Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Three Rs of Science – Reading, Writing and Reviewing

And before anyone jumps in and says there are 4Rs in Science i.e. Reading, Research, Writing and Reviewing, I am including research as part of writing as without research you would have nothing to write about.  This post is mainly about writing for publication as I have written about refereeing and reading in earlier posts.  Almost twenty-five years ago I designed and implemented a scientific paper writing class for the undergraduate course that I used to run at Imperial College; later I re-tooled it as part of our postgraduate training programme and it was later rolled out across the university graduate school as part of the Doctoral Training Programme.

The first question I would ask students was “Why do scientists write papers?”  Undergraduates usually responded that scientists wrote to tell the world and their peers about what research they had done and thus advance science and prevent duplication of effort.  My response to this was that if they really wanted to publicise their research and make it accessible to the world they would publish their work in the popular press which has a lot more reach than a scientific journal.  After a bit of prodding they would then decide that perhaps it was for peer recognition and subsequent scientific validation via the review process.  Postgraduate students reached this stage more quickly and also understood that they needed to publish to make their cvs competitive and also of course to stake a claim to a particular research area to help with obtaining funding.

The first step in this journey is to do some good science!  Before setting out on the publication trail I also think that one should ask yourself if your work is important, although of course this is pretty subjective.  I am sure that all of us if asked, would consider that what we do is important enough to be published.  Next ask yourself if the experimental design or methodology is sound and if the work has been done well.  This will save time and remove some of the pain likely to be met during the review process.  Most importantly, at least in my opinion, is to ask yourself if there is a story.  There needs to be a strong narrative if you want to get people to read and cite your paper.

As a first time author you definitely need to ask advice about who does what, where you will send your paper and it is usually a good idea to get some agreement on authorship order earlier and not later.  Even as an experienced author I think that this sort of discussion can be very useful.  At the very least it will help you decide what particular slant your story will have.

Remember, have a clear story to tell and also remember that complexity is not the same as learning; keep your language simple, concise, precise and incisive and even at this early stage, make sure you follow the journal style!

At this point in the course I would put up this table and ask the students what each column represented.

Paper table

They would quickly guess that the first column represented the traditional layout of a scientific paper.  The other two columns took a bit longer, especially for the undergraduates until I asked them how they read papers when gathering material for their assignments and they were then able to identify the third column as how they, and most of us tend to read papers.  If the title seems interesting then we read the abstract, zip down to the results, see what the authors said about them, then check the introduction and then check the references for follow-up literature.  Methods and materials usually trail in at the end and then only if you have some doubts about what the authors have said or if you want to do something similar.  Then you look at the results again and you might look at the acknowledgements to see where they got their funding and to guess how many times they had to revise the paper (how many anonymous referees they acknowledge).

The middle column represents how most of us now write papers especially in these days of cut and paste. We follow the line of least resistance, start with the title to give us a starting point, our methods should have been written already in our lab books, the results come next and then we get on to the harder bits, the Introduction and the Discussion; acknowledgements flow logically from this and then it is a matter of adding the references and perhaps the hardest bit of all, the abstract or summary.    By the time you have done all this, your initial title almost certainly will no longer appeal to you so you come up with something new and more fitting.

Although this tends to be how we write papers I am not sure that it is actually the best way.  In the days before personal PCs some of us had access to typing pools and even if we didn’t, we either wrote our first drafts in long-hand or at a typewriter.  This meant that we got all our material together, had a long think about what we wanted to say and actually started at the beginning and worked our way through the paper in the same order as it would be printed.  Some people argue that this meant that ‘flow’ of those papers was smoother and more coherent.  I don’t think I know anyone who actually writes like that anymore, but I am happy to be contradicted.

Regardless of the fact that most of us live in a cut and paste world I am going to work through the various bits of a paper in the usual printed order.  Remember you are telling a story and there are a lot of rival authors out there competing for space in the top journals and you have to convince the journal editor and two or three referees that your paper is the one that should see the light of day in their journal.

You need a title; ideally it should be short, snappy and very importantly informative, although perhaps not too informative.  In the course I ran, I presented this to the students as a somewhat tongue in cheek example;

The effect of two lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon) seed origins (South coastal and Alaskan) on the growth, survival and development of larvae of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) in the presence and absence of predators in a Scottish field site.

This although informative is not necessarily going to gain you readers or publication in a high impact journal.  In fact the external pre-REF (Research Excellence Framework – UK academics will know what this is) consultant employed by my university to help decide which papers should go forward for assessment was very clear that titles beginning with The effect of were very unlikely to receive high scores by the external assessors.

As it happened, the work I had done which is very clearly described by the informative title above was actually published as

Leather & Walsh title page

Not very informative but it certainly got a readership.

The abstract is perhaps the least favourite bit of a paper for authors; I certainly find them difficult and invariably save them to last.  They are however, extremely important and according to Wiley-Blackwell, publishers of the journal that I edit (Insect Conservation & Diversity) they are much more important than we as authors realise – they and the title are the ‘hook’ that gets your paper downloaded and hopefully read and then cited.  You should thus not just rush it off in a couple of minutes.  Think hard about what you want to say and what it is that is likely to get someone to download and read your paper.

Next is the Introduction, here you should put your work in context, remembering that it is not a literature review but make sure that you do cite some of the earlier relevant work as well as the more recent literature.  State the problem clearly and indicate who else has tried and failed and why your work is special and how you have succeeded where others have failed.

Now for the Materials and methods section, which to me is the most important part of the paper.  This is where you as a referee or reviewer should go first.  This is the detail that matters.  If the methodology is flawed then it doesn’t matter how great the writing is or how fancy the statistics, the paper should be rejected.  I think it is deplorable that there are now a number of ‘high impact’ journals that have relegated the methods to a subsidiary position, almost hiding them away and placing the results at the front end of the paper.  This is tantamount to telling reviewers that the methods don’t matter, just look at the results.  I have heard however, that some of these journals are now reconsidering this policy after some embarrassing publicity.

My advice to students is that the methods should contain as much detail as would be required for someone else to repeat your work without having to contact you.  So for example, the species involved, cultivars and phenological stage of the plants used, the sample size; for field work, the site details, the equipment used but not necessarily the supplier, unless of course it is very specialist, and the statistical treatment and assumptions.

The results section is your showcase.  Decide which display method is best for the message you want to get across and then pick out the most important points from your tables and graphs and turn them into a commentary, but DO NOT discuss them.  For the figures and tables do make sure that you follow the journal style.  Make sure that the figure and table titles are informative and comprehensive; in the days before Japanese journals published in English, the only English bit of the papers were the figure and table legends and it was possible to get a very good idea of know what the paper was about from them. Keep symbols simple and check line thickness.

The Discussion section is where you discuss YOUR results, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your approach, underline your most important results, compare them with similar data and interpret your results in the broader view.  It is always a good idea to show how you addressed your initial hypothesis.  This and the methods section are the two sections where you can try and pre-guess the reviewers and get your retaliation in first.  If you can answer the reviewers before the questions are raised in their reports it increases the chances of getting your paper accepted.

Again, DO NOT use convoluted and obscure language and do AVOID jargon and pretentious statements.  As scientists our job is to communicate, not just to our peers, but to a wider audience. Quite often the reason our results are misinterpreted by the popular press is not because they are doing it on purpose but because we have obscured what we have said by using over-complicated language.  Be clear, use simple everyday words where possible, e.g.  laid rather than oviposited and be concise.

Speaking as an Editor I like acknowledgements to be brief, but do appreciate that there are funding agencies and helpful colleagues to thank.  I would advise against too much flippancy as after all you are advertising yourself and some people do read them.

Finally, the references; are they COMPLETE? Do they follow the journal style?  Editors do check and if you have had the misfortune to be rejected by your first choice journal, it does not go down well with the Editor of your second choice journal if you haven’t made thee effort to change the formatting!  Do text citations and bibliography agree?  Check and recheck!

So now are you ready to release your pride and joy into the wild to suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” more commonly known as editors and referees?  Actually no, that was just the first draft!  DO NOT SUBMIT IT YET.  Pass it around for comments; if you are a PhD student your supervisor definitely needs and wants to see it!  Let colleagues read it too and for communication test, get a non-specialist to read it.  If they can understand what you did and what your central message is then you have cracked the communication barrier.  Do listen to what people say, rewrite it!!  Be brutal in revision!  It is better to revise before submission than to have your paper rejected without the chance to revise.  Pass it around again. Then and only then, log on to the journal site and start the submission process, but do remember to read the guidelines for authors before you press the submit button!

Submit button


Filed under Bugbears, Teaching matters, Uncategorized

The Verrall Supper 2014 – Moving into the 21st Century?


Last year with a certain degree of trepidation I organised The Verrall Supper for the first time on my own!   For those of you not in the know, I am a member of The Entomological Club (, the oldest entomological society in the world.  I am also, despite the grey beard, the youngest member of the Entomological Club, and more stressfully, have the job of being Secretary for the Verrall Association of Entomologists.   As the Verrall Secretary I have to organise the annual Verrall Supper .  The object of the Verrall Association of Entomologists is to continue the tradition of an annual supper of entomologists begun in 1987 by the late Mr G. H. Verrall as the Annual Entomological Club Supper. This is a chance for amateur and professional entomologists to meet once a year at a social gathering to exchange ideas, make new friends and meet old ones.  To say that it was a very traditional event, even old-fashioned is perhaps an understatement.  Women were not invited to the supper until 1962 and there has been only one female member of the Entomological Club to date, the late great Dame Miriam Rothschild.  Until recently, dress for the event was formal, a lounge suit; a prerequisite that prevented me attending for several years, since I have not owned  a suit since my first wedding in 1977 (although I did wear a hired suit for my eldest daughter’s wedding eleven years ago in Sydney; hired by her I might add).   I finally accepted an invitation to attend the Verrall Supper some twenty years ago and compromised my standards somewhat by replacing my jeans for smart trousers and my desert boots with shiny shoes.

All that said, I don’t want you to get the impression that the Verrall Supper was, or is, a stuffy event.  Get a large number of entomologists together with a supply of alcohol and good food and you are guaranteed to have a good time, even if over half the guests are well past their prime.  Given my famed lack of sartorial elegance, it was somewhat of a surprise when I was admitted as a member of The

   Michale Way and me

Me with the late great Michael Way (my sponsor for the Entomological Club).

 Entomological Club in 2011 and given my transgressions against the Verrall dress code (I accidentally turned up in jeans one year), it was an even greater shock to be chosen to succeed  “Van”  as Professor Helmut van Emden is known to entomologists all over the World, as the Verrall Secretary.

The reason that I find organizing the Verrall Supper more stressful than you might expect is that the former Verrall Secretary, Van, organized the event for forty years, yes 40 years!   He thus, understandably, has a somewhat proprietorial interest in how it is run under its new management.  Those of you interested in knowing how my first year went can find an account in Leather (2013).  I had added to the stress quotient by making a number of changes to the event, first by changing the venue from Imperial College to the Rembrandt Hotel, just opposite the Victoria & Albert Museum , second by changing the ticketing system, thirdly by altering the seating allocation method and  introducing round tables and finally by changing the dress requirement from lounge suits to smart casual (before I became a member of the Entomological Club, I had already started to subvert this rule, not actually owning a suit of my own anyway).   I am told that the evening was a great success; I was too stressed to really notice but certainly the emails that I received after the event put my mind at ease.

This year I introduced yet another change, email invitations and renewals.  Last year we collected as many email addresses as possible, well Clive Farrell actually did the collecting, but it was a joint decision. Despite a few ‘undeliverables’ the email booking system worked remarkably well and 185 entomologists ranging in age from 21 to well over 80 turned up at the Rembrandt Hotel on March 5th  where they were greeted by the ever-dependable Clive Farrell and one of my ex-PhD students, Dr Jennifer Banfield-Zanin, whom had met me earlier in

Jen & Clive

Jennifer Banfield-Zanin and Clive Farrell attempt to keep track of the attendees

the day to discuss some papers were are writing and found herself co-opted to collect money from those members without cheque books.  I should point out that people pay a subscription to join the Verrall Association of Entomologists, not to pay for the dinner.  The dinner, which comes with wine (another new innovation), is part of the membership package.  The subscription is traditionally not fixed, rather, an amount is suggested, with the expectation that most will pay it and that a significant number will generously exceed it and thus enable the less well-off to attend without undue hardship.  This is a tradition that I fully support, although I fear that not enough of the newer well-salaried members are aware of this expectation.  This year we had 46 female members including Marion Gratwick who was one of the first ever women to attend the Verrall Supper.  My aim next year is to try to get to an even sex ratio.  It was nice to see so many of my ex-students, PhD and MSc plus lots of Tweeters.

I leave you with assorted scenes of revelry and intrigue!

Mike Claridge and Ward Cooper

Ward Cooper and Professor Mike Claridge – discussing a future book deal?

Ashleigh & Craig

Ashleigh Whiffin and Craig Perl – two of the first Harper Adams University MSc Entomology graduates, now at Edinburgh and Sussex respectively.

Charles Godfray & Keith Bland

Charles Godfray & Keith Bland – Keith taking advantage of the relaxed dress code!

Ex-students table

Everyone facing the camera at this table is an ex-student of mine!

Mini-beast Mayhem and co

None of these are ex-students of mine!  Also proof that not all entomologists are male or old.

Flic and Fran and Carly

Chatting about Collembola?  Flic Crotty & Fran Sconce deep in conversation.

Gia and Tilly

Gia Aradottir and Tilly Collins

Tilly was my first Giant Willow Aphid PhD student and then was co-supervisor with me of Gia, who was my latest Giant Willow Aphid PhD student and we still don’t know where it goes in the winter!

Helen Roy, Gordon Port and John Whittaker

Helen Roy, Gordon Port and John Whittaker.  A shared interest in aphids and ladybirds.

Top Table 2

One half of the Top Table – Van, Gill van Emden, Chris Lyal, Richard Lane and Mike Siva-Jothy

Top Table 1

Top Table – without The Verrall Secretary; conspicuous by his absence – he must be taking photos 😉

Minin Beast at table

@MiniBeastMayhem (centre stage) enjoying her first ever Verrall with among others, @MadAboutCaddis, and @Nyctibiidae

The Logan Team

James Logan and team – trying to drink the bar dry despite London prices!

Charlotte & Joe

Charlotte Rowley & Joe Roberts (Harper Adams University PhD students)

Ailsa McLean

This makes me feel old – Dr Ailsa McLean – her Dad and I were PhD students together and I can remember her in her pram!

The Bar

Entomologists at the bar!

Happy Diners

Happy Diners – including Hugh Loxdale and Helen Roy

I hope that this fairly random assortment of pictures gives you some flavour of the evening and also highlights the fact that the Verrall Supper is no longer entirely populated by old grey-bearded entomologists, although of course there are still some of us left 😉

Leather, S.R. (2013) The Verrall Supper 2013 – New organiser – New venue.  Antenna, 37, 138-139


Filed under EntoNotes, The Bloggy Blog, Uncategorized

Entomological classics – The clip cage

Mention clip cage to an aphidologist and the chances are that they will smile and begin reminiscing about the days when they had to sit down and spend hours refurbishing and making new ones; if they were lucky enough to be in a big research group as I was, they will have had the fun of the communal clip cage renovation day, otherwise they will have laboured doggedly away on their own.  Mention clip cage to an entomologist and they may have heard of them, but probably not used them; to a non-entomologist you will be talking gibberish.  In fact, this week at the beginning of a lecture to the MSc Entomology course here at Harper Adams, I held a clip cage in the air and asked those who knew what it was to put their hands in the air, less than a third were willing to hazard a guess.  For those of you who don’t know the answer, clip cages were invented, or at least revealed in the scientific literature by two Canadian entomologists MacGillivray & Anderson in 1957.  Their purpose, to keep aphids confined individually to leaves of a plant in a simple and effective way.

Clip cages in action

Before this aphidologists generally used to confine them in large cages covering whole plants, (Davidson, 1925; Kennedy & Booth, 1950).  This allowed the aphids to select their own feeding sites but which of course made knowing what an individual aphid was doing in terms of longevity and fecundity quite difficult.  Kennedy & Booth (1950) were very much aware of this and attempted to solve the problem by using this using this rather over-engineered reproduction cage

Kennedy reproduction cage

This cage, although doing the job was difficult to make and also required a somewhat complicated method of attachment to the plant so as not to pull the leaves off, hence the birth of the

Kennedy leaf cages

MacGillivray  and Anderson clip cage.  In 1958 another Canadian entomologist Noble described a variant on the MacGillivray & Anderson version where instead of a muslin lid, a cork was used , the theory being that you didn’t need to open the clip to check what the aphid was doing and risk it falling off the leaf, something aphids seem to delight in doing , especially when you are six

 Noble Clip cage

 days into obtaining seven-day fecundity readings!  Incidentally, this version of the clip cage has resulted in one of my favourite bug-bears, as many people tend to cite Noble (1958) when referring to clip cages, that is if they actually remember to cite anyone at all, and of course they are using the MacGillivray & Anderson version.

Since then the humble clip cage has become the standard way for aphidologists to keep aphids on single leaves of their hosts plants.  They have also been used to confine young Lepidopteran larvae to leaves (Moore et al, 2003) but due to the frass production of lepidopteran larvae are better suited to aphids whose honeydew causes less of a problem for cage cleanliness.  They are very versatile and can be made in different sizes to suit the host plant.   All you need are hair clips,  Perspex tubing and the wherewithal to cut it to the right size, some foam or sponge, fine muslin or  similar textile and a waterproof adhesive.

Clip cages      Big clip cages

Clip cages are not perfect. There are some drawbacks;  for example, if you don’t move them slightly every day the leaves can develop chlorosis which of course will change the performance of the  aphids  and there is some evidence that the leaf can suffer some physical damage (Moore et al,  2003) and that even if you do move the cages the aphids can behave slightly differently than those in  whole plant cages (Awmack & Leather (2007), but as long you are aware of the possible drawbacks  clip cages remain an indispensable tool for those wishing to study single aphids on whole plants.

And of course, there is the immense satisfaction and sense of achievement of being able to make your own equipment relatively simply and inexpensively.  That said, I certainly received some strange looks when I was working in  Finland and found that there were no clip cages in the lab and had to attempt to buy hair clips in  down-town Helsinki.

Awmack, C. S. & Leather, S. R. (2007).Growth and development. In Aphids as Crop Pests, 135-151 (Eds H. F. Van Emden and R. Harrington). Wallingford: CABI.

Davidson, J. (1925) Biological studies of Aphis ruimicis Linn. factors affecting the infestation of Vicia faba with Aphis rumicis.  Annals of Applied Biology, 12, 472-507

Evans, A.C. (1938) Physiological relationships between insects and their host plants I. The effect of the chemical composition of the plant on reproduction and production of winged forms in Brevicoryne brassicae L. (Aphididae).  Annals of Applied Biology, 25, 558-572

Kennedy, J.S. & Booth, C.O. (1950) Methods for mass rearing and investigating the host relations of Aphis fabae Scop.  Annals of Applied Biology, 37, 451-470

MacGillivray, M. E. &Anderson, G. B. (1957). Three useful insect cages. Canadian Entomologist 89: 43-46.

Noble, M. D. (1958). A simplified clip cage for aphid investigations. Canadian Entomologist 90, 60.

Moore, J.P., a, J.E., Paul, N.D. & Whittaker, J.B. ( 2003)  The use of clip cages to restrain insects    reduces leaf expansion systemically in Rumex obtusifolius Ecological Entomology, 28, 239-242


Filed under Aphidology, Aphids, Bugbears, Entomological classics, EntoNotes