Read my Methods

A scientific paper follows the classic literary plot structure. Each section follows in sequence from the previous sections, so that no individual section (with the exception of the Introduction) can be fully understood without having read the previous ones. If you pick up a novel and read the last page first, you might find out whether Jack dies, but you won’t have any idea who killed him and why. Those details are important.

In terms of understanding the Results and Discussion sections of a paper, the Methods section is critical. Results should never be read as a standalone text. The only way you, the reader, can judge if my results are valid and meaningful is if you know how I collected and analysed the data.

The sexy summary sentence in an empirical paper’s abstract doesn’t necessarily apply to everywhere and everything – there’s a context. Which is why journals that hide the Methods at the end of the paper, or in supplementary material, are doing Science a huge disfavour. Continue reading

Science needs room for creativity

Ecologists: where do your research ideas come from? And does this influence the science you do?

This excellent blog post by Stephen Heard illustrates how observation and creative freedom are such an important part of the scientific method. We all know how to run an experiment to ensure the results are actually ‘science’.

But why do we run experiments or collect data? Where do we get the idea to do the experiment in the first place?

We might not know why we start an investigation, in formulaic ‘null hypothesis’ terms. But our knowledge and experience to date, however limited or vague, has given us the idea that collecting these data in that system is worth doing – there is some level of uncertainty in the system that inspires us to investigate further. Often we can’t clarify that uncertainty in words or numbers…so we put it down to ‘I was bored and just wanted to see what happened’.

But if you already know for certain, through knowledge and experience, that testing an idea is pointless, you wouldn’t waste your time, right? You don’t just suddenly say “Hmm, I wonder what would happen if I pee while standing on my head? I’m bored, so I might try it and see…” Continue reading