What is a species? Philosophy, Science and Scicomm

What is a species? This apparently simple question is one of the best ways to get scientists arguing.

A recent article by Henry Taylor, a philosopher at University of Birmingham, asks this question from a philosophical perspective. The article itself is okay. But there is zero chance of biologists adopting its recommendation, ‘to scrap the idea of a species’, any time soon (see also this older article at the same platform, on the same subject, from a biologist’s perspective).

What I found interesting is how different audiences interpreted the article in the comments and on social media. I saw a mix of reactions (based on my network and a few searches; obviously not indicative of everyone) – some scientists were condemning the article vocally and aggressively, while others who didn’t appear to be scientists (based on their Twitter bio), shared the article in agreement and support.

‘What is a species?’ is a classic philosophical question, not a scientific one. Philosophical questions are a valuable tool for life. They are conceptual, not factual; they are rarely ‘solved’ (in the scientific sense); and they need to be addressed with complex thinking, not just facts or empirical research. You don’t have to agree with this approach, it’s just how Philosophy differs from Science. Disciplines are defined by different methodologies, standards, systems, and norms.

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Times have changed: dealing with dodgy science in the internet age

Dodgy science, dodgy scientists and dodgy humans are not a new thing. And dodgy scientific papers have been published since the dawn of scientific publishing. In 1667 an article on ‘snakestones’, a pseudoscience medical cure with absolutely no basis in truth, appeared in one of the first issues of the oldest known scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (now Phil Trans A, one of the most prestigious modern scientific journals).

Since then, disreputable papers have made regular appearances in reputable journals. And there are different scales of disreputable. The paper claiming that octopi originated from outer space was clearly far-fetched, while the scholars who recently argued there was a ‘moral panic’ over free-ranging cats simply highlighted how interdisciplinary research is often challenged by opposing methodological approaches (note: I agree with most ecologists that free-ranging cats are not good for wild animals, including insects). Continue reading

Why I posted my first preprint

I’ve just published my first preprint. If you’re not familiar with preprints, they are final versions of a paper manuscript that are posted online before they have been peer reviewed.

Long-time followers of my blog will know that I am not a huge fan of preprints. Preprints are not the answer to our angst over peer review, because they involve too many risky assumptions.

So why did I just publish one? Continue reading

More women and girls in ecology and environmental science careers

Today is the United Nation’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This year’s theme is “Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth”, so I’m sharing some thoughts from my own roundabout journey into science.

Science was never a career option for me as a child. This was purely an accident of circumstance, rather than any obvious exclusion. My amazing single mum prioritised my and my sister’s education, sacrificing her own career to provide the best education opportunities for us. I grew up in a rural area, surrounded by forest. We had no television, so I spent my childhood reading books or outdoors in nature. Every opportunity, mum bought us books and games about natural history, wildlife, and geography. I loved studying maps, reading history, learning about landforms and biodiversity, and devouring stories of people living on the land. But I was picked on at school for knowing these things.

At no point during my formal education do I remember thinking that I could ever pay the bills through my affinity with nature. And I definitely didn’t think of nature study as ‘science’. Continue reading

My first 12 months as a journal editor

After my first year as an Academic Editor at PLOS One, I’ve learned a lot about the peer review process, including what happens to my own papers when I submit them for review, and why sometimes it takes longer than you expect to get reviews back.

Getting editorial experience. How do early-mid career researchers find access to editorial experience? I have no idea what the norm is. But I think access to mentorship in this process is a critical gap for early career researchers. Not only does it enable early career researchers to contribute a vital service to their research community, it also gives us an opportunity to gain some perspective on the editorial process when we submit our own papers for review. Continue reading

Moving country is rewarding; but you don’t have to do it to have a successful research career

Early career researchers are often bombarded with career advice, solicited or unsolicited, from supervisors, peers, senior colleagues, family members, journals, random people on social media; sometimes this advice is helpful, sometimes it’s so ambiguous or outdated it can be potentially damaging.

This article in Nature’s Careers section covers a recently published study in the Royal Society’s journal Interface. The study considers the careers of physics researchers, based on this dataset of authors that have published in the American Physical Society’s three Physical Review journals. The study also looks at Nobel Prize winners in physics. So already, we have two very narrow subsets of ‘researchers’ within a single discipline.

The study found that the focal researchers (i.e. physics researchers who published in APS journals or who won a Nobel Prize) who moved overseas had more citations & therefore greater ‘impact’ on their field. In contrast to the media coverage, the author discusses the results by framing them within contemporary political discussions about immigration, cleverly highlighting that supporting migration from other countries boosts the host country’s social and intellectual capital. This is a completely valid point.

However, the converse is rarely true: you, an individual researcher, don’t have to move overseas to have an impact on your field. Continue reading

How to choose a framing narrative for scientific papers

Have you read a research paper where you experience this sequence of thoughts?: Title/Abstract/Introduction (wow! This is a real problem, someone’s finally answered this question), Methods (um, hang on, this sample size/study system/analysis approach doesn’t quite answer this problem…), Results (okay, these results are interesting, but…), Discussion (whoa, rein it in! I can’t find the link between these assumptions or recommendations and the results…).

The paper may be scientifically sound, as far as the methods & results go. The problem is that the authors have chosen a very broad frame narrative, and then confounded that frame with the interpretation of their results. Continue reading