Seppo Leinonen

I’m in the middle of participating in a short-course on science communication based at the University of Helsinki‘s Lammi Biological Station (about 1.5 hours north of Helsinki by car). Organised by two fantastic people, Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin, it’s an eclectic mix of instruction for (mainly) PhD students on how to promote yourself and your science in print, in media, in illustration, in citizen science and for policy makers.

While we aren’t yet finished, I wanted to report that I had the immense pleasure of finally meeting the immeasurably talented environmental cartoonist, Seppo Leinonen. Not only is he an extremely talented artist and a dedicated environmentalist, he’s just a top bloke.

If you haven’t checked out Seppo.net and his cartoons yet, you should.

This is just a brief post to spruik his fine work, and show off his parting cartoon gift to me: Read the rest of this entry »





Early to press is best for success

19 09 2013

publishingThis paper is bound to piss off a few people. So be it. This is what we found, regardless of what you want to believe.

Led by the extremely prolific Bill Laurance, we have just published a paper (online early) that looks at the correlates of publication success for biologists.

I have to preface the main message with a little philosophical discussion of that loaded word – ‘success’. What do we mean by scientific ‘success’? There are several bucket loads of studies that have attempted to get at this question, and several more that have lamented the current system that emphasises publication, publication, publication. Some have even argued that the obsession of ever-more-frequent publication has harmed scientific advancement because of our preoccupation with superficial metrics at the expense of in-depth scientific enquiry.

Well, one can argue these points of view, and empirically support the position that publication frequency is a poor metric. I tend to agree. At the same time, I am not aware of a single scientist known for her or his important scientific contributions that doesn’t have a prolific publication output. No, publishing shitloads of papers won’t win you the Nobel Prize, but if you don’t publish, you won’t win either.

So, publication frequency is certainly correlated with success, even if it’s not the perfect indicator. But my post today isn’t really about that issue. If you accept that writing papers is part of a scientist’s job, then read on. If you don’t, well …

So today I report the result of our study published online in BioScience, Predicting publication success for biologists. We asked the question: what makes someone publish more than someone else? Read the rest of this entry »





Ecologists: join F1000Research’s open science ecosystem

8 08 2013

f1000researchlogoThe people at the new open-access journal F1000Research (a Faculty of 1000 publication) have asked me to help them announce their new deal for ecologists – no processing fees until 2014! Might have to give it a go myself…

F1000Research covers all areas of life sciences, but we know that different fields each have their own unique characteristics, and some features of our journal are of particular interest to certain disciplines.

For the coming months, one area we’ll be focussing on is ecology. To encourage ecologists to try F1000Research, we’re waiving the article processing charge for all first submissions of an ecology paper until 2014. (Use code ECOL15 when submitting).

F1000Research is an ideal venue for publishing an ecology paper. Research, which includes full datasets, is openly available and its speed of publication and transparency in reviews makes it a refreshing alternative to traditional publishing.” Gary Luck, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, Australia

Three good reasons to send your ecology papers to F1000Research:

1.     Quickly reach a wide audience

All articles are fully open access and include all data, and with our post-publication peer review model, your article can be online within a week (find out more about our speedy publication process). Read the rest of this entry »





Ecology: the most important science of our times

12 07 2013

rocket-scienceThe title of this post is deliberately intended to be provocative, but stay with me – I do have an important point to make.

I’m sure most every scientist in almost any discipline feels that her or his particular knowledge quest is “the most important”. Admittedly, there are some branches of science that are more applied than others – I have yet to be convinced, for example, that string theory has an immediate human application, whereas medical science certainly does provide answers to useful questions regarding human health. But the passion for one’s own particular science discipline likely engenders a sort of tunnel vision about its intrinsic importance.

So it comes down to how one defines ‘important’. I’m not advocating in any way that application or practicality should be the only yardstick to ascertain importance. I think superficially impractical, ‘blue-skies’ theoretical endeavours are essential precursors to all so-called applied sciences. I’ll even go so far as to say that there is fundamentally no such thing as a completely unapplied science discipline or question. As I’ve said many times before, ‘science’ is a brick wall of evidence, where individual studies increase the strength of the wall to a point where we can call it a ‘theory’. Occasionally a study comes along and smashes the wall (paradigm shift), at which point we begin to build a new one. Read the rest of this entry »





I fucking love biodiversity

18 06 2013
© G. Gallice

© G. Gallice

A corker of an idea, and post, from Diogo Veríssimo.

I don’t like biodiversity. I like beef lasagna, I like the British museum and I like everything Jules Verne ever wrote. When it comes to biodiversity, it’s different. I think about it all the time, try to be close to it and suffer emotional distress when I think of it going irretrievably away. This is LOVE.

Understanding how to get this passion across effectively has always been one of my main goals. That is why my research has focused on the links between marketing and conservation. But recently I started feeling a bit more empowered to take this mission seriously, and all thanks to the Facebook page I fucking love Science. This page became an internet sensation amassing more than 5 million fans and engaging frequently over 4 million users in any given week. Forget the New York Times and National Geographic, this is the real deal.

So I wondered, why can’t I do the same for biodiversity? The idea lingered in my head until I read a recent paper by McCallum and Bury on Google search patterns, which shows how even during the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity we are failing to mainstream biodiversity and its associated issues. If fact, people seem to be less interested. Whatever we are doing is clearly not working. So why not give this concept a try? And so I fucking love Biodiversity (IFLB) was born.

Read the rest of this entry »





Learning how to fail

6 06 2013

On the way to work yesterday I was listening to ABC Radio National‘s Life Matters program hosted by Natasha Mitchell about how school children are now apparently being given so much positive praise and encouragement that they can no longer handle failure. Poor, wee dears. Maybe that’s why we have such a high attrition rate once they get up to postgraduate level, because that’s when they REALLY experience failure.

Jokes and whinges aside, there is a hard truth in that message that applies to all scientists, and especially the early-career ones. I’m talking about having your paper rejected from a journal.

Even the terms we use to describe the peer-review gauntlet appear designed to instil fear and inadequacy: reject or accept. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a PhD student’s face figuratively melt off the skull as they shuffle into my office to show me the journal’s rejection letter (now just usually forwarded in an email accompanied by implied stooped shoulders – is there an emoticon for that?). As I’ve mentioned before, we scientists can be real bastards to each other, and it comes out in spades during peer review.

While neophytes tend to take these hits the hardest, I want to impart a little wisdom from some of my very well-established and successful colleagues. Rejection should be viewed as an asset, not a mark of failure. Let me explain. Read the rest of this entry »








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