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

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 »

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).


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 »

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 »

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 »