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At the author’s urging, I just began composing a review of Stephen Heard’s brilliant new book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. It got me thinking about where it fits in the science writing ecosystem. So, rather than a review of just that book, this turns out to be a comparison of my favourite three books on the topic. Which of three you’ll benefit from reading the most depends I think on your level of prior experience…

For advanced undergrads and early postgrads learning the nuts and bolts of a how a scientific paper is put together, in a crowded field I particularly like:

Writing Scientific Research Articles: Strategy & Steps
by Margaret Cargill & Patrick O’Connor
2nd edition, 2013, Wiley-Blackwell

The book has clearly been assembled with the beginning researcher in mind, and perhaps especially the non-native English speaker. It is very well suited to both individual study and for use in a teaching context. Each chapter takes a section of a research article (introduction, methods, results etc.), or a part of the process of writing a research article (submission, peer review, responding to reviewers…), providing both essential background information as well as suggesting strategies and exercises to develop the relevant skills. It’s a very practical approach, with an emphasis throughout on learning about these different aspects by analysing real, published examples in the reader’s own field.

[Aside: For German speakers, a special mention here for my colleague Nils Cordes’ new book also pitched at (biology) undergrads: Schreiben im Biologiestudium (2016, UTB).]

For PhD students who already have some experience with writing and with reading the scientific literature, but who now need to learn the craft of turning their own data into papers that effectively communicate their findings to others, I would throughly recommend Heard’s book:

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing:
How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career
by Stephen B. Heard
2016, Princeton University Press

The tone of the book is much more conversational. Rather than laying down just ‘the facts’ as clearly as possible, one instead gets the impression of someone’s experiences being shared; of accumulated wisdom being imparted. There are many more personal anecdotes and diverting asides, especially on the historical development of scientific writing and the etiquette of publishing. I liked those elements, but to an absolute beginner, I can see how they might actually hinder the uptake of the main messages. Overall, though, I think the balance is just right for a PhD student, which is of course a crucial niche. There’s enough of the basics to make sure everything is covered, but plenty of “professional advice” beyond the strict focus on the actual writing itself. I particularly liked the early chapters on learning to become a professional writer, developing strategies and processes to help get into the writing habit. Not everyone will come to the same solution, but Heard does a good job of making you think about the importance of writing to a scientific career and on the practical steps one might take to become better at it.

Finally, for postdocs and more experienced writers looking to hone their writing skills, my last recommendation would be:

Writing Science:
How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded
by Joshua Schimel
2012, Oxford University Press

Here the focus is more squarely on the actual words on the page; how the language we use and the way we structure it affects the clarity and force of the story we want to tell. It’s definitely not for beginners, and doesn’t claim to be. Rather, what Schimel achieves I think better than any other book I’ve read on writing is to make the reader really think (or re-think) about the fundamental goal of any piece of (scientific) writing, and – by analysing many real examples – to learn to pay close attention to how language choices really matter. Early in the book he introduces the key concept of making a story ‘sticky’ (an idea he borrows from Heath & Heath’s book Made to Stick). Now, that might sound a bit like marketing, and that might make some readers uneasy – surely the aims of marketing and science are diametrically opposed ? – but I think he convincingly argues that the concept of stickiness transcends the details of how one might use stickiness to, say, get more customers to buy your products, or to sell more newspapers, or whatever, and speaks to a larger truth about how we can argue and convince each other by using all the linguistic tools available to us. It’s just that historically marketing people or journalists have done a better job of using those tools than have scientists (a situation Schimel aims to correct).

Looking back, I think the book titles reflect these differing target audiences quite well. For Cargill and O’Connor, the focus is on the scientific research article, dissecting it up into its component parts in order to understand what exactly it is and how one might assemble one. For Heard, the focus is rather on the individual scientist, learning the craft of writing as part of the daily routine of actually being a professional researcher tasked with regularly producing scientific articles. For Schimel, the science itself takes centre stage: how do we come to gain new insights from writing about our research, and how can we most effectively convey those to others?

Phrased like that, there’s a natural progression from one book to the next, and correspondingly, I think I gained most personally from reading Schimel (which likely just reflects my own career stage). Not least among the insights in Writing Science was that, although research articles are full of strange conventions and unwritten rules, it’s worth always remembering that there’s nothing particularly special about their underlying aim: to locate the story and tell it effectively. Reading Schimel will help you do that. Heard’s book was packed with insights too, and could certainly profitably be read by more experienced researchers looking to improve their writing and perhaps especially their writing routines; I will be enthusiastically recommending it to all of my students from now on, with Schimel a perfect complement once they have mastered the basics.

 

Photo credit: Thomas Lefebvre, via Unsplash.

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…is even worse than normal for keeping this blog up to date. So, a quick post-summer, back-to-school round-up…

  • Firstly, thanks to an excellent group of Master students taking our Master module on the Evolution of Behaviour this year, including another industrious but highly enjoyable two-week field trip to Greece.
  • A belated thank you to Paula Stockley for coming to visit Bielefeld in July, and giving a brilliant Evolution seminar on female competition in mammals – great to see you Paula!
  • A similarly-tardy thanks to Jens Ehmcke for inviting me to visit Münster to give a seminar in their Neue Ansätze in der Experimentellen Forschung series at the Central Animal Facility of the Medical Faculty.
  • Thanks to everyone who organised the recent ISBE in New York; and especially to Jen Perry and Stu Wigby for putting together a great first-day symposium on Ejaculate-mediated behaviour and evolution.
  • And finally congratulations and thanks to Franziska Schröder and Marten Linder, both of whom completed Bachelor theses in my lab this summer, on projects examining the quantitative genetics of sex allocation and molecular evolution of reproductive genes, respectively – well done both of you!

Photo credit: Unsplash (CC0)

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Great to welcome Dan Bray to Bielefeld yesterday, a chemical ecologist from Keele University (UK) – and currently in Kiel (Germany) on a DAAD fellowship – who gave the first Behaviour & Evolution seminar of the new semester, on “Understanding and exploiting chemical ecology for disease control”. Dan talked about a long-term project he has been working on to attempt to control the sand fly vector of leishmaniasis in Brazil, taking advantage of natural sand fly behaviour by using artificial sex pheromone lures. You can follow him @DrDanMonkey. Dan and I are also former colleagues from our time together as PhD students at the University of Liverpool, so it was great to catch up. Cheers Dan!

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Image: Lutzomyia longipalpis-sandfly by Ray Wilson, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC-BY 2.5 

…sees the start of our new DFG research project “Functional and Evolutionary Genetics of Seminal Fluid”, the proposal for which arose from the initial Nachwuchsakademie OFFSPRing activities aimed at junior researchers across a diverse range of disciplines whose work falls within the remit of the DFG subject area “Reproductive Medicine & Biology”. A very warm welcome to the two new PhD students on the project, Bahar and Michael!

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…I organised a workshop of the DFG Nachwuchsakademie OFFSPRing (“OFFering Scientific Perspectives in Reproduction”), hosted at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) here in Bielefeld. Over one-and-a-half days, we focussed on developing writing skills for scientific publications and research proposals, and discussed funding strategies with experienced researchers in the field. Many thanks to the staff of the ZiF for providing a superb environment for the workshop, to the lead instructors Con Mallidis (CeRA, Münster) and Brian Cusack (Science Craft, Berlin), to the researchers who gave up their time to discuss funding with us (main OFFSPRing coordinator Stefan Schlatt, plus Emmy Noether group leaders Claudia Fricke & Holger Schielzeth) and to everyone attending for their active and enthusiastic participation!

Image: Bielefeld University at the slope of Teutoburg Forest in Bielefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany by Drahreg01 licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0

Two Ph.D. positions are available in the Department of Evolutionary Biology at Bielefeld University in Germany to study the functional and evolutionary genetics of seminal fluid in Macrostomum flatworms. This emerging model system for studying sexual selection, sexual conflict and sex allocation in simultaneous hermaphrodites exhibits rich reproductive diversity and many methodological advantages (e.g. small size, transparency, short generation time, genomics and molecular tools such as RNAi). We will take full advantage of these features in this project, which aims to discover what seminal proteins are produced by the main model species M. lignano, what these proteins do, and how seminal fluid proteins vary within and between species.

The positions are offered as part of a DFG-funded research project, providing for salary for up to 3 years (65% of the TV-L E13 scale), and available from early 2014 (exact start date negotiable). The Department of Evolutionary Biology at Bielefeld University offers a stimulating research environment for studying sexual selection, with five PIs all engaged in sexual selection research on a variety of model systems (see http://www.uni-bielefeld.de/biologie/Evolutionsbiologie/index.html). We are an international team of scientists, and the working language of the Department is English. The project will further benefit from the involvement of international cooperation partners in Switzerland, Austria and The Netherlands.

If you have a strong background (including an M.Sc. or equivalent) in evolutionary biology or a related field and feel that you would be well suited to the project, please get in touch. One Ph.D. student will likely focus on the functional characterisation of seminal fluid and the other on evolutionary genetics aspects, but the specific focus of each project will be developed together with the successful candidates. Previous experience with molecular biology, quantitative genetics and/or molecular evolution would be an advantage, but is not required; full training will be provided.

To apply, please send a letter of motivation (including research interests, skills and details of relevant experience), a CV, contact details for 2-3 referees and (if available) a copy of your M.Sc. thesis, all as a single pdf file, to Dr. Steven Ramm (steven.ramm@uni-bielefeld.de). Review of applicants will begin on 31st October, but applications will continue to be accepted until the positions are filled.

We welcome applications from suitably qualified disabled applicants. Bielefeld University is recognised for its achievements in gender equality and is certified as a family-friendly university. We welcome applications from suitably qualified female applicants. Applications from women are especially encouraged in scientific disciplines as well as in technology, IT and skilled crafts. Applications are treated in accordance with the Landesgleichstellungsgesetz (state Equality Act).

Update 05.11.13: Thanks to everyone who applied by last week’s deadline. I am now reading all your applications and will be in touch shortly. If you are reading this and still considering making an application, I will be shortlisting soon so please get in touch ASAP!

Update 17.12.13: The positions have now been filled. That means that I do not currently have funding to hire additional PhD students, but If you are reading this and would be interested in developing an idea to apply for your own funding to work on a related topic, please get in touch.

I’m pleased to announce that my project proposal to study the function and evolution of seminal fluid in Macrostomum has just been approved by the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). Over a 3-year research programme, we will use a combination of experimental and comparative work to establish the role that seminal fluid plays in this simultaneously hermaphroditic model system. Two PhD positions will be available as part of the project, and I’ll be posting a formal advert very soon. In the meantime, informal expressions of interest from suitably qualified students (MSc required) are welcome…