Let’s talk about standards for scholarly opinion articles

I’ve written a lot of posts here about how frustrating it is to try and publish conceptual or expert opinion-style articles in peer reviewed journals. Most journals have very few standards for this article category, and peer reviewers often don’t seem to have the guidance to know how to review them fairly.

Note, I’m not talking about popular media opinion pieces in the general definition.

I’m talking about the peer reviewed articles that many journals publish in various ‘non-data’ categories, depending on the journal, often called e.g. Opinion, Perspective, Forum, Viewpoint, Essay etc. They are a separate category to standard research data papers or formal literature reviews. The journals that publish these articles generally only provide vague instructions, which may contribute to the confusion over how to review them.

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Applying for a PhD: worth it, why, and how

Last year I wrote about how Academia isn’t all bad, and a PhD is definitely worth it. PhDs are definitely a degree worth having, but how do you know if it’s a degree worth applying for?

This post is a bit more about how to actually apply for a PhD and what it involves, once you’ve decided you might be interested. Most academic structures and processes are unfortunately still influenced by a privileged history based on personal connections. How to find and enrol in a PhD can be a mystery to most prospective candidates interested in further training in the research side of science. Don’t be put off…

As a first-gen academic, I didn’t even know what a PhD was (or that it was a career pathway) when I started my environmental science degree. It wasn’t until I graduated from my undergraduate degree and worked for a year that I realised I really missed the investigative part of science. I didn’t really know what to do about this, so I got back in touch with one of my favourite lecturers to find out my options, and she encouraged me to pursue a PhD. After a few applications and false starts (on available but unsuitable projects), I found a primary supervisor and project that aligned with my interests and goals, at a university I didn’t know much about, in a town I’d never been to.

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Admin: drowning, not waving

I worked in admin before my science career, in many roles, in many sectors. I’ve worked as a corporate receptionist, oversaw corporate communications, worked in document control for engineering consultancies, and managed content translation requests for university students with learning disabilities. I’ve been co-managing an unfunded citizen science project for more than six years.

So I’m no stranger to admin and I have no grudge against admin professionals – they are essential!

But, in some cases, the admin sagas that academics are forced to star in are a bit much.

Universities hire admin staff. Even within our own departments, academics generally have access to department-specific admin, finance and technical professionals. So why is so much of an academic’s time taken up with enforced admin, when it’s not technically part of their job description, and they’re not trained to deliver the desired admin outcomes?

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How not to do peer review

Academia may be unique among careers in its lack of standardised processes or training for so many of the common activities that are essential to being an academic. Instead, new researchers have to bumble blindfolded through the dark room of early career researchhood to work out how to literally do the academic parts of their job. Sometimes we’re lucky to have a supervisor, colleague, or mentor who might guide us to a door (but it may not always be the right door).

Publishing and peer review are part of this bumbling process. Publishing our research in peer-reviewed literature is a key part of our job description, to share knowledge with the discipline and beyond.

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Friendships in academia are not just good for your mental health, but they can help your career

This is a guest post by Dr Elise Gornish from University of Arizona. Thanks Elise for writing about a valuable kind of work relationship we often take for granted.

Several years ago, as a new faculty member, I suggested to my department that we organize a holiday party for students, faculty and staff as a nice opportunity to interact with one another while enjoying some baked goods and nostalgia winter music. I distinctly remember one of the senior faculty members scoff at the suggestion saying, ‘I have real friends outside of the department, why do I need to act like I have any friends inside the department?’ I was astonished that someone might consider having friends within your department specifically and perhaps, in academic in general, as a bad or unnecessary thing.

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Does science need press releases?

It’s increasingly common to see universities publishing press releases about newly published papers from academics. This practice emerged a few decades ago and originally seemed to be associated with health and medical research (educated guess, not sure there are any data on this).

But it has since spread more widely to many other disciplines. Ecology journals are now doing it; some ask you to submit a mandatory media summary with your manuscript ‘just in case’ (most authors will never get a media request). Some of the Big Famous journals operate on a strict authoritarian embargo system, to ensure the author doesn’t exercise their right to talk to people about their own research.

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Teaching resources: history and philosophy of ecology

I’ve just written a few lectures for a first year ecology unit on history and philosophy of ecology. I remembered my own undergrad education, dominated by the male European history of science, and didn’t want to repeat that history. Ecology is so much more that!

Modern science is founded on western philosophy, so it’s understandable that European science gets most of the attention. But despite what most of us learned at school, scientists aren’t all male and there were many non-European scientists that contributed to the development of modern scientific knowledge.

Most importantly, Indigenous people’s knowledge is tied to place, and we often ignore the wealth of knowledge about ecological interactions and processes that Indigenous cultures hold, as well as the respectful environmental interaction (management) that is embedded in country and culture.

This is a list of some good resources that I found useful to highlight an inclusive history of the development of ecological science, at an introductory level. There are more nuanced details, but these resources simply highlight the important fact that science has developed from diverse minds, not just a select few white guys. Some of those famous guys deserve the credit, others don’t so much.

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Academia isn’t all bad, and a PhD is definitely worth it

I read this recent Thesis Whisperer post a few times, and it troubled me. Then they posted this follow-up post doubling down on the original argument denouncing academic writing.

Comments aren’t allowed on the Thesis Whisperer blog, so I’m writing here. I really think these posts send negative messaging to prospective (and current) PhDs. Do read the original posts, but here’s a quick summary of how I interpreted the Thesis Whisperer’s argument:

(i) the way we do PhDs needs to change;

(ii) we should galvanise PhD students to go against the norms of academia to get the personal outcome they want.

(iii) academic writing is ritualised and archaic and it “sucks”.

From a distance, this general argument might resonate. Yes, as with most sectors, there are many ways the past is holding academia back.

I agree, PhD students need to make sure they get what they need out of the 3 or more years they spend on the PhD.

But PhDs are definitely still “a degree worth having”. They will always provide the opportunity for graduates to develop a unique set of skills and expertise that are useful for academic and non-academic careers. 

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What is a literature review?

Literature reviews summarise existing knowledge and emerging paths for inquiry. They are essential for most grant applications, undergrad assignments and research projects.

But how do you actually do one? And what should you expect when you read a literature review?

Recently, I’m seeing a lot of papers submitted to or published in reputable journals that claim to be “comprehensive reviews” when they could not be further from the truth. Flawed review methods, no review methods, or a limited/localised observational study dressed up as a global review….

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