Graduate minions vs masterminds

The other day I overheard an academic tell an upcoming graduate student that they should pick a PhD project by finding an advisor who already had a project set up and who had funding and that they should do research where the funding was rather than where their interests lay. This was so totally contrary to my PhD experience it left me reeling.

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A poster to remember

Today I was at an undergraduate research event with our best and brightest presenting their research via posters – great science, but often dreadful posters.

Posters can be a great medium for getting your science over to an audience. They have the benefit that if you can draw people into your poster you can have a lot more intimate face to face discussion with your peers. But first you have to draw them in…

Increasingly poster sessions in conference are becoming large sprawling events, and your poster is going to have to compete for attention with hundreds if not thousands of other posters, with your audience having little time to browse, they may be distracted by friends and colleagues, they may be tired as poster sessions are often at the end of a long day of presentations, and possibly (probably) slightly to moderately drunk. Here are some simple tips for making a good poster that has impact.

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This is the worst academic presentation in the world … tribute

Conference season is fast approaching, and around the hallowed halls of academia frantic graduate students are rushing around trying to cat herd committee members for thesis drafts and preparing the capstone to all of their recent study and research: the thesis defense. For the past two weeks my life has largely been back to back student presentations, and on the whole they were excellent. a couple of moments when nerves got the better of presenters, but generally high quality.

Then I went to an academic meeting, and I was reminded again why we are struggling to communicate environmental issues to the general public. I had forgotten quite how excruciatingly dull and painfully constructed academic presentations can be.

The presenters were completely unaware of the effect of their talks on the audience, who were checking email, napping and in one case just staring blankly at a wall, which was obviously more entertaining than the presentation at hand.

It really was a master class in how to ensure that your presentation was as dull, dense, and obtuse as possible. So for the benefit of those who what to ensure that they can give the most perfectly dull academic presentation, here are some tips:

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The place where dissertations go to die …

So you’ve just spent the last few years of your life working on your research project, and now in front of you, you have the final thesis, all smartly bound with a rather dashing cover that would not look out of place in Mr Darcy’s library, with your thesis title and your name glistening in silver or gold lettering. You have a sense of achievement. It has been a difficult labor, but finally your baby has been born, and you cradle it in your arms lovingly as you walk it to the library, and hand over your precious bundle of academic joy to the librarian. They take it from you and head back to the dusty shelves where theses of thousands of past graduate students have accumulated, the place where your dissertation will go to…to die.


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To co-author or not to co-author?

Writing an academic paper with multiple authors can be problematic at times (for examples see this article and comments on the article), but when do you even make people a co-author?

There are problems across scientific fields with co-authors being added who did not contribute significantly to papers, for example heads of labs or departments, or prestigious individuals (so- called “honorary authors”). Some laboratories even have a policy of adding everyone in the lab who even passed by a manuscript, in order to bulk out resumes.

Individuals who warrant co-authorship, but who are left off the publication (so called “ghost authors”)  are also an issue. One of the most common examples of this is when an ambitious faculty member leaves off a student who conducted majority of the work (or who possibly even came up with the idea) because they want first (or possibly sole) authorship for the paper so that they can further their academic career. In the biomedical field ghost authors are often pharmaceutical industry representatives who may rewrite sections of manuscripts to show their product in the best light, but exclude themselves from authorship and thus obfuscating conflicts of interest. Such conflicted ghost authors are not unique to the biomedical field though, and industry, military or governmental ghost authors have frequently been known to substantially rewrite (and change the conclusions of) marine environmental science papers, especially when they deal with controversial topics.

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Unhappy feet – why we need more than a day of penguin awareness

A couple of days ago (20th January) was penguin awareness day1. But do we really need to be more aware of penguins?  Well, actually yes.


 Photo by Chris Parsons

 We conducted a study a couple of years ago  (pdf also available) to look at public awareness of penguins (using university students as a sample) and found that nearly half (43%) of those questioned though that  penguins were protected under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) and were thus listed as  “endangered.” At the time only one penguin was listed on the ESA (the Galapagos penguin, Spheniscus mendiculus). The IUCN currently classifies five species of penguin as “endangered” 2 and six as “vulnerable” 3. The biggest threat to penguins generally is, unsurprisingly, climate change. The chicks of Magellanic penguins (S. magellanicus) in Argentina have experienced increasing mortality because of increasing numbers and severity of storms, and will continue to experience mortality as these further increase, in addition to additional mortality  from increasing rainfall and temperatures. Changing patterns of sea ice cover are impacting Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) foraging at Ross Island, Antarctica. In various locations in the Antarctic Penninsula in particular, Adelie colonies are expected to be impacted by warming temperatures and changes in sea ice with perhaps as many as 75% of colonies decreasing or declining. Although in some locales, melting ice has increased potential Adelie habitat.  Chinstrap colonies have been reported to be in decline as well, despite this being a more open water species, that was previously being thought of as potential benefactors from melting sea ice – penguin nest occupation on Deception Island declined by more than third between 2002/2003 and 2009/10. These chinstrap penguins are likely being impacted by declining krill stocks, as will their  Adelie penguin cousins, in addition to ice loss which so affects this latter species. Overall, across the Antarctic Pennisula, there has been a decline in both Adelie and chinstrap penguin numbers. Read More

The dangers of excessive self-citation

Warning: This blog contains themes of a professional ethical nature that some readers may find offensive. Intended for a mature academic audience only.

As I was spending a lazy Sunday morning, tucked up in bed fiddling with my iPad, a perky little blog came across my Twitter feed (read it here). Some rather sad data were contained within: approximately 82% of journal articles in the humanities don’t get cited (within the first five years of publication anyway) and just over a quarter (27%) of natural science articles don’t get cited either. I was actually surprised that the percentage of non-cited paper was that low, until I read down the article and noticed that the analysis didn’t include self-citations. Scientists, especially marine biologists, are particularly bad at excessively self-citing, or as I like to call it, #citurbation.

Self-citations are the guilty secret of science researchers. Let’s face it, we’ve all done it at some time. Now I’m as guilty as the next scientist – late one Friday night I’m still working and on the computer screen in front of me I have a half-done editorial and, guiltily,  I slip in a self-citation. Or in the final throes of a massive multi-authored monograph, I toss in a self-citation from left field. But why is it that marine biologists so often self-cite? Is it because of lack of attention? Biomedical articles rarely go uncited (and their journals typically have much higher impact factors). Is it because marine biology journals tend to have low impact factors and marine articles are spread across so many journals that they don’t get the same prominence (see this previous SFS blog, he says in a blatant example of self-citing)?

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I bet James Bond never had to put up with this … why are there so many “experts” on biological issues?

In the film Notting Hill, the character Max (Tim McInnerny) turns around in his car to face the passengers squabbling about the route to take, tells them to shut up because he’ll decide the route, and exclaims:

I bet James Bond never had to put up with this $%&#!”

This is something to which many biologists can sadly relate.

Thanksgiving has just finished in the US, and many scientist friends and colleagues have returned with tales of relatives (who have no science expertise) expounding to them on why scientists are wrong on a myriad of issues such as: MMR vaccines causing autism and other medical issues, the non-existence of evolution and, currently, their opinions on how to deal with Ebola.

Why is it that Americans have such a poor understanding of biology, and have so little respect for the opinions of those that are trained in the field?  You don’t hear members of the public weigh in on the nature of mesons, bosons, or string theory, and we would certainly not take their opinions seriously in a policy setting when set against the opinions of a trained physicist. So if, like James Bond, physicists and mathematicians don’t have to put up with this, why do biologists? The media often give equal credence to the opinions of the general public, with only a high school level of biology, compared to expert scientists. Even worse, policy makers with little understanding on biology weigh in with opinions on biological matters with confidence, despite a lack of training and understanding. Read More

Why #DoctorWho needs a science advisor!

There is probably no one in the science geek/nerd community who has not heard of Doctor Who, even if they can’t recite the names of all 13 actors who have played a regenerating incarnation of the Doctor (I’m including the awesome John Hurt in this list), or don’t own an exceedingly long, multi-colored scarf. Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction TV show in the world (first airing in 1963) and consistently gains peak viewing figures in the UK, and has a substantial number of viewers around the world. It’s the British equivalent of Star Trek, although instead of phasers the Doctor has a sonic screwdriver – which is basically the science/engineering equivalent of a magic wand. Also there is distinctly less snogging of aliens and gratuitous bare-chested scenes in Doctor Who compared to Star Trek.

I’ve watched Doctor Who almost religiously since 1974, and as a youngster owned a complete set of Doctor Who novelizations, decades of annuals and a subscription to the magazine. I’m a dyed in the multi-colored wool Whovian (as fans are called).

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