Category Archives: Science writing

Talking the talk – my top tips for giving a good talk

I’m writing this a week before I’m due to give a talk at ENTO’19, the Royal Entomological Society’s annual meeting (I’m also on holiday in France, so don’t tell my wife that I’m working). I’ve been struggling a bit getting my talk prepared, probably because being on holiday makes it hard to concentrate on work, so to try and get in the right frame of mind I dug out the talk that I give to our PhD students about how to prepare for and give a presentation 😊 What I say in my talk, which is actually a demonstration, is that the pointers I give are transferable to all types of talk, be it a lecture to university students, a departmental seminar, a talk to a local natural history society, a garden club, a youth group or whatever. The general principles remain the same.  As this post is a result of me getting ready for a conference, I will, however, aim this at those of you giving conference talks for the first time, although I hope that some of you with more experience, will read this and add your thoughts in the comments section.

The first thing to remember, is that, as with writing a paper, you are telling a story.  You need a clear idea of where you are going, and in most cases, your audience also likes to know where you are planning on taking them.  It might seem trite and boring but a slide like this spelling out exactly what you are going to do in your talk, does no harm at all and also helps you get off to a good start, by allowing you to get your thoughts in order.

Tell them what you are going to tell them

 

So, what is your story?  How much time have you been allocated? Who are you talking to?  What do they know?  The more au fait your audience is with your subject area, the less time you will need to spend on your introduction and the more time you will need to spend on your results and what they mean.  On the other hand, if you are speaking to a more general audience you will need to have a relatively long introductory section in which you spell out why what you are talking about is important and worth listening to.

Keep your story straightforward, simple and linear.

You will note that I have put a bullet point called know your stuff.  By this I mean make sure you know something about the areas that your subject might impinge on.  You never know what someone might ask you, especially when you are talking to a general audience.  For example, whenever I am talking to natural history societies, garden clubs or Rotary Clubs, I always check what might be a problem in people’s gardens at that time of year, regardless of what subject my talk is about.  Entomologists are always being asked how to kill things. For a conference talk, you won’t have to be quite as broad as all that but do think about what sort of question someone not working in your discipline might come out with.  Going back to your timing and structuring, do remember to keep your conclusions (not discussion as you are not writing a paper), as simple and as short as you can.  Preferably one or two succinct bullet points, and whatever you do don’t start on to another slide.  My heart always sinks when I see a slide come up with the heading “Conclusions (1)”, because as sure as eggs is eggs, there will be another slide with the heading “Conclusions (2)”.  At a conference you are competing with a lot of other talks, you want to leave you audience with something that they can grasp easily and which when they leave the lecture theatre is firmly embedded in their minds. The more conclusion points you make the more confusion you sow, you want them to be talking about your work in the bar afterwards, not the number of slides that you had 😊

Avoid big blocks of text, even in lectures; anything that gets in the way of your story and makes it harder for your audience to understand what you are saying is not a good thing.

Not what your audience wants to see

In the same vein, and also something you should avoid, even in a conventional lecture setting, but definitely in a conference talk, are tables, no matter how simple you think they are.  Anything that needs the speaker to go through line by line, unless it is in a classroom situation where you are explaining the workings of a calculation, has no place in a talk.   Avoid tables, even simple ones, use figures instead.  People can absorb figures much more easily than they can text.  Keep thigs simple for your audience, don’t get in the way of your story by making things too complex.

Face your audience, speak up and make eye contact. I don’t mean find someone in the audience and stare lovingly into their eyes; scan the whole audience so they feel that you are speaking to them personally. Keep looking at the audience, don’t look at the ground.  Don’t use pointers* – they encourage you to turn your back on your audience, they reveal how nervous you are and if your slides are well designed you shouldn’t need them.

Use PowerPoint (or whatever you use for presentations) to point it out for you. Absolutely no need for a pointer, laser or otherwise.

You need to feel comfortable to give a good talk, and this can be affected by what you are wearing.  The degree of formality expected, will, to a certain extent, depend on your audience and your seniority.  I have written about this before, so will not repeat myself here, but my take-home message is to feel comfortable in yourself and if that means dressing smartly then so be it.

You may be wondering about how to remember what you are going to talk about, do you need notes? Fortuitously, this brings me on to aide memoires and hands and feet.  A good talk is a performance.  I am, like many scientists, (or is it just entomologists?), an introvert.  To give a good talk means engaging with people and projecting your personality.

A good talk is a performance.  Use those hands!

A good talk is a performance. This means that you may have to exaggerate parts of your personality, you need to be outgoing, voluble and perhaps even funny 🙂  I wrote about the dangers of unscripted humour last year; unscripted is the key word here.  To give a good talk, you need to feel at ease; as well as dressing comfortability and being confident about your story, you need to be able to tell your story without using notes.  Notes steal your spontaneity by encouraging you to read from them, they aid and abet introverts by giving you an excuse to look at them instead of the audience. Notes should be avoided. This is where rehearsal and acting comes to the fore.  I have been giving professional talks since my first disastrous PhD Departmental upgrading seminar in 1979.  I was nervous, ill-prepared, unrehearsed and, as result of a lunchtime drinking session to calm my nerves, slightly drunk.  Since that fateful day I have run through my talks at least five times.  When I say run through I mean I give my talk, albeit to an empty room, exactly as I am going to give it to a real audience, I use arm movements, I stride around the ‘stage’, I speak as loudly as I will on the day.  Treat your practice talk as a rehearsal but not as a ‘by rote’ script, otherwise you run the chance of losing the spontaneity factor. Your choreography and rehearsal should be the only aide memoires you need, although I do find it useful to have a little hint on a slide to tell me, for example, that the next slide is a picture, in this case a red bullet point.  Doing a proper, out loud performance also makes sure that you will keep to your time limit.

Two of the slides from my, because I have been on holiday, very under-rehearsed ENTO19 talk 🙂

Use your hands to emphasise points, there is nothing wrong with a bit of arm waving – I do it all the time as you can see from the title pictures 🙂 I also think, unless you arc anchored by a fixed microphone, to walk around a bit.  Movement adds life to your presentation.  If you just stand behind the lectern in the dark and fixed to the spot, your audience might as well listen to a recorded voice over.  Add personality to your talk by being an active participant although too much running around the stage and excessive arm waving might make your audience think that you are attempting take flight and prove distracting 🙂

Something to bear in mind if you are feeling apprehensive, is that the people in your audience have chosen to come to your talk because they are interested in what you are going to say. They have not, well I hope not, come to hurl abuse at you or laugh at your performance.  They are a self-selected set of fans, they have come to be informed and entertained, and, if you are confident, have a good story to tell and are well rehearsed, your talk should be fun for you and them.

And my final bit of advice. We all know when we have been at a good talk.  What was it that made Dr X’s talk so good, what did she do that you can ‘steal’ to make your talk even better.  Conversely, we have all been to bad talks, what made that talk by Professor Y so awful, what did he do that sent you to sleep or made you cringe?  Do you have any of those bad habits?  If so, brutally excise them from your next performance.

 

Post script

Don’t worry if you feel nervous before giving a talk, I still do after 40 years of standing up and talking at conferences and other venues.  A bit of adrenaline helps give your talk that ‘real’ feel.

 

*I’m not the only one who hates pointers, see this post by Steve Heard

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What it says on the tin – should the titles of papers tell you what the paper is about?

I have recently discovered a new bugbear; titles of papers that give you no clue as to what the paper is about, even to the extent that reading the abstract still leaves you wondering if the paper is about an animal or a plant or whatever!  I may be exaggerating slightly, but perhaps not. My impression is, however, that in ecology, the higher the Impact Factor of the journal, the more likely you are to find papers with titles that are opaque to say the least.  Take a look at these for example, all taken from current issues of the journals and not involving a lot of searching or filtering.

Towards a unified framework for connectivity that disentangles movement and mortality in space and time

This one from Ecology Letters, it takes until line 9 of the abstract before you find out that it is about an insect herbivore, but you have to wait until the introduction to actually find out which species the authors are using as their exemplar.

Faster movement in nonhabitat matrix promotes range shifts in heterogeneous landscapes

Here from Ecology, it isn’t until line 8 of the abstract that you know what the subject organism of the paper is; on the plus side you do get the species name, a butterfly.

Seasonal host life‐history processes fuel disease dynamics at different spatial scales

Not an entomological example this time 🙂 This one from the Journal of Animal Ecology,  takes until line 7 of the abstract to reveal that the paper is about wild boar, not that you would have guessed from the title.

Non‐resource effects of foundation species on meta‐ecosystem stability and function

Another non-entomological example, this time from Oikos; you only have to read to line 6 of the abstract to find out that the paper is about mussel beds.

Contrast this with the next two journals, both lower impact than the previous examples, but still leaders in their fields with impact factors over the magic 2;

Ecology and conservation of the British Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio machaon britannicus: old questions, new challenges and potential opportunities

from Insect Conservation & Diversity, you know exactly what this paper is all about

The responses of wild jacamars (Galbula ruficauda, Galbulidae) to aposematic, aposematic and cryptic, and cryptic butterflies in central Brazil

and the same here for Ecological Entomology.

So what is it with these “guess what the hell this paper is about” titles?  There is a very obvious answer, but isn’t there always? It’s all about marketing. As authors we live in a crowded marketplace, as academics we are ducking and diving for tenure, grants, promotion and kudos in general; our currency is publications and the value of our currency is judged by citations, clicks and chutzpah. Back in the day, titles that began with the words “The effect of, the influence of …”, were, especially in the applied world, de rigueur. Nowadays, scientific writing courses and books about how to write paper, will all tell you that titles like that are the kiss of death, and won’t even get you past the Editor-in-Chief’s triage, let alone in the reviewers in-box. You need to sell your story, and ironically, it appears that selling your story means obfuscating it!

I’m as guilty of this as the next author.  My first papers stuck rigidly to the time-honoured applied format of titles such as “The effect of cereal growth stage and feeding site on the reproductive activity of the bird‐cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi and “The effect of previous defoliation of pole-stage lodgepole pine on plant chemistry, and on the growth and survival of pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) larvae”, even, when, as in the case of the latter, it was in a very ecological journal. Now, yes, I still do produce papers with similar titles, if I am aiming at a general ecology journal I succumb to the obfuscatory and hyperbolic, with the obligatory colon and question mark. I too have sold out. For many years I ran a paper writing course for postgraduates and final year undergraduates, part of which dealt with titles, and of course, I dealt harshly with the old fashioned, tell it as it is title, giving a personal example. Here is a paper I published with the informative title unlikely to grab the attention of a general audience:

“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.”

Here, however, is the snappy title that it was published under in Oecologia.  It used every trick in the trade, including hooking it on to, what was at the time, the latest ecological fad;

Sub-lethal plant defences: the paradox remains

In my defence line 1 of the abstract told you the plant species and by line 3 you knew it was pine beauty moth 🙂

The question that I would like you,  as fellow authors, to answer, is, have we gone a step too far, is it time to return to the honest, tell it as it is title, or are we doomed to an endless treadmill of devising ever more bizarre and over the top titles in that attempt to get ourselves noticed from the rest of the crowd?

 

Post script

I have, according to the Web of Science, published 207 papers, twenty of which include the words The Effect of and six, The influence of, in their titles, the most recent of which was in 2012.

Afterword

If you are interested in title structure and choice, albeit from a social science point of view, then I thoroughly recommend this post by Patrick Dunleavy.

 

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Graphical abstracts are so passé, let’s hear it for the haiku highlight

Graphical abstracts,

They’re past their sell by date;

Use Haikus instead

 

It may surprise you, or perhaps not, that insects, as well as inspiring poets to wax lyrical, inspire many entomologists to wax poetical 🙂  Indeed, I have, on occasion, penned the odd verse myself.

Available at a very reasonable price from Pemberley Books  and no, I have no vested interests 🙂

Back in 2016 I stepped down as Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity to become a Senior Editor, handing over the reins to Raphael Didham who had been a Senior Editor since 2010.  Now, I have known Raph a long time, back in the 1990s we were colleagues at Silwood Park, but it wasn’t until I convinced him to join Twitter as @EntoRaph, at the Royal Entomological Society Publications Meeting in March this year, that I discovered his dark secret.  He is a poet as well as an entomologist!  Raph is, despite his late conversion to Twitter, a pretty innovative guy; just look at the excellent changes he has made to our journal, and once he discovered, via Twitter, that I too, indulge in the odd spot of verse, haikus to be precise, it was inevitable that the idea of the Haiku Highlight was born 🙂

The birth of a notion

And that dear Reader, is how it all began………


I was quite proud of this one 🙂

The eagle-eyed reader may have noticed that the hashtag for our Haiku Highlights is #sciku. The Sciku project  is the brainwave of zoologist Andrew Holmes @AndrewMHolmes, who argues that writing haiku has made him a better scientist.  Being asked to keep your writing short and sweet, yet still understandable, may sometimes be difficult, but as Judy Fort Brenneman points out, it can be great fun.

If you would like to contribute to our Haiku Highlight project do get in touch. I wonder if it will catch on with other journals, it would certainly be fun.  While I am on the subject of entomologist poets, if you like butterflies and poetry, I can thoroughly recommend The Butterfly Collection, by Richard Harrington; beautiful photographs and a range of verse from haiku to sonnet.

 

Published by Brambleby Books http://www.bramblebybooks.co.uk/butterfly_collection.asp

 

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…at random

It’s coming up to Christmas so I thought I would be a bit of a Grinch 🙂  As someone who has refereed a lot of papers in my time, one of my particular bugbears is when I come across the phrases,  “taken at random”, “sampled randomly” or variations thereon. My edition of the OED defines at random as “haphazard without aim or purpose, or principle, heedlessly”; the statistical part of the definition qualifies this further as “equal chances for each item to be selected”.  Whenever I see the word random in the methods and materials section I annotate the paper with the phrase “truly random or haphazardly?”  Almost without exception*, when the author responds to my query, it is to admit that in reality they meant haphazardly.

There is a commonly held belief among field biologists that random sampling can be quickly and safely done by standing in a field and throwing a quadrat over their shoulder or closing their eyes and throwing the quadrat into the air. The late great Sir Richard Southwood  deals with this myth in his usual no nonsense style  “Biologists often use methods for random sampling that are less precise than the use of random numbers, such as throwing a stick or quadrat.  Such methods are not strictly random” (Southwood, 1966).  If you have ever tried this yourself, you will, I hope, be the first to admit, that you position yourself in all sorts of non-random ways, to make sure that the quadrat is not going to get lost, get hung-up in a tree, end up in a lake or river or miss the only green bit of vegetation in the field. Other so-called random approaches include the walking around the tree/into the meadow/along the path approach and examining the first leaf/branch/plant you come across after x number of steps and counting what you see on that. Again, this is equally subject to being confounded by the terrain and location of the site, and it is a rare person who isn’t subconsciously swayed for or against a leaf because of its appearance.  I was convinced that this mode of sampling, which is more accurately described as haphazard, was commonly called professorial random sampling.  A recent request by me on Twitter for people to tell me if they had heard of, or used the term themselves, resulted in a zero response rate, so perhaps it was just something we used in our lab. Of course, it wasn’t a random survey so I shouldn’t read too much into it 🙂

So, if you are going to claim that you sampled randomly or selected/arranged randomly, make sure you use a random number generator.  It is very simple to do, although somewhat time-consuming to implement in reality. When I was a student, most good statistics books included among all the other useful tables, a page of random numbers to help you meet a state of true randomness.

Pre-prepared random numbers from my copy of Sokal & Rohlf (1973)

 

Nowadays, you can, if you use Excel, generate random numbers using the function RAND. Those of you who are not fans of Excel can try this handy link https://www.random.org/sequences/

If you’re reading this, you now have no excuses left.  If you are going to claim that you did something randomly make sure you actually did so, or confess that you sampled haphazardly; it is nothing to be ashamed of 🙂 and is much faster than true random sampling, hence its popularity.  Alternatively, you can avoid the whole issue and sample along a stratified transect or arrange your experimental blocks using a Latin Square.

 

References

Sokal, R.R. & Rohlf, F.J. (1973) Introduction to Biostatistsics.  W.H. Freeman & Company, San Francisco.

Southwood, T.R.E. (1966) Ecological Methods.  Chapman & Hall, London.

*I have, on a few occasions, had an author respond that yes, they did indeed use random number tables and/or generators.

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How not to respond to reviewers – even if it is Reviewer #3

I have been an Editor for many years, since 1993 to be precise, and am currently Editor –in-Chief of one journal and a Senior Editor of another as well as being on the Editorial Board of two other journals. On top of that, I review about 40 papers a year so have come across quite a lot of response to reviewers letters.  I have also, as the author of over 200 papers, written my own share of reviewer responses.  Yes, there are some reviewers who have caused my blood pressure to rise and engendered a desire to rend them limb from limb, and I have sometimes been tempted to reply to suggested comments with the phrase “up yours”, but sanity and common sense have prevailed.

Based on responses I have seen over the years, here are a few suggestions of what not to do, and what to do, to maximise the chances of your resubmitted paper being accepted.

First, take a deep breath, close the document, go for a walk and don’t read it again for at least 24 hours. A hastily anger-filled response will almost always result in a rejection. Avoid knee-jerk reactions at all costs.

Do not start your response by saying “Do not send our revised paper back to Reviewer 1 as it is clear that he clearly demonstrates a lack of knowledge or understanding of the study/subject area in general” This is likely to annoy the Editor who has gone to great pains to find a suitable reviewer for your paper and will most certainly annoy the reviewer when it is sent back to him/her as it will almost certainly be.   Much better to begin your response by thanking the Editor and reviewers for taking the time to consider your manuscript and making helpful suggestions.  Then respond carefully, comment by comment, as instructed in the letter from the Editor.

Do not respond to comments by baldly stating I/we disagree; politely state with good reasons, why you disagree.

Do not point out to the reviewer that she/he has made a spelling mistake.

Do not respond to the comment “This section is unclear” by saying “It is perfectly clear to us”. Ask yourself, why is it unclear to the reviewer?  One way to address the problem is by asking a colleague from another discipline if it is clear to them and then rewriting it when they say it isn’t.

If the reviewer challenges your description of random sampling as not being random because you did not use a random number generator do not respond by saying that this is how everyone you know describes it.

If challenged on your statistical analysis do not respond by saying “I/we have always done it this way”.  There may actually be a better way to do it, if you are sure there isn’t then explain why.

If challenged on the quality of your figures do not respond by saying this is the standard output from Excel.

Do not respond by saying “this was not raised as an issue by the reviewers of the previous journal we submitted our paper to”

If the Editor asks you to reduce the length of your Introduction or Discussion at least make some effort to do so, do not respond by saying “No, I/we think that the length is totally justified”.

If you really can’t bear to respond to the comments politely, then there are other journals, but do remember, there are only a finite number of willing expert reviewers and there is a very good chance that one of the reviewers of your paper that you have submitted to Journal Y will be the same as one you had for Journal X, so it makes sense to have made some changes to your original submission.

In the main, reviewers try to be constructive and helpful.  Remember they are unpaid, so are doing this for the good of the community and with a genuine desire to maintain the reputation of their discipline.  They are not doing it to annoy you.

 

 

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Let us prey – journals that aren’t all they claim to be

In 1980 when I published my first paper (Leather, 1980), the publishing world was very much simpler place than it is now.  Journals were largely owned by learned societies, and in many cases, published by them as well; in the case of my paper, The Netherlands Entomological Society.  More importantly for me and many other scientists, it mostly cost you nothing to publish your paper. There were NO page charges or associated publication costs in the UK and mainland Europe, unless you wanted a colour plate, in which case the charges were astronomical.  On the other side of the Atlantic it was different, US journals did want you pay, both to publish and to read.

Since my first paper appeared almost forty years ago, there have been huge changes in scientific publishing, the number of journals published by the Learned Societies has more than trebled and the number of non-society publish for profit commercial journals has expanded at an even greater rate. Since the early 1990s there has been a demand by authors, readers and research councils for Open Access (Laakso et al., 2009).  Whilst this may be seen to be good for science and those authors that can afford to pay to publish, it has also had a markedly negative effect, something that those early well-intentioned advocates of Open Access somewhat naively overlooked.  The direct result of the pay to publish, free to access movement, has been the rise of the predatory journal, or as Chen & Björk (2015) in a somewhat mealy-mouthed way put it, ‘open access journals with questionable marketing and peer review practices’, the numbers of which have, sadly, reached epic heights. How much of a problem however, are these predatory journals?

On average I receive two or three emails a week addressing me in very complimentary terms saying how honoured they (the Editors) would be to have my contribution in their journal.  These range from invitations from journals whose titles bear absolutely no

Rather unspecific as to what my expertise in the field of ophthalmology is or what publications they base their assessment on.

no resemblance to the fields I work in to journals that have titles that are a little more relevant.

I never knew that working on aphids and ladybirds qualified me as a mental health specialist 😊

At least the subject area and topic match but the overblown invitation is something of a giveaway.

 To me, invitations like this are immediately recognisable as scams.  To more junior/inexperienced scientists this is not always the case, especially when the invitation comes from a ‘journal’ as illustrated in my third example.  When asked by my PhD students as to whether the flattering invitation they have received is for real, I gently explain to them that no reputable journal acts in such a way and there are a number of tell-tale signs that they can use to sort the wheat from the chaff.

  • Receiving an invitation to publish in a journal. Most legitimate journals have enough submissions as it is, they don’t need to solicit any more.
  • Have you heard of the journal and is it relevant to your research?
  • Overblown and poor use of English in the invitation
  • A promise of an unrealistic turn-around time from submission to publication
  • What does the journal website look like, although that said, some predatory journals now have quite impressive web sites listing real academics as Editorial Board Members. I hasten to add that their names are being used unbeknownst to them.
  • If in doubt, check Beall’s List which is a really useful guide to the world of predatory publishng and inlcudes some surprising entries

What surprises me is that people do respond to these invitations.  But then there are people who believe that they have been selected to help invest millions on behalf of the widow of the former President of Fantasyland and either send their bank details to the financial representative of the widow or in some cases turn up at airports with a suitcase full of cash.  It turns out that there are two types of academic who publish in predatory journals, the young and the naïve, mainly from Africa and Asia or more cynical individuals who are banking on the naivety of the people assessing their publication list for promotion or tenure reasons, not realising that although the journals have an international address they are, in real terms, worthless publications (Xia et al., 2015).

Even worse in my opinion, are the book publishers such as Lambert Academic Publishing, who contact the authors of newly submitted PhDs and invite them to publish their thesis as a book. If they accept, what seems to them, the flattering opportunity and they have not already published their chapters as papers, they are no longer able to do so because of copyright law. A truly cruel thing to do to someone on the threshold of an academic career.

My advice to anyone new to publishing and who has the funds and desire to go for Open Access, is preferably to stick with society journals, so that you are helping foster your discipline. If, however, you want to divert funds from your subject area, use those journals that are published by the major publishing houses, which although in it primarily for the money, do at least adhere to proper and robust editorial and peer review standards.

Another burgeoning problem is that of fake conferences, where an academic receives an invitation to present a keynote or invited talk at a greatly reduced rate at an international conference. On closer inspection these turn out, despite the long list of international academics listed as part of the organising committee, to be yet another scam. I have been surprised to find myself listed as an organiser for a few of these.  I am not sure what you can do about these, as emailing the scammers has, in my experience, no effect.

if you discount the increasing number of spam invitations clogging up your email in-box, predatory journals are mainly a minor nuisance for us academics, the biggest problem being when you are doing a literature search and have to sift out the crap.  In the long-term, work published in the predatory journals will mostly go unrecognised and uncited by the relevant academic communities.  The problem arises when a non-expert member of the public or worse still, a journalist comes across what looks like a legitimate paper when searching the internet and takes what they read as gospel.  After all, it has been published in a journal, it must be right.   That is when the trouble starts and that is when it becomes a problem for us all ☹

References

Laakso, M., Welling, P., Bukvova, H., Nyman, L., Björk, B.C. & Hedlund, T. (2009) The development of open access journal publishing from 1993 to 2009. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20961. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0020961

Leather, S.R. (1980) Egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padiEntomologia experimentals et applicata, 27, 96-97.

Shen, C.  & Björk, B.C. (2015) ‘Predatory’ open access: a longitudinal study of article volumes and market characteristics. BMC Medicine, 13:230 

Xia, J., Harmon, L., Connolly, G., Donnelly, R.M., Anderson, R. & Howard H. (2015) Who publishes in “predatory” journals? Journal of the Association of Information Science and Technology, 66, 1406-1417.

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Keeping up with the literature – an unwinnable battle?

I was going to write about predatory journals* but got distracted by tidying my office 🙂

Pre- and post-annual holiday office tidy

Whilst triaging the many pieces of paper that littered my office floor, table and desks, I realised that my “papers to read pile” had,

One that failed the triage, too fly-blown even for a keen entomologist 🙂

like an aphid, not only multiplied but spread itself across several locations. Once collated and stacked neatly into a single entity I was shocked to see that I was now faced with over 30 cm of interesting and potentially useful literature, to peruse, digest, annotate and add to my filing system.

The paper mountain – an awesome spectacle or should that be awful?

I am, as regular readers will know, no longer in the first flush of youth**.  Forty-five years ago as undergraduates, my generation went to the library to read physical journals, making notes as we went along and, very, very occasionally, spending money for a photocopy.   As a PhD student this was also how we operated, although we had by then learnt the art of reading Current Contents and the appropriate CABI Abstracts and sending a reprint request card to the authors of papers whose titles and abstracts had particularly caught our attention. We also had access to inter-library loans and depending on your supervisor, access to and the budget to enable you to photocopy older papers found while browsing journals in the library.  Once read, the paper was reverentially placed in a filing cabinet, especially if it had been signed by an eminent luminary, and the more organised of

My filing cabinets – all drawers full

D-K; A few of the 33 record card storage boxes that help clutter my office

us, entered the details, including our own keywords, on a record card which were then stored in a record card storage box, or card index system as we called it 🙂

 

Record cards ready for the details to be entered to my EndNote data base and subsequent filing in the appropriate storage box.  I prefer my own keywords as they often differ from those supplied by the authors.

In those days there were far fewer journals, the learned societies that I was, and am still a member of, the Association of Applied Biologists, the Royal Entomological Society, and the British Ecological Society, published one, two, and three journals respectively.  Keeping up with the literature, although in those days without the aid of search engines and email alerts, was fairly easy.  The biggest hindrance being the lack of response from some authors to your laboriously penned postcard reprint request.  Now those three societies publish three, seven and seven journals, all available on-line and two of the British Ecological Society’s journals don’t even have print copies.  On top of that, there are a plethora of commercial publishers producing huge numbers of journals.  You think of a subject and there will be a journal, and then there are the predatory journals to add to the deluge L Things have certainly changed over the last forty years, and the library and Current Contents have been replaced by email alerts, on-line tables of contents with their snazzy graphical abstracts to tempt me to download the full version pdf with every intention of reading it later. Now, as a creature of habit and a great believer in the belts and braces approach to data storage, I keep both physical and electronic versions of all the papers that I download, hence the paper mountain in my office and my guilt complex about being behind with the literature.  I, like many of you, get irritated when I read a paper dealing with stuff I work on and find I have not been cited or as a referee notice that relevant literature has not got a mention.  Now, I’m a great believer in giving credit when it’s due (Leather, 2004, 2014), and have of course blown off steam about it previously on this blog, but even I am starting to have second thoughts about keeping au fait with the literature both past and present, or in the case of some journals, future J

I am sure that like me, when you sit down to write a paper you do a literature search.  In the old days I was pretty confident that I was right up to date and that my trusty card index system computer-based data base would give me all the references I need.   Now though, especially, given the unread paper mountain sitting on my office floor and the pile of record cards still to be input to EndNote™, I know, that I am, sadly, not likely to have all the relevant papers to hand, so like everyone else I hit Google Scholar and Web of Science.

Papers I read to write my last two papers – still to be added to my card index system

This of course generates another pile of papers, albeit ones I have read, but lacking a record card and no presence on my data base L  The latter problem I could solve by using the EndNote™ download function but that goes against my neurotic need to have my own keywords and writing record cards for every paper I read while researching material for the paper in progress would slow the writing process hugely which is already under pressure from my other duties, teaching, student supervision, administration and all the other demands that impinge on the typical academic’s life.

In conclusion, I think and it makes me sad to write this, but the days of putting aside what look like interesting papers to read later, is no longer viable and I have now reached the stage where I can only cope with accessing and reading the literature needed for a work in progress. The battle has been lost L

References

Leather, S.R. (2004) Reinventing the wheel – on the dangers of taxon parochialism and shallow reference trawling! Basic and Applied Ecology, 5, 309-311.

Leather, S.R. (2014) How Stephen Jay Gould wrote Macbeth – not giving credit where it’s due: lazy referencing and ignoring precedence. Ideas in Ecology & Evolution, 7, 30-40.

 

*

I am sure I will eventually get round to writing it 🙂

**

Externally at any rate, internally I am still a youthful 17-year old 🙂

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Waifs and strays – those papers nobody cites (or reads?)

I guess, like most, if not all of us, who publish papers, we hope that not only will our papers be read, but that they will be cited by others, not just ourselves.  From a purely practical point, it is after all, how academics impress promotion boards or prospective employers. From a more personal point of view, the papers we publish represent a lot of effort, not just in gathering the data or having the idea, but also the nightmare of turning it into deathless prose and then the battle with editors and reviewers.  We all have a few papers that we hope will make our name and perhaps become a citation classic, although as Stephen Heard has pointed out not just once, but twice, our favourites are not always everyone else’s, with some papers significantly failing to meet expectations.  A recent article in Times Higher Education, showed that in some disciplines, notably in the arts, 77% of papers were still uncited five years after publication and even in the sciences, about 40% of papers suffered a similar fate.  For ecologists, the hot area is ecological modelling, with only 6% of papers remaining uncited after five years. As someone with an advanced case of imposter syndrome, this is really quite reassuring; although I have twelve papers that are uncited (according to Web of Science), they only represent 6% of my output (and I am not a modeller 😊), of which only one dates back to 2012 (0.5%).  I do, however, have another 34 papers, that although they have been cited, have been cited fewer than five times, 17% of my output, or, if I add in my never been cited papers, 23% of my work has had relatively little impact on the ecological and entomological world.

Despite this, I was curious about what, if anything, these unwanted (=uncited) waifs and strays had in common, and how they differed from my most cited papers; absolutely nothing to with the fact that Stephen Heard only had four zero papers, all of which were recent papers 😊 In Steve’s analysis he looked at time since publication and found a positive correlation, his oldest papers had accrued the most citations.  I have a somewhat larger corpus of work than Steve, so concentrated my analysis on my top twenty papers.  There was absolutely no relationship (Figure 1), all pretty much of a muchness apart from the massive outlier, but even with that removed, still nada.

Figure 1. My top twenty papers.  The massive outlier is my single Annual Review of Entomology paper.

My least cited papers, do however, show a relationship between years since publication and the paltry number of citations that they have received (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The foot of the table papers.

If I combine the two data sets and leave out my star paper, there is a relationship between time since publication and the number of citations gained (Figure 3), so I expect, but I could be wrong, and I am not going to invest the time in finding out, that if I analysed all my papers that there would be a similar relationship as that shown by Steve’s analysis.

Figure 3. Relationship between time since publication and number of citations accrued for my most and least cited papers (excluding the massive outlier).

So, what makes a paper a waif, or reversing the question, a star?  Editors, of which I am one, are great fans of Reviews, believing, usually correctly, that they garner a lot of Impact Factor points, authors perhaps less so, as they tend to take away citations from your other papers. After all, who writes a review without citing themselves? 😊 The other thing that helps a paper get cited is their title, Andrew Hendry over on Eco-Evo Evo-Eco suggests that two main factors come into play. The first is that those papers that have a very good “fill in the box” titles are much more likely to be cited than those with more specific titles. He points out that a paper he and colleagues published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biology paper is the only one in the literature with Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics being the sole words in the title so, any paper writing about eco-evolutionary dynamics can use that citation to “fill in the citation box” after their first sentence on the topic.  The second inflation factor he cites, is that citations beget citations. When “filling in the box”, authors tend to cite papers that other authors used to fill in the same box.  In other words, authors tend to be lazy and use what other people have cited in their introductions.  This is not something to be encouraged, as it can lead to people being wrongly attributed; I have raged against this practice in the past.  Stephen Heard over at Scientist See Squirrel reckons that his most original papers are cited less because they report research from “outside the box” and most people are working “inside the box”.  Dorothy Bishop over at Bishopblog suggests that the best way to bury your work is to put it in a book chapter in an edited book.

So, what about my stars and strays?  My most cited paper is indeed a review, and for an entomologist, being in that most prestigious of review journals, the Annual Review of Entomology, it is no surprise to me that it tops my top ten chart, with just over 1000 cites.  Incidentally, number 4 (Leather et al., 1999) and number 7 (Leather et al., 1989) in my top 10, are also reviews.  My second most cited paper (Leather, 1988), is also, I guess, a review of sorts, albeit very short, although I prefer to think of it as more of a synthesis cum speculation paper.

What about the duds, those that no-one cites, not even me.  If I ignore the most recent papers, those published this year (2018) and last 2017), as being unlikely to have had time to be read, let alone cited, then all my zero papers are either editorials or commentary papers (e.g. Leather, 2014).  Don’t let yourself be fooled by the hope that a commentary paper, even with a sexy title and published in a top-notch journal will get cited.  My effort in Journal of Animal Ecology in early 2015 being a prime example, even the magic words, “climate change” failing to elicit a single citation to date (Leather (2015).

It is hard to see a pattern in my other lesser cited papers, they don’t seem to be markedly different from my more frequently cited papers, being published in my usual journals and covering the same subject matter, aphids, agricultural and forest pests and biological control in the main.  I confess to being very disappointed in the low number of citations to my aphid cannibalism paper (Cooper et al., 2014) especially as it got a lot of media attention, but I guess it falls into the too original box, not many people work on aphid cannibalism 😊

Sadly, it seems that Steve Heard is right, despite the journal blurbs, we don’t value originality, and the message for both journal editors and authors, is clear, if you want citations, publishing reviews and sticking to well ploughed fields is the safest bet.

References

Cooper, L.C., Desjonqueres, C. & Leather, S.R. (2014) Cannibalism in the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Insect Science, 21, 750-758.

Leather, S.R. (1988) Size, reproductive potential and fecundity in insects – things aren’t as simple as they seem. Oikos, 51, 386-389.

Leather, S.R. (2014: Modifying glucosinolates in oilseed rape – Giamoustaris & Mithen (1995): a top-twenty paper in the Annals of Applied Biology. Annals of Applied Biology, 164, 318-319.

Leather, S.R. (2015) Title: Onwards and upwards – aphid flight trends follow climate change. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 1-3.

Leather, S.R., Walters, K.F.A. & Dixon, A, F.G. (1989) Factors determining the pest status of the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum-padi (L) (Hemiptera, Aphididae), in Europe – a study and review.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 79, 345-360.

Leather, S.R., Day, K.R. & Salisbury, A.N. (1999) The biology and ecology of the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis (Coleoptera: Curculionidae): a problem of dispersal? Bulletin of Entomological Research, 89, 3-16.

 

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Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring reach and impact of science community blogs

At the end of the year there is a tendency for some scientific bloggers to take advantage of the statistics provided by their host platform to produce a round-up of their year and to compare their figures with previous years.  I too am one of the number crunchers and revel in the data available 🙂  One of the frustrating things, for me at any rate, is the lack of a benchmark, how are you doing compared with other bloggers?  This year I decided to try and get some data and approached Jeff Ollerton to see if he would let me look at his 2016 data, which he kindly did and this allowed me to produce a comparative graph.  Much wants more.  As an entomologist an n of 2 is small beer.  I needed more data to satisfy my craving.  I also talk to our postgraduate students about the value of social media, including blogging, but rely mainly on personal anecdotes.  What was needed was something concrete to support my assertions.

I subscribe to, and follow a number of blogs, but there are a few that I feel are somewhat similar in their aims and scope to mine.  One is Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog, the others are Dynamic Ecology, Ecology Bits, Ecology is Not a Dirty Word, Scientist Sees Squirrel and Small Pond Science.  Jeff is also a follower of these blogs and when I suggested that it would be a good idea to try to write something about the value of blogging to academics and why our employees should support us in our endeavours he promptly suggested that we get in touch with those bloggers.  I couldn’t see a downside to this so first approached Manu Saunders of Ecology is Not a Dirty Word and Steve Heard of Scientist Sees Squirrel as these were the two bloggers with whom I had interacted most.  Steve then helped bring the others on board and that is how it all began (at least that is how I remember it).

The Blogging Consortium

Manu very kindly took charge of the data collation and I made a first stab at drafting the paper in mid-January.  Steve did a very good job of rewriting it and Meg Duffy (Dynamic Ecology) Jeff Ollerton and Amy Parachnowitsch (Small Pond Science) got into the swing of things as well.  By the end of January we were really motoring and bouncing ideas of each other and the rapidly growing draft.  As with all non-mainstream activities, the day jobs got in the way and we had a couple of months where very little happened.  I felt that things were slipping a little and in the spring had another go at the draft and this stimulated another flurry of action from what we were now calling the blogging consortium, with major contributions from Meg, Jeff and Steve, which put us all on our mettle and something that was beginning to look like a completed paper appearing.  By May Manu had got us all working on a Google Doc document which greatly improved our efficiency.  As we were now heading toward June, some further analysis was needed and Manu bravely volunteered to become the lead author and general butt kicker 🙂 It worked, and by the beginning of July we were ready to submit and had started discussing potential journals.  As the paper was all about science communication we were very keen to get it in a high-profile Open Access journal, but one that didn’t charge an arm and a leg as our paper had no grant income associated with it.  After a couple of enquiries Manu found a journal that fitted our requirements and was willing to have a look at it and on July 20th 2017 Manu submitted our paper to Royal Society Open Science.  Six weeks later we were euphoric!

Oh frabjous day!

The comments of the reviewers were some of the best I have ever seen, and I submitted my first paper in 1979 🙂  I have never had the word limpid applied to my writing, it just shows what can be achieved by cooperation.   I can’t resist sharing some of the comments from the reviewers

Associate Editor Comments to Author:

 

Both reviewers are very positive about this manuscript and indeed I agree with them. It is an important piece and a very inspirational read.

Reviewer: 1

At one time, my favourite t-shirt slogan was “More people are reading this t–shirt than your blog” – those days are clearly gone as this paper shows, at least in ecology! ……..Their thoughts on citing blogs will, I suspect, launch many posts and comments on their respective blogs. I think this paper will be an important contribution to what is very much a developing field. I have no comments to add and, for the first time for me, I recommend acceptance without revision.

Reviewer: 2

 This is a fantastic and much needed piece that deserves to be published widely. ……….The authors clearly state this upfront: ‘academics wish to understand whether particular activities influence various audiences’. I command the authors for this rare instance of honesty and for aiming to publish this manuscript with the best academic journals in their discipline. The manuscript is limpid and very well written. The style is engaging and the results significant for the wider academic community. I fully support its publication.

 

These last nine months working on the paper were personally very rewarding and to me, a vindication that becoming a blogger was a good decision.  It was also a huge buzz to work with such a dynamic group of bloggers.  I think Steve sums it up for all of us in this Tweet

If you are not yet a science community blogger or don’t think that they have a place in mainstream science, please take the time to read our paper which you can find here.  It won’t cost you anything but time 🙂 and if any reporters are reading this – here courtesy of Manu, is our press release.

Blogs are no longer simply online personal journals. We define an overlooked category of blogs that holds immense value for the scientific community: science community blogs are written by practising scientists for scientists. As academics and active bloggers, we use data from our own blogs to show how science community blogs are a valuable outreach and professional development tool. Blogs are also a citable primary source with potential to contribute to scientific knowledge. It’s time for blogs to be accepted as a standalone medium with huge benefits for individual scientists and the science community as a whole.   

 

Post script

If you want to know what my fellow authors thought about our collaboration you can find Manu’s story here, Steve’s here, Amy and Terry’s here and Meghan’s here.

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The bane of PhD students– the General Discussion

This year has been a bit of a bumper PhD submission year for me, five of my PhD students have come to the end of their time, and have submitted, or will soon be submitting their theses.  In my experience, 48 successful students and counting, it is relatively easy to reassure PhD students that their worries about the structure of their thesis, the appropriateness of their analysis and how many tables and figures they should have, are not justified. Many of them already have papers in print or in press by the writing-up stage so they only need a little bit of reassurance about the quality of their work.  The bit that seems to worry them most is the General Discussion.  My advice to them was, and is, the same as that given to me by my supervisor 37 years ago, “spread your wings, sell your work, don’t be afraid to speculate a little, enjoy yourself and make sure you don’t just summarise your thesis”. 

This uncertainty about how to handle the General Discussion is not just a foible of my students.  My impression over the last few years, borne out by the increasing frequency on which I comment on the shortcomings of the General Discussion of the PhD theses that I examine (now more than sixty) is that General Discussions are not what they used to be.  I too often find myself reading a series of lightly edited chapter abstracts, which in my opinion is not a General Discussion. Am I, however, suffering from grumpy old git syndrome or were General Discussions more general in the days of my youth?  How for example, does my General Discussion stack up compared with that of the modern-day PhD student? Did I practice what I now preach?

I do of course still have a copy of my thesis (Leather, 1980), two to be precise. Both my parents were biologists, albeit botanists, so I felt obliged to give them a copy, which I retrieved when clearing my Mother’s house after her death.  The upshot being that I have no excuse for not being able to find a copy from which to do a critical appraisal of my General Discussion. My thesis was written before Word Processors existed, and when computers occupied their own buildings. It was typewritten (by me using a Silver Reed A3 typewriter) and so no electronic copies are available.  As a consequence, I have had to scan the parts relevant to my story; hence the poor quality of the illustrations 🙂

At this point, I should point out that although I was trained as an agricultural entomologist and my PhD was about an agricultural pest, the bird cherry-oat aphid, my supervisor, Tony Dixon, was and still is, an ecologist.  Our lab was thus a mixture of pure and applied ecologists, some of whom weren’t even entomologists 🙂 This meant that I was exposed to a wider range of ideas than if I had just been in a lab of only applied entomologists.  Despite not being overly mathematical or theoretically inclined, I’m pretty much an empirical ecologist (field and lab), I was very impressed by the late, great E.C. Pielou, to the extent that I bought her book Ecological Diversity and read it cover to cover*.  Working with a host alternating aphid, I immediately latched on to her definition of seasonality as being synonymous with environmental variability (Pielou, 1975) and decided to coin a new term, seasonability** .

An excellent start, the title page doesn’t even mention the words General Discussion 🙂

 

I defined seasonability as being “the pre-programmed response to predictable environmental change” in  my terms this meant that the organism, in this case my aphid, anticipates the trend in conditions, something I, and a more mathematically inclined colleague did actually show a couple of years later (Ward et al., 1984).  I then drew the analogy that an aphid clone could be equated with Harper’s visualisation of a plant being constructed of a series of genetically identical modular units (Harper, 1977), i.e. each individual within the clone, although being genetically identical has a specific (and seasonal) function I also managed to slip in a reference to my other ecological hero, Dan Janzen at this point (Janzen, 1977) 🙂

I see that I was keen to introduce new terms, as my second figure shows.  I was amused to see in figure legend that I describe the x-axis as food quality but label it as host quality in the

A pretty lousy figure, but remember we had to draw our figures by hand in those days. Here I attempt to coin another new usage, this time refluence, to indicate the flowing back of the clone to the primary host.

figure, doing something that in later years I have waxed wrathfully against (Leather & Awmack, 1998; Awmack & Leather, 2002).  In this case, food (nutritional) quality is the term I should have used although I could argue that the build-up of natural enemies on the secondary grassy hosts and the predictable absence of natural enemies on the primary host, could justify the use of the term host quality, but that would be post hoc sophistry and best avoided 🙂

I was obviously also very keen to introduce new meanings to words as my third figure shows.

Yet another attempt to coin a new meaning for an existing word

 

At no point however, did I summarise what was in each chapter.  I referred in passing to one…”It is now fairly certain from the evidence presented on the effects of growth stage (Chapter 4) that..” and the four figures are unique to my General Discussion, even the two that contained data points, so I can pat myself on the back in that respect.  Although I did not extend my discussion to other taxa, I did range far and wide across the aphid world so I think that fulfilled the brief of spreading my wings, and boy did I try and sell my work.

I also notice that the 25-year-old me tried very hard to use a different sort of language in his General Discussion such as, “lends further credence to the concept of seasonability” which is followed in the next sentence by “..when the bursting of the buds of the tree host or resurgence of sap in the perennial herbaceous host, herald the start of egg hatch”. Yes, I actually used the word herald, but then, this is the guy who prefaced his thesis with these two quotes.

The Steinbeck quote (Doc from Sweet Thursday, does still sums up pretty much what I want to do with my life.

 

So what does the 62-year-old Professor of Entomology think about the efforts of his younger self?  I may be slightly biased, but I think it is a reasonable effort and as an examiner I wouldn’t have any major problems with it although I suspect that I would be tempted to have a gentle dig at the attempts to coin new terms. Overall I would rate it as B+.

In case you wondered , although I never published, or even tried to publish my General Discussion, all the ideas, except for the terms which were petty awful, (or naff as we would say in the UK), have made it into print at some time.

To reiterate, my advice to PhD students struggling with your General Discussion is “spread your wings, be bold, sell your work, don’t be afraid to speculate a little, enjoy yourself and most importantly,  definitely make sure you don’t just summarise your thesis”

References

Awmack, C.S. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology, 47, 817-844.

Leather, S.R. (1980)  Aspects of the Ecology of the Ecology of the Bird Cherry-Oat Aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi (L.).  Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of East Anglia, Norwich.

Leather, S.R. & Awmack, C.S. (1998). The effects of qualitative changes of individuals in the population dynamics of insects. In Insect Populations In Theory and in Practice (ed. by J.P. Dempster & I.F.G. McLean), pp. 187-206. Kluwer, Dordrecht.

Harper, J.L. (1977) Plant Population Biology, Academic Press, London.

Janzen, D. H. (1977) What are dandelions and aphids? American Naturalist, 111, 586-589.

Pielou, E.C. (1975) Ecological Diversity, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1984) Temperature prediction and the timing of sex in aphids. Oecologia, 62, 230-233.

 

*I also bought her book Mathematical Ecology but didn’t manage to read it cover to cover 🙂

**I had great hopes of getting my General Discussion published and my new term being adopted by ecologists around the world 🙂

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