What now-obselete scientific technique, tool, or practice do you miss most?

In an old post, Meghan asked “What is (or will be) your old school science cred?” The scientific thing you’ve done that, in future, will make you seem really old connect you to a bygone era. Here, I want to ask a related question: what bit of your old school science cred do you miss most? What now-obselete technique, tool, or practice do you (secretly?) wish you could return to?

I had to think about this one for a bit, because there are plenty of things I don’t miss. I don’t miss physical slides and the associated slide carousels, for instance. I don’t miss printing out five copies of my ms and mailing them to the journal for consideration.

I miss physical hard copies of journals, mostly because I miss making notes in the margins of the papers I read. And I’m glad that I’m old enough to once have had a paper listed on the cover of Ecology. I know it sounds a bit silly, but I was proud of that. Once a journal goes online-only, it either stops having a cover, or else making the cover doesn’t feel special any more (at least, it doesn’t to me, your mileage may vary).

I kind of miss Statview, my go-to stats package as an undergraduate and graduate student. Yes, R is objectively better in various ways–much more versatile, better for reproducibility, etc. But for doing the simple exploratory and hypothesis-testing analyses appropriate to simple experimental designs, and producing the associated simple figures, Statview was really convenient. I now use Excel to do exploratory stuff I used to do in Statview, which is slower and worse. But the R Commander package is similar enough to Statview that I don’t miss Statview too much.

I also miss Mathcad, Mathematica’s competitor. Or rather, I thought I missed Mathcad, but while writing this post I was shocked to learn it still exists!* Mathcad was is slower and less powerful than Mathematica, but much easier to learn. It had has a unique interface, like a computerized scratchpad. You could type any math you wanted, anywhere on the screen, in notation that looked like math (contrast Mathematica’s command line interface). You could also insert simple programs and various sorts of graphs. And you could drag your equations, graphs, etc. around the screen. When commanded, Mathcad would execute/evaluate everything you’d written, starting at the upper left and reading left to right and top to bottom. It was much more convenient than R for systems of ODEs, and it could also do symbolic math using the embedded version of Maple. R only does symbolic math kludgily.

*Mathcad was bought by PTC and then not updated for years and the support forums were shut down, so I assumed–apparently naively!–that Mathcad was on the way out. But no, it retains a market among engineers. Now that I know it still exists, I may have to buy it!

Poll: how many first-authored publications in leading journals do you think you need to be competitive for a TT faculty position at an R1 university?

Research universities want to hire professors who will run productive research programs. One way that search committees project future research productivity is by looking at past research productivity. And one measure among others of past research productivity is first-authored papers in “leading” selective journals.

So, how many first-authored papers in leading journals do you think you have to have to even be competitive for a tenure-track asst. professor position in ecology or an allied field (e.g., fish & wildlife) at an N. American R1 university? By “competitive” I basically mean “the minimum number with which you could be hired at an R1.” And how many do you think the typical newly-hired tenure-track asst. professor of ecology at an R1 university has? I have the data, but I’m curious what you think I found. So take the two-question poll below!

To make sure that respondents all define “leading” journal in roughly the same way, here’s the “search image” I want you to use. “Leading” journals includes those in all fields in which ecologists or people in allied fields might publish. For general ecology journals, “leading” for purposes of this poll basically means “Oikos and Oecologia on up”. So journals like Ecology Letters, Am Nat, Ecology, TREE, JAE, GEB, Oikos, and Oecologia, but not (say) Ecosphere, Ecology & Evolution, or TPB.* For general science, think Nature, Science, PNAS, Nature Communications, etc., but not (say) Plos One, Science Advances, or PeerJ. And so on for general biology journals, evolution journals, etc. (UPDATE: Science Advances is actually a rough equivalent of Nature Communications, I mixed it up in my mind with another journal. My bad, sorry for any confusion, thanks to a commenter for pointing out my error.)

*Which is not a criticism of those journals! I myself have several papers in journals I would not consider “leading” journals.

Ask us anything: collaboration agreements

The next question in our ask us anything series is from Christine Rose-SmythCollaboration Agreements. Whilst there are many examples of legalese-dense CAs for high level, institution – corporate collaborations, that are aimed at protecting exploitable intellectual property, does the DE team and contributors have advice for the formality one should expect / require in broaching collaborations for ecology research? I’d like to hear not only about within-U.S. academia collaborations, but also internationally, with NGOs, independent scholars and the like.

Continue reading

Poll: teaching science writing in university courses

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Bethann Merkle (@CommNatural). She holds an MFA in nonfiction creative writing, has written over 300 articles and essays, edited a textbook, and works at the University of Wyoming as the Director of the Wyoming Science Communication Initiative. She will shortly be starting a column on science writing in the ESA Bulletin.


It doesn’t take much conversation with instructors of all career stages to recognize some consensus and irony: we wish students in our classes could write better, but we rarely actually teach writing skills. This is borne out by the literature (Guilford 2001; Robertson 2004).

Indeed, the paradox is: “the teaching of writing is not central to science education” (Reynolds and Thompson 2011).

Being inclined to see for ourselves, though, we thought we’d run a poll. Do you teach writing as part of the science courses you teach? Why or why not? Please share your replies in the poll below.

Ask us anything: how do you change study systems?

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Our next question is from Angela Camargo: I would like to hear the experiences of ecologists who dramatically changed their study system, for either personal or academic reasons (e.g., from tropical forests to the Arctic). How do you learn the new system?

Continue reading

Ask us anything: field work safety

The next question in our ask us anything series is from Kate. Paraphrasing: Why do we apparently take lab safety more seriously than field safety, when the latter often poses much greater risks? What does it take to improve safety during fieldwork, on both a personal AND institutional level?

Continue reading