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

Ecology vs Math: do we need to pick sides?

Like many other young ecologists, I chose this career because I cared about the Earth and because I wanted a job that gave me the thrill of discovery every day. Whether it’s seeing a new ecosystem for the first time, sighting a wild plant or animal species I’ve never seen before, coming up with a novel theory, methodology, or sampling technique, or finally ‘getting’ the statistical analysis I’ve been struggling with for weeks – I get to play explorer every day, and I love it.

Sadly, in some countries, it is a field that struggles to convince a large number of graduates to stay in a research career. This is mostly because of funding issues, but can also come from confusion after 4-5 years of being pushed and pulled between too many stimulating sub-disciplines and inspiring mentors.

Many students are bombarded throughout their degree with promotion of multiple sub-disciplines of ecology as “the one that rules them all”. As a naive undergraduate with a lot to learn about the industry and the world in general, this can influence which career path they take.

So it’s heartening when the more experienced generation encourage aspiring scientists to follow their passion and intuition and stick with science (particularly ecology and the natural sciences), even if they don’t fit into the apparent intellectual “norms”. E.O. Wilson’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal is just that. Continue reading

To be or not to be … Scientist or Writer?

I have just had the opportunity to attend the Publishing With Impact workshop, facilitated by Camilla Myers from CSIRO Publishing. Without any overstatement, it was the most enjoyable and helpful workshop I have ever attended. Although the ultimate success of a workshop is purely context-specific – dependent on the dynamics of the participants and the facilitator as well as the information involved – the structure of this workshop is invaluable for any academic who struggles with either writing or the publishing puzzle … and inspiring for any who don’t!

I am currently in the final scenes of my PhD saga, in which I have to “write” The Unwritten. Ironically, this has always been the part of my PhD I was most looking forward to. I have been writing “creatively” since high school and my first degree and pre-enviro science work history were all about Writing and using English as a creative tool (rather than an arduous accessory to life!). So, suffice to say, I thought I was a pretty good wordsmith when I dove naïvely into the world of Science. Continue reading