Tag Archives: publishing

Typos, typos everywhere – a call for the return of human copy editors and better proof reading

When I first started writing and publishing papers, publishers employed copy editors who checked pre-publication proofs for accuracy, style and grammar.  Authors had limited access to computer spell checkers, using print dictionaries instead and were supposed to check their proofs rigorously.   Nowadays, copy and style editors are mythical beasts, and we all suffer from the tyranny of the dreaded auto-correct.  The advent of automated copy editing and computerised spell checking has had a serious effect on the levels of exasperation in the Leather household. My wife, a former Editorial Assistant and copy editor*, and I find that we are increasingly drawing each other’s attention to glaring grammatical and typographical errors in the novels we read; baited breath when the author (I hope) meant bated, need instead of knead, dependent instead of dependant, principle instead of principal, effect when affect is meant and vice versa, etymology instead of entomology (oh heinous sin) and once to my total disbelief, dough instead of dhow!  And don’t even get me started on the greengrocer’s apostrophe!

It wouldn’t be so bad if this were confined to fiction but every now and increasingly then, I find something in a scientific paper or a grant proposal that makes me cringe and sigh despairingly (and not always quietly).

A high proportion of grant proposals and cvs that I see, use Principle Investigator instead of Principal Investigator.  I am happy that PIs are principled but just wish that they were a little bit more grammatically knowledgeable 🙂 That said, it is not just scientists who have a problem with the difference between principle and principal.

But, back to the reason I was stimulated to write this post.  I recently read a paper in Nature Communications, and was stunned by the appalling state of the references.  How these got past the copy editor (if there was one) and authors I have no idea.  Nature Communications is regarded as a high impact journal, in its own words publishing “high quality research” so one might expect and hope their production values to be equally high.

Author fatigue and Copy Editor failure!

 As a renowned senior scientist of my acquaintance (Professor Helmut van Emden if you wondered) once remarked during a PhD viva, “if you can’t be bothered to check your references for accuracy, how am I supposed to believe you collected your data and analysed it any more carefully?”  What particularly upset/disappointed me about the paper above was that two of the authors are former students of mine and have had the Van Emden adage related to them more than once!

To be fair, I too am not immune to letting the odd typo slip past my eagle eye.  Shortly after an editorial of mine was published (Leather, 2017) I received an email which I reproduce in full below.

Dear Prof. Leather

 I have just come across your recent editorial in Annals of Applied Biology.  Despite a few typographical errors (spelling of my name and a hanging reference to the “former” when the former is not clear), I could not agree more with your message, and I am honored that you chose my work on weed suppression as an example of the gap that needs to be closed.  Your description of the situation with respect to our research was right on target. I was also very impressed by the quotation from Benjamin Walsh, which is just as relevant today as it was back in 1866.

 The problem exists in both directions.  Basic researchers can be snobs who look down on applied research. But applied researchers often react to this by responding negatively to relevant basic research.  J.L. Harper often said that the distinction between basic and applied research is artificial, but there is clearly a cultural “gap”.

 With best wishes from Copenhagen

Jacob Weiner

On being reminded, very politely, that no matter how senior we are we are neither perfect nor infallible 🙂

The misspelled reference duly corrected, albeit after the fact.


Leather S.R. (2017) Mind the gap: time to make sure that scientists and practitioners are on the same page.  Annals of Applied Biology 170: 1-3

*Those of you whom had papers published in Ecological Entomology between 1996 and 2003 will have experienced her ferocious red pen 🙂



Filed under Bugbears

A Roundabout Review of the Year – highlights from 2016

Welcome to my traditional, well it is the fourth after all, annual review of my social media and science communication activities.  I have had another enjoyable year blogging and tweeting, and as I wrote last year, I have absolutely no plans to stop either.   You may also be pleased to know that pictures of roundabouts will continue to appear at irregular intervals 🙂


Roundabout on the edge of Prades, 2016, complete with the author 🙂


Impact and reach

I have continued to post at about ten-day intervals; this is my 142nd post.  The more I write the easier it seems to become. I also did my first jointly authored post, teaming up with Anne Hilborn (@AnneWHilborn) to ask if naming study animals introduced observational bias which generated a fair bit of interest and was published in a slightly modified form in the on-line magazine Biosphere.  Another of my blog articles was converted into a discussion piece for the journal Agricultural & Forest Entomology  (see February 2017 issue) and my blogging activities resulted in me being asked to do an article about roundabouts and their biodiversity for the summer newsletter of the International Association for Landscape Ecology.  For those of you who think that social media has no place in science, I feel that this is pretty convincing evidence that science communication via social media is a  very worthwhile use of our time.

I had visitors from 164 countries (150 last year) and received 34 036 views (29 385 last year).  As last year, the majority of my readers


The top ten countries for views in 2016

came form the UK and USA, although Sweden and The Netherlands made it into the top ten, pushing Spain into the wilderness.


Top reads

My top post (excluding my home page) in 2016 was one of my entomological classics, the Moericke Trap, closely followed by  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering,  although my all-time winner is still Not All Aphids are Vegans with over 5 000 views.  My top ten posts tend to be either about aphids or entomological techniques/equipment which I guess means that I am filling an entomological niche.  I was however, disappointed to see that one of my favourite posts about (to me at any rate) the inspirational paper by Mike Way and Mike Cammell on using aphid egg counts to predict crop damage is languishing in the bottom ten, despite being published in September 2015 😦


Comparative statistics

One of the things that I find somewhat frustrating with blogging is the difficulty of gathering comparative data.  It may be the scientist in me or perhaps I am just too competitive, but as WordPress kindly supply their users with personal statistics, I feel the need to know how others are doing.  It is surprisingly hard to get these sort of data although this site is useful if you are hoping to use your blog for generating an income.  I was very excited a few weeks ago when my blog reached over 100 000 views at beginning of December.  Just a few days later Dynamic Ecology announced their 1 00 000 unique visitor which certainly put me in my place!   They have, however, been around a while and post much more frequently than I do, so are perhaps not the best yardstick, although of course something to aspire to.  Luckily, Jeff Ollerton who has been blogging about a year longer than me and in a similar subject area, is as obsessed with blogging statistics as I am and very kindly gave me access to his data.  Looking at the data it seems that we arrived at the same point


Comparative statistics between my blog and that of Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog.

after the same amount of time but in different ways.  Jeff had a much slower start than me and his stats are best described using a curvilinear relationship whereas my line is still a straightforward linear relationship.  I guess that as I was on Twitter when I launched my blog that I immediately picked up more views than Jeff who only joined the Twitter fraternity a month or so ago.  It will be interesting to see if his readership curve steepens in the coming months and if mine continues to rise linearly, plateau or (hopefully) take-off as Jeff’s did.

Tweeting for entomology

In terms of Tweeting I had a really great experience curating the Real Scientists Twitter account @realscientists.  It kept me very busy but I interacted with a whole new set of people and had some really interesting conversations.  I can heartily recommend it to anyone who is considering volunteering.  I had hoped to hit the 5 000 follower milestone before the end of the year but didn’t quite make it, ending the year with 4 960 instead which is according to my children, pretty good for a normal person 🙂

Many thanks to all my readers and especially to those who take the time to comment as well as pressing the like button.  My top commenters, as indeed they were last year, were Emma Maund, Emily Scott, Emma Bridges, Jeff Ollerton, Amelia from A French Garden and Philip Strange.  I look forward to interacting with you all in 2017.  A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.




Filed under Roundabouts and more, Uncategorized

It isn’t easy being an applied ecologist – working on crops limits publication venues

“This is Simon Leather, he’s an ecologist, albeit an applied one” Thus was I introduced to a group of visiting ecologists by my then head of department at the Silwood Park campus of Imperial College. As you can imagine I was somewhat taken aback at this public display of the bias that ‘pure’ scientists have against those that they regard as ‘applied’.  I was (and still am), used to this attitude, as even as an undergraduate doing Agricultural Zoology when we shared modules with the ‘pure’ zoologists, we were regarded as a slightly lower life form J  Working in Finland as a post-doc in the early 1980s it was also obvious that there was a certain degree of friction between the pure and applied entomologists, so it was not a phenomenon confined entirely to the UK.  To this day, convincing ecology undergraduates that integrated pest management is a suitable career for them is almost impossible.

I was an ecologically minded entomologist from early childhood, pinning and collecting did not interest me anywhere near as much as insect behaviour and ecology, but I knew that I wanted to do something “useful” when I grew up. Having seen my father in action as a plant pathologist and crop protection officer, it seemed to me that combining entomology with agriculture would be an ideal way to achieve this ambition.  A degree in Agricultural Zoology at Leeds and a PhD in cereal aphid ecology at the University of East Anglia (Norwich) was the ideal foundation for my chosen career as an applied ecologist/entomologist.

I started my professional life as agricultural entomologist working both in the laboratory and in the field (cereal fields to be exact), which were easily accessible, generally flat, weed free and easy to manipulate and sample.  In the UK even the largest fields tend to be visible from end to end and side to side when you stand in the middle or edge (even more so now than when I started as wheat varieties are now so much shorter, less than half the height they were in 1977).



Having fun as a PhD student – aphid ‘sampling’ in Norfolk 1978


I haven’t grown since I did my PhD so wheat must have shrunk 🙂

See the post script to see what wheat used to look like.

Laboratory experiments, even when working on mature plants were totally do-able in walk-in growth rooms, and at a push you could even fit whole earing wheat plants into a growth cabinet.

I then spent ten years working as a forest entomologist, where field sites were the exact opposite, and extreme measures were sometimes required to reach my study animals, including going on an official Forestry Commission tree climbing course.


Pole pruners – (of only limited use) and tree climbing (great fun but laborious)


Scaffold towers for really high work, but expensive (and scary on sloping hillsides).

And as for lab work, not a chance of using mature plants or even plants more than two to three years old.  Excised branches and/or foliage (rightly or wrongly) were the norm*.

Doing field work was, despite the sometimes very physically challenging aspects, a lot of fun, and in my case, some very scenic locations.  My two main field sites were The Spey Valley and


Sutherland and Caithness, both of which provided magnificent views and of course, a plethora of whisky distilleries


where I discovered what is now my favourite single malt 🙂

The real fun came when it was time to submit papers.  Journal choice was (and is) very important.  As Stephen Heard points out, journals have a ‘culture’ and it is very important to pick a journal that has the right editorial board and ethos. The laboratory work never seemed to be a huge problem, referees (perhaps wrongly) very rarely criticised the use of young plants or excised foliage. I was able to publish the output from what was a very applied project, in a range of journals from the very specialised to the more ecological. This selection for example, from 1985-1987 (Leather, 1985, 1986; Leather & Burnand, 1987; Leather et al., 1985), appeared in Ecological Entomology, Oecologia, Functional Ecology and Bulletin of Entomological Research respectively.

Papers reporting field-based work were a little bit harder to place in journals outside the mainstream forestry ones, particularly when it came to experimental work.  One of the problems was that ecological referees unused to working in forests tended not to have a grasp of what was involved in setting up and servicing an experiment in a forest plantation or stand.  A farmer has no great objection to an entomologist removing 100 wheat tillers a week from his 2 ha field (at 90 stems per metre2, even a 16 week field season would only remove a tiny fraction of his crop).  A forest manager on the other hand with a stocking density of 3000 stems per hectare would look askance at a proposal to remove even 100 trees a month from a hectare plot, especially if this was repeated for seven years.  Sample size was thus a problem, even when using partial sampling of trees, e.g. by removing say only one branch.  When it came to field scale replication, to compare for example, three treatments and a control on two different soil types, where each treatment plot is a hectare, things get a bit difficult. The most that we could service, even with help (since we did not have huge financial resources), was three replicates of each treatment.  In agricultural terms this seems incredibly low, where 10m2 plots or even smaller, are very often used (e.g. Staley et al., 2009; Garratt et al., 2011).

We thus ended up with our experimental papers in the really specialised forestry journals (e.g.  Leather, 1993; Hicks et al., 2007).  On the other hand, those papers based on observational, long-term data were easier to place in more general ecological journals (e.g. Watt et al., 1989), although that was not always enough to guarantee success (e.g. Walsh et al., 1993; Watt et al., 1991).  Another bias that I came across (perhaps unconscious) was that referees appeared, and still do, think that work from production forests is not as valid as that coming from ‘natural’ forests, especially if they are tropical. We came across this when submitting a paper about the effects of prescribed burning on carabid populations in two sites in Portugal (Nunes et al., 2006).  We originally sent this to a well-known ecological journal who rejected it on the grounds of low replication, although we had also replicated it temporarily as well as geographically.  I was not impressed to see a paper published in this journal shortly after they had rejected our manuscript in which the authors had reported changes in insect communities after a one-off fire event in a tropical forest, without even the benefits of pre-fire baseline data.  We had in the meantime, given up on general ecology journals and submitted our paper to a local forestry journal.  Such is life.

I originally started this essay with the idea of bemoaning the fact that publishing studies based in production forests in more general journals was more difficult than publishing agriculturally based papers, but got diverted into writing about the way applied ecologists feel discriminated against by journals and pure ecologists.  I may or may not have convinced you about that.  To return to my original idea of it being more difficult for forestry–based ecologists to break out of the forestry journal ghetto than it is for agro-ecologists to reach a broader audience, I present the following data based on my own publication record, which very convincingly demonstrates that my original feeling is based on fact, albeit based on an n of one 🙂


Numbers of agricultural and forestry based papers published by me in different journal categories.

I might also add that being an entomologist also limits where you can publish, so being an applied entomologist is something of a double whammy, and when it comes to getting research council funding, don’t get me started!


 Garratt, M.P.D., Wright, D.J., & Leather, S.R. (2010) The effects of organic and conventional fertilizers on cereal aphids and their natural enemies. Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 12, 307-318.

Hicks, B.J., Aegerter, J.N., Leather, S.R., & Watt, A.D. (2007) Differential rates of parasitism of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) depends on host tree species. Scottish Forestry, 61, 5-10.

Leather, S.R. (1985) Oviposition preferences in relation to larval growth rates and survival in the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea. Ecological Entomology, 10, 213-217.

Leather, S.R. (1986) The effect of neonatal starvation on the growth, development and survival of larvae of the pine beauty moth Panolis flammea. Oecologia, 71, 90-93.

Leather, S.R. (1993) Influence of site factor modification on the population development of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) in a Scottish lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) plantation. Forest Ecology & Management, 59, 207-223.

Leather, S.R. & Burnand, A.C. (1987) Factors affecting life-history parameters of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (D&S): the hidden costs of reproduction. Functional Ecology, 1, 331-338.

Leather, S.R., Watt , A.D., & Barbour, D.A. (1985) The effect of host plant and delayed mating on the fecundity and lifespanof the pine beauty moth,  Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae): their influence on population dynamics and relevance to pest management. Bulletin of entomological Research, 75, 641-651.

Nunes, L.F., Silva, I., Pité, M., Rego, F.C., Leather, S.R., & Serrano, A. (2006) Carabid (Coleoptera) community change following prescribed burning and the potential use of carabids as indicator species to evaluate the effects of fire management in Mediterranean regions. Silva Lusitania, 14, 85-100.

Staley, J.T., Stewart-Jones, A., Pope, T.W., Wright, D.J., Leather, S.R., Hadley, P., Rossiter, J.T., Van Emden, H.F., & Poppy, G.M. (2010) Varying responses of insect herbivores to altered plant chemistry under organic and conventional treatments. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 277, 779-786.

Walsh, P.J., Day, K.R., Leather, S.R., & Smith, A.J. (1993) The influence of soil type and pine species on the carabid community of a plantation forest with a history of pine beauty moth infestation. Forestry, 66, 135-146.

Watt, A.D., Leather, S.R., & Stoakley, J.T. (1989) Site susceptibility, population development and dispersal of the pine beauty moth in a lodgepole pine forest in northern Scotland. Journal of Applied Ecology, 26, 147-157.

Watt, A.D., Leather, S.R., & Evans, H.F. (1991) Outbreaks of the pine beauty moth on pine in Scotland: the influence of host plant species and site factors. Forest Ecology and Management, 39, 211-221.


Post script

The height of mature wheat and other cereals has decreased hugely over the last two hundred years.  Cereals were originally a multi-purpose crop, not just providing grain for humans, but bedding straw for stock and humans, winter fodder for animals, straw for thatching and if really desperate, you could make winter fuel out of discarded straw**.


John Linnell  – Wheat 1860  You wouldn’t have been able to see Poldark’s (Aidan Turner) manly chest whilst he was scything in this field!


Pieter Breugel the Elder – Die Kornernter – The Harvesters  (1565) – Head-high wheat crops and not just because the average height was lower in those days.


*As I was writing this article I came across this paper (Friberg & Wiklund, 2016) which suggests that using excised plants may be justifiable.  Friberg, M. & Wiklund, C. (2016)  Butterflies and plants: preference/performance studies in relation to plant size and the use of intact plants vs. cuttings.  Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 160, 201-208

**My source for this is Laura Ingalls Wilder – Little House on the Prairie, to be exact 🙂


Filed under Bugbears, Uncategorized

Data I am never going to publish in peer-reviewed journals

I have got to that stage in my career where retirement is no longer a distant speck on the horizon; something that 20 years ago I never even thought about, but which now I am actually looking forward to reaching. Don’t get me wrong, I have, in the main, enjoyed what I have been paid to do for the last 40 years, but I’m looking forward to a change of pace and a change of priorities. I’m not planning on leaving entomology and ecology, or putting my collecting equipment in a cupboard, throwing my field guides away and burning all my reprints in a huge bonfire. Nor do I plan on deleting my EndNote™ files and database when I retire to our house in Languedoc-Roussillon to sit next to the pool with a never-emptying glass of red wine and gently pickle myself in the sun*. I’m just looking forward to approaching it in a different way; my plan is to stop initiating the writing scientific papers, but instead to expand on the outreach, to blog more and to write books for a wider audience. I want to spread the joys and wonders of entomology to the world, and hopefully, supplement my pension a bit to make sure that I can keep that glass filled with red wine and heat the swimming pool in the winter 🙂

I’m planning a gradual retirement, a slow(ish) canter towards the day (September 30th 2020) when I finally vacate my university office and move full-time into my converted attic in the Villa Lucie surrounded by my books and filing cabinets with a superb view of the mountains.


The view from my study to be – I will have to stand up to see it, but exercise is good for you 🙂

I have already reached a number of milestones, I took on my last ever PhD student (as Director of Studies) this month (June 7th) and submitted my final grant application as a PI (June 10th).


I must admit that it is a bit of funny feeling, but a remarkably rewarding one in many ways. I look at my former colleagues who have already retired productively and enjoyably, and I’m envious, so I know that I am making the right decision despite the slight feeling of apprehension. I now have a dilemma. As Jeff Ollerton points out, when you have been around a while, in my case it is almost 40 years since I started my PhD**, you build up a substantial amount of data, especially, if as I have, you have supervised over 150 undergraduate research projects, an equal number of MSc research projects and over 50 PhD students. Much of these data are fragmentary, not significant or even lost (sadly when I moved from Imperial College, they threw away the hard copies of my undergraduate projects, although I can remember what some of the lost data were about). My ten year sycamore and bird cherry aphid field study from my time in Scotland (1982-1992) remains largely unpublished and my huge twenty year sycamore herbivores data set from Silwood Park (1992-2012) is in the same boat, although parts of the data are ‘out on loan’ to former students of mine and I hope will be analysed and published before I retire.

This leaves however, the data, some of it substantial, which I would like to see the light of day, e.g. a whole set of rabbit behaviour data that I collected one summer with the help of an undergraduate and MSc student, which surprisingly revealed novel insights. Other data, perhaps not as novel, may be of interest to some people and there is a whole bunch of negative and non-significant data, which as Terry McGlynn highlights over on Small Pond Science, does not necessarily mean that it is of no use.   I have, as an example of fragmentary, not entirely earth-shattering data, the following to offer. Whilst monitoring aphid egg populations on bird cherry and sycamore trees, in Scotland between 1982 and 1992, I occasionally sampled overwintering eggs of Euceraphis betulae, on some nearby birch (Betula pendula) trees and of Tuberculoides annulatus, on an oak tree (Quercus robur) in my back garden in Peebles.

As far as I know there are no published data on the overwintering egg mortality of these two aphids. Although novel for these two aphid species, the observation of the way the egg populations behave over the winter and the factors causing the mortality have already been described by me for another aphid species (Leather, 1980, 1981). I am therefore unlikely to get them published in any mainstream journal, although I am sure that one of the many predatory journals out here would leap at the chance to take my money and publish the data in the Journal of Non-Peer-Reviewed Entomology 🙂 I could of course publish the data in one of the many ‘amateur’ type, but nevertheless peer-reviewed journals, such as Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, The Entomologist’s Record, The Entomologist’s Gazette or the British Journal of Entomology & Natural History, which all have long and distinguished histories, three of which I have published in at least once (Leather & Brotherton 1987, Leather, 1989, 2015), but which have the disadvantage of not being published with on-line versions except for those few issues that have been scanned into that great resource, The Biodiversity Heritage Library, so would remain largely inaccessible for future reference.

I thus offer to the world these data collected from four Betula pendula trees in Roslin Glen Nature Reserve in Scotland between 1982 and 1986. On each sampling occasion, beginning at the end of October, 200 buds were haphazardly selected and the number of eggs present in the bud axils recorded. Sampling continued until egg hatch began in the spring.


Figure 1. Mean number of eggs per 100 buds of the aphid Euceraphis betulae present on four Betula pendula trees at Roslin Glen Nature Reserve Scotland***.

The number of eggs laid on the trees varied significantly between years (F = 20.3, d.f. = 4/15, P <0.001) ranging from 12.75 eggs/100 buds in 1983-84 to 683 eggs/100 buds in 1986-87. Mortality occurred at a regular rate over the winter and ranged from between 60% in 1985-86 to 83 % in 1984-85, averaging out at 74% over the five-year study.

So in conclusion, no startling new insights, but just some additional data about aphid egg mortality to add to the somewhat sparse records to date (Leather, 1992). Perhaps it is time for me to write another review 🙂


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

Leather, S.R. (1981) Factors affecting egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 30, 197-199.

Leather, S.R. (1986) Insects on bird cherry I. The bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymellus (L.). Entomologist’s Gazette, 37, 209-213.

Leather, S.R. (1989) Phytodecta pallida (L.) (Col.,Chrysomelidae) – a new insect record for bird cherry (Prunus padus). Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 125, 17-18.

Leather, S.R. (1992) Aspects of aphid overwintering (Homoptera: Aphidinea: Aphididae). Entomologia Generalis, 17, 101-113.

Leather, S.R. (2015) An entomological classic – the Pooter or insect aspirator. British Journal of Entomology & Natural History, 28, 52-54.


*although in light of the recent horrific BREXIT vote this may now not be as simple as it might have been 😦

**I must confess that I haven’t actually published all the data that I collected during my PhD. I rather suspect that this will never see the light of day 🙂

***Data from 1986-87 are not shown as their inclusion makes it very difficult to see the low years. I can assure you however, that the mortality rate shows the same patterns as the other years.



Filed under EntoNotes, Science writing

When frustration becomes serendipitous – My second most cited paper

For most of the 1980s and the early 1990s I worked for the UK Forestry Commission as a research and advisory entomologist. As a civil servant I was subjected to a lot more rules than I am now as a university academic. The most frustrating set of rules in my mind, were those associated with publishing papers. The initial consultation with a statistician before your experiment was planned and any subsequent collaboration with the analysis was very sensible, and I had no problems with that part of the process at all. Our statisticians were very good in that they helped you decide the analysis but expected you to learn GenStat (the Forestry Commission standard statistics programme) and do it yourself unless you were really stuck.

The next bit was the frustrating part. When it came to writing papers you first submitted your paper to your line manager. They then read your paper, very frustrating indeed for me, as my immediate boss considered papers a very low priority and it could be several months before he got around to passing it back with comments and suggestions. Then it was passed to a member of one of the other department such as silviculture, tree breeding or pathology for them to read and make comments. The idea behind this being that it helped make the paper accessible to a wide audience, again a good idea. The problem at this stage was that once again your paper was likely to be a low priority, so yet more delay. Once that was done you then had to submit your paper to the Chief Research Office for him to read and comment on, so once again yet more delay. This meant that quite often it was a year before you actually were able to submit your paper to a journal, which could be deeply frustrating to say the least.


In 1986 a new journal to be published by the British Ecological Society was announced, Functional Ecology. In those days, the dreaded Impact Factors had not yet raised their ugly heads, and one tended to publish in journals relevant to your discipline, or, as in this case, the fancy took you.  I thought it would be cool to publish in the first issue of the first volume of this new journal.  I therefore set to work, with the help of one of our statisticians to produce a paper about life history parameters of the pine beauty moth, from a more ecological point of view and not from the more applied view-point of it as a forest pest (my job remit). I was very proud of the paper and confess to having got somewhat carried away in the discussion, so much so, that it was suggested by all who read it in the very lengthy internal appraisal process, that most of the discussion should be cut as being too far away from the main story. As the process had taken so long already I decided to go with the flow and eventually submitted my paper about a year after first writing it, incidentally giving my statistician a co-authorship. It was accepted and did indeed appear in the first volume of Functional Ecology, albeit the last of the year (Leather & Burnand, 1987)! It has to date (14th October 2015) being cited 53 times, by no means a disgrace, but certainly not my second-most cited paper.

I mentioned earlier that I was really proud of my discussion and I decided that I was going to publish it regardless. I reworked it slightly and submitted it to Oikos as a Forum piece, taking the calculated risk of not submitting it through the official Forestry Commission system. My reasoning was, that a), it was unlikely to be read by anyone in the Forestry Commission, being a very ecological journal, and b), if challenged I would say that it had already been seen by the powers that be, albeit not officially. To my relief it was accepted as is (Leather, 1988) and my immediate boss never mentioned it. To my surprise and delight this is now my second-most cited paper, having so far acquired 207 citations and still picks up a reasonable number of cites every year. I guess that I should actually be grateful to all those internal referees who insisted that I cut my discussion down so drastically.


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. & Burnand, A.C. (1987) Factors affecting life-history parameters of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (D&S): the hidden costs of reproduction. Functional Ecology, 1, 331-338.


Post script

In case you wondered, my most cited paper is an Annual Review paper, written with one of my former PhD students, Caroline Awmack, and now has almost a thousand citations (994 as of today).


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



Filed under Bugbears, Science writing, Uncategorized

Journals of Irreproducible Research – downgrading reproducibility and fact checking

As far as I am concerned, good science is about communication and reproducibility, or, as Stephen Heard argues, at least being able to believe that it is reproducible.  I would argue a bit more strongly than Stephen, in that I think you should, at the very least, be able to be confident that you could reproduce the experiment without having to contact the author(s) and that you can also easily check the cited literature.   In this context, there are two things that really annoy me about some of the so-called ’high impact’ established print journals and their on-line would be rivals.  First, the way in which the methods and materials section is relegated to the end of the paper, often in smaller font, and in some cases to the supplementary material section  In other journals e.g. Nature, the methods section is also very minimal and I defy anyone to repeat those experiments!  My second bugbear is the habit that some journals have, possibly to reduce space, in making you use numbers to denote references, placing them either in parentheses or superscript in the main text.

Perhaps I am alone in this, but I do like to know whose work is being cited without having to constantly refer to the references section.  What  particularly annoys me, are those journals that not only insist on numbered references but then list them in number order and not in alphabetical order!  I once wrote a review paper for Annual Review of Entomology, which has the numbering system, but subverted it by listing my references alphabetically – the editor never noticed 😉

You may say that what all these journals are doing is merely structuring the paper in the order that people tend to read them which is, I admit, a valid point. To me however, they are saying to the scientific community, perhaps not overtly, but certainly subliminally, that methods and materials are something you don’t really need to bother about, somewhat akin to those things that you store in an attic or basement, just in case you might want them at some time in the future, but probably not often, if at all.

Hidden methods

This sends a strong and erroneous message to authors that despite the methodology being the most important part of how we do our science, as long as they report the general gist of how they did things it is fine.  To referees the subversion of the methods section sends an equally strong signal; you don’t really need to spend a lot of time reading about the methodology as long as the rationale for the work is justified and that the results are significant and well presented.

As someone who works on insect-plant interactions I constantly come across inadequate methods and materials sections both as a referee and as a reader of published work.  The thing that perhaps causes me the most annoyance are descriptions of plant phenology.   Herbivorous insects have a very intimate relationship with their host plants and the growth stage of their host plant or the age of the plant tissue that they are feeding on can have very marked effects on their development, survival and fecundity (Awmack & Leather, 2002).  I so often came across methods descriptions along the lines of “10 day-old cabbage seedling” “ 3 week old pepper plant”,  “2 week-old wheat plant”, that in desperation I wrote an editorial (Leather, 2010) explaining how important it was to use a measure that didn’t depend on the temperature,  photoperiod, nutrient or water status that the plants were grown at i.e. the BCCH scale.  I also compiled a virtual issue of Annals of Applied Biology, with relevant examples drawn from the journal which has a long and distinguished history in publishing such articles.  If you can’t find your host plant in past issues of the Annals you will find that most plants have a published version somewhere, even if only on Wikipedia.  Despite my efforts however, I still often have to remind authors to describe the phenological stage of their host plants accurately and precisely.

Methods and materials, please come back, we need you!



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. (2010). Precise knowledge of plant growth stages enhances applied and pure research. Annals of Applied Biology 157, 159-161.



Filed under Bugbears, Science writing, Uncategorized

Where have all the insects gone? Perhaps they were deterred by Editorial Board composition!

In a recent Animal Ecology in Focus blog post, the Executive Editor of Journal of Animal Ecology, Ken Wilson, made a spirited response to my well documented Twitter comments about the lack of insect papers in the journal and also highlighted by me in the recent JAE Virtual issue which I compiled to celebrate National Insect Week 2014. Ken had been somewhat sceptical about my claims but when he analysed the data he found, much to my gratification 😉 that I was correct; the number of insect papers published by Journal of Animal Ecology, has indeed fallen steeply since the 1970s, and this was true for two of the other journals from the British Ecological Society’s (BES) portfolio, Journal of Applied Ecology and Functional Ecology.

Fig 1 JAE

Figure 1. Trends in the number of citations per taxon in Journal of Animal Ecology (reproduced from Ken’s post).

Ken also looked at Ecology, published by the Ecological Society of America and Oikos, published by The Nordic Society Oikos. In both cases he found that insects and other invertebrates had held their own over the last forty years.

Fig 2 JAE

Figure 2. Trends in the number of citations per taxon in Ecology (data for the period 1978-1990 are excluded due to poor data quality). (again reproduced from Ken’s post)

Ken refutes any claim of editorial bias, acceptance rates for insect papers are similar to those for vertebrate papers, and hypothesizes that the reason insect and invertebrate papers have declined in the BES journals is due to the subject areas favoured by the journal i.e. demography, evolutionary ecology, spatial ecology and disease ecology; fields that in the UK are dominated by vertebrate ecologists and/or the rapidly decreasing number of entomologists employed by UK universities. This may be a contributing factor, but entomologists in the UK and worldwide also work in these fields, so it cannot be the whole story. He urges the entomological community to submit more papers to the journal in order to redress the balance.

Interestingly enough, the response among the Twitter community seemed to show that most entomologists did not perceive Journal of Animal Ecology as being insect friendly and in some cases it was seen not just as a vertebrate journal, but as an ornithological one, echoing a comment made by Jeremy Fox over at the Dynamic Ecology blogThese data are consistent with the rumor I heard back when I was a postdoc, that JAE got so many bird-related submissions that they had to work hard to avoid turning into an ornithology journal.”

So what has changed since the 1970s? Back when I was a PhD student, ecological entomologists had no hesitation in submitting their papers to Journal of Animal Ecology, Oecologia and Oikos, or if their work was applied, then Journal of Applied Ecology was a first choice venue, with Annals of Applied Biology also considered a logical place to submit entomological papers. Looking back at the papers published from my PhD work, I find that I published one in Journal of Animal Ecology (Wellings et al, 1980), one in Journal of Applied Ecology (Leather et al, 1984 (back in the early 1980s Journal of Applied Ecology could take over a year to make a decision), and three in Oecologia (Leather et al, 1983a,b; Ward et al., 1984). Of my other more applied work, three were published in the Annals of Applied Biology and the rest in specialised entomological journals, (five in Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, and three in the Journal of Applied Entomology).

So why did entomologists have no hesitation in sending their papers to Journal of Animal Ecology and Journal of Applied Ecology in the 1970s. A quick look at the Editorial Boards of the two journals, admittedly much smaller than those of today, shows us that in 1977 (when I started my PhD), Roy Taylor (entomologist) and Malcolm Elliott (fresh water ecologist) were editors of the former, with and editorial board consisting of T B Bagenal (fish), R A Kempton (statistics), Mike Hassell (entomologist), John Krebs (birds), John Lawton (entomologist), A D McIntyre (marine invertebrates) and John Whittaker (entomologist); Journal of Applied Ecology jointly edited by entomologist, Tom Coaker and botanist R W Snaydon, had a slightly larger board, eleven in total, five botanists, two more entomologists, an invertebrate ecologist, an environmental physicist and two vertebrate ecologists. So for both these journals, vertebrate ecologists were in the minority.

Moving on to 2014, what is the current composition of the two boards? Journal of Animal Ecology, is dominated by vertebrate ecologists, 62%, with only 25% being invertebrate specialists. Journal of Applied Ecology is also dominated by vertebrate ecologists, 48%, with 28% being plant scientists of various hues and only 21% being invertebrate ecologists. Now let’s have a look at the two journals where there has been no change in the proportion of invertebrate papers published; Ecology is remarkably balanced, although invertebrates are under-represented; 27% plants, 27% vertebrates, 26% invertebrates, 9% microbial. Oikos has an even better board composition, 41% being invertebrate ecologists, 29% plant ecologist and a mere, although still over-represented, 17% being vertebrate ecologists.

In summary, although I am sure that there is no explicit bias against invertebrates by the Editors of either Journal of Animal Ecology or Journal of Applied Ecology, the very fact that their Editorial Boards are dominated by vertebrate ecologists acts as an attractant to vertebrate ecologists and as a deterrent to entomologists who thus choose to submit their papers elsewhere, resulting in the vertebrate dominated situation we see today.

Towards the end of Ken’s excellent post he says “Well, if the number of papers we published on each taxon reflected the number of species on the planet, then for every 1000 insect papers we publish, we should publish just 31 papers on fish, 13 on reptiles & amphibians, 10 on birds, and a miserly 5 papers on mammals! Clearly, this would be ridiculous”

Why would this be so ridiculous I ask? This is another good example of institutional vertebratism. After all, as Ken points out to us entomologists (and of course this includes Ken himself) “for taxon-specific papers, there are plenty of excellent specialist journals” This applies equally to the vertebrate world, so why shouldn’t a journal of animal ecology be dominated by invertebrates?



Leather, S.R., Ward, S.A. Wellings, P.W. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) Habitat quality and the reproductive strategies of the migratory morphs of the bird cherry-oat aphid Rhopalosiphum padi. Oecologia, 59, 302-306.

Leather, S.R., Ward, S.A., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) The effect of nutrient stress on life history parameters of the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scop. Oecologia, 57, 156-157.

Leather, S.R., Carter, N., Walters , K.F.A., Chroston, J.R., Thornback, N., Gardner, S.M., & Watson, S.J. (1984) Epidemiology of cereal aphids on winter wheat in Norfolk, 1979-1981. Journal of Applied Ecology, 21, 103-114.

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

Wellings, P.W., Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1980) Seasonal variation in reproductive   potential: a programmed feature of aphid life cycles. Journal of Animal Ecology 49, 975-985.


Filed under Bugbears, Uncategorized

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

Referees – Your Journals Need You!


I have thought about writing on this subject for a while but it was this Tweet from Britt Koskella http://brittkoskella.wordpress.com/ on the 19th November 2013 that finally stirred me into action.

Britt 1

As an editor (I am for my sins, Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1752-4598)  I love people like Britt.  It is such a joy to be able to select their names from the journal data base and assign them a manuscript, knowing that nine times out of ten they will accept my invitation to review a manuscript and that on that tenth occasion they will very kindly suggest an alternative (sometimes two or three) reviewer who will also almost certainly accept my invitation.  Britt Koskella, I love you and those like you 🙂  My reply to Britt was as follows:

Britt 2

You will have noticed that I confessed to doing too many myself; in fact in addition to those manuscripts that I read as an Editor I do on average, forty to fifty reviews for other journals.  Like Britt I have a hard time saying no.  I am getting better though – I actually turned down two this month 😉

There is a lot of debate at the moment about the peer review process in general with a number of journals adopting an open mass review process and other journals opting for the as long as the science is sound it is publishable approach.  We are, however, mainly, despite its many flaws, still operating on the traditional two referees per paper peer review system.

So how many papers should you referee asks Britt?  The general rule of thumb to entitle you to call yourself a good citizen is to agree to referee two papers for every paper that you submit as that is the minimum number of referees that you would expect to look at your own papers.  To be on the safe side and to feel that you are making a real contribution to your community, I would suggest that a 3:1 ratio is very acceptable.  In my experience as an Editor of two journals and as an Associate Editor on three other journals, there are a number of people who referee many more papers than that and a disturbingly large number of prolific authors whom, as far as I can see, never ever agree to referee papers.

As an Editor, what do I want from a referee?  In a nut-shell, someone who reads the paper thoroughly, checks first that the experimental design and statistical analysis are sound; if the experiment is not designed properly then it doesn’t matter how well the paper is written, it is not worth proceeding with; that the appropriate literature is cited (and by this I don’t just mean the referee’s own papers) and that the paper fits the remit of the journal and advances the subject area significantly.  I also do not want the referee to say how good the paper is in the comments to authors section and to tell me in the confidential comments that it is crap.  If you don’t like it then have the guts to tell the author why, don’t leave it up to the poor Editor to try to explain why he/she is rejecting their paper despite the apparently favourable comments they can see in the referee’s reports.  I also expect total impartiality; you might not agree with what you read but unless the methodology is flawed that is not a reason to reject the paper.  Be open-minded and fair above all.  If you are rejecting a paper, be constructive, authors at the start of their career are not as resistant or as resilient as old timers http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/are-you-resistant-or-resilient-in-the-face-of-rejection/.  Above all be fair, write your report bearing in mind the sort of review that you as an author would like to receive.  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you and that goes double for those of you who don’t referee as many papers as you should!  I am very tempted sometimes to do an instant reject on authors who have turned down my invitation to review a paper, especially if I have just accepted one of theirs.

Post script

I used to run a course for PhD students about getting published and it always used to amaze them that decisions on whether papers were published or not was dependent on the opinions of two to three people.  My response was that if you think that is bad, decisions about grant funding are often made with just as few opinions and those decisions have even greater implications for career prospects.


Filed under Bugbears

Are PhD Examiners really ogres?

I read with some incredulity an article in The Times Higher Education Supplement of 25 April 2013 by Elizabeth Gibney which painted a picture of PhD external examiners as anachronistic sadistic ogres out to fail the candidate at any excuse.


She further suggested that an alternative to our current system could be one similar to the European system where essentially the thesis is a bind-up of published papers, usually at least three and sometimes up to seven.   To be fair, she did, however, outline some of the shortcomings of the European system.  Her description of the UK system is totally at odds with anything I have experienced in a 35 year-career as examinee and examiner, both external and internal.

To date, 46 of my students have been examined and received their PhDs.  Most have had minor revisions, a couple had major revisions, and not one has failed.  In all cases, they were treated with courtesy and respect, even the candidate who when asked why she had repeated an experiment that had been done twenty years previously, replied that it was because the original experiment was deeply flawed, seemingly unaware that her external examiner was the experimenter in question.  I have to admit that I almost gasped out loud, especially as the external in question had, many years before, been my supervisor.  He, however, took it in stride, smiled and passed her with minor revisions.  This does not seem to be an example of the vindictive ogres painted by Elizabeth Gibney.

My own PhD viva, took just under two hours and was conducted in a very friendly manner with plenty of opportunities to put my own views across.  At no time did I feel threatened or under pressure.  In fact I felt that I was having the opportunity of life-time in that I was able to discuss what I had been doing for the previous three years with someone who seemed to have a genuine interest in how and why I had done what I did.

I don’t see a PhD viva as a gladiatorial contest; rather a friendly, but searching discussion of the methods used, a critical discussion of the analysis of the results obtained and an opportunity to understand how and why they interpreted the results as they did.  I always begin by telling the candidate how much I enjoyed reading their thesis and tell them not to worry unduly about the Post-it notes festooning the sides of my copy of their thesis, most are usually typos and many are in the references section where students seem to become incredibly careless.

Thesis with post-its

As I tell them if you can’t be bothered to format your references properly, what message am I to take home about your experimental procedures?

I always ask the candidate what they did before and why they ended up doing the PhD that I am examining. I try to make the discussion a mixture of general wider-reaching issues and consideration of the material in each chapter. At all times, even if I feel that there is a fault, I approach the matter in a supportive and advisory role.  This is characteristic of all the external and internal examiners that I have observed over the years.  I feel that my role as an external examiner is a) to make sure that the PhD and candidate are up to scratch and b) that the material presented has the best chance of seeing the light of day by being published.  I think it is a terrible waste of three years’ work to leave it to languish in a thesis that is likely to be unread after it is placed on the university library shelves or electronic archive.  I thus always ask them where they intend to publish, if they have not already submitted some of the work.  I will also suggest what I think would be suitable journals for them to submit their work to, and which chapters will be likely to be publishable. Many students including my own try to have at least one paper in press or published before they submit.  I consider this a very good strategy, both for improving their employment prospects and ensuring an even smoother ride through the viva process.

Yes a candidate may be nervous and a bit apprehensive before their viva, but the job of the supervisor and progress review panels is to make sure that candidates should enter the examination room with a very reasonable expectation of passing with only minor revisions.  It is in no one’s interest to allow candidates with little chance of passing to get as far as the viva.  As far as I am concerned the system works well and is not broken, but perhaps it is different in other disciplines?

Today (7th May 2013) I conducted my 50th face to face UK PhD viva (21 external, 29 internal).  Reader, we passed him with minor corrections.

Simon new web page

Ogre, I hope not!

Post script 

To those of you who have not yet had your viva.  First, do discuss the choice of external examiner with your supervisor.  Most supervisors like to give their students some choice in the matter.  You may have a particular preference, but your supervisor will know if they have any particular quirks that may not make them the best choice for your thesis.  Once you know who the external is, make sure you include some of his/her references in your thesis.  It may seem petty, but it helps get you off on the right foot.

When you get to the viva, be confident, but don’t go in as if you owned the world.  Remember you have spent at least three years researching your particular subject, but your examiner will have spent many years researching the general area.  In terms of detail you should be pretty much the world expert.  You do, however, need to be able to put your knowledge in a wider context and that is the added extra that the examiner is looking for.  Work hard, think hard, embrace the wider picture, make sure those references are formatted correctly and don’t waffle.  Good luck.


Filed under Bugbears, Teaching matters