Using blogs for sharing negative results


I’ve now been blogging for a little over three years. I’m no longer a newbie, but clearly am not an old-timer. Nonetheless, I’ve seen the standard topics of the scientific “blogosphere” (for lack of a better word) get cycled through again, and again. These are topics that are often important to our community, dealing with equity, justice, accessibility, and leadership. That said, I feel like blogs can do more, and serve our own academic communities better.

For the most part, blogs are preaching to the converted, aside for the uncommon post that penetrates outside the community. (Moreover, the posts that do break into new audiences usually are not about scientific outreach, but more likely some kind of outrage.) Blogs have specialized audiences. (The bulk of people who read this site work in colleges and universities and are interested in how we do things). The more we pretend that blogs are outreach to non-specialists — the people who wouldn’t normally be reading that particular blog  — the less focus we have on what blogs can do.

Some academic communities have a scene where a lot of people have blogs, and substantial academic issues get handled on those blogs in the form of a conversation. In ecology and its sister disciplines, that kind of scene doesn’t much exist, as Jeremy Fox has pointed out on in Dynamic Ecology on a number of occasions. (I make a point to avoid talking about detailed matters in ecology here on a regular basis, because the intended audience is broader.) We have a number of blogs in ecology, with various levels of activity, but folks generally don’t think of a blogs as a place where you put academic content. If you’ve got something to share with the world, and you’re not putting it in a peer-reviewed paper, then ‘blog’ isn’t something that comes to mind for most people.

The funny thing is, nearly everybody who is doing research has a lot of things that their fellow researchers would benefit from, if they had a blog and they discussed their research. I mean, discussed in a way that is useful for fellow researchers, not as a form of outreach. Some labs are very good about putting their protocols online, and sharing data, and all of that. But what about all those little things that you know that might be of use to others but aren’t quite substantial enough for a paper?

I’m thinking mostly about the ‘publication’ of negative results. That people can’t or don’t publish negative results is a frequent lament. It’s time to own that we don’t prioritize publishing negative results, or that journals aren’t keen on them either. (Aside from journals with ‘negative results’ in the title, obviously)

Imagine if we put our negative results in blogs. That we can tell our colleagues about. The world gets this information but without the rigamarole tied to publishing a peer-reviewed paper.

This means it’s not a line on your CV, but it wouldn’t be anyway.

The activation energy required for this is lower for people who already have blogs associated with their labs, or personal blogs. While I think having an infrequenly-updated blog isn’t a great idea, if the posts are primarily about the science itself, then this isn’t so bad.

Is anybody already publishing negative results on their blog? Any experiences to suggest that it might be useful to others?



Recommended reads #78


IMG_0092Who wore it better? David Bowie or nudibranch?  This is fabulous, in the classic sense of the word.

This is a compelling read about the most accomplished woman climber of Everest. And the compelling part isn’t so much about Everest.

Pros and cons of teaching in an active learning classroom.

The tighter the money, the less innovative the science. This is a convincing argument.

Here’s a critique of open peer review that I liked, from an interview in the Molecular Ecologist. Which is a great place to read stuff, if only for the cool design of their logo.

This from Bloomberg supposedly explains what the heck is going on over at National Geographic. Sounds credible enough.

Boston’s sidewalks are covered in secret poems.

So, there’s a new short book called The Slow Professor. Here’s the NPR story about it. From the little I heard about it, I had some skepticism. It seems like this reviewer shared my skepticism after actually having read the book.

Need an online teaching assistant for your course? You could just build a chatbot and it could do the job just fine. At least it did for this dude.

I kinda love this reflectiveness by Nate Silver in doing the hard work to understand how and why he was wrong on his projections for the Republican nomination. Would that all scientists are so reflective on their own statistical practices.

Social network algorithms are distorting reality by boosting conspiracy theories.

How college admissions essays talk about money.

The first substantiated case of trans-oceanic tortoise dispersal. This tortoise weighed 25kg. This paper is 10 years old, but news to me. Check out the barnacles on her legs!

The lie of liberal intolerance on campus.

Some Buddhists have a tradition of releasing captured animals  in a “mercy release,” because religion. Apparently there’s a huge trade involved with rearing non-native species for mercy releases in Hong Kong, and the net effect on karma might be not what was intended.

The pre-med curriculum is counterproductive:

We all want compassionate, well-rounded physicians to care for us. We want doctors who can work in teams and who put patients’ interests first. Yet our current pre-med system bears little relationship to the practice of medicine and encourages students to focus on their own success above all else.
We should look for budding doctors who dream of caring for patients and spend their college years developing diverse passions. Students who study the injustices of socioeconomic disparities, the intricacies of music theory or the beauty of poetry can also make great physicians.

The baby bison story is tragic. But a few orders of magnitude more tragic is the story about pupfish from the week earlier.

Here’s some good news – a species that was thought to be extinct, isn’t. Let’s hope that maybe, just perhaps, the frogcopalypse in Central America isn’t as bad as we had thought? Probably not. [the story is in Spanish, heads up.]

I’m all down for a critique of “Grit,” but if you’re going to tackle the job, could you be less insipid than this review? I bet we all could.

The University of Montreal cancelled all 2,116 of their Springer subscriptions. And had some strong words in their press release about it.

NSF just published a blog post with context and links to how they are reviewing the pre-proposal system in the Division of Environmental Biology, and much of the ideas translate across BIO. If you’re wondering what they think and know about the two-stage review process, here you go. Spoiler: they know what folks are annoyed about. I imagine their thoughts about it are kind of like that thing Churchill said about democracy, it’s the worst way to fund scientists, except for all the ways.

Are you not a climber, and wonder what the deal is with climbing, like how (and why) people do this, and how safe it is? This is a good FAQ for non-climbers. (I’m not a climber. I don’t trust my own judgment enough.)

David Wardle has some high-level snark about altmetrics published as an editorial in a peer-reviewed journal. I totally agree with him, I should add. I wish he’d have put this in a blog post, more people would be reading and talking about it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates explains how it sucks to be famous. More eloquently, of course, because it’s Coates.

Last rec reads, I pointed to an article about weight loss and metabolic rates that was rather compelling. Here’s a neurobiological explainer of that article that I think is equally compelling.

Cheryl Sandberg put a reflective and thoughtful post on Facebook that pretty much amounted to a retraction of her best-selling book: “In Lean In, I emphasized how critical a loving and supportive partner can be for women both professionally and personally—and how important Dave was to my career and to our children’s development. I still believe this. Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right.” In other words, she discovered that “leaning in” doesn’t work for people unless they’ve already got it relatively easy.

Why people pay to read the New York Times. This is really good and puts the evolution of journalism in context. All that money Buzzfeed was paying for legit journalists last year? Not exactly reaping as much as some folks would have thought. I think the frequency of NYT links in my rec reads have increased, and I have to say that I pretty much never go directly to their site. I just see cool links that people have socially shared. I think I’m going to sign up pretty soon. It’s easy to circumvent the 10-article-per-month situation, but I probably shouldn’t.

This might be the stupidest — or the most ignorant — things about academia from the New York Times. They’re just shocked — shocked! — that so many PhDs start working as postdocs. Duh. Okay, the NYT isn’t perfect.

It’s time to get over the Kuhn model of paradigms and scientific revolutions. Because it just doesn’t represent what actually happens.

Have a great weekend. I’m heading out to the field for a couple weeks!

Self-funding your research program


In the last few months, something has been on my mind. I’ve brought up the topic a few times, with some research scientists who hold tenured faculty positions. It would go along these lines:

I’m thinking of funding all of my research out of my salary. If I imagine a scenario in which…

  • I take a 20% cut in salary
  • I get that money in research support
  • I don’t spend any more time writing grants

… it just makes me happy.

Every time I’ve brought it up, this was the response.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this, too.”

I was pretty much amazed. I thought it was just me. Continue reading


Recommended reads #77


Natural history: an approach whose time as come, passed, and needs to be resurrected.

A reconsideration of “new conservation.” Also, if you’re not familiar, this has an explanation of what “new conservation” is. Man, conservation biology is an ideological and theoretical and practical mess. Holy crap. I’m not a fan of Mongabay for a variety of reasons, but this seems worthwhile.

This has really made the rounds because it’s fascinating, if not a surprise: Continue reading

What is press-worthy scholarship?


As I was avoiding real work and morning traffic, there were a bunch of interesting things on twitter, as usual. Two things stood out.

First was a conversation among science writers, about how to find good science stories among press releases. I was wondering about all of the fascinating papers that never get press releases, but I didn’t want to butt into that conversation. Continue reading

How does college selectivity affect the jobs of professors?


Sometimes when I talk about teaching — and interactions with students in general — folks don’t really get where I’m coming from. Faculty experiences vary a lot from campus to campus.

I was talking with some folks in recent months about the different kinds of faculty jobs, and how to figure out what you want in a faculty position at a teaching institution. One person was arguing that the selectivity of undergraduate admissions was an important factor. At first, I disagreed, but on reflection, I see that selectivity of admissions is associated with a number of things that affect your day-to-day experience as a professor. Continue reading

On the ballooning of spiders and deep evolutionary branches


To keep track of projects, I use a sophisticated app called Moleskine. But early on in grad school, when I had a new project, I created a disk for everything related to that project. Like this:


One of these disks was labelled “Ballooning Spiders.” I had an idea for a side project that I humored for a few days.

I thought the ballooning behavior of spiders was pretty awesome. I still think the ballooning behavior of spiders is pretty awesome. I imagined it was quite likely that spiders could balloon across entire oceans. (Twenty years later, we know that’s true.) Continue reading

Parade of professors or solo scholar?


There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches. Continue reading

Recommended reads #76


Cards against humanities. You read that right, not humanity, Humanities.

This Puliter Prize-winning story by Kathryn Schulz about The Really Big One that will arrive in the Pacific Northwest. The letter for its entry into the Pulitzer competition said, “Schulz’s piece brings the seismological science to you, making it as plain and painless as a cake recipe. Yet it also leaves you with a visceral sense of what a full-margin Cascadian earthquake could feel like–and what its human toll could be. No surprise that the story has at last focused public attention on the need for precautionary measures. As of this writing, the piece–many months after publication–remains perched high on our Web site’s Most Read list. ‘The Really Big One’ brilliantly demonstrates how feature writing–drawing upon reporting, research, and most of all, the well-judged potency of prose–can rock our world.” So, yeah, read this article.

College professors aren’t that creepy. (Notwithstanding recent revelations from UC Berkeley further down this list.) Obviously, clowns are creepy. Gotta disagree about taxidermists though.Whoiscreepy

Continue reading

Impatience with the peer review process


Science has a thousand problems, but the time it takes for our manuscripts to be peer reviewed ain’t one. At least, that’s how I feel. How about you?

I hear folks griping about the slow editorial process all the time. Then I ask, “how long has it been?” And I get an answer, like, oh almost two whole months. Can you believe it? Two months?!” Continue reading

NSF’s Water Man award


When I was a tween, a cutsey feel-good book was a bestseller: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If we learn to solve problems as kids, that should help us solve similar problems as adults.

Let’s do a kindergarten-level exercise in math and pattern recognition. Can you figure out what shape comes next?seriesa

If you said star, you’re right! Congrats!

Let’s do another one. What shape do you expect to find next?


If you said star again, then that means you’re two for two. Good job!

Let’s look for another pattern:


What do you think comes next? If you guessed 2016, then you’re right! Your pattern recognition skills are fantastic! Continue reading

Using a grant writer


I’m working on a couple biggish grants at over the next couple months. I’m doing something that I haven’t done before, at least not as a PI. I’m working with grantwriters, under the support of my university. These are for grants to support a bunch of people doing a variety of things, with many organizational components that are only tangentially connected to the science. Continue reading

Education research denialism in university STEM faculty


Scientists regularly contend with irrational denialism of simple facts. In our classrooms, communities and the media, we hear patently absurd things like:

This is the logo of the Flat Earth Society.

This is the logo of the Flat Earth Society.

  • The world isn’t getting hotter, or even if it is, it’s not from carbon emissions.
  • Humans didn’t evolve from nonhuman ancestors.
  • Transgenic foods are unsafe.
  • Vaccines cause autism.

Any scientist who operates on the basis of evidence will regard those ideas as total bunk*.

But, as I’ve mentioned before, people aren’t rational beings. Especially when their emotions are involved (and they usually are), they’re not prone to think an expert is correct if their intuition tells them otherwise.

And scientists are people.

So I am not entirely surprised, but I am disheartened, when scientists are guilty of their own flavor of denialism: Education Research Denialism. Continue reading

Recommended Reads #74


41kUjfj5obL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_Have you ordered a copy of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl yet?

Here’s my review on Goodreads. A more professional review comes from the head of book reviews at the New York Times, who raved about it. And this is not a woman who raves about books. She says: Lab Girl “does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.” Continue reading

My path to science


Two years ago, Meg Duffy told the the story of her path to ecology. It’s a good story, why not go over and read it? I think it might be useful for more folks to tell their own stories. Here’s mine, about how I became an ecologist, with specialities in tropical biology and social insects.

As a kid, I didn’t collect bugs and I wasn’t a nature geek. Continue reading

What are office hours for?


What do you think office hours are for?

Office hours are drop-in* hours for students to see their professors. How should you spend this time?

If you don’t have students in your office, then you should probably be writing. Because we always should probably be writing, right? Or analyzing. Or doing a weekly browse of tables of contents. Or something else productive. If you’re me, you should be cleaning your office.

But let’s say students appear** for office hours, how are they supposed to be used? Here are some reasons students visit: Continue reading