Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a monk!

I am fascinated by the field of “biomimetics” – attempting to find solutions to problems by looking to the natural world. Sometimes this involves buildings that work like termite nests, swimsuits that use tiny hooks like those found on shark skin, or Velcro that uses the same principles as seed burrs as an inspiration. However, among the most celebrated examples of biomimetics are those involving flight.

Charles_Le_Brun_-_Daedalus_and_Icarus_-_WGA12535There have been a great many legends describing early attempts at flight, with perhaps the most famous being that of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Daedalus created the Labyrinth on Crete for King Minos and the king imprisoned Daedalus in a tower so that he could not spread the knowledge of labyrinth-building to other kingdoms. Daedalus escapes with Icarus, but Icarus flies too close to the sun causing the wax holding his feathers melts and he falls into the sea and drowns. Daedalus, meanwhile, reaches Sicily (750km away). Ovid’s description of the myth states that Daedalus “…flexed each [feather] into a gentle curve, so that they imitated real bird’s wings”, and so this is clearly a calculated (if legendary) attempt to mimic bird flight.Read More »

One simple way to increase visibility of your scientific publications

Background: As well as publishing in ecology and evolutionary biology, I am also interested in how that publishing industry works. There is a clear need to disseminate information as widely as possible in order to accelerate the rate of testing of new theories and discovery of new information. However, some publishing models (and some publishing companies) hide scientific research away so that most people do not have access to that work. Self-archiving is a way for researchers to make available certain forms of their research without breaking copyright (which is almost always handed over to the publishers).

What I did: I reviewed some of the literature on the benefits of self-archiving, in terms of the access to the general public and what has become known as the “open access advantage”: papers that are more openly available are cited more. I also show that over half of all ecology and evolution papers could have been archived in a format that was almost identical to their final, finished format without breaking copyright. I then highlight key methods that researchers can use to self-archive their work: publishing through institutional repositories, third party websites, or self-creation of online portfolios using online tools.

Importance: Self-archiving has the potential to open up research (often funded by taxpayers) to a far wider audience, and this is an important step towards making research more accessible to the general public.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled ““Going green”: self-archiving as a means for dissemination of research output in ecology and evolution”, was published in the journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution in 2013. You can find this paper for free at the publisher.

Student blogging

I don’t get many readers, but some people do find my blog and that has led to over 70k views for the past few years. I’m quite pleased with that, and it gives me the encouragement to carry on through the dry spells. However, I remember starting out and not knowing who would ever read (or even find) my blog. Now I have students who are setting out into the blogosphere and writing great material so I thought I would do my bit to send some traffic their way. Here is a quick list of their blogs, vlogs, radio shows and documentaries that I have come across recently:

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EcoSapien – my former student David has been busy working on a number of projects. EcoSapien is a YouTube show dedicated to spreading awareness about conservation and biodiversity, as well as providing resources for teachers to educate school pupils about wildlife.

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North Ronaldsay – David was also the mastermind behind a three-part documentary on the Orkney Island of North Ronaldsay. The show covers the history, wildlife, and people of the island with some beautiful nature shots.

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Eye on Wildlife – Emma produces blogs and podcasts focused on wildlife biology and biological conservation. You can also see her talking about How the Internet Can End Global Poverty, from the University of Leeds TEDx event in November 2014 (video should be available here soon).

Simon the Scientist Logo

Simon the Scientist – a mixture of science writing looking at a wide range of (pretty diverse!) topics.

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In Search of Ancestors – Simon (a different Simon, just to confuse us) is currently – at the time of writing – working as a field assistant in South Africa working on a fossil hominid project. This blog catalogues his ideas on hominid evolution.

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The Roaming Researcher – Dan and I worked together on his MSc dissertation project. Since finishing his MSc, Dan has been travelling the world working on a wide range of field projects and shares his experiences on his blog.

Weekly Wildlife Watch Logo

Weekly Wildlife Watch – Tania and Gabriella have been running a student radio show on wildlife ecology and conservation for some time and have managed to get some fascinating folk in for interviews. Go listen and share!

If I have missed anybody then please do let me know and I am happy to update!

Yet another post about gender and academic conferences

genderThis is becoming something of a cottage industry recently – it is fairly straightforward to calculate the gender ratio of presenters at academic conferences and to evaluate that ratio against some theoretical baseline. However, these sorts of questions are important to look at because the work is highly complex and so requires a large number of people looking at the diverse kinds of conferences to provide a bigger picture. A number of previous studies have shown a range of different patterns in gender and academic conferences (references at the bottom):Read More »

Why I blog (occasionally!)

There has been a lot of discussion over the merits of academics blogging (see here, here, here, here, here and here). The positive arguments seem to be that:

  1. It’s good outreach, allowing a flexible platform for communication of science
  2. Blogs allow rapid responses and reporting on research
  3. Online profiles are important and blogs can be a strong foothold in internet-space
  4. Writing for a non-technical audience is good practice for science communication

The negative arguments seem to be that:

  1. It doesn’t count in academic terms (it’s not a paper, a grant, or a lecture)
  2. Sometimes tenure panels might see blogging as a waste of time
  3. There’s the danger of “upsetting” people.

Well I think it counts (even if my colleagues disagree), we don’t have tenure in the UK, and I don’t mind upsetting people, so there’s no good reason for me not to blog! I was letting it drop off a bit, but all this discussion has encouraged me to start up again. One of the problems is that I lacked a blogging strategy, which meant that I only shared what I (A) found interesting, and (B) found time to write about. Most of my problem was that I found interesting topics and spent too much time on too few, too niche issues. That’s going to change. Here’s the plan:

  • I’m going to post lay summaries of each of my publications.  That’s 25 to start with, and I’ll add more as I go along. I see that as a vital part of science communication, and I’ll link them back to my publications page on my website.
  • I have recently been immersing myself in Twitter which has led to my discovering a lot more interesting (and sometimes plain weird) papers and articles. This will be a key (near-bottomless) source for new ideas, but I’ll try to keep to a theme.
  • The main topicsare going to be
    • General science things
    • Entomology news and views
    • Education and technology
    • Specific posts about my research
  • Finally, I’m going to write in short form now – no more monthly long reads. 500 words max, and always with an image or video. It was the length and detail that was killing my productivity, and nobody reads those longreads, anyway!

I am hoping that that is going to provide a sustainable flow of content over the next few months, and I’ll reevaluate at Christmas.  Happy reading!


Image credit: Cortega9, CC-BY-SA 3.0, http://bit.ly/1oiVIwr

My first preprint submission

My last post was about open access – making sure that your work is freely available after publication. However, I have also been experimenting with preprints – posting articles prior to publication for open peer review. PeerJ is one publishing model that has been gaining traction recently. They also offered free publication for a trial window and have a monkey as their mascot, so how could I resist? My paper, “Continental variation in wing pigmentation in Calopteryx damselflies is related to the presence of heterospecifics” is available now (with all the data used in the paper) at the PeerJ preprint site, while the manuscript is in review at the PeerJ journal. I thought it worthwhile reflecting on the experience and my growing support for this idea.Read More »