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Writing in Nature, naturally

Scientell’s new home, the historic Royal Society of Victoria building, houses a stunning library that includes the first edition of the journal Nature. It’s clear that people communicated science in 1869 differently from now.

The first research article in that first issue is entitled, ‘On The Fertilisation Of Winter-flowering Plants’. Here is a paragraph from the author, Alfred Bennett:

‘During the winter of 1868-69, I had the opportunity of making some observations on this class of [winter flowering] plants; the result being that I found that, as a general rule, fertilisation, or at all events the discharge of the pollen by the anthers, takes place in the bud before the flower is opened, thus ensuring self-fertilisation under the most favourable circumstances, with complete protection from the weather, assisted, no doubt, by that rise of temperature which is known to take place in certain plants at the time of flowering.’

The writing is clear and evocative. The first person ‘I’ paints a picture of Alfred’s experiences as he strolled amidst the ‘hazel-nut Corylus avellana, the butcher’s broom Ruscus aculeatus, and the gorse Ulex europæus’.

 Early scientific discourse favoured the active voice, which helps to make writing personal, clear and concise. An active sentence is one in which an agent (Alfred) does something (observed) to a person or thing (plants). For a passive sentence, the reverse is true – the subject has something done to it by an agent. Had he written in the passive voice, Alfred could have begun: ‘During the winter of 1868-69, observations were made on this class …’.

Subsequently, researchers decided that scientific writing needed to be objective, casting the observer as a disinterested, objective party recording dispassionately the behaviour of ‘objects, things and materials’ (Ding 1998). The passive voice distances the writer from the consequences of their actions and findings. Bart Simpson, for example, stating ‘mistakes were made’ is far from an admission that he has erred.

Scientific writing is now moving back to active voice. The Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, for instance, has the following piece of advice for authors on its website:

We will ask authors that rely heavily on use of the passive voice to re-write manuscripts in the active voice. While the use of the phrase “the author(s)” is acceptable, we encourage authors to use first and third person pronouns, i.e., “I” and “we,” to avoid an awkward or stilted writing style.

This is good advice. Active language is easier to understand. It is more like normal speech and makes clear who is doing what.

You can find that first Nature paper here.

 

References

Ding, D., (1998) Rationality reborn: Historical roots of the passive voice in scientific discourse, in J.T. Battalio ed., Essays in the Study of Scientific Discourse: Methods, Practice, and Pedagogy, Ablex, Stamford, CT, pp. 117–135.

Leong, P.A. (2014). The passive voice in scientific writing: The current norm in science journals. Journal of Science Communication, 01(A03), 1–16. Retrieved from http://jcom.sissa.it/sites/default/files/documents/JCOM_1301_2014_A03.pdf Google Scholar

Calendar photos bring ecology to life


Dingo puppies in the Great Sandy Desert (Pilbara Region), WA. Photo by Bradley Smith.

The 2018 Ecology Society of Australia calendar features spectacular images of Australian flora, fauna, landscapes, coasts, skies and marine environments.

Many disciplines contribute to ecology and ecosystem science, with research delivering a wide range of economic and social benefits for Australia. Ecosystems provide the environments where we live, work and spend our leisure-time; the settings for our industry, agriculture, fisheries, tourism and resource extraction; and the distinctive plants and animals characteristic of the Australian continent.


A weedy seadragon at Flinders Pier, Victoria. Photo by Richard Wylie.

The Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) is the peak association of ecologists in Australia, with over 1,200 members from all states and territories. Scientell provides media communication support to the society, and is a proud sponsor of the calendar.


A flock of galahs in the Strzelecki Desert, SA. Photo by Christian Spencer.

The calendar features images from previous ESA photographic competitions, held every year with prizes for the best photographs of biodiversity, landscapes and ecologists at work. You can enter this year’s competition before it closes on 22 Oct, at https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/media-and-events/esa-ecology-action-photo-competition

Order the 2018 ESA calendar at https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/shop/2018-esa-calendar


An echidna in the Australian Alps near Mt Twynam, NSW. Photo by Charles Davis.

Rent, don’t buy?

When I was young, my parents always told me that if I wanted to buy something, I should save my money and pay for it outright. ‘Buy, don’t rent’, was their recommendation for procuring everything from a TV set to a house. The logic in this advice was that rent, or its equivalent in ongoing payments, represents ‘dead’ money.

We all used to apply my parents’ logic to software. We’d fork out several hundred dollars for the latest version of Microsoft Office and spend ages feeding the multiple CDs that stored the program into our computers. Then, when it became too annoying dealing with Word 7 when you had only version 6, you would upgrade.

A few years ago, the software industry woke up to the wisdom of my mum and dad – if you are on the supply side, far better financially to get the punters to rent, not buy.

So, Microsoft quietly, but forcefully, pushed their millions of users to a ‘rent’ model. It’s just a couple of dollars a week, they said. You’ll always have the very latest software on your computers, they told us. Say goodbye to version incompatibility.

That’s all fine, but what if you simply want to write stuff and don’t need to be able to import, rotate and link a Pivot table from Excel into Word? I know there are plenty of free programs that will just let you type. But then there’s the challenge in reading other people’s work that they email you in packages like Microsoft Word, with all its associated design elements.

So, we’re back to renting.

Let’s do a quick stocktake of all the software that our company Scientell rents. There’s the Microsoft Office subscription at $10 per month. We pay $60 per month for our accounting software. Delivering our public webinars and teleconferences incur a $12.50 monthly charge. Our web site and email host charges $15. We pay Google $4.58 for hosting documents. Dropbox subscriptions fees of $10.75 a month let us share files.

Take a deep breath and add up those subscriptions: the business subscriptions are $112.83 per month, which is $1,354 each year.

It all quickly adds up. Do we really need all this software and data? Good question – and one that is worth asking regularly. I’ll add a reoccurring note to my calendar to do a stocktake. I just have to ensure that my monthly Internet bill gets paid so that I see it.

 

 

On stones, mathematics and eschewing bad puns

By Sarah Holper, guest blogger 

Excluding patients with multiple titanium joint prostheses, the most common metal in the human body is calcium. This fact will assist in countless pub trivia competitions.

Chemist Humphry Davy first isolated pure calcium in 1808 by electrolysis of limestone. He named it ‘calcium’ from the Latin ‘calx’ meaning limestone. Fittingly, a decade prior he himself had become significantly stoned on nitrous oxide gas during a series of experiments to discern its chemical properties. (He concluded that it caused ‘a great disposition to laugh’, while noting in passing its soon-to-be groundbreaking anaesthetic effects).

The Latin word ‘calculus’ is the diminutive form of ‘calx’. A calculus described a little pebble used for counting. Strings of calculi on a frame formed an abacus. The verb ‘calculere’ literally meant ‘to use pebbles to perform arithmetic’ – to calculate, if you will. Leibnitz thus chose ‘calculus’ as the name for his newly invented system of calculating rates of change. Unfortunately, this etymology has encouraged puns based on ‘calculus rocks!’ and similar, which would not be funny even if under the influence of nitrous oxide.

Stones formed in various bodily organs are dubbed calculi, such as renal calculi and gallbladder calculi. Incidentally, urinating out a kidney stone is said to be the most painful thing a human can experience, including childbirth (this is based on a sample population of kidney-stone suffering mothers I have surveyed over the years).

Other stone-based etymologies pepper the human body. One of the skeleton’s densest bones is a rock-hard wedge of skull housing the middle and inner ear. It is named the petrous bone, from the Greek ‘petra’ meaning ‘rock’. Petroleum is thus ‘rock oil’ while to be petrified is to be turned to stone.

In a move of breathtaking unimaginativeness, Swedish chemist Arfvedson named a new element isolated from stone ‘lithium’, from another Greek word for stone: ‘lithos’. Earth’s uppermost mantle and stony crust is named the lithosphere. Printing using inscribed metal plates is still called lithography (‘stone drawing’), harking back to its origins of using stone slabs. The inner ear, behind its stony petrous bone, houses tiny calcium carbonate otoliths (‘ear stones’) to whose rattling you owe your sense of gravity and acceleration in space.

Finally, our English word ‘stone’ derives from the Proto-Germanic word ‘stainaz’. Germans morphed it to ‘Stein’, nowadays the common abbreviation of ‘Steinkrug’ (stone jug) for a drinking vessel. Before glass, steins were commonly made of stone or some sort of rock-based ceramic, hence the stony etymology. Albert Einstein’s surname, then, was literally ‘one stone’. This no doubt earned him some hefty schoolyard bullying. Let’s hope he wasn’t sporting a ‘calculus rocks!’ badge too.

 

Calculi being used to calculate on a counting board. (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/Rechentisch.png)

 

 

A gallbladder filled with gallstones. Ironically, in a kidney dish. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallstone#/media/File:Gallstones.JPG)

20 Top Twitter (and social media) tips

These pointers come from Twitter science social media stars ‪@AstroKatie, ‪@EuanRitchie1 and ‪@astroduff who were panellists during an Innovation week event hosted by @miss_toni on 11 November 2016, at the Royal Society in Melbourne.

‪Hash tags: #SciSocialites ‪#innovationwk

  1. Social media panelThe advantage of Twitter is that you can engage with people who would otherwise never engage with you. You can have ‘conversations’, for example with scientists and actors such as Brian Schmidt, Stephen Fry, or Will Anderson.
  2. Twitter is very inclusive. If you are a scientist wanting to ensure your research has impact, you can reach people with particular interests, such as farmers. ‘Making my science matter’ is the motivation. You can also reach journalists and other influencers.
  3. You can use Twitter for communication; advocacy; and highlighting your work, yourself, your field, and your agency.
  4. It’s most important to choose the right hashtags to maximise exposure and impact.
  5. Social media allows researchers to bring science to the public, bypassing pay-walled journals
  6. Warning: Current and prospective employers will check out your social media!
  7. Dealing with trolls – just block them and don’t engage beyond a succinct polite message.
  8. Consider muting people rather than blocking.
  9. Sharing your own perspective can be more effective that trying to change someone’s views directly. Try to remain calm and supply accurate information. People might not agree, but there are lots of examples of people listening and acknowledging the response of others.
  10. Interacting and being multi-dimensional, and responding to people will encourage people to engage with you.
  11. There is software that will send your material out to different social media platforms in one go, such as Buffer (https://buffer.com).
  12. You never know what a tweet can lead to. A researcher spoke of being concerned about a mooted change to environmental legislation. He tweeted some key researchers, urging action. This was a public discussion and it resulted in a significant research paper.
  13. Commit time to tweet. One panellists said he spent at least 30 minutes each day tweeting.
  14. Social media represents a great opportunity for organisations to engage very swiftly and to respond to issues.
  15. Be aware that social media can be an ‘echo chamber’ where lots of people just self-select those with identical views.
  16. Twitter is probably in decline. Instagram may be rising.
  17. Facebook is more closed than Twitter. It is a good medium for a distinctive community, where you can keep material for perpetuity.
  18. Snapchat is popular especially among younger people; Tumblr is popular among uni students.
  19. Your social media choice will be dictated by you knowing your audience and your communication objectives.
  20. To build your Twitter profile: Follow thought leaders and influencers; always include your twitter handle in presentations; be personal, have a ‘voice’; build trust; tailor your message to the audience.

Is there a doctor on this flight?

Scientell is working with the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) to synthesise a wealth of information into a book on securing Australia’s future. As part of this, we have examined the contribution that learning from error and failure can make to innovation and progress. This example demonstrates the way in which the medical profession is learning from the aviation industry’s approach to safety.

Safety is paramount for the aviation industry. Aircraft accidents are infrequent, but when they occur they involve massive losses of life. The exhaustive investigations that follow crashes have produced extensive literature into their causes, and new policies and regulations to improve safety. Research by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) into aviation accidents has found that 70 per cent involve human error.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Robert L Helmreich, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, states, ‘Error results from physiological and psychological limitations of humans. Causes of error include fatigue, workload, and fear as well as cognitive overload, poor interpersonal communications, imperfect information processing, and flawed decision making.’

‘In both aviation and medicine, teamwork is required, and team error can be defined as action or inaction leading to deviation from team or organisational intentions. Aviation increasingly uses error management strategies to improve safety. Error management is based on understanding the nature and extent of error, changing the conditions that induce error, determining behaviours that prevent or mitigate error, and training personnel in their use.’

Diagnosis should include data from confidential incident reporting systems and surveys, systematic observations of team performance, and details of adverse events and near misses.

It is now commonplace for medical doctors to learn from the approach to error and failure that has been refined and systematically adopted in aviation.

The error management approach that Helmreich advocates includes:

  • Dealing with latent factors that have been detected, changing the organisational and professional cultures, providing clear performance standards, and adopting a non-punitive approach to error (but not to violations of safety procedures);
  • Providing formal training in teamwork, the nature of error, and in limitations of human performance;
  • Providing feedback and reinforcement on both interpersonal and technical performance; and
  • Making error management an ongoing organisational commitment through recurrent training and data collection.

As physician Dr Lucian Leape, a physician and professor at Harvard School of Public Health, states:

‘The most fundamental change that will be needed if hospitals are to make meaningful progress in error reduction is a cultural one. Physicians and nurses need to accept the notion that error is an inevitable condition, even among the conscientious professionals with high standards. Errors must be accepted as evidence of system flaws not character flaws.’ [1]

 

[1] Lucian L Leape, Error in medicine. JAMA, 272:23, 1851-1857, (1994)

How to create a blog that everyone will truly love

This blog is competing for your attention with more than 152 million others. Nearly 173,000 blogs are added to the Internet ever day. There are now four more than when you started reading this. That’s according to the Journal of Applied Communications.

With all that competition, what can you do to make your blog stand out?

My measure of a good blog is whether it provokes me into action: to change my behaviour, to do something new at work, to read a book or an article. I’m also a sucker for a new computing tip or shortcut.

Roberts & Evans (2015) recommend a ‘What; So what; Now what’ approach for blogs. This entails starting with a discussion about the topic. It’s pretty clear that this one you’re reading is a blog on blogs. Your investment in reading it will be rewarded (I’m hoping ) with tips for writing better blogs.

We need a compelling first sentence to capture readily distracted readers. Is my first line good enough? Well, it got you this far.

We’re now well into the ‘so what’ part. This is the new development, or in my case, the inside info on steps to blogging fame.

The Internet serves up almost as much advice on blogging as there are blogs themselves. While not based on rigorous science, most make good sense:

  • Blog regularly
  • Write about things you’re good at
  • Include a catchy headline
  • Use hyperlinks and lists
  • Use lots of keywords
  • Be concise
  • Be accurate, informative and timely
  • Engage people, such as by asking questions

Noah Kagan has applied some science to the subject. He has analysed almost 1 million blogs and their headlines. He concludes that posts with lists are huge (tick for this blog), use ‘you’ and ‘your’ frequently (tick), use promising words like ‘how to’ (tick), and use emotional words in your (tick) headline (tick).

In fact, crafting that headline took me almost as long as writing the blog itself. I did it using a formula. The theory is that to attract interest, a headline needs to connect emotionally. So it should include powerful words that invoke feelings. According to the headline analyser, my headline rates highly for intellectual impact words.

Has my headline worked? I’ll tell you in a future blog, where I will explore further the science and art of headline writing.

Oh, yes. I almost forgot to address that last bullet point above. So, what words in a headline attract your interest?

 

Reference

Roberts, O. & J. Evans (2015) Tackling structure and format–the ‘great unknown’ in professional blogging. Journal of Applied Communications,  99(2). Available at http://journalofappliedcommunications.org/images/stories/issues/2015/jac_v99_n2_final.pdf. Accessed on 11 January 2016.