Prioritising your academic tasks

18 04 2018

The following is an abridged version of one of the chapters in my recent book, The Effective Scientist, regarding how to prioritise your tasks in academia. For a more complete treatise of the issue, access the full book here.

splitting tasks

Splitting tasks. © René Campbell renecampbellart.com

How the hell do you balance all the requirements of an academic life in science? From actually doing the science, analysing the data, writing papers, reviewing, writing grants, to mentoring students — not to mention trying to have a modicum of a life outside of the lab — you can quickly end up feeling a little daunted. While there is no empirical formula that make you run your academic life efficiently all the time, I can offer a few suggestions that might make your life just a little less chaotic.

Priority 1: Revise articles submitted to high-ranked journals

Barring a family emergency, my top priority is always revising an article that has been sent back to me from a high-ranking journal for revisions. Spend the necessary time to complete the necessary revisions.

Priority 2: Revise articles submitted to lower-ranked journals

I could have lumped this priority with the previous, but I think it is necessary to distinguish the two should you find yourself in the fortunate position of having to do more than one revision at a time.

Priority 3: Experimentation and field work

Most of us need data before we can write papers, so this is high on my personal priority list. If field work is required, then obviously this will be your dominant preoccupation for sometimes extended periods. Many experiments can also be highly time-consuming, while others can be done in stages or run in the background while you complete other tasks.

Priority 4: Databasing

This one could be easily forgotten, but it is a task that can take up a disproportionate amount of your time if do not deliberately fit it into your schedule. Well-organised, abundantly meta-tagged, intuitive, and backed-up databases are essential for effective scientific analysis; good data are useless if you cannot find them or understand to what they refer. Read the rest of this entry »





The Effective Scientist

22 03 2018

final coverWhat is an effective scientist?

The more I have tried to answer this question, the more it has eluded me. Before I even venture an attempt, it is necessary to distinguish the more esoteric term ‘effective’ from the more pedestrian term ‘success’. Even ‘success’ can be defined and quantified in many different ways. Is the most successful scientist the one who publishes the most papers, gains the most citations, earns the most grant money, gives the most keynote addresses, lectures the most undergraduate students, supervises the most PhD students, appears on the most television shows, or the one whose results improves the most lives? The unfortunate and wholly unsatisfying answer to each of those components is ‘yes’, but neither is the answer restricted to the superlative of any one of those. What I mean here is that you need to do reasonably well (i.e., relative to your peers, at any rate) in most of these things if you want to be considered ‘successful’. The relative contribution of your performance in these components will vary from person to person, and from discipline to discipline, but most undeniably ‘successful’ scientists do well in many or most of these areas.

That’s the opening paragraph for my new book that has finally been release for sale today in the United Kingdom and Europe (the Australasian release is scheduled for 7 April, and 30 April for North America). Published by Cambridge University Press, The Effective ScientistA Handy Guide to a Successful Academic Career is the culmination of many years of work on all the things an academic scientist today needs to know, but was never taught formally.

Several people have asked me why I decided to write this book, so a little history of its genesis is in order. I suppose my over-arching drive was to create something that I sincerely wish had existed when I was a young scientist just starting out on the academic career path. I was focussed on learning my science, and didn’t necessarily have any formal instruction in all the other varied duties I’d eventually be expected to do well, from how to write papers efficiently, to how to review properly, how to manage my grant money, how to organise and store my data, how to run a lab smoothly, how to get the most out of a conference, how to deal with the media, to how to engage in social media effectively (even though the latter didn’t really exist yet at the time) — all of these so-called ‘extra-curricular’ activities associated with an academic career were things I would eventually just have to learn as I went along. I’m sure you’ll agree, there has to be a better way than just muddling through one’s career picking up haphazard experience. Read the rest of this entry »





When to appeal a rejection

26 08 2017

BegA modified excerpt from my upcoming book for you to contemplate after your next rejection letter.

This is a delicate subject that requires some reflection. Early in my career, I believed the appeal process to be a waste of time. Having made one or two of them to no avail, and then having been on the receiving end of many appeals as a journal editor myself, I thought that it would be a rare occasion indeed when an appeal actually led to a reversal of the final decision.

It turns out that I was very wrong, but not in terms of simple functional probability that you might be thinking. Ironically, the harder it is to get a paper published in a journal, the higher the likelihood that an appeal following rejection will lead to a favourable outcome for the submitting authors. Let me explain. Read the rest of this entry »





How to respond to reviewers

30 06 2017

Just like there are many styles to writing scientific manuscripts, there are also many ways to respond to a set of criticisms and suggestions from reviewers. Likewise, many people and organisations have compiled lists of what to do, and what not to do, in a response to reviews of your manuscript (just type ‘response to reviewer comments’ or similar phrase into your favourite search engine and behold the reams of available advice).

what

It clearly is a personal choice, but from my own experience as an author, reviewer, editor, and the myriad suggestions available online, there are a few golden rules about how to respond:

  • After you have calmed down a little, it is essential that you remain polite throughout the process. Irrespective of how stupid, unfair, mean-spirited, or just plain lazy the reviewers might appear to you, do not stoop to their level and fire back with defensive, snarky comments. Neither must you ever blame the editor for even the worst types of reviews, because you will do yourself no favours at all by offending the main person who will decide your manuscript’s fate.

Read the rest of this entry »





Credit for reviewing & editing — it’s about bloody time

15 03 2017

clapping-hands-300x225As have many other scientists, I’ve whinged before about the exploitative nature of scientific publishing. What other industry obtains its primary material for free (submitted articles), has its construction and quality control done for free (reviewing & editing), and then sells its final products for immense profit back to the very people who started the process? It’s a fantastic recipe for making oodles of cash; had I been financially cleverer and more ethically bereft in my youth, I would have bought shares in publicly listed publishing companies.

How much time do we spend reviewing and editing each other’s manuscripts? Some have tried to work out these figures and prescribe ideal writing-to-reviewing/editing ratios, but it suffices to say that we spend a mind-bending amount of our time doing these tasks. While we might never reap the financial rewards of reviewing, we can now at least get some nominal credit for the effort.

While it has been around for nearly five years now, the company Publons1 has only recently come to my attention. At first I wondered about the company’s modus operandi, but after discovering that academics can use their services completely free of charge, and that the company funds itself by “… partnering with publishers” (at least someone is getting something out of them), I believe it’s as about as legitimate and above-board as it gets.

So what does Publons do? They basically list the journals for which you have reviewed and/or edited. Whoah! (I can almost hear you say). How do I protect my anonymity? Read the rest of this entry »





Subconsciously sexist?

29 06 2016

2000px-Igualtat_de_sexes.svgIt was with some consternation that I processed some recent second-hand scuttlebutt about my publishing history with respect to gender balance. I’ve always considered myself non-sexist when it comes to working with my colleagues, but as a white, middle-aged male, I’m willing to admit that perhaps subconsciously I’ve been promoting gender inequalities in science without realising that I’m doing it. As a father of a daughter, I also want to make sure the world in which she grows up isn’t as difficult as it has been for women of previous generations.

It is still an unfortunate fact that the ideal of a 50–50 gender balance in the biological sciences is far from becoming a reality; indeed, women have to be about 2.2-2.5 times more productive than their male counterparts to be as successful in securing financial support to do their work.

In fact, a 1993 study of ecologists attributed the lower (but happily, increasing) productivity and dwindling representation of women with career stage to such institutionalised injustices as: less satisfactory relationships with PhD advisors, difficulty in finding suitable mentors, lack of institutional empowerment, greater family responsibilities, lower salaries, lower job security, and lower evaluation of personal success. A follow-up study in 2012 suggested that the gap was narrowing in many of these components, but it was still far from equal. For a more comprehensive discussion of the complexity of the issues in science (see here), and in ecology in particular, see here.

Others have more recently reported no evidence for a gender effect in paper acceptance rates (Biological Conservation), and no difference in the level of perceived expertise between men and women (in long-term environmental or ecological research at 60 protected areas stratified across forests of the Asia-Pacific, African and American tropics).

Read the rest of this entry »





Attention Ecologists: Journal Ranking Survey

16 09 2014

journal rankingIn the interest of providing greater transparency when ranking the ‘quality’ of scientific journals, we are interested in collecting ecologists’ views on the relative impact of different ecology, conservation and multidisciplinary journals. If you’re a publishing ecologist, we want your personal opinion on a journal’s relative rank from this sample of 25 peer-reviewed journals. Please do not consult Impact Factors or other journal rankings to decide – just go with your ‘gut’ feeling.

We chose a sample of 25 authoritative journals in the field (listed below alphabetically). Use the drop-down menus to select a categorical rank. Make sure you’ve allocated categories 1 through to 4 at least once in the sample of 25. Category 5 (‘Other’) is optional.

The survey should take you only a few minutes to complete. Thanks for your time!





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 »





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 »





Rocking the scientific boat

14 12 2012
© C. Simpson

© C. Simpson

One thing that has simultaneously amused, disheartened, angered and outraged me over the past decade or so is how anyone in their right mind could even suggest that scientists band together into some sort of conspiracy to dupe the masses. While this tired accusation is most commonly made about climate scientists, it applies across nearly every facet of the environmental sciences whenever someone doesn’t like what one of us says.

First, it is essential to recognise that we’re just not that organised. While I have yet to forget to wear my trousers to work (I’m inclined to think that it will happen eventually), I’m still far, far away from anything that could be described as ‘efficient’ and ‘organised’. I can barely keep it together as it is. Such is the life of the academic.

More importantly, the idea that a conspiracy could form among scientists ignores one of the most fundamental components of scientific progress – dissension. And hell, can we dissent!

Yes, the scientific approach is one where successive lines of evidence testing hypotheses are eventually amassed into a concept, then perhaps a rule of thumb. If the rule of thumb stands against the scrutiny of countless studies (i.e., ‘challenges’ in the form of poison-tipped, flaming literary arrows), then it might eventually become a ‘theory’. Some theories even make it to become the hallowed ‘law’, but that is very rare indeed. In the environmental sciences (I’m including ecology here), one could argue that there is no such thing as a ‘law’.

Well-informed non-scientists might understand, or at least, appreciate that process. But few people outside the sciences have even the remotest clue about what a real pack of bastards we can be to each other. Use any cliché or descriptor you want – it applies: dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, jugular-slicing ninjas, or brain-eating zombies in lab coats.

Read the rest of this entry »





Knowledge slavery

29 01 2012

manaclesAnother workshop; another productive week.

As many readers will know, I’ve spent the last week in the mountains north of Madrid working on a series of conservation ecology papers with host Miguel Araújo (of the Integrative Biology and Global Change Group at the Spanish National Museum of Natural Sciences), my lab colleagues, Barry Brook, Damien Fordham and Salvador Herrando-Pérez, and Miguel’s post-doc, Regan Early.

Let me tell you, staying in the craggy granite Sierra de Guadarrama mountains at a well-known health spa eating explosively flavourful Spanish food and drinking an immodest selection of the region’s delicious wines, is particularly conducive to scientific productivity (yes, I AM a jammy tart). Although unlikely to be followed by many (even if they have the means), I highly recommend the experience for those suffering from writer’s block.

But this post isn’t about the scenery, food, wine, hydrothermal treatment or even the content of the workshop at all (I just prefaced it as such to gloat); it’s about a particularly sore point for me and hundreds of thousands of other scientists the world over – our slavery to the scientific publishing industry.

And ‘slavery’ is definitely the most appropriate term here, for how else would you describe a business where the product is produced by others for free1 (scientific results), is assessed for quality by others for free (reviewing), is commissioned, overviewed and selected by yet others for free (editing), and then sold back to the very same scientists and the rest of the world’s consumers at exorbitant prices.

This isn’t just a whinge about a specialised and economically irrelevant sector of the economy, we’re talking about an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. In fact, Elsevier (agreed by many to be the leader in the greed-pack – see how some scientists are staging their protest; also here) made US$1.1 billion in 2010! Read the rest of this entry »





ERA rankings for Conservation and Ecology journals

11 02 2010

The much-touted Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative was established in 2008 to “…assesses research quality within Australia’s higher education institutions using a combination of indicators and expert review by committees comprising experienced, internationally-recognised experts”. Following on the heels of the United Kingdom’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and Australia’s previous attempt at such a ranking (the now-defunct Research Quality Framework), we will now have a system that ranks research performance and universities in this country. Overall I think it’s a good thing so that the dead-wood can lift their game or go home, but no ranking system is perfect. Some well-deserving people will be left out in the cold.

Opinions aside, I thought it would be useful to provide the ERA journal ranking categories in conservation and ecology for my readers, particularly for those in Australia. See also my Journals page for conservation journals, their impact factors and links. The ERA has ranked 20,712 unique peer-reviewed journals, with each given a single quality rating (or is not ranked). The ERA is careful to say that “A journal’s quality rating represents the overall quality of the journal. This is defined in terms of how it compares with other journals and should not be confused with its relevance or importance to a particular discipline.”.

They provide four tiers of quality rating:

  • A* =  Typically one of the best in its field or subfield in which to publish and would typically cover the entire field/subfield. Virtually all papers they publish will be of a very high quality. These are journals where most of the work is important (it will really shape the field) and where researchers boast about getting accepted. Acceptance rates would typically be low and the editorial board would be dominated by field leaders, including many from top institutions.
  • A =  The majority of papers in a Tier A journal will be of very high quality. Publishing in an A journal would enhance the author’s standing, showing they have real engagement with the global research community and that they have something to say about problems of some significance. Typical signs of an A journal are lowish acceptance rates and an editorial board which includes a reasonable fraction of well known researchers from top institutions.
  • B = Tier B covers journals with a solid, though not outstanding, reputation. Generally, in a Tier B journal, one would expect only a few papers of very high quality. They are often important outlets for the work of PhD students and early career researchers. Typical examples would be regional journals with high acceptance rates, and editorial boards that have few leading researchers from top international institutions.
  • C =  Tier C includes quality, peer reviewed, journals that do not meet the criteria of the higher tiers.

If you’re an Australian conservation ecologist, then you’d be wise to target the higher-end journals for publication over the next few years (it will affect your rank).

So, here goes:

Conservation Journals

Ecology Journals (in addition to those listed above; only A* and A)

  • A*: Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, Biological Reviews, Ecological Monographs, Ecology, Ecology Letters, Environment International, Fish and Fisheries, Global Ecology and Biogeography, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences, PLoS Biology, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences, The American Naturalist, The Quarterly Review of Biology
  • A: Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, Animal Behaviour, American Journal of Primatology, Auk, Behavioral Ecology, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, BioEssays, Biology Letters, Bioscience, BMC Biology, Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, Coral Reefs, Diversity and Distributions, Ecography, Ecological Applications, Fisheries, Freshwater Biology, Functional Ecology, International Journal of Primatology, Journal of Applied Ecology, Journal of Animal Ecology, Journal of Avian Biology, Journal of Biogeography, Journal of Ecology, Journal of Experimental Biology, Journal of Fish Biology, Journal of Mammalogy, Journal of the North American Benthological Society, Journal of Zoology, Molecular Ecology, Oecologia, Oikos, Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, Reviews in Fisheries Science, Wildlife Monographs, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society

I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but that’ll cover most of the relevant journals. For the full, tortuous list of journals in Excel format, click here. Happy publishing!

CJA Bradshaw

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