Tag Archives: science

Pick and mix 11 – Another ten links to look at

I’m still on holiday in France so just a series of links this week.

Links to things I thought interesting (picture is the room door of the Ibis Style hotel we stayed at in Paris)


Is “novelty” holding science back?

Using radio tagging to improve the conservation of stag beetles

How ‘Nature’ keeps us healthy, from potted plants to hiking

How scientists at Rothamsted Research and the University of North Texas have engineered a relative of cabbage to produce fish oil

Agricultural efficiency will feed the world, not dogma

A really interesting article about migration and movement of people

Dave Goulson’s work on pesticide residues in garden plants summarised by plant ecologist Ken Thompson

Using a field journal to strengthen learning

At the risk of seeming big-headed an interesting episode of Entocast

I don’t normally post about birds but after this golden oriole

committed suicide against our patio doors thought that this deserved a mention



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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.



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Sometimes big can be good – Reflections on INTECOL 2013

Warning:  I am not going to discuss the science presented, just my impressions of the conference as a whole.

In April I wrote about my dislike of big international conferences  citing reasons such as  the difficulty in finding people, session clashes, people giving talks on already published papers and the tendency of just talking to people you already know.  I finished the article somewhat cynically, with the phrase “perhaps INTECOL will prove me wrong”; for those of you who may not know, INTECOL is the acronym of the International Association for Ecology (I had to look it up myself to get it exactly right).  INTECOL 2013 (#INT13 for Twitter users) coincided with the 100th birthday of the British Ecological Society and was held at the ExCel Centre in London.  It thus promised to be a very large event.  So two strikes against it already as far as I was concerned, huge conference and in London, probably my least favourite city of all time; twenty years of commuting into the South Kensington campus of Imperial College from Bracknell has not left me pleasant memories and although having had a cosmopolitan childhood I am a small village boy at heart.  I probably wouldn’t have gone to INTECOL at all, if the British Ecological Society hadn’t subsidised my attendance (I am an Associate Editor for the Journal of Animal Ecology) and we hadn’t taken our summer holiday earlier than usual this year.  I decided that I would commute in daily, rather than pay for accommodation; we still have a house in Bracknell, despite me working in Shropshire, and it would also give me the opportunity to have some family time.

For me the conference started on Sunday morning when my wife and I travelled into the ExCel Centre to set up the Harper Adams University display stand.  This was done very quickly and we then went for a walk in the sunshine to look at the surrounding area with the impressive London Dockers statue just outside the ExCel , and the street food outlets down near the


Emirates Air Lines (cable cars across the  Thames) and an abortive trip to look at the London Olympic site (no access available); luckily next to the Westfield Shopping Centre, so some entertainment there;  people watching from the M&S Café on the Bridge and a free taster glass of the new Pimms flavour, blackberry and elderflower.  Then back to the ExCel for the very pleasant welcome mixer, where as I had predicted I spoke to people I already knew and then back home to Bracknell.  I was up very early on Monday to catch the dreaded Reading to Waterloo slow service (65 minutes from Bracknell to Waterloo) and then the 40 minute tube and DLR journey from Waterloo to Prince Regent and the ExCel.  Things were very busy but as I had volunteered to do student talk judging, my schedule was fixed for me for the first two days; no need to wade through the huge programme and sigh over clashes.   At the first plenary it was announced that questions would only be taken via Twitter; there were a few disgruntled groans from the audience but as a Twitter convert of less than a year, I was intrigued and  it also gave me an idea.  There and then I decided that I would try to say hello in person to as many people I could find who followed me on Twitter, my fellow Tweeps.  I had a mission and I have to admit it made the meeting quite fun, instead of waiting for people to say hello and mainly just talking to old friends I was on the hunt; as an entomologist it reminded me very much of my childhood days of insect collecting.  This was also made easier by the very user-friendly delegate badges, actually readable at a distance and here I at least, was very pleased with the draconian attitude of the ExCel

Simon Badge

security staff who insisted that badges were worn at all times by delegates.  It always annoys me when delegates don’t wear their badges and when the lettering is so small that you have to get embarrassingly close to people’s vital areas to identify them 😉  Note that in the picture above the lanyard is positioned to prevent the badge turning round and being unreadable; many people used the central hole which meant that their badges were often totally useless as a means of identification.

Wrong badge

At first I took a few of my ex-students to task (of which there were many) and showed them how to wear their badges.  I may then have become somewhat evangelical, indeed officious, about the subject and started teaching strangers how to wear their badges correctly;

Badge wearing

no matter I had a mission and was enjoying the conference and meeting lots of new people. The second conference-changing moment was the plenary lectures and asking questions via Twitter, or Tweeqs as I called them.  One problem I did have, was that I found it difficult to type and listen at the same time; how do students manage in lectures?  I also found that although you could ask a question there was then no chance to riposte when the speaker answered verbally to the whole audience, so no real debate, but I think it has potential.  For example, my question to Georgina Mace, who gave a very good lecture on biodiversity conservation in the 21st Century but largely ignored invertebrates when making assumptions and predictions about the future, was not entirely answered to my

G Mace question

satisfaction, being along the lines of yes I know that data are not balanced but we are waiting for you guys to produce similar data sets, did generate some Twitter debate but I was not able to respond directly to Georgina.  Still, I think that this is definitely an

Mace riposte

creative way forward and allows people not at a conferences to ‘attend’.  I especially highlight this for the benefit of Chris Buddle of McGill University and Blogger extra-ordinaire at Arthropod Ecology, who although not at INTECOL, was able to participate, albeit only at a distance (from Canada to be precise).

Buddle question

Perhaps at future meetings there may be some way to employ an official conference tweeter (or more), akin to the way translators are used at the United Nations?

I also very much enjoyed meeting many of the next generation of ecologists as well as chatting to many ex-students and colleagues.  I would especially like to highlight the fact that Kathryn Luckett, a PhD student at Silwood Park, publicised, first via Twitter and secondly by her recent blog post, about the inequality in ecology of career progression for female scientists as very well illustrated by the presenters at the conference.

 Speakers for Simon

I think that this is something for us all to think very hard about. and I urge you to read her post.

Commuting as I was, meant that I was not as able to take part in the social events to the same extent as those staying in the very nearby hotels, healthier for both my wallet and my liver, although that said I did pick up a cold – not sure who to blame for that, the daily tube journey or the influx of delegates from all around the world!

The programme overall was excellent, the speakers in the main, fantastic, and the organisation by the BES and local committee very good indeed.  I would have liked it better if the coffee and tea had been on tap all day and not at set times.  The BES Centenary party was a superb idea, even though I had to leave before the band started!  So on the whole; I actually enjoyed this conference very much but I am not sure how much I gained scientifically.  I do think, however, that everyone had a great time and I certainly made many useful contacts, although as predicted there were a number of people who I wanted to see who I never did manage to find.  Well done BES and INTECOL for putting on such a great event. It is always good to be proved wrong once in a while, especially if it is a pleasant surprise.

The week after next, I am presenting a talk at ENTO13 at St Andrews University, on the usefulness of social media for scientists.  This will be a much smaller conference, albeit international.  I wonder if I will enjoy it as much or more?

Post script – for those of you curious about the stand, here is a picture of it with me and Fran Sconce (a PhD student of mine working on Collembola) in attendance.  Note that we are both wearing butterfly themed clothing – how entomological can you get 😉 and our badges are the right way round.

Harper Stand INTECOL


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