5 reasons to quadruple the time you spend writing your title

December 22, 2006

The fundamental currency of academia is publications–their quality, number, and citations. This makes sense, as basically your job as a scientist is to plant some infectious memes–hypotheses and evidence that are so compelling that people start using them. Yet as we have easier and easier access to more and more literature, just getting your paper noticed is the first and most crucial step. And that begins with the title. Why?

1) First impressions matter. A lot. Spend some time with Malcom Gladwell’s Blink (you might first want to check out Wikipedia’s summary). We human’s appear to make many of our decisions quickly, without conscious thought. Now, picture yourself at the end of a long day skimming down the latest table of contents from, say Ecology. How many times are you telling authors “thanks, but no thanks” based on a 0.5 s gander of their wares? More importantly, what in a title makes you stop and consider a moment?

2) The 50/50 rule of headlines. This would be a good time to chat with a professional writer. Copyblogger has a great post noting the common wisdom of journalists, who, face it, write for folks riding the subway to work. An easily distractable bunch. Their job is to catch folk’s attention. Journalists argue that you should take 50% of the time you spend writing an article on crafting the headline.




3) The 80/20 rule of headlines. The common wisdom in the j-biz is that 80% of the folks may read your headline, but only 20% will even begin the article. Apply this now to you, yes you, skimming journal titles. 80/20 sounds rather generous, doesn’t it? Mayyyybe more like, 40/5? So now that I hope I’ve convinced you that the title is the first, crucial, link toward someone reading your work, how do you write a good one? We’ll begin that discussion today with two practical pieces of advice.

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Happy Solstice Andy, wherever you are

December 22, 2006

Andy Warhol does the sunAs the sun begins to move higher on the horizon, we in the Northern hemisphere say goodbye to long red sunsets as in the post below.

Thanks, as always, to APOD for giving us a gander at this rare Andy Warhol print.

Science, grieving, and discovery

December 21, 2006

I’ve been thinking about Carl Sagan today and the nature of skepticism.

OklahomaSunsetWhen I teach the big class in biology here at OU, we spend a lot of time contrasting Science (repeatable observations, falsifiable hypotheses) with Authority/Religion (transfer from teacher to student, deity to devotee, a trust/faith based relationship). Its something I think we as scientists don’t do nearly enough, discuss what science is and isn’t. The closest thing we get to it oftentimes is the travesty of “The Scientific Method” lab.

One of the big differences between Authority and Science is how we deal with being wrong. When you discover something you knew from Authority is wrong, it is betrayal, a violation of trust. When you you discover something you know from Science is wrong, it is progress! And it is glorious.

Not to say that learning you’re wrong isn’t painful and disorienting. When one of my dearly beloved hypotheses is snuffed out by the weight of evidence (especially if I’ve known and nurtured this hypothesis for years) I  enter the 5 stages of grieving,

1. Denial: “Whaa??? I did something wrong.”
2. Anger: “Fuckit! Three months wasted!”
3. Bargaining: “If I tweak the statistics…”
4. Depression: “Fuckit! Three months wasted!”
5. Acceptance: “Ya know, if this is actually real….cooooooooool”

The great popularizer

December 21, 2006

Galileo Galilei There was once a time, a long time ago, when scientists communicated their discoveries to a fascinated world through popular books and lectures. Galileo’s Dialogues, after all, was a gripping a good read, even as it helped topple the Church’s domination and open an Age of Discovery. The Universe, Galileo suggested, was a lot grander without an omniscient, omnipotent God.

Now fast forward a few hundred years. Another fellow came along, writing and speaking about remarkably similar stuff. The Universe was big, billions big. And the Age of Discovery continued on, carried forth by a belief in the power of rationality against prejudice, intellect against the ravings of the night. All in books written with a wit and concision, accessible to anybody with the patience to crack a book and relax for a while.

Now, as a young man I followed Carl Sagan’s career, book by book, TV appearance by TV appearance. And when I first found myself at University, I was mystified by the scorn Sagan often received, not just from no-nothings, but from the folks who could best appreciate his message: the scientific community themselves. And it is here I would like to leave it: Carl Sagan was a ground-breaking (or should I say, ground re-breaking) popularizer of science at a time when most of the Academy couldn’t be bothered. And it was his often lonely voice that helped pave the way, that made communicating science with vigor, wit, and panache a respectable enterprise. Here’s to Dr. Sagan.
Carl Sagan

Imagining dimensions

December 20, 2006

Scaling and dimensionality are common to all sciences. Which doesn’t necessarily make the concepts any easier to wrap your mind around. For example, its hard to conceive of a 5th dimension (although in EEB, the n-dimensional hyperspace, that is, Hutchinson’s Niche, is taught in Intro Ecology).

Well, puzzle no longer my friends. Here is the most compelling visual explanation of dimensionality that you’ll likely to come across… until…well…the next one. And you’ll be pleased to know that you only have to keep up with 10 dimensions to capture life, the universe, everything. Note, this requires Flash 8 and broadband (tho it could easily be done on with chalk and a blackboard).

Beautifully done.

“It’s the most, wunnerful tiiiiiiime….of the year!”, (or Grant writing 101)

December 20, 2006

Many of us are slogging away during the holidays, getting ready to pitch a grant.

Now there are folks who see this as the worst kind of drudgery. And yes, there is a rather masochistic element to spending a fair bit of time, and a whole lot of creative energy, pitching an idea to NSF when it’s currently funding about 8% of its proposals. Yet at the same time, its a great way to truly focus on what you want to do next, to anticipate what it would be like tromping through a new field site, relishing that new data, and, generally, finding out some cool new stuff.

We’ll be talking a lot about this subject, but I can’t think of a better way to begin than a short introduction by Joan Straumanis’s introduction to the art, science, and politics of writing a winning proposal. It’s built from her time working with Funding for the Improvement of PostSecondary Education (or “FIPSE” to close personal friends). I’ve reprinted it below, if you find roaming around the current administration’s Department of Education website, well, rather icky.

All the points are worth noting, but pay particular attention to

12. Write the abstract last…Write 3 versions: one page (first page of proposal, whether requested or not), one paragraph (if requested), and one line, the proposal title-which you should think of as a mini-abstract (descriptive and intriguing)…. Prepare for the possibility that some sleepy reviewer might read only the abstract.

h/t to SP, who’s also working on a proposal.
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Five ways of keeping email from running your life

December 19, 2006

It happens to all of us. We’re slogging through that key paragraph in the Discussion or outlining the logic of a new experiment. Its tough going, incremental work.

Think I’ll check my email.

Now, email is good. But so is sodium, football, and a warm puppy. The fact is, its the potential utility of checking your mail that makes it so insidious. After all, we may hear from that high school buddy, lover, or ex (and maybe even hit the trifecta in a single message). And we do subscribe to Nature table of contents, we are waiting for a manuscript revision from a colleague. All of these are useful things.

But we were making….incremental….slow….progress on something that was probably more important. And its not like that mail is going to blow away. Or that Jack Bauer, typing with his tongue bouncing in the trunk of a Lincoln Continental, needs your advice at this very moment.

It just is so easy to point click, hit refresh and wait for the little spinning disk to do its thing. Funny thing, that spinning disk. Kinda like a slot machine. And Kathy Sierra reports there may just be a reason. Its called Intermittent Reinforcement, a highly effective training method in which the subject (that’s you) is rewarded not every time she hits the button, but every so often, with most rewards being small (“Great, Oecologia has a new table of contents”) or nonexistent (“Greetings dear friend…”). Casinos figured this out a long time ago, as have dog trainers.

So here are a few tips to make email work for you, not keep you from getting your stuff done.

Update 1 February 2006:   WTF?  Its gone.  The secrets to email productivity gone forever below the fold.   No idea what happened.  While I do a post-mortem, check out a similar post on the ever dependable 43 Folders.

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The road best left untaken

December 18, 2006

In field biology your research takes you down some paths that better promise some pretty good data for all the rubber and undercarriage they strip from your truck (and all the lining they erode from your GI tract). There are some one-lane oilstrips in the Nebraska Sandhills, arroyo-roads in southeastern Arizona, and the the trans-isthmus highway in Panama that fall into that category for me.

But jeez louise, Dark Roasted Blend takes us down some roads RussianHighway BolivianHighway that only TibetPath a herpetologist could love.

Five ways to start drawing again

December 18, 2006

As we talked about a couple of days ago, scientific communication, in your teaching and your writing, is more and more about blending images with text (as always, quality = design * content). But for most of us our last art class was in fifth grade (or earlier, depending on how philistine your school district was with the budget cuts). These five suggestions are about getting you to see like an artist again (remember how much fun that was?).

1) Buy Drawing on the right side of the brain. You’re probably beginning the blissful holiday break with the promise of a little more time, charcoal grey skies, and the need to hide from the family every once in a while ;-). This workbook contains exercises guaranteed to awaken your sleeping artist. Sure, my neurobiologist friends cringe when they hear her “right-brain, left-brain” explanations, but, hey, if it works empirically, the theory can still be wrong.

2) Start a clip folder. When you are beginning to imagine what a manuscript or lecture will look like, imagine the illustrations you would like to have, not just the text. So when you’re cruising the web and you see just such an image copy it into this folder (add the attribution to the file name of course).

3) Carry around a cheap camera and use it. Digital cameras not only allow you to build your your photo library, just the act of looking through the viewfinder/screen causes you to work on your composition chops.

4) Organize your photos. If you can’t find ’em, they’re invisible. Google’s free Picasa on your PC, and iPhoto on your Mac are chock full of tagging features. And tag your photos soon after you collect them; add this task to your weekly review (more on that soon).

5) Invest in graphics tablet. Graphics tablets allow you to draw on your computer with a real (OK, virtual) pen. Photoshop and Keynote presentation software is perfectly suitable for most of your illustration needs, and allow you to export jpgs. Graphics tables are a heckuva lot easier than trying to sketch with your mouse. They come in all shapes and sizes, but Wacom has a nice cheap one for about $80.

Way the heck up there

December 16, 2006

I am a ecologist who spends quite a bit of time groveling in the litter of tropical forests looking for arthropods. Its a rare occasion that I find myself in the tropical canopy, which is usually just a much appreciated source of shade, and, of course, the leaves that fall and feed the decomposer, or brown, food web.

So it was on a recent trip to Peru I had the pleasure of working with Steve Yanoviak and Robert Dudley on various projects that required climbing into canopy of the Amazon forest, about 30 m above where I usually sit. It was, as one would imagine, a helluva lot of fun. As folks rarely get the chance to get a bird’s eye view of the tropical forest, check out this panorama.

Steve Yanoviak and Robert Dudley at the ACT canopy walkway along the Rio Napo, Peru.
Dr’s Yanoviak and Dudley in the canopy of the Amazon forest.