Multiculturalism in the lab

23 02 2017

8294047fabf352ce46f4fd9a89d4a93dWith all the nasty nationalism and xenophobia gurgling nauseatingly to the surface of our political discoursethese days, it is probably worth some reflection regarding the role of multiculturalism in science. I’m therefore going to take a stab, despite being in most respects a ‘golden child’ in terms of privilege and opportunity (I am, after all, a middle-aged Caucasian male living in a wealthy country). My cards are on the table.

I know few overtly racist scientists, although I suspect that they do exist. In fact, most scientists are of a more liberal persuasion generally and tend to pride themselves on their objectivity in all aspects of being human, including the sociological ones. In other words, we tend to think of ourselves as dispassionate pluralists who only judge the empirical capabilities of our colleagues, with their races, genders, sexual persuasions and other physical attributes irrelevant to our assessment. We generally love to travel and interact with our peers from all nations and walks of life, and we regularly decorate our offices and with cultural paraphernalia different to our own.

But are we as unbiased and dispassionate as we think we are? Do we take that professed pluralism and cultural promiscuity with us to the lab each day? Perhaps we could, and should, do better. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting your conservation science to the right people

22 01 2016

argument-cartoon-yellingA perennial lament of nearly every conservation scientist — at least at some point (often later in one’s career) — is that the years of blood, sweat and tears spent to obtain those precious results count for nought in terms of improving real biodiversity conservation.

Conservation scientists often claim, especially in the first and last paragraphs of their papers and research proposals, that by collecting such-and-such data and doing such-and-such analyses they will transform how we manage landscapes and species to the overall betterment of biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these claims are hollow (or just plain bullshit) because the results are either: (i) never read by people who actually make conservation decisions, (ii) not understood by them even if they read the work, or (iii) never implemented because they are too vague or too unrealistic to translate into a tangible, positive shift in policy.

A depressing state of being, I know.

This isn’t any sort of novel revelation, for we’ve been discussing the divide between policy makers and scientists for donkey’s years. Regardless, the whinges can be summarised succinctly: Read the rest of this entry »

Write English well? Help get published someone who doesn’t

27 01 2015

imagesI’ve written before about how sometimes I can feel a little exasperated by what seems to be a constant barrage of bad English from some of my co-authors. No, I’m not focussing solely on students, or even native English speakers for that matter. In fact, one of the best (English) science writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working is a Spaniard (he also happens to write particularly well in Castellano). He was also fairly high up on the command-of-English ladder when he started out as my PhD student. So. There.

In other words, just because you grew up speaking the Queen’s doesn’t automatically guarantee that you’ll bust a phrase as easily as Shakespeare, Tolkien, Gould or Flannery; in fact, it might put you at a decided disadvantage compared to your English-as-a-second- (-third-, -fourth-, -fifth- …) language peers because they avoided learning all those terrible habits you picked up as you grunted your way through adolescence. Being forced to learn the grammar of another language often tends to make you grasp that of your mother tongue a little better.

So regardless of your background, if you’ve managed to beat the odds and know in your heart that you are in fact a good writer of science in English (you know who you are), I think you have a moral duty to help out those who still struggle with it. I’m not referring necessarily to the inevitable corrections you’ll make to your co-authors’ prose when drafting manuscripts1. I am instead talking about going out of your way to help someone who really, really needs it. Read the rest of this entry »

How to review a scientific paper

30 09 2014

F6a00d834521baf69e200e55471d80f8833-800wiollowing one of the most popular posts on, as well as in response to several requests, I’ve decided to provide a few pointers for early-career scientists for reviewing manuscripts submitted to peer-reviewed journals.

Apart from publishing your first peer-reviewed paper – whether it’s in Nature or Corey’s Journal of Bullshit – receiving that first request to review a manuscript is one of the best indications that you’ve finally ‘made it’ as a recognised scientist. Finally, someone is acknowledging that you are an expert and that your opinions and critiques are important. You deserve to feel proud when this happens.

Of course, reviewing is the backbone of the scientific process, because it is the main component of science’s pursuit of objectivity (i.e., subjectivity reduction). No other human endeavour can claim likewise.

It is therefore essential to take the reviewing process seriously, even if you do so only from the entirely selfish perspective that if you do not, no one will seriously review your own work. It is therefore much more than an altruistic effort to advance human knowledge – it is at the very least a survival mechanism. Sooner or later if you get a reputation for providing bad reviews, or refuse to do them, your own publication track record will suffer as a result.

Just like there are probably as many different (successful) ways to write a scientific paper as there are journals, most people develop their own approaches for reviewing their colleagues’ work. But just as it’s my opinion that many journal editors do an awful job of editing, I know that many reviewers do rather a shit job at their assigned tasks. This perspective comes from many years as an author, a reviewer, an editor and a mentor.

So take my advice as you will – hopefully some of it will prove useful when you review manuscripts. 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


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 »

Scientists should blog

27 05 2014
© Bill Porter

© Bill Porter

As 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 »