Do not fix the English when you review a manuscript for a journal

My daughter who does not need me to copy edit!

How easy it is to go into edit mode when you read a manuscript. After all, once you fix the English, the science is easier to understand. But then you might start wanting to move paragraphs around and get sucked into the whole structure of the piece.

Don’t do it! Do not succumb to this temptation. All you need to do is to write one sentence. “The English in this piece needs work.” Do not do that work yourself. If the English is so poor you cannot follow the argument, then reject the paper for this reason and do not do anything further.

The truth is, you do not have the time! You are not being paid to be a copy editor. The more ambitious and self-knowing people in your field will have learned this lesson a long time ago. You need to be doing all the other things a busy scientist does: teaching, reading new studies in your field, crafting your own papers and grants, and of course doing the actual research.

You may feel sorry for these poor authors who are trying so hard and just don’t have your advantage of English as a native or well-learned language. This is not your job. They can easily hire people to fix their English. It is the least of the expenditures involved in doing and sharing science.

As with so many other altruistic tasks, this is a pitfall that women more than men fall into. So just remember, if the English is so poor it gets in the way of understanding the paper, reject it and mention this reason. Reviewing should not become onerous because of language.

The only papers I edit for English are those headed to publication from my group or with me as an author. And by the way, I love English. I love language and Grammar. After all, who else just listened to Benjamin Dreyer’s marvelous Dreyer’s English: an utterly correct guide to clarity and style? reviewed by the New Yorker here.

Posted in Helping others, Managing an academic career, Writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Why you need a one day writing retreat

Our retreat leader, Susan Flowers

Have you found a way to avoid the tasks that snow you under and get your important but not urgent work done? It is something that I struggle with daily. I am kind to myself and understand that some days the needs of others must take over. I must teach. I must attend journal club. I must advise students and mentor colleagues. I must write those letters of recommendation. And this is besides the daily pleasures of eating, walking the dog, socializing, and of course sleeping. So where does the time come from for what I would like to think is my real work, my long-standing contribution to humanity?

One option is the one-day writing retreat, such as the one I am at now at Tyson Research Center. The director, Dr. Kim Medley, is great at generating a sense of community in a way that increases everyone’s productivity and writing retreats is one of her ideas. They happen once a month in the Learning Living Center where tables are arrayed so we each look over a stream and the forests beyond, now turning red and brown as autumn gets serious. Our leader, Susan Flowers, has put the rules on the board. We write from 9 to 4 with a break for lunch (bring your own) and woodland walks at 10:30 and 2:00. Tyson provides snacks, coffee, and blankets if we want them.

The real rules Susan has titled: You know this! and indeed we do. Silence your phone.Do not open your email software. Make a detailed checklist to feel productive and put it on the board for public accountability.

My view for the day

Somehow it works. We are a small group today, but from three different St. Louis institutions, the Botanical Society of America, St. Louis University, and Washington University in St. Louis, represented by people from Tyson, Biology, and Anthropology. I might be alone in my office, but there is something about having neighbors working away that keeps me on task. I suppose it is what draws some to coffee shops.

Tomorrow life will continue, but maybe some of the peace that comes from writing silently in the company of others will stay and keep me on task.

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We have an opening for a postdoc!

Below is the official text! We look forward to hiring someone amazing who wants to join a happy and supportive group.

Postdoctoral position on amoeba social evolution and/or amoeba–bacteria symbiosis
This position is for research in the Queller-Strassmann group. We focus on the evolution of interactions, especially in the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. This has become a model system for the evolution of cooperation and conflict and the transition to multicellularity. We are also working on its symbiotic bacterial partners sometimes confer a farming advantage but also impose costs.
The position is in the biology department at Washington University in St. Louis and is available immediately but the starting date is negotiable.
David Queller and Joan Strassmann lead a friendly and interactive team of highly motivated, creative, and smart investigators. We are interested in your success and in a collaborative and productive approach to research and mentoring. We are seeking energetic postdocs with strong backgrounds some combination of evolutionary biology, social behavior, microbial evolution, genomics, or in methodologies appropriate to the system. We are also open to great ideas from you within the general area of social evolution using the microbial organisms we study We are committed to diversity and to the career success of our team members. Check out our website, ( for more information on our lab, or Strassmann’s blog (
If you are interested in joining our group, please send an email to Joan Strassmann ( with a single file including CV, statement of research interests, and the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of three references. Women and underrepresented minorities are particularly encouraged to apply. We will begin reviewing applications by 20 August 2019 and will continue to accept them until the position is filled. Postdocs may start immediately but date is negotiable.

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Science at your local farmer’s market!

Did you ever think about sharing your science at your local farmer’s market? This is a special venue because it is outdoors; people attending the farmer’s market are not necessarily the same ones that seek out science at the zoo, the museum, or the university, so you might surprise someone. Also, you are probably the only science booth there.

I got the idea that this would be a fun thing to do from the science booth at the Urbana Illinois farmer’s market. They have one there every week, with different groups participating. I thought I could do that and chose a farmer’s market nearby, in Ferguson Missouri, about ten minutes up the road from us.

They were most welcoming, particularly the market organizer, Marveena Miller. They gave us a tent, a table, and chairs. We decided to bring something to the market the first Saturday of every month. Each time there would be a theme, a game of some sort, and some scientific stuff, flowers, microscopes, Petri plates, things to look at.

The first visit was July 7th, a gorgeous summer day. We brought the challenge of skin bacteria. Where on your skin are the most bacteria? Are there more on men or women, on old people or young? We made sure to have replicates for  each category, following good scientific practice. We had plates to look at, but we also had laminated photographs of plates that people could categorize as to body part, or type of person, then turn over to see if they were right.

After all, we knew that most people will spend a maximum of 5 minutes at our booth. It worked really well. People were surprised at how few bacteria are inside our mouths, or on our hands. Men and women did not differ. Some stayed to look at real plates through the microscope. Hundreds of people came.

After July, we did three more markets, covering pollination and other topics. One time was pretty much rained out. That activity we can repeat next summer. But overall, we plan to have three years worth of topics before we repeat. We also hope others in St. Louis come to present scientific activities on the other Saturdays of the month. One is plenty for us!

So consider whether your local farmer’s market could use some freshly grown science! It is easy, fun, and so rewarding for all.

Posted in Broader Impacts, Outreach, Public Communication | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Women and Wikipedia

Scientists considering a hike, not their Wikipedia pages.

Perhaps you have seen that Nobel Laureate in chemistry, Donna Strickland did not have a Wikipedia page until just now. She was deemed by the moderator not to be worthy back in March 2018. See the discussion on the Wikipedia talk page, or in any number of publications. It has been fixed, but does a woman have to get a Nobel prize before the overly strict moderators value them?

I wrote about this before, here. In that post you can see that a scientist named Debra Brock was denied a Wikipedia page though all kinds of athletes were approved, even if they are limited to those with the last name Brock.

Other female scientists whose Wikipedia pages I have been involved in creating have either been taken down or challenged. What do people mean by notability? I think being a professor or active scientist should be enough. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about accuracy and completeness? Is having a Wikipedia page at all such a big honor?

So I had to look at my own page. It is almost nothing. There was more once but someone stripped it all away. Since no one close to one or oneself can work on these pages, it is easier to lose than gain information.

I know there are people that have as projects to write Wikipedia pages for women. I did at one time, but got discouraged that so many were taken down. I did not want to subject my students to that level of discouragement. Higher ups at Wikipedia said they were powerless to fix this.

Maybe now with the extreme nature of this particular woman being told she gets a Nobel prize, but not a Wikipedia page, maybe now the trolls that take women down on Wikipedia will hesitate. I am not optimistic, though.

Posted in Awards and prizes, Gender bias, Wikipedia | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Wissenschaftskolleg: It’s not just time to write, it is connections with fabulous novelists, thoughtful former politicians, historians, and scientists

The welcome with Hassan Salem, Peter Hammerstein, David Queller, Janis Antonovics, and Mandy Gibson

Ever since I got to the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, I have been trying to understand  what I can offer it and what it can offer me. This is the script: I come here for 10 months, take no more than a combined one month off during this period, eat 3 lunches, one dinner, and one brunch with my fellow Wiko members, go to at least one talk a week, and for that and whatever project suits my fancy I am paid, given a lovely apartment and all the library and computer help I could dream of. Oh, and also 3 weeks of intensive German and continuing classes in the language should I want them. Did I say Berlin? Berlin! A city to love!

Why does Berlin do this? You can see here who we are this year. What will we offer to Berlin? Or what will we not offer in terms of fellowship, scholarship, academic advances, and personal freedom for those of us that come from places not so free. We are given some guidance from our leader, Rector Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, and Thorsten Wilhelmy, here.  Actually, there is a large staff and they all help.

Barbara told us that although we all wrote detailed proposals to come here, we do not have to do that work. We are free to explore. There will be no evaluation, no pressure, other than that what you put on yourself. “We offer you time.” she said. It is a respite with an inspiring intellectual environment, perhaps broader than we have at home.

Barbara went on to tell us what she wanted to hear in our Tuesday talks and this has had me really thinking. Since we are so diverse, a research Powerpoint will not work. Instead, she wants to know: 1) what counts as a problem in our discipline; 2) what counts as a sound argument in our discipline; and 3) how do you know when you are right. I have been thinking about these challenges for the last month. They actually caused me to write my first piece here on something entirely new for me (creativity).


Thorsten gave me other things to think about. He focused on the Wiko paradoxes in a way that brought us all back to earth. He started with the paradise paradox and reminded us that while Wiko was amazing, it is not a paradise. After all, we are not teaching students, so if everything were like Wiko, we would die out in a generation. If I leave here feeling that I loved it, but love home more, that will not be a failure. Another of his paradoxes was the Humboldt paradox, by which he meant that solitude has its negative side, so Wiko welcomes partners, spouses, and children. And it encourages us to talk to others. I won’t tell you all the paradoxes, but one I have noticed having a large effect is that we are all playing an away game. No one of the fellows is permanent (well actually there are some permanent fellows, those lucky souls), so we are making faster friends than we might otherwise. The last paradox I will reveal is the productivity paradox. We are not required to be productive. Is this the way to get the most counter-intuitive imagination to blossom?

Our home in Villa Walther

Why does Berlin care is something I keep getting back to. Well, we had the Empfang, a huge welcome with more than 300 people, including the mayor of Berlin. There were people from all sorts of places, including several academics I already knew. This place has put Berlin on the academic map, perhaps more than any other. What a wonderful thing that Berlin lionizes independent thinking in the way another city might celebrate its sports team.

Now I am here for another 9 months. I hope to write a book that will help people be a help to our troubled natural world. I hope to become more creative. I hope to take away things that transform my existence in my home institution. I hope to come to terms with the city my father had to flee in 1937. Maybe we can all bring a bit of the Wiko mentality away with us and around the globe.



Posted in Managing an academic career, New ideas, Sabbatical, Social interactions | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How to read a scientific paper

Undergraduates Rintsen, Rory, Clarissa, and Cara are learning to read papers

Do you remember when you read your first scientific paper? For me it was hard. Some parts I did not understand. Other parts were interesting. The structure seemed odd, with a narrative that did not flow. I read it from beginning to end a couple of times. I felt like the places I did not understand were my fault, not the writer’s. I then went to a class discussion of the paper and was amazed at all the flaws others could point out in the paper, flaws I did not see at all until they were pointed out. How could I become the person that could find the flaws and also see the strengths?

Now I know how to read a scientific paper and will share some tips that should help everyone. One thing about these tips is that they can also be very useful to keep in mind when you are writing a paper. A scientific paper need not be about science. It is simply a paper that backs up its claims with evidence, in the form of citations, either as inline references to other articles or as footnotes. My perspective, however, comes from my own field, biology.

The first thing to decide is why you are reading the paper. Did its title catch your eye? Are you working on something similar? Did you get it to review for a journal? Or are you reading it because it was assigned for a class? Why you are reading the paper will determine how you read the paper. In fact, you won’t read most papers. You will scan them for what you are looking for and then move on. It might be in the discussion where you find other references. It might simply be the data in the figures. You might be looking for a method to try. Don’t feel you have to read every paper through. I often don’t.

Most papers you come across, you will just read the title. This is true if you look at the bibliography of a paper, or get a table of contents emailed to you, or have set up a Google Scholar reminder on a certain topic. I see hundreds of papers a week in this way and only read past the title for a handful of them. So a strong title should tell what a paper is about.

The second thing you will read is the abstract. You will read hundreds more abstracts than full papers. The abstract should tell the whole story, not just what the paper is about. I have written about how to write a perfect abstract here. Such an abstract should identify the topic, state what has gone before, add what will be new here, give the results, then indicate how the field has changed because of the study. Sound impossible? Even complex work can do this in a few sentences. In fact, the paper I’m reading right now does it marvelously, here.

Where you go next might vary according to your specific interests, but I tend to look at the figures next. The figures and their captions alone should tell the story. All important findings should be in the figures. Look at the figures carefully to see what the research has discovered. Which figures are key and which are secondary?

OK, let’s say this is a paper you really want to understand and you are actually going to read the whole thing. There are lots of ways of doing this. I tend to read title, abstract, figures, results, methods. Then I make up my own mind what the paper is about, and what it actually shows. Then I read the introduction and discussion. This should tell how these results are put in context. I like to read them second because authors all too often make conclusions from their results that are grander than they actually warrant. If I read their own framing first, I might be taken in.

But if it is not a familiar field, I might actually read the paper in the order it is presented because the results won’t make much sense to me without the framing. Then I am less able to judge whether the work delivers on its promises. Assessing this is an important part of critical reading and is always something to address in a discussion of a paper.

What if you are totally new to reading papers and the paper you are supposed to be critical about seems totally fine and you can’t imagine what you might say? What to do? I have two tips. One is to find another paper close in subject to the first one and compare them. This will usually give you something interesting to say. You can find that other paper with a Google Scholar search of the topic, limiting to the more recent couple of years. Or it might be one actually cited in your paper. This can help a lot in a discussion.

The other thing to do if you can’t think of what to say, or if you really want to understand the paper is to follow the sample sizes and degrees of freedom on the experiments. Degrees of freedom should be independent and free to vary. All too often they are not, which means the statistics are incorrect. Tracing through these numbers can help you understand the exact experiments or observations of the paper and will often give you something to say.

Each paper you read is part of the great web of knowledge. The better it tells you where it fits in that network, the easier it will be to read. The more you know of that corner of the web, the more easily you will understand and critique the paper. Just remember to read critically, not to assume the study does what the authors claim it does, and to try hard to see what is new. Have fun!

Posted in Presentations and seminars, Publishing your work, Reading critically, Scholarship, Undergraduates, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment