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September 6, 2017 / jpschimel

Should Universities be like businesses? If so, why do we have the same rank structure as the Army?

Over the last decades, as public funding for universities has declined, there has been a lot of discussion of the idea of running universities more like businesses. Can we bring the focused efficiency of private industry to the problems of running a university? Of course, there has been a lot of pushback as well, largely based on the simple truth that a business’ purpose is to make a profit. Ours is not.

For us, the meaning of “profit” is bizarre. How would we even determine whether an academic unit is “profitable”? What should we do it were not? Close a Department because it doesn’t bring in a lot of majors (and hence undergraduate tuition) or grant funding? Of course not. The value of scholarship can not be measured by simple financial accounting. The popularity of fields also comes and goes, so “unprofitable” today might look differently next year. For example, my own program (Environmental Studies) has gone through wild swings in student numbers over its history. Additionally, businesses plan short-term: sometimes as short as quarters, although others (e.g. infrastructure-heavy oil companies or railroads) may plan for decades. Universities, however, routinely operate on decades—a normal faculty career lasts 30-40 years. Some Universities are hundreds of years old; the U.S.’s oldest Universities date to the 1600’s, while Europe’s were founded before 1100.

The failure of the “business-model” of university management has been discussed by others—notably Chris Neufield (The Great Mistake; Johns Hopkins University Press), and so I need not repeat their arguments.

Our job is not to make a profit but to serve the public. We have an integrated mission of teaching, research, and service. It is no trivial mission. As I argued in a recent post, research universities are the core intellectual infrastructure of modern society—we may not produce all the undergraduate degrees, but we produce all the professors, and while we may not do all the research, we produce the researchers and scholars. Without the education, scholarship, and technological developments that depend on research universities, the nation would stall and ultimately collapse. The modern world lives on a “Red Queens Race” where if you aren’t moving forward, you are moving backward. Research universities are the ultimate engine for moving forward. Our mission is thus the ultimate health and success of the Nation.

In many ways, therefore, the entity in the U.S. that universities most resemble is not business but the military! We each provide services essential to the safety and well-being of the Nation. Academics don’t generally get misty eyed about our mottoes the way Marines do about theirs—Semper Fi—but our Full Dress “uniforms” can be just as uncomfortable and ours are even more laden with history and tradition (try wearing academic robes designed for northern Europe during the little ice age in southern California in the Anthropocene!).

Paralleling universities and the military may seem an odd thing to do, especially given that we often don’t get along very well and our values and virtues lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet, we each live lives somewhat cloistered from the experience of the general public and our distinct cultures each grow organically from our vital missions. The military asks men and women to risk and sacrifice their lives for the Nation, while military operations must be planned and carried out with clear strategy and operational plans. Thus, the military is top-down and values a core of uniformity and of following orders—too many battles and wars have been lost when subordinate officers decided to do things their own way. Universities are about creating knowledge and developing scholars—activities that depend on individual creativity and initiative. Thus, we are bottom-up and value individuality and initiative above almost all else. It’s impossible to be a good academic if all you can do is follow orders; of course it’s equally impossible to be a good soldier if all you can do is follow orders—successful soldiers need to know what orders to give and when to diverge from their orders to achieve the overall objective. That’s no different than working on a research proposal. That “no plan survives contact with the enemy” is equally true on the battlefield and in the laboratory.

Interestingly, the Army and Universities even use directly parallel rank structures! We have the same number of “Grades,” steps within each, analogous functions, and even similar amounts of time people are expected to spend in each step.

Company Grade Officers
Company grade officers do the army’s fundamental hands-on work—leading troops in the field. Through this, they prepare themselves for higher-level leadership roles. This is analogous to doing research at the bench or in the archives, learning scholarship at its basic level, preparing students to become leaders and train future researchers.
M.S. Student 2nd Lieutenant Unproven, learning the basics.
Ph.D. Student 1st Lieutenant More experienced, but still at ground  level.
Postdoc Captain Experienced at doing the basic work while taking on some leadership role.
Field Grade Officers
These are the guts of the army, responsible for leading at the operational level. They plan, oversee, and integrate tactical operations into the larger strategy. They acquire increasing responsibility for the larger organization. Promotion to Field Grade is typically after ~10 years service, similar to when someone would get hired as an assistant professor.
Asst. Professor Major Majors are being prepared for the critical position of battalion command. Essentially, they are “untenured,” learning and proving themselves as senior officers. Typically 6 years, similar to the tenure clock. 
Associate Professor Lieutenant Colonel Established leaders at the heart of tactical operations: commanding battalions (the core operational unit of the army) or research groups (in the sciences). Typically 6 years. 
Full Professor Colonel Proven, senior leaders. The intellectual heart of the institution. In the Navy, Captains command the largest warships.
Flag/General Officer
Senior administrative leaders. In charge of large scale operations and strategy. This promotion would typically occur after ca. 20 years total service.
Department Chair Brigadier General May command an independent Brigade.
Dean Major General Commands a division. Analogous to a Division (e.g. Humanities or Natural Sciences) or an independent School (e.g. Engineering or Law) within a University.
Provost Lieutenant General Commands higher-level units (e.g. corps). This is analogous to a College within a large University or a Campus within a multi-campus system.
Chancellor/President General Commands a top-level unit (Army, University)

Huh! There are certainly imperfections in the comparison, but I find it notable that promotion to field grade and professorship both typically occur about 10 years into a career (which starts after a BA/BS degree), and that the first step is in each system a trial and developmental step—major vs. assistant professor. Jim Tiedje once said he thought the happiest people in academe are associate professors—post tenure but before the administrative responsibilities of full. I’ve also read that commanding a battalion (lieutenant colonel) is the most rewarding job in the army.

Both systems have an “up-or-out” system, although the military’s is stricter, with forced retirement if you are passed over for promotion, whereas once we have tenure, we can never be forced to retire. As a result, in the military the rank pyramid is sharp, while ours is often inverted—most professors are full profs. Another is that in the military, promotion to flag officer (general/admiral) is a natural flow (though one made by only a few percent of people starting out). For academics, transitioning to administration is a distinct choice—a step away from the scholar path—one few of us make and none are required to make. In the military, people are trained their entire career in leadership and command skills to prepare the few with what it takes to make flag rank. We are never trained for the senior level leadership roles required to run the university. This gives us a small pool to select from; as a result, academic leadership often suffers.

I find the parallels between these wildly divergent cultures and systems intriguing and I suspect they reflect something deep about the nature of humanity and the natural development of skills, knowledge, and wisdom. Commanding soldiers in the fog of war and fighting new insights out of recalcitrant nature are some of the most difficult activities humans carry out. Thus, we have independently evolved analogous and surprisingly parallel structures to select, train and develop the people and systems to achieve our goals? Between us, the military and academe are institutional systems the each are fundamental to the safety and health of the Nation. Unfortunately, while most people understand what the military does, they are largely clueless about what we do or why it is as fundamental to the well-being of the Nation. As a result, while our Federal Government invests massively in the military, they mostly leave University funding to the States, and rely on it being carried on the back of the undergraduate teaching mission. Support for the, ultimately critical, integrated research/graduate training mission suffers. So we fall further behind in the Red Queen’s Race. By under-supporting the University mission, we risk our ultimate national security as much as from under-supporting the military.

July 3, 2017 / jpschimel

Why I hate it when people ask “What do you teach?”

I have never been introduced as a Professor at UCSB and not gotten the inevitable follow up question: “What do you teach?” I expect it, understand where it comes from, and I hate it.

Why my passion over an innocent expression of interest in my life?

Because people seeing my job as just a teacher reflects their deep misunderstanding of the university and its role in Society. A research university is more than just an advanced school. In fact, research universities are the fundamental “Social Infrastructure” of the modern world. And probably 99% of people haven’t a clue.

Most people only ever experience professors in our role as teachers. Even if they went on to medical or law school, they went to learn things that their professors already know. In that view, people are fundamentally wrong. Classroom teaching is important, and I love it. But is it truly the most important thing I do as a University of California Professor? No.

I got my BA from Middlebury, a Liberal Arts College where I got an excellent education. You don’t need a research university to teach undergraduates! That is illustrated even more strongly by the California State University, which awards more bachelor’s degrees than any other institution in the Nation.

But colleges and Cal State don’t produce their own most critical resource: Professors! They rely on research universities to do that. Without us, they fail.

A second key function that research universities do, of course, is research. Yet, that too can be done elsewhere. Independent research institutes, private companies, etc.—they all do research, although even companies generally can’t afford to invest in the deep fundamental research that underlies their applications. So, you don’t really need a research university to do research.

But, technology companies don’t produce their own most critical resource: Researchers and Engineers! They rely on research universities to do that. Without us, they fail.

Graduate, Ph.D.-level training, therefore, is the irreplaceable function carried out by research universities, such as UC. It is the one thing we do that no other entity can do. And, without it, society fails.

All the missions of the research university are important. As teachers, we pass along existing knowledge; as scholars, we create new knowledge; as mentors, we produce the next generation of scholars. Society relies on all three elements. These functions are completely, 100%, interwoven, but graduate education is the nexus.

Students come to UC because they want to study with top scholars. They want the deepest insights from the people who developed them, and to become involved in knowledge creation themselves. Because we attract the best students, we can do more with them and take them further. The University of California doesn’t provide better education because our faculty are better teachers than you’ll find at Cal State or Middlebury. The power of a UC education comes from the integration of undergraduate teaching with active scholarship. Our students don’t just learn things we already put in their textbooks, but things that aren’t in the textbooks yet.

It’s Ph.D. training that ultimately set us apart and makes UC the world’s most effective university system—a powerhouse for social and economic development. Training Ph.D. students, of course requires research opportunities for them to work on, weaving research and graduate training together at their root. Together faculty and graduate students form a coordinated team to produce new knowledge. Graduate students also serve as teaching assistants, and in doing so, learn to become teachers and mentors. They provide a key intermediate between faculty and undergraduates—they are closer in age and less intimidating than professors and so fill a role professors can’t. Thus, graduate training and undergraduate teaching are equally interwoven.

What makes the University of California great isn’t just great teaching by great faculty, but the integration of the pieces. We produce great undergraduates, but we also produce great scholars and great research. One can’t happen without the other. UC’s mission depends on the parts working together as a coordinated whole. California, the U.S., and the world depend on us for that singular interwoven mission.

So, it bothers me when people, and our political leaders, focus almost entirely on undergraduate education as the raison d’etre of the University of California and treat graduate training and research as at best, nice adjuncts. In fact, I could argue that they have it backwards. The essential, irreplaceable, mission is graduate training, with undergraduate education the adjunct!

So, yes, I hate it when people reduce my entire role as a professor to “What do you teach?”



June 1, 2017 / jpschimel

Citation Stacking: editorial misconduct & my response

Yesterday, I received a copy of an open letter from a group of junior European scientists expressing their concerns over “citation stacking”–that is when reviewers and journal editors pressure authors to cite papers that either they wrote or that are published in “their” journal. That letter is available at:

One of the editors who was forced to step down for such activity denies that is what he was doing. Perhaps. You can see the analyses and arguments in the material cited in the letter. To me, the real idiocy of such behavior (assuming it occurred) is that it involves great risk for essentially no reward!

I do get paid as a Chief Editor of Soil Biology & Biochemistry, but the modest stipend (for processing 180 manuscripts a year) isn’t anywhere near enough to make it worth risking my reputation and career. And there’s no bonus for increasing the impact factor. When the “crime” is so petty and the rewards so minimal, why would you risk it?

Fundamentally, we all thrive in a healthy “ecosystem”–a publication system that works to provide high quality and effective review. Such a system helped me to polish my early manuscripts into something worth reading, and so helped develop my career. As an editor, I am a steward whose job it is to maintain the health of that ecosystem and to pass it along to my successors in the condition I took it over (or even better). That “ecosystem health” is not measured by the impact factor of the journal, but by the integrity of the editorial and review process.

In any event, I wrote a response and thought it would be worth putting it here as well as in an e-mail.


Dear Colleagues who drafted this letter:

I have been a Chief Editor of Soil Biology & Biochemistry for 10 years. I can say with absolute certainty that I have never and will never do any such citation stacking as discussed in your open letter. And, I can add that I am confident that none of my colleagues who serve as Chief Editors of SBB do either. I can equally assure you that I have never received any hint of pressure from the publisher to manipulate citations. We all want to see the journal do well—but as long as we maintain the best editorial system we can, and publish the best papers, the journal will remain respected and highly cited. I would resign before I would ever cave to pressure to manipulate the process. I don’t get paid anywhere near enough to take the time, and risk, to cheat!

As a Professor, it is my responsibility to produce both science and scientists; I therefore have a vested interest in furthering the careers of my junior colleagues. Students and postdocs are typically the lead authors on the most important and novel work and I want to publish those papers, read them myself, and see them recognized. I try to carry my mentoring and career development responsibility into my editorial responsibilities.

Now, it has long been common that when papers are sent to reviewers (and editors) who are senior scholars in a field, they (we) may note several older papers that they feel are relevant to the current paper and suggest that the authors consider citing them. As an author, I have regularly received such suggestions. Sometimes those reviewers and editors are even correct about the relevance of those older papers! When that is the case, it serves effectively as one of the education functions of peer review; as an author, I appreciate such comments. If the suggestion is off-base, and I have received (and probably written) such recommendations, the author should ignore them and explain in their cover letter why (or just note the ones you have included). But this is different from the citation stacking you describe. In any case, such “old-fart” recommendations don’t displace citation to the newer papers lead-authored by junior scholars.

Remember also that an introduction is not a “literature review”—its purpose is not to describe the state of knowledge in a field or to cite every paper ever written on the subject. Rather it is to define a specific gap in that knowledge. Thus, the papers you should cite are those that frame the boundaries of that gap. There may well be classic papers in the general field which are not necessary (or useful) in defining the edges of knowledge, so don’t cite them. A reviewer who wrote those papers may note them in their review—but if they don’t help frame the knowledge gap, you don’t need to cite them.

It is equally possible that some relevant recent work may not be cited because there is such a glut of publications that it is difficult to fully keep up with everything published. I have long held what I call “Schimel’s Law of the Literature” which states “You can either keep up with the literature, or you can contribute to it.” And I fully recognize inherent contradiction in that statement—in fact, that is the point. I try to ensure we have cited the most relevant recent work when we submit papers from my group, but it is inevitable that we will miss some. To slightly misquote a classic saying: “To err is human—to forgive, canine.”

I have heard anecdotal accusations of authors being pressured to cite more papers from the journal they are submitting to, which you appropriately condemn, and I have seen some of the reports documenting such behavior you cited. But I have never experienced such behavior personally, and absolutely will not carry out such practices as an editor. Papers are cited in SBB ultimately because the authors felt they deserved to be cited.

As it has come to matter less where we publish (I think I have searched for a topic, downloaded a paper, read it, and cited it without ever noting where it was published!), publishers (and some editors apparently) have gotten more sensitive to metrics and standing. “Journal quality” actually mattered more in the hardcopy era, when we went to the library to check the table of contents for a limited number of top-tier journals. This reflects the fallacy of journal “impact factor” battles—journals aren’t “good” because they have high IF’s, but because they maintain strong editorial systems, which filter out the papers that aren’t appropriate and work to perfect those that are. Real “quality” lies with the individual paper, and that remains in the hands of the authors.

Scientific publication involves discussion and mutual education among authors, reviewers and editors. That process should work (and I believe mostly does work) to polish manuscripts into strong papers. In my experience, such misbehavior as you call out remains exceedingly rare. As both reviewer and editor I may suggest many things to authors—to think about the problem differently, analyze or interpret the data differently, and even consider (and cite) some literature they may not have been aware of. Those are all things reviewers are supposed to do. But I do not and never will pressure authors to shift their citations just to increase either my own citation numbers or the citation levels of my journal.





February 5, 2017 / jpschimel

Taken-for-granted basic science: it might save your life

Today I went to the doctor and received a death sentence. Or rather, what would have been one a century ago. Today, I barely blinked. I’ve had a persistent sinus cold for three weeks. Yesterday, I started running light fever, the cough felt deeper in my chest, and the icky gunk I was coughing up was darker. Warning! Warning! Danger! Danger! Those are classic symptoms of secondary bacterial infection—bronchitis or potentially pneumonia. This morning I went to urgent care and the doctor told me she heard  rattly noises at the base of my right lung. Pneumonia. When I was a kid, my parents’ and grandparents’ memories made that a terrifying word. When they were kids, 20% of Americans died of pneumonia or related problems—and I would have been on track to joining them.

Today, I can tell my junior colleagues that there probably won’t be a new ecosystem ecologist job opening at UCSB in a hurry. OK, there is a chance (and a larger one than even a decade ago) that this could be a resistant pathogen and that my life may become hell for the next weeks until I get better—or don’t. But those odds remain slight.

Is there any other common experience in life that so highlights the enormous power of basic science—Streptomycin was discovered in the lab of Selman Waksman, a soil microbiologist. Pennicilin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in an accidental experiment in microbial ecology—observing the interaction of a soil fungus and a pathogenic bacterium. I am likely to survive this infection with little more than mild misery because of the results of fundamental scientific research.

Antibiotics, however, are a truly terrible business proposition. A new antibiotic can cost $1 Billion to bring to market. Yet, once available, doctors are encouraged to not use it, patients probably only take it for a week, and it may only be months before new pathogens start becoming resistant. No rational company would want to invest in such a miserable product. Yet, without them, the quiet rattle in my lung is increasingly likely to become a death rattle.

These kinds of fundamental life-changing and life-saving discoveries arise from basic research, freed of an immediate demand to produce economically viable products. I could tell a similar story about the cell phone I used to text my wife about what was going on. Or why I don’t get laughed at in shoe stores anymore—try asking for size 15’s!

Open, creative research is the ultimate fuel of the technology that drives our society. Yet, the failure to adequately fund basic research in the U.S. has already threatened the health of the system as funding rates have dropped below 10%. The NSF reauthorization act during the George W. Bush administration had proposed doubling the NSF budget—but it was never funded even though it would have cost the federal government a relative pittance: under $10 Billion/year. A small price to pay for a society’s health, to say nothing of the lives of us who won’t die of pneumonia.

There has been pressure to try to force basic science to more directly demonstrate an immediate economic benefit. Had those been the rules in the 1930’s and 40’s the antibiotic era wouldn’t have started. Alternative facts aren’t very useful when a doctor hears a rattle in your lungs. Then, there is just the question: which tools derived from basic science will they use to save your life?

January 29, 2017 / jpschimel

The Trump Reaction

Back when Reagan was president; scientists I knew at the EPA said it was a great time to be a researcher there. Reagan didn’t want to move on environmental protections (after all he did say “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”) so his approach was to shelve action in favor of research—we don’t know enough about the problem so let’s study it some more.

When George W. Bush became President, it was clear that he didn’t want to act on environmental protections and felt no obligation to mask that with any claims for needing deeper study. He was happy to just ignore environmental issues. That upset many environmental scientists and contributed to my applying to the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program (The ALLP). I felt that if the leaders won’t lead, the followers better. I haven’t become an environmental leader, but doing the ALLP program not only focused my communication skills but motivated me to action in an area where I thought I had something to offer. I started teaching science writing—how to communicate clearly and powerfully. The book “Writing Science” and this blog grew from that.

But now we have a president whose attitude goes way beyond mere neglect to outright harassment and destruction of the agencies and structures the United States uses to maintain our environment and to facilitate growing our understanding of it. He’s against any environmental agenda and is doing what he can to undermine environmental research, the Environmental Protection Agency, and federal scientists throughout a broad array of U.S. agencies. In fact the entire scientific infrastructure of the U.S. is threatened.

We must stand up and fight for the value and power of knowledge. We will have to be more directly aggressive in politics than many of us have felt comfortable with in the past. I don’t see the core changing—the fight to ensure that science is used accurately in decision making and that the best available information is brought to the policy table. That’s still the base of the battle. But where we’ve often felt that it was our data that were being targeted, now it is us. The president seems to want to destroy our fundamental approach to interacting with, and understanding, the world around us. He’d like to get us out of the way to enable fable to rule. That isn’t just trying to return to the 1950’s when coal and assembly lines were king, that’s returning to the Middle Ages.

We must mobilize to limit the damage and protect the institutions whose mission it is to create and promulgate new knowledge. We must expand our efforts with the public to gain support for science and scholarship and we must work with our elected representatives at local, State, and National levels to hold them accountable for their actions and make it clear that the health of the United States depends on the functioning of a healthy and productive system of research and scholarship.

This goes beyond just those of us in the natural sciences to our colleagues and friends in the social sciences and humanities—the existence of the National Endowments of Arts and Humanities have been threatened. Only by fighting for the value of fundamental scholarship, carried out in an open and interactive manner, can we help advance the infrastructure of knowledge and prepare for a new Renaissance when this reactionary dark age passes, which it will.

November 21, 2016 / jpschimel

Titles: statements, conclusions, or questions?

A title’s purpose is to inform you quickly and effectively enough about a paper to allow you to decide whether to invest more time in reading it—at least to check the abstract to get confirmation. Most titles are statements that describe the work and/or results; for example consider titles like:

  • Separating cellular metabolism from exoenzyme activity in soil organic matter decomposition
  • Sensitivity of coral recruitment to subtle shifts in early community succession
  • Direct benefits and indirect costs of warm temperatures for highelevation populations of a solitary bee

The challenge for a good title is  to give you enough information on what the paper is about without getting overloaded with a mass of technical terms that overwhelms a reader. I periodically get asked, however, what I think about titles that either state the conclusion or that ask a question. There has been extensive discussion over these ideas over the years, but I am not going to make any pronouncement on “thou shalt (or shalt not)…” First, I’ve used both approaches in my career and I prefer to limit how frequently I’m a hypocrite. Second, though, and more importantly, just because I wrote a book on writing doesn’t give me license to offer proclamations of personal opinion as “rules” that everyone must follow.

Fundamentally all questions of whether you should or should not do something in writing come down to one question: Does it enhance communication? Does something improve the reader’s understanding or ease in gaining information or insight? If it does, clearly, you should do it. If rather, it hinders communication, equally clearly, you should not. If it  neither hinders nor enhances, but just makes a point in a different way, then it is a matter of personal taste and style—do what you like.

Conclusions as Titles

As an author, it’s your job to be self-critical and to challenge your own conclusions. As reviewers and readers our job is the same. By offering a conclusion in the title, you may prejudice the reader or imply you are trying to sell us a conclusion (rather than asking a question and allowing the conclusion to develop for us). So readers may suspect your motives and objectivity—that undermines communication. Thus, there is some risk in conclusion-as-title papers.

But that doesn’t mean they are all bad and should never be used. The flip side of the argument is that a title should tell us what the paper is about—and what does that better than just telling us the conclusion? So when there is a clear, interesting, and inarguable conclusion, why not just state it? Might readers then not bother reading the paper? After all, they got the story just skimming the title. I wouldn’t worry about that—if readers care so little about the topic that they won’t go further than the title, they probably won’t read the paper anyhow but maybe now you’ve still slid a useful tidbit into their brain. That’s a victory. I looked at the recent web pages for Ecology and for Ecology Letters, two leading journals in the field, to pull some recent examples. Let’s  see where they work or not.

“Large, connected floodplain forests prone to flooding best sustain plant diversity.”
   Johnson et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1556)

The problem I have with this title is what is implied but unstated: these floodplain forests “best” sustain diversity. But better than what? Every other ecosystem type on the entire planet? After all, “best” is the superlative adjective. Thus, the problem I have with this title isn’t that it’s a statement, but that it is unclear.

“Predators suppress herbivore outbreaks and enhance plant recovery following hurricanes.”
   Spiller et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1523)

Here, my problem is that “herbivore” can cover anything from aphids to elephants. An “elephant outbreak”? Well maybe not. In fact, this paper discusses a moth outbreak and a lizard predator. Would I have liked to know at least part of that? Yes. Would this have been better as “Predators suppress outbreaks of insect herbivores and enhance plant recovery following hurricanes”? I think so. If I know the herbivores are insects, I may not care what the predators are—but I can guess they are not lions and tigers! Maybe the authors didn’t want to generalize moths to “insects,” but they could have gotten technical and called them “lepidopteran herbivores.” They were clearly trying to stay short and pithy. That, however, is the challenge in writing a good title: give us enough information to understand what the paper is about without bogging us down in detail. What is the right balance?

“Naive tadpoles do not recognize recent invasive predatory fishes as dangerous.”
   Hettyey et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1532).

This I think is better. It frames the story and makes it clear what the message is—though I found the opening word “naïve” a little odd. The image of a naïve tadpole conjures something from the Far Side cartoon—but with this, the authors were assuming that anyone looking at the title knows what “naïve” means in this context, which is harder when it’s the first word. Thus, I would argue that this one suffers from a minor case of the “curse of knowledge” in which the author may assume readers know too much.

“Mycorrhizal fungi and roots are complementary in foraging within nutrient patches”
   Cheng et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1514)

Here is one that I think manages to be both short & pithy while still offering enough information that I get a pretty complete story. OK, maybe it’s because I’m a soil biologist. But any ecologist should know (or be able to figure out) what mycorrhizae, roots, and nutrient patches are.

In going through “statement as title” papers, I think authors taking this approach were usually aiming for short and sharp and may therefore be prone to leaving out information. That forces a reader to go to the abstract to figure out what the title means. Ouch. I want to read the title to figure out whether to look at the abstract—I shouldn’t have to read the abstract to figure out whether to look at the title! If you go this route, therefore, be careful to ensure the message is as complete and clear as you can.

So then I went to my own C.V. to check how frequently I’ve been a co-author on papers whose titles are statements, it’s 14 out of over 150. Here are a few:

  • Long-term warming restructures Arctic tundra without changing net soil carbon storage.
  • Invasive Grasses Increase N Availability in California Grassland Soils
  • Drying/rewetting cycles mobilize old C from deep soils from a California annual grassland

Each of these offered a simple and clean story, one that could be captured in a simple declarative statement. So why not do so routinely? Well, in the 130+ other papers I’ve co-authored stories were more complex or we just came up with something different and never questioned whether we should try a conclusion title.

Questions as Titles

How about questions as titles? Some people dislike them, but I think the question titles readers mostly dislike are “Yes/No” questions. Readers are likely to assume that you know the answer is “yes” so why bother to pose it as a question? This may feel “precious.” Consider:

Can we predict ectotherm responses to climate change using thermal performance curves and body temperatures?
Sinclair et al. (DOI: 10.1111/ele.12686)

I don’t like that title. As a reader, I’d assume that the answer is “yes,” but I don’t learn that much from the title itself. I’m not even sure the answer is “yes.” And it it’s “no” then I am sure there must be a deeper story that the title isn’t letting on. Let’s look at another “Yes/No” question title:

“Does habitat unpredictability promote the evolution of a colonizer syndrome in amphibian metapopulations?”
   Cayuea et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1489)

Again, I can guess that the answer is “yes” but I don’t know that—after all, the authors could have entitled this “Habitat unpredictability promotes the evolution of a colonizer syndrome in amphibian metapopulations” and then I would know the story, but here I’m unsure. To me, that isn’t effective communication, and that’s my criterion. But what about question titles that aren’t simple Yes/No questions? Consider the following paper by Hefley et al. (2016; Ecology Letters DOI: 10.1111/ele.12671).:

“When can the cause of a population decline be determined?”
   Heffley et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1111/ele.12671)

That’s a question I want to know the answer to. This title develops my curiosity while offering a strong sense of what the story is about. This is a question whose answer is likely to be both interesting and important for ecologists. I think that title is effective communication. Here’s another that does something similar:

Why do trees die? Characterizing the drivers of background tree mortality
   Das et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1497)

Again, that poses a question that is very likely to draw an ecologist’s interest. Most trees can live a long time and survive harsh conditions. So why do they eventually kick the bucket and die? Again, that engages my curiosity but then in the second part gives me some sense of where the paper is going. Nice.

So, from my deep and scholarly analysis of titles (OK, my 20 minutes of skimming journal web pages) my first cut conclusion is that it’s probably best to avoid Yes/No type questions for titles—readers are likely to be sure that you know the answer, but are holding out on them. Thus, I think such titles are not likely to grab a reader’s curiosity and aren’t likely to offer a clearly informative story. If the question has a simple “yes” answer, the title can probably be better written as a statement.

Having drawn that conclusions, let me test my hypothesis against several papers I’ve been a co-author on where we used a question-based title:

  • Cold-season production of CO2 in Arctic soils: can laboratory and field estimates be reconciled through a simple modeling approach?
  • Different NH4+–Inhibition patterns of soil CH4 consumption: a result of distinct CH4 oxidizer populations across sites?
  • Does adding microbial mechanisms of decomposition improve soil organic matter models? A comparison of four models using data from a pulsed rewetting experiment.

Each of these does ask a Yes/No question—so am I making a liar out of myself? I don’t think so. The first two pose the question after framing the issue, rather than as the entire title. The last one asks the question but then also makes it clear how it would be answered and what the main story of the paper really is.

The key is whether the question enhances reader understanding of what the work is about and their engagement with it. I’ll stay with my conclusion that simple Yes/No questions are probably best avoided.

Clever Titles: plays on language

A final issue here is “clever” titles, where there are plays with language. My first message here is to keep in mind that some readers, particularly those who are not native English speakers, may not catch the language play. Then, your cleverness likely undermines communication. And that is bad.

For example, consider the title of a paper I handled recently for Soil Biology & Biochemistry. The original title was:

 “When protection leads to degradation: impacts of protected colonial birds on soil microbial communities.”

This was a nice paper, but consider the initial clause: “When protection leads to degradation…” When you first read that, it means nothing. I suggested turning it around: “Impacts of protected colonial birds on soil microbial communities: when protection leads to degradation.” Now, with the straight information as the main title, the meaning of the subtitle becomes obvious—protecting the birds leads to soil degradation. It still has the interesting “flip” idea that doing something good is actually bad, which generates curiosity, and so to my mind, enhances communication. If the authors had just deleted that text entirely there would be less sense of the story to engage a potential reader—it would just be about the effects of colonial birds on soil communities. But how many of us would care about that? Here’s another from Ecology:

“Hunting on a hot day: effects of temperature on interactions between African wild dogs and their prey.”
   Creel et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.156)

I think the opening clause here doesn’t add much, but it does add enough to be useful. It’s short enough that a reader gets past it very quickly and the terms “hunting” and “hot day” resonate closely with the heavier and more technical terms in the main clause “effects of temperature” and “interactions between African wild dogs and their prey.” The short preamble clause adds a little more sense of what the story is about and does so with lighter language.

“Elephants in the understory: opposing direct and indirect effects of consumption and ecosystem engineering by megaherbivores.”
   Coverdale et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1557)

In this one I like the sound and image of elephants in the understory. It flows prettily. And it provides a gentle start to what then becomes a heavy and technical main clause. It helps a reader see the issue and it does it with nice language. I think that is good communication.

To wrap up, do not be clever just to be clever or because you came up with an expression that you like. It’s all about the reader and whether you help or hinder their understanding and appreciation of what you offer. A title should offer enough guidance on what the paper is about to be able to make a reasonable choice as to go further and either read the abstract or the whole paper. As with all other issues of communication, the question is whether it improves the reader’s experience and makes their job easy. Remember my first Principle (can I call that the Principal Principle?): As the author, it is your job to make the reader’s job easy. That applies just as much to titles as to any other part of the text.








October 25, 2016 / jpschimel

“Writing Science” in one page: A guest blog by Amy Burgin

I saw Amy’s three-page condensation of “Writing Science” and thought it so wonderful I asked if she would make it available and write a guest blog. Here is the link. Thanks Amy!


The Making of Schimel in a Sheet: How and why I use Writing Science to teach Scientific Communication”

Amy Burgin, Associate Professor, University of Kansas and Kansas Biological Survey

As a lifelong nerd, I relish the freshness of each fall semester with rituals such as preparing for the first day of class, outlining my writing projects for the new academic year, and my now annual refresher on scientific writing principles. For the last four years, I’ve taught Writing Science or Science Communication (#SciComm) using Josh’s book, Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. Communication skills, like those described in the book or developed through Science Communication classes, are what set young scientists apart from the pack vying for limited grant money, publication slots and tenure track positions.

I first encountered the power of the book working with my first Master’s student, Valerie Schoepfer. Valerie defended her M.S. in April 2013 and turned in what is a pretty typical thesis; it was too long, lacked a cohesive story, and generally read like a lab report. Our task was to transform the thesis into publishable manuscripts. I ordered Writing Science, gave it to Valerie, and asked her to do the writing exercises. Afterwards, she sent me a new draft that was almost unrecognizable from the original thesis (now a paper in JGRBiogeosciences). The editor added this note in his acceptance letter:

Personally I read the introduction and liked it a lot. It was tutorial enough to make this work accessible to a wide audience. As a neophyte biogeochemist and wetland ecologist, I found it very clear. I am also looking for our papers to clearly state interesting hypotheses and you do. Scientifically, the seasonal aspect of this work makes the context of the finding and their implication better. Figures are bold and easy to read. Good job. This is what I expect and hope for.”

I’ve had few prouder moments as an advisor than reading this email. It showed a student how the hard work of seemingly endless drafting, revising and editing can lead to positive peer-review comments and a publishable paper. Given that great experience, I started offering a seminar class on Writing Science. For three years, I taught it with a focus on analyzing published papers. (After the first year, I had to institute a “no papers written by your advisor or committee members” rule – analyzing your advisor’s writing leads to awkward class conversations.) This approach made for better readers, but didn’t translate to long-term writing improvement.  Consequently, I’ve modified the class to incorporate the writing exercises – the exact ones Valerie used to improve her initial drafts.  Students write ~15 drafts of an 800-word article using the book’s prompts. They then complete a reflective self-analysis to internalize where they need to improve. Not surprisingly, applying the principles to your own work yields the greatest gain in writing improvement.

At the end of the class, I deliver a “parting gift” I call the Schimel in a Sheet. It functions as an easy reference of the book’s core messages to hang beside your desk – you can see my Schimel Sheet in action from the picture of my work station, below.  The Schimel Sheet highlights the major messages in each chapter.  The quotes reflect marked passages in my heavily annotated copy of Writing Science.  That is, these are the core messages for young scientists and early career writers to internalize. There is a good amount of short hand; thus, the Schimel Sheet may be hard to understand if you’re not familiar with the book. If you’ve studied the book, it serves as a good reminder of the first principles of clean, clear, and concise science writing.


At the end of each class, I also ask my students to summarize the book as simply as possible.  My current class constructed the best summary yet, which fit into this tweet:

tweet“Schimel Sheet in a Tweet” is (necessarily) short, but is the most succinct summary I’ve seen of Writing Science. Get to the point refers to the material in the first four chapters, which focus on establishing a story. The entire book encourages the writer to put themselves in the reader’s shoes, but this theme is particularly apparent in Chapters 5-10 on engaging curiosity by framing a knowledge gap, stating a question and creating an overall logical progression. Students learn to “sweat the small stuff” in Chapters 11-16, which provides crucial tools for fostering clearer writing.  All in, I think this is a pretty good summary of the book. [Josh’s note: me too!]