University rankings are questionable at best

23 09 2019

university-rankingMeasuring educational performance is difficult at any stage, especially since most school-level performance indicators are based on ‘standardised’ tests of a few select students in particular years. But if you think that is questionable, you can rest assured that it is a hell of a lot more objective and better quantified than how we rank our universities.

In fact, it is rather stunning how superficial the criteria are for ranking universities, for there are no standardised exams or measures of teaching quality that have been applied to a large-enough section of universities across the world to make any meaningful comparisons. Instead, we tend to rely on brute metrics like the number of high-level academic prizes that employees of a university have won, how many citations they received for their academic papers, and other, highly subjective survey questions regarding the perceived ‘reputation’ of an institution.

As a result, a sceptic might in fact think that all the existing metrics are utter nonsense, especially considering how much advertising from universities appears to be incorporated in the online literature (one could be justified in being concerned about the possibility of undue influence and corruption in this regard 🤔).

While there are many types of university rankings, possibly the three most-recognised and reported are the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the (Shanghai) Academic Ranking of World Universities, and the QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) University Rankings. The first purports to Read the rest of this entry »





Skydive your PhD

23 04 2019

Originally published on the Global Ecology Blog.


skydive1

Many students start a PhD by just continuing in the same subject and same institution from their Masters or Honours project. But this is not necessarily the best way to do things. In fact, switching fields and countries for your PhD could end up giving you a decide boost to your career.

Sure, continuing a project with the same supervisors has a lot of advantages for both the student and supervisor. As students, we are familiar with the environment, the research topic, and the specific, technological know-how of our current field. We also know that we have no more than 3 to 4 years to complete a PhD thesis. This period is short, and so avoiding the time to adapt to a new setting and topic is a distinct advantage. From the perspective of the supervisor, this time-saving can also increase the likelihood that the student will finish in time

Given these reasons, it’s difficult to argue why someone should contemplate doing things differently. This was exactly my point of view a few years ago, but I am now convinced that I was wrong.

I decided to do a PhD when I was 16 after an interview I did with a professor as part of a high school project. His eyes were bright, and his obvious passion for the subject fascinated me. A few years later, my first internship in a research lab was so captivating that I subsequently chose my courses and internships accordingly. I had decided to do a PhD in that field, and to become an ‘expert’. In so doing, I thought that I would be more likely to get one of the local PhD scholarships that were on offer. But at the end of my Masters degree, I missed out on being selected. Read the rest of this entry »





Twenty tips for writing a research proposal

4 05 2015

Proposal FormatThis post’s title might promise a lot, but it would be disingenuous of me to imply that I could cover all of the essential components of this massive topic in one blog post. Many people (my wife included) have made careers out of teaching people how to write successful grant proposals, so I won’t pretend to be comprehensive and insult their expertise. That said, I’ve been reasonably successful on the grants’ side of the science game, and I’ve assessed a fair few grant proposals in my day, so I think I can offer at least a few pointers. As usual, each person probably has her or his own way of doing things, so there’s unlikely to be a single, winning method. Approaches will also vary by funding agency and country of origin. I am therefore targeting the earlier-career people who have yet to get fully indoctrinated into the funding cycle, with generalities that should apply to most grant proposals.

1. A proposal is not an article, so don’t try to write it as one.

In the huge list of things ‘they never taught you as a student, but need to know to be a successful scientist’, this has got to be one of the biggies. Now I’m mainly talking about science here, but grant proposals cannot and should not follow the standard format of peer-reviewed articles. Articles tend to put an elaborate background up front, a complex description of hypotheses followed by an even more complex description of methods and results. Do not do this for a proposal. A proposal should be viewed more as a ‘pitch’ that hooks the assessor’s attention from the get-go. More on this aspect below.

2. Understand what the funder actually fundsRead 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 »





How to write a scientific paper

22 10 2012

Several years ago, my long-time mate, colleague and co-director, Barry Brook, and I were lamenting how most of our neophyte PhD students were having a hard time putting together their first paper drafts. It’s a common problem, and most supervisors probably get their collective paper-writing wisdom across in dribs and drabs over the course of their students’ torment… errhm, PhD. And I know that every supervisor has a different style, emphasis, short-cut (or two) and focus when writing a paper, and students invariably pick at least some of these up.

But the fact that this knowledge isn’t innate, nor is it in any way taught in probably most undergraduate programmes (I include Honours in that list), means that most supervisors must bleed heavily on those first drafts presented to them by their students. Bleeding is painful for both the supervisor and student who has to clean up the mess – there has to be a better way.

Yes, there are books on the issue (see, for example, Day & Castel 2011, Hofmann 2009, Schimel 2011), but how many starting PhDs sit down and read such books cover to cover? Hell, I can barely get them to read the basic statistics texts.

So as is classic for Barry, he came up with his own approach that I like to call ‘La Méthode Brookoise’ (a tribute to another clever jeu de mots). This short-cut guide to setting up a scientific paper is simple, effective and intuitive. Sure, it was designed with ecology in mind, but it should apply to most scientific disciplines. It appeals to most of our students, and we have both been asked for copies by other supervisors over the years. Our original intention was to write a paper about writing papers to flesh out the full Méthode, but that has yet to happen.

Therefore, for the benefit of the up-and-comings (and perhaps to a few of those longer in tooth), behold La Méthode Brookoise for writing papers: Read the rest of this entry »





Build a bridge out of ‘er

12 03 2011

Apologies to Monty Python and my poor attempt to make the over-used expression ‘bridging the gap’ humorous.

Today’s guest post comes from across the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Sara Maxwell is a postdoctoral fellow with Marine Conservation Biology Institute and University of California Santa Cruz, Long Marine Laboratory. She was kind enough to contribute to ConservationBytes.com about an issue I’ve covered before in various forms – making conservation research relevant for conservation action.

© R. Arlettaz

In a catalyzing article titled “From publications to public actions: when conservation biologists bridge the gap between research and implementation” in the November 2010 issue of BioScience, Raphaël Arlettaz1 and his colleagues Michael Schaub2, Jérôme Fournier3, Thomas Reichlin2, Antoine Sierro4, James Watson5 and Veronika Braunisch2 explore reasons for our hard work as conservation biologists not reaching the implementation phase. This article strongly resonated with my colleague, Kiki Jenkins6 and I, Sara Maxwell. This resulted in a series of letters published in BioScience and now we join together, along with Jeffrey Camm7, Guillaume Chapron8, Liana Joseph9, and Rudi Suchant10 to synthesize our ideas and present them to the larger conservation community via ConservationBytes.

The article that sparked the discussion

In their article, Arlettaz and colleagues highlight some of the main roadblocks to implementing conservation research. The main reasons are that:

  1. The research made by conservation biologists’ does not lend itself well to implementation, i.e., as a community we often focus on the wrong questions or address them in ways that do not lead to practical applications for practitioners;
  2. The outcomes of conservation biologists’ research tends not to reach practitioners and so fails to be put into action;
  3. When we successfully align and collaborate with practitioners, there is a lack of economic or political support to make the changes that need to happen; or
  4. Conservation biologists do not commit to engaging themselves in the implementation of their recommendations due to a lack of reward structure for this behaviour and the conflicting roles of academia and conservation.

Arlettaz and colleagues illustrate how to overcome these roadblocks using a case study of their own work on the endangered hoopoe (Upupa epops) in Switzerland, showing how they followed through the recommendations of their work to implementation and had a direct impact on species recovery. They highlight means by which other conservation biologists can do the same.

Read the rest of this entry »