Reading habits

It’s the Christmas holidays and I’m trying to catch up on the stack of papers on my computer and desk labelled “To read”, among which is a few papers on how to develope good reading habits. One has ten simple rules for developing good reading habits, including trying to avoid a pile up of “to read” papers. From Méndez (2018):

  1. Develop the habit of reading on a daily basis. Alot time for reading.
  2. Read thoroughly to build a sound background understanding of your topic
  3. Do not ignore the pillars of your discipline; read the classics
  4. If you have to get familiar with a new topic, consider reading in chronological order
  5. Avoid narrow-mindedness by reading beyond your discipline
  6. Create a list of relevant journals (I immediately signed up for alerts for a lot of journals, though far from the 20+ suggested)
  7. Not all interesting stuff will appear in articles; read books (Yes! I love books, but often end up reading 5 at once, which gets confusing)
  8. Use a reference manager to keep track of your literature (I use Mendeley)
  9. Keep a long-term review for your own use as a way to remember what you read (This is actually a really good idea, hadn’t thought of that. Could be a spreadsheet for each topic and it might turn into a published review)
  10. Build your own library to make yourself independent and inspire others (Definitely working on this, I love books)

Change of research environment at the BRC

As part of your PhD at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, it is required that you do a change of research environment for 3-6 months. The idea is that you leave your comfort zone for a while and talk to scientists within your field from a different institution. It’s supposed to open your eyes to the fact that not all research institutions are the same and not everyone thinks like you do. Also, it is a great opportunity to expand your scientific network.

The hard part is figuring out where to go. Some students end up going to a different institution, but don’t really get the chance to interact with other researchers. They end up sitting in a corner, working alone on their own stuff. Others have really great experiences. That’s what I wanted: a great experience. I wanted to learn some new methods and join an active research group with frequent scientific discussions.

I’m now at the Biological Records Centre at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in a small town in Oxfordshire called Wallingford and I do believe I’ve come to the right place. For three months I will be working with Nick Isaac and his mixed team of PhD students, PostDocs and researchers.

They are developing an R package called sparta (Species Presence/Absence R Trends Analyses which I will be using to analyse a combined dataset on ants in Denmark from two natural history museums, a private collection and a citizen science project (The Ant Hunt, of course). I often get asked “How are ants doing? Are they declining like bees?” and this is exactly the question I hope to answer during my stay: Has there been any changes in occupancy of some of Denmarks most common ant species over the past 100/150 years and if so, what is driving these changes.

The BRC has been running since 1964 and provides a focus for the collation, management, dissemination and interpretation of species observations (biological records). As such, they work closely with volunteers and have extensive knowledge on dealing with citizen science datasets. Their 50 year anniversary booklet can be found here.


Space ants!

Choosing a certain study or career to excel in gives a sense of purpose and accomplishment. However, I have always found myself interested in many different fields. I therefore found the end of high school rather stressful. How could I choose one subject to work on for the rest of my life?

Of course, I now realise that the end of high school doesn’t mean the end of a diverse education. It just means I have to seek it out myself. This is why I try and make a point of leaving my world of ecology and talk to people from different fields, believing that all disciplines have something to learn from each other.

I recently had a conversation with Thomas Johansen from the Brorfelde Observatory . From 1953-1996, Brorfelde was an engaging workplace for astronomers. Last year (2016) it opened as an exploration center, focusing on astronomy, geology, technology and nature. The observatory has 42 hectares of land and Thomas wanted to know if I was interested in doing an Ant Hunt with them. Of course! I thought. But what do ants have to do with astronomy?

Turns out that, besides having conquered most of Earth, ants have been to Space. Don’t get too excited. We have not found extra-terrestrial life. However, the pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum) had its’ moment in Space in January 2014, when taken aboard the international space station (ISS).

The aim was to see how ants would perform collective search in microgravity compared to on Earth. Perhaps not surprisingly, they weren’t as effective. I doubt anyone would be systematic and effective in searching if they lost contact with the surface, floated around for a while and then landed somewhere different. In fact, at any one time 7 % of the ants were floating around in the best astronaut style you can imagine. Furthermore, ants communicate through odours and we know that, at least for humans, the ability to perceive odours is affected by microgravity.

This being said, isn’t it impressive that only 7 % lost contact? With no exterior aid to keep them grounded. On top of that, a lot of those who lost surface contact were able to regain it again.

“An ant that lost contact with the surface usually turned and tumbled in the air, or skidded rapidly, in the small space between the two surfaces of the arena. This indicates that the ant exerted some pressure on the surface before losing contact with it; otherwise the ant would have just floated away from the surface without turning in the air or going quickly in one direction. Sometimes an ant attached itself to another ant to climb back down to the surface. Once back at the surface an ant appeared to hold on to it by flattening its body toward the surface.” (Countryman et al. 2015).

This behaviour may relate to how ants can hold onto each other to form bridges, or balls so they stay together during a flood (see youtube video). Some ants can also glide through the air and then find contact with a tree.

The study was carried out by Deborah Gordon and her collaborators and resulted in the publication Countryman et al. (2015) Collective search by ants in microgravity, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 30.

What’s in a title? Getting your paper read and cited

A large part of being human, is that we enjoy producing things. Being able to say “I did this” or “I made this” brings a sense of fulfilment. A belief that we have made a mark on the world. Maybe that’s why so many of us dream of becoming famous
growing up. Good artists are remembered for centuries. I dream of being a good scientist. Today, being a good scientist seems to

Illustration and featured image by Frits Ahlefeldt

mean publishing a lot of papers. Papers are the products of our careers, our art. I ask you though, when did you ever hear someone say: “He’s such a great musician, he released 300 albums last year” or “she’s such a talented artist, she painted 300 paintings last year”? My guess is: Never. We acknowledge them for that one song, that one piece of art that speaks to us.

On average, papers rarely get cited more than once. They drown in the masses. Easily forgotten. As an idealistic young researcher, who wants to make a change, this knowledge is quite disheartening. I therefore jumped at the chance to attend a workshop hosted by OIKOS last week, that promised to hold a few helpful tips.

How to get your paper read and cited.

I can tell you now, that there is no one way to do this. But on several occassions I found myself noting important differences between the senior scientists’ tricks of the trade and my own beginners procedures. Opinions led to interesting discussions and it will always come down to your target readers and the journal you try to publish in. Still, I will try and summarize what I took away from this workshop. The following is a method introduced at the workshop by Bill Snyder, professor at Washington State University and editor of Ecology. Accompanying it are my own thoughts and reactions.

15 steps to Abstract-centered writing

  1. Finalize all figures and analyses. Put figures into final, publishable format. Determine which figures go in main text, which figures go in online-only appendix.

This was definitely not the first step of my first paper draft, but much more so for my second. Creating good figures takes a lot of time, but it’s well worth it. If you can’t put figures together that tell a compelling story, then there probably isn’t one. Along with the title and abstract, your figures are the most important part of your paper. These three things are in all likelihood what will determine if your paper goes into the reject pile or gets passed on for review. With hundreds of papers a year to go through, editors usually don’t spend more than a couple of minutes on each. Furthermore, should your paper get published, readers tend to look first at the title, then the abstract, then the data (especially the figures) and if theyr’re still hooked, they read the whole paper. Again, I have to admit that for a long time this has not been how I read papers. Title and abstract yes, but in many cases I found it hard to understand the figures without reading the paper. Another point stressed by Bill, make sure your figures are clear enough to stand alone.

  1. Write out a 10 or so possible titles. Focus on generality, central message and novelty. Describe directionality of effects.

A title should be short, descriptive, attractive and honest. Whacky titles can work, but may not be taken seriously and should be used for “lesser data” papers. Question titles are usually applied when there’s no clear answer to be found, and may signal complicated content. If your paper has a strong conclusion/point, use this as the title, don’t frame it as a question. Whether or not you should include the scientific name of your study organism in the title depends on what journal you are submitting to, and how well the common name is known.

  1. Use title to determine appropriate journal.

Getting a paper into the right journal, with the right readers, can result in just as many (if not more) citations than getting a paper into a high impact journal. Does your paper’s angle fit with the journal you’re considering? A good title will tell you this.

  1. Format cover page to match journal expectations.

I assume this could be done at any step of the process. Whenever I format the cover page, I always feel like this is the beginning of something. It quickly becomes a source of m0tivation for actually buckling down and writing the thing. It also forces you to sort out the inital layout of author ranks.

  1. Choose keywords, stressing generality.

Keywords should be words not found in the title, they are meant to support the title so that more people will find your paper through a search engine.

  1. Write abstract. Abstract is a complete outline of the paper; when the abstract is done, the paper is done.

This was news to me. In fact, this entire method was novel. Up until now, I have considered the abstract a summary of the paper. Something that is written at the very end. Being able to write up your paper in 250 words before starting the paper itself makes sense. It’ll give you a clear sense of direction. As the next steps indicate, spending time on the abstract in the beginning will make the following writing process much easier. I used to start the writing process by writing up the Methods section, feeling like this was the clearest part. This meant that I for a long time, had absolutely no idea why I was writing the paper. Why it would be interesting to anyone except me. It also meant, that my paper kept changing direction as I found new interesting results to focus on.

  1. First three sentences of the Abstract outline the three paragraphs of the Introduction. The Introduction is funnel shaped, going from broadest point to your specific work.

The introduction should never consist of more than 3 paragraphs. Write for the reader. Say too much, and less gets understood. When I started writing up my first paper, I was definitely guilty of this. I tried to include everything I knew about the subject in the Introduction, essentially turning my original research paper Introduction into a Review.

Step 8-13 are helpful tips on how to build up a good abstract.

  1. Abstract sentence 1 explains the broad question you are addressing. This is the topic of your first Introduction paragraph. 
  1. Abstract sentence 2 guides the reader to the (somewhat) more specific, novel issue you will address. This is the topic of your second Introduction paragraph. 
  1. Abstract sentence 3 introduces your study system in light of the bigger questions. This is the topic of your third and final Introduction paragraph. 
  1. Next 3 (or so) Abstract sentences describe the key findings from each of your figures. 
  1. Second-to-last Abstract sentence describes the (somewhat) more specific, central finding of your study. The funnel broadens. This is the subject of the second-to-last paragraph of your Discussion. 
  1. Last Abstract sentence describes how your finding(s) move the field forward. Broadest funnel. This is the subject of your last Discussion paragraph. 
  1. Use the abstract sentences as the outline of your paper, filling in the details as you go.

For materials and methods, think about the flow and make sure following along is easy. For your Results section, always have directionality.For example, use the words “Increased” or “Decreased” instead of “Impacted”. Impacted how? It is easy to get lost in the statistics, making them the main focus of your paper. Always relate to your research questions and use statistics as a secondary way of backing up your findings.

  1. Fill in the earlier parts of the Discussion by explaining the significance of the data in each of your figures, generally with one paragraph per figure. Why is this important to someone that doesn’t care at all about your study system? Tie each key result to the broader literature.

Your discussion should not be more than 5 paragraphs. Start narrow and broaden it out. Your funnel is upside-down.

If anyone has other helpful tips for writing interesting papers, I’d love to hear them. I would also recommend the following paper:

Sand-Jensen, K. (2007) How to write consistently boring scientific literature. Oikos 116: 723727

From which comes my concluding citation:

‘‘Hell is sitting on a hot stone reading your own scientific publications’’ – Erik Ursin, fish biologist

First fieldwork experience

At Copenhagen University, one of the great opportunities yfeltturou can seize is to go to Greenland and participate in a three week arctic field course. As a student, gaining fieldwork experience can sometimes be challenging, without having to pay a fortune. This course not only gave me fieldwork experience, but was also the first time I, together with my project partner, Heiðrikur Bergsson, tried to develop and execute my first independent project.

Two things about my time in Greenland that completely took me by surprise: 1. It was really, really warm, with record melting and 2. There were SO many insects. Now this latter point, I had been warned about. Everyone was told to bring a mosquito net hat. I practically lived under the net, even ate my food wearing it. There’s something very charming about flies in your oatmeal and mackerel t
omato sauce on your net, because your trying to get your food under it and up to your mouth.

Station Mean temp for July 8-12 Normal for July
Qaanaaq 7.5°C 4.5°C
Danmarkshavn 8.2°C 3.7°C
Nuuk 13.2°C 6.5°C

To read more about the experiences of everyone who participated in the field course: Blog by the participating students (in Danish)

Below is a slideshow of photos taken by various biology students also participating in the course.

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Inspirational quotes

“Scientific inquiry is much more like working on a puzzle or being lost in the woods than like baking cookies or following a road map. There are numerous mistakes and frustrations, but also some wonderful surprises. Luck, timing, and trial and error play crucial roles in even the most important scientific advances.”

Lomolino et al. (2010) Biogeography

“The very young… are little committed to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.”

Kuhn (1996)

“There is no science that claims the ecologists’ leftovers”

Slobodkin (1988)