About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

Why am I a scientist again? – The concept of a data present

(This is a guest post from Isla Myers-Smith, early-ish career academic at the University of Edinburgh, with a conversation at the end with Gergana Daskalova, an undergraduate in her lab)


Sometimes I like to worry about why I have chosen a scientific career path and the meaning of life and big esoteric questions that really have no particular answer. I have wondered many times why do I push myself so hard to succeed in science? I know the pipeline is leaky for early career scientists and many choose to leave the Ivory Tower to make different contributions with their careers, but at least for now, I have stuck with the halls of academia and here is why.

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I skype therefore I am a scientist?

A few weeks ago I suggested that I am a scientist because I put numbers on things. Although even I recognize some limits to that argument, I was quite serious in suggesting that measurement and numeration is a central feature of being a scientist. I am not seriously suggesting that skyping is a central feature of being a scientist. But sometimes it feels like it!

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Why ecology is hard (and fun) – multicausality

Mark recently wrote a piece musing on the true fact that many ecologists have evolution envy   – wishing to find simply general rules in ecology that match the elegance of evolution, which was itself a play on the more common phrase physics envy. He is certainly right this exists. On the other hand, in the comments, I noted that I had the opposite reaction. As an undergraduate I was a math major looking for a field that I could apply math to. And I instinctively avoided physics or chemistry (or hydrology and other applied versions of physics), instead being attracted to fields like business, economics and ecology. And as a graduate student I ultimately gravitated to ecology over evolution because of its complexity and honesty about that complexity. I think ecology, economics, business, sociology (and evolution although they ignore it too often for my tastes), especially in contrast to a field like physics, have one thing in common. They’re complicated because multicausality rules. And I wanted to go into a field that had that kind of challenge. In short, I thought multicausality was fun! Continue reading

We aren’t scientists because of our method – we’re scientists because we count

Scientists still enjoy a fairly high reputation in society as a whole (notwithstanding creationists and climate deniers). It is worth pausing to ask why scientists are still given credibility in this increasingly doubting age. Continue reading

The 5 pivotal paragraphs in a paper

I have argued before that writing a paper for submission to a journal is about a lot more than having done some work that you can describe in methods and results sections. It is certainly about the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of good writing at the sentence level. But more than anything, it is about having a story tell to tell and taking readers on a journey along the arc of that story.

I’ve gotten a lot of insight into how to communicate this story arc working as an Editor in Chief for Global Ecology and Biogeography. I have to make quick decisions on whether to send out to review over 600 papers a year. This means I’ve gotten very good at skimming papers and learning what captures their core essence and how importance and excitement are communicated. Cover letters are certainly important (that’s a post for another day). And figures and figure legends are also important. And you better have sound methods (although an associate editor is more likely to screen that carefully). But I have increasingly also realized that there are five really pivotal paragraphs in any paper. If you get those five paragraphs  right, you are likely to have and communicate the story arc in a way that grabs attention.

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How much time should you spend reading scholarly literature? (a poll)

Meg’s recent post on #365papers inspired lots of questions and comments (and other blog posts). It led into questions about what kind of papers, how to read them (skim vs in detail), how to choose them, etc. But it led me to wonder if there was a consensus opinion on the even more basic question of how much time we should be spending on reading papers (and scholarly books such as monographs or others aimed at graduate students and above)? Continue reading

Biodiversity and pizza – an extended analogy leading to a call for a more multidimensional treatment of nature

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the term biodiversity. Not so much its scientific defintion as its usage in public discussions. No doubt this is because I am increasingly using the word biodiversity to describe my own work as I move in more applied directions. And a few weeks ago I got to spend over an hour with a reporter talking about the history and implications of using the term biodiversity. She asked good questions and forced me to get clear about what I really think. So I’ve got a lot of thoughts rattling around in my brain on the usefulness of term “biodiversity” that I would like to discuss with the community.

Biodiversity is a really important term that is being woven into the international regulatory framework at the moment. But biodiversity is also an emotion laden term in ecology these days. So … I’m going to adopt the philosopher’s trick and talk about something completely different for a bit (pizza!) and then circle back and tell you I was really talking about biodiversity all along.

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Why fit is more important than impact factor in choosing a journal to submit to

There is a great deal of discussion on the internet these days about impact factors of journals (e.g. Stephen Heard’s take and or the tongue-in-cheek response to fluctuating impact factors at MEE in various years). Most people are quick to point out (very correctly) that impact factors were designed to measure journals, not papers or scientists. But what about when you are choosing which journal to submit your own hard won manuscript to? Then surely journal metrics are relevant. But if you can only know one thing about a journal in considering which journal to submit your paper to, what would it be? I would argue that you should think most about fit, and the rest (including impact factor) will take care of itself.

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If a scientist falls in a forest where nobody can hear them, have they done science?

A meme that seemed to run through much of the comments on Jeremy’s recent post on salesmanship in science seemed to be that you could be a wonderful scientist but a terrible communicator of your science and that you would suffer for this career-wise and that would be unfair. This came as a surprise to me. I have a hard time thinking of people who I would call a great scientist but a terrible communicator. Now they may have stage fright and give a bad talk, but write great papers (or vice versa). And they may be bad networkers or bad self-promoters. But the sterotypical genius with ground breaking ideas but who drools and can’t put two words together let alone coherently communicate what they’ve done and why it is important, no. Which leads to the deeper, more philosophical question, if there is “good science” inside somebody’s head and it can’t get out, is it science? Hence the allusion in the title to the zen koan about a tree falling in the forest. Or if somebody is shipwrecked on a desert island does research for 10 years and then dies and their notes decay before they are found, have they done science?

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