Today is Thursday.
Keep that in mind
Today is Thursday.
Keep that in mind
Wind the propagator propels air-borne seeds
To urban refuge and new opportunity
Where they germinate, elongate, grow, and flower,
Roots seeking soil, making do with mortar and render,
As, persistent in its invader role,
Buddleia grips a gable cliff, dispensing offspring
From house wall warmth into frigid space
And a clear night of stars backdrops the only alien here.
Not all of the poetry that I write – such as these pieces – is serious and high-minded, some of it is whimsical, funny, or just plain dumb. Today I taught a morning class on flower structure and pollination, so in its honour here’s an example of the latter:
A Bad Botanical Pun
“Don’t become a gardener – there’s no fuchsia in it!”
Not a great pun, but I’ve heard worse.
However, it may be pedantic, but I have to point out
That the genus Fuchsia was named in honour of Leonard Fuchs
(A sixteenth century Bavarian botanist, as you ask).
His name is pronounced as a definite, Germanic “fucks”,
Not a prim, Victorian “fewsh”.
So, don’t become a botanist – it’ll Fuchsia!
What follows is the text from an article that has just been published in Dark Mountain issue 10. Click on that link and you can read more extracts from this volume of poetry, prose, and illustration, and even purchase a copy. Dark Mountain 10 focuses on “poetics”, hence the title and topic of my contribution.
The Dark Mountain project is a fascinating, vibrant, loose network of writers, thinkers, musicians and artists, whose work and ideas I’ve discussed previously (see: Up a mountain darkly and We are so very ‘umble). It’s a great achievement that they (we) have made it to ten issues; here’s to the next 10.
Poet as Scientist as Poet
For as long as I can recall I have been a scientist. Early memories as a child include turning over rocks and probing under bushes in search of elusive insects, dissecting knowledge from road kill, and splitting it from fossil-rich shale. But also, for as many years as I can remember, I have created poetry. Sometimes this has been permanent written text, other times only thoughts and fragments, committed to temporary memory and ultimately lost like the bugs I studied in jars and released back into the wild. Over time the science has become public-facing as hobbies were turned into a career. The poetry remained turned inward, written for myself, only occasionally on show to lovers or to audiences at local spoken-word events.
Perhaps the idea of scientist as poet is too contradictory to bear serious scrutiny, but both of these aspects of my life relate to a deep, enquiring curiosity that has always been present. Both reflect a need to understand something of this complex, confusing world we inhabit, and the place of people and their relationships with one another, and with the environment in a wider, encompassing nature.
In the first volume of Dark Mountain I stepped out as a scientist-poet and contributed an essay-with-poetry entitled ‘W(h)ither Science?’, which was a very personal take on the role of scientists, and the knowledge they generate, in the early 21st century. This piece was framed within the context of Uncivilised ideas of ‘what happens when it all goes wrong?’ I prefer to think of it as ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ because, as I originally put it, ‘knowledge is not predictable’. In other words, we don’t know what will happen in the future, so we can only prepare for a range of outcomes. If we take the best of the sciences and of the arts, and of the education they generate, perhaps we can survive as a species and as a set of communities.
Was that really only six years ago? So much has happened in the intervening period; the science has turned ever more outward, with more writing for scientific journals, magazines, my blog, and more presentations of the research undertaken by my group to other scientists, to policy makers and NGOs, and to the public. The poetry, meanwhile, has remained private, which led me to consider whether it was time to give up a little more. The two short poems in this essay were both written more than ten years ago, though they have been revised and polished periodically. Even as I began to construct this piece I was revising words and reconsidering sentence structure, much as I might revise the analysis of a data set or reconsider its interpretation when writing a scientific paper. One of the things I love about producing poetry is that its form is malleable, it’s never complete, I can change it when I wish. This malleability is also a feature of science: we revise our ideas when confronted with new evidence, rejecting previously supported hypotheses in favour of more accurate notions of the universe.
Chains of Copper, Locks of Lead
Mention a river:
I may have heard of it,
Or talked to a woman who has gazed at its bed.
Cage its waters, bind its banks,
With chains of copper, and locks of lead.
Ultimately bending to time, eroding
The surge and the volume sustaining, removing.
Weighed down, I lay down,
And the river unconscious
Passed over my body and on to the sea.
While my lover cast stones from the bank to the current.
The banks of my body, the river of me.
Due to their inherent chemical properties, both lead and copper are relatively ductile, weak metals: they cannot withstand the force of a river indefinitely. In the same way, no matter how much we believe we can tame rivers or seas or any other component of the natural world, ultimately the environment will prevail. It just takes time. We might canalise a river to prevent flooding or dam it to provide hydro-electricity, but not realise that in its untamed state the river is more valuable, as it provides food, allows travel, brings fertility to flood plains. What, then, does it mean to ‘know’ something about a river? Whose knowledge is more valuable, which expert do we trust? The internet is awash with information, but knowledge, first and second-hand, can both enlighten us and sometimes prevent us from really understanding.
Ordinary by Choice
She chose the route and chose her topics,
Modular waypoints across years of work.
Decisions based on the balance of a gyroscopic
Pursuit of life, work, and an honours degree.
Finally, she elected to be
Ordinary by choice.
A student who chooses not to complete a final year dissertation
module – and so graduate with Honours – but rather exit university with an Ordinary degree, is described as ‘Ordinary by choice’. The phrase strikes me as both poetic and prophetic. Could anyone choose to be ‘ordinary’, and even if they could, is such a thing desirable? Is the course of a simple, ordinary life preferable to one that is complex and extra-ordinary? Does anyone truly believe that their experience of our rich, intricate world, in which decisions are made about priorities and ‘balance of life’, is ordinary, no matter how they make a living or what they do to fill their days?
Education in its widest sense, both formal and informal, taught and autodidactic, is a constant and destinationless journey that takes us from ignorant to less-than-ignorant. It is no coincidence that we use the same word (‘course’) in education, and to describe a river, and a life. A river’s function, as far as people are concerned, depends on choices that we make as to its course and fate. But even without human intervention that course naturally shifts over time and its destination is not necessarily the sea: much depends on geological events and the resulting topography of the land, at time scales uncaptured by the course of an individual’s experience.
The scientific research that I undertake is an attempt to capture truths about the ecological functioning of our planet and how it underpins human societies, no matter how technological or industrialised. It takes collected, often hard-won, data, internally scrutinises it for meaning, and externalises the findings into tables, graphs and written texts, that may influence other scientists or emerge in government reports or policy documents. My poetry takes ideas, emotions, feelings, and projects that mix of internal and external worlds into forms that sometimes, but not always, make sense to me. Empirical truths and emotional truths are not the same thing, and in fact may be contradictory and counter-factual. But empirical rationalism and emotional construction can coexist, and often do within the minds and personalities of scientists. Most do not produce poetry, but every scientist I know is emotionally invested in their subject and openly describes their science in terms of delight, rage, obsession, elation and disappointment, every bit as intense as any poet.
The full reference for this is:
Ollerton, J. (2016) Scientist as Poet as Scientist Dark Mountain 10: 185-189
Following my recent post about John Clare’s poem “Wild Bees“, I’ve been invited to give a short presentation on this at a forthcoming meeting about the Northamptonshire poet and documenter of environmental change.
Here’s the details:
John Clare: Landscape & Learning
Short presentations & discussions on aspects of John Clare
Venue: Room MY120 University of Northampton, Avenue Campus, NN2 6JD
FRIDAY 11th NOVEMBER: 10am arrival – 4pm close
Culminating with the JOHN CLARE LECTURE 2016 to be given by Professor John Goodridge
Contributors include: Jeff Ollerton, Erin Lafford, Charles Bennett, Clare Abbatt, Christy Edwall, Stephen Sullivan, Carry Akroyd, on topics such as:
John Clare’s Sonnets * Clare & the Bees * Clare the Fiddle Player * Clare as Inspiration * Clare & Weather * ‘The Nightingale’ * Clare in the Fields * ‘St Martin’s Eve’
Free and open to all. Bring lunch or use cafeteria on site.
Peer-reviewed writing moves science forwards; non-peer-reviewed writing moves science sideways.
That’s my publication philosophy in one sentence. In other words, when scientists write research papers and book chapters that are peer-reviewed, the underlying rationale is that we are adding to the sum total of human knowledge, providing insights into a topic, and moving a field forwards. When we write non-peer-reviewed articles we are generally writing about science for a broader audience, with little original content (though perhaps with some original ideas). This moves concepts out of a narrow subject area and into the purview of wider society, which can be other scientists in different fields, or government agencies or policy makers, or the general public.
There can be exceptions to the rule, such as the IPBES pollinators and pollination report that I’ve been discussing this year. The report was widely peer-reviewed but is intended for a much broader audience than just scientists. Conversely, non-peer-reviewed critiques and responses to published papers can clarify specific issues or challenge findings, which will certainly move science forward (or backwards into muddier waters, depending on how you view it). However, in general, the principle stated above holds true.
This raises the (admittedly clunky) question I’ve posed in the title of this post: just how much non-peer-reviewed publication should a scientist who is an active researcher actually do? How much time should they spend writing for that wider audience?
It’s a question that I’ve given some thought to over the 30 years1 that I’ve been writing and publishing articles and papers. But a couple of posts on other blogs during the past week have crystalised these thoughts and inspired this post. The first was Meghan Duffy’s piece on Formatting a CV for a faculty job application over at the Dynamic Ecology blog. There was some discussion about how to present different types of publications in the publication list, and notions of “sorting the wheat from the chaff” in that list, which seemed to refer to peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed publications.
One of the problems that I and others see is that the distinction is not so clear cut and it’s possible to publish non-peer-reviewed articles in peer-reviewed journals. For example the “commentary” and “news and views” type pieces in Nature, Science, Current Biology, and other journals are generally not peer reviewed. But I’d certainly not consider these to be “chaff”. To reiterate my comment on Meghan’s post, all scientific communication is important. As I’ve discussed in a few places on my blog (see here for example) and plenty of others have also talked about, scientists must write across a range of published formats if they are going to communicate their ideas effectively to a wider audience than just the scientists who are specifically interested in their topic.
Peer-reviewed publication is seen as the gold standard of science communication and it is clearly important (though historically it’s a relatively recent invention and scientific publications were not peer reviewed for most of the history of science). So why, you may be asking, would scientists want to write for that wider audience? One reason is the “Impact Agenda” on which, in Britain at least, there’s been a huge focus from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Research Councils. Grant awarding bodies and university recruitment panels will want to see that scientists are actively promoting their work beyond academia. That can be done in different ways (including blogging!) but articles in “popular” magazines certainly count. I should stress though that this wider, societal impact (as opposed to academic impact, e.g. measures such as the h-index) is not about publishing popular articles, or blogging, or tweeting. Those activities can be part of the strategy towards impact but are not in themselves impactful – the REF would describe this as “Reach”2.
The second recent blog post that relates to the question of peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed publications is Steve Heard’s piece at Scientistseessquirrel on why he thinks it’s still important to consider journal titles when deciding what to read. He makes some important points about how the place of publication says a lot about the type of paper that one can expect to read based just on the title. But the focus of Steve’s post is purely on peer-reviewed journals and (as I said above) it’s possible to publish non-peer-reviewed articles in those. I think that it’s also worth noting that there are many opportunities for scientists to publish articles in non-peer-reviewed journals that have real value. Deciding whether or not to do so, however, is a very personal decision.
Of the 96 publications on my publication list, 65 are peer-reviewed and 31 are not, which is a 68% rate of publishing peer-reviewed papers and book chapters. Some of the peer-reviewed papers are fairly light weight and made no real (academic) impact following publication, and (conversely) some of the non-peer-reviewed articles have had much more influence. The non-peer-reviewed element includes those commentary-type pieces for Nature and Science that I mentioned, as well as book reviews, articles in specialist popular magazines such as New Scientist, Asklepios and The Plantsman, pieces for local and industry newsletters, and a couple of contributions to literary journal Dark Mountain that combine essay with poetry. This is probably a more diverse mix than most scientists produce, but I’m proud of all of them and stand by them.
So back to my original question: is 68% a low rate of peer-reviewed publication? Or reasonable? I’m sure there are scientists out there with a 100% rate, who only ever publish peer-reviewed outputs. Why is that? Do they really attach no importance to non-peer-reviewed publications? I have no specific answer to the question in the title, but I’d be really interested in the comments of other scientists (and non-scientists) on this question.
1 I had to double check that, because it seems inconceivable, but yes, it’s 30 years this year. Gulp.
2 Impact is how society changes as a result of the research undertaken. So, for ecologists, it could be how their research has been translated into active, on-the-ground changes (e.g. to management of nature reserves, or rare or exploited species), or how it’s been picked up by national and international policy documents and then influenced policies on specific issues (invasive species, pollinator conservation, etc.)
John Clare is one of the most celebrated English poets of rural landscapes and nature in the 19th century. To quote his biographer, Clare was “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature”. Not only that, he was born and lived for much of his life in my adopted county, hence his epithet as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”.
One of his less well-known poems is called Wild Bees and is a stunning example of Clare’s ability to make detailed observations of the natural world and to translate those observations into poetry. So good are those observations that, as I show below, it’s possible to identify Clare’s bees from the descriptions he gives. First of all, here’s the full poem:
These children of the sun which summer brings
As pastoral minstrels in her merry train
Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings
And glad the cotters’ quiet toils again.
The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole
In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies,
And never absent couzen, black as coal,
That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs,
With white and red bedight for holiday,
Right earlily a-morn do pipe and play
And with their legs stroke slumber from their eyes.
And aye so fond they of their singing seem
That in their holes abed at close of day
They still keep piping in their honey dreams,
And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe
Round the sweet smelling closen and rich woods
Where tawny white and red flush clover buds
Shine bonnily and bean fields blossom ripe,
Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food
To these sweet poets of the summer fields;
Me much delighting as I stroll along
The narrow path that hay laid meadow yields,
Catching the windings of their wandering song.
The black and yellow bumble first on wing
To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers,
Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring
Who stints his rambles with her frequent showers;
And one that may for wiser piper pass,
In livery dress half sables and half red,
Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass
And hoards her stores when April showers have fled;
And russet commoner who knows the face
Of every blossom that the meadow brings,
Starting the traveller to a quicker pace
By threatening round his head in many rings:
These sweeten summer in their happy glee
By giving for her honey melody.
Here are the bees that I think Clare is talking about:
“The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole, In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies”
This is the least obvious of the bees to identify,
but my best guess, due to the “little hole” and “white nose“, is one of the small Yellow-Faced Bees (Hylaeus spp.) some of which (despite the name) have white faces. UPDATE: following discussion with Matt Smith in the comments (below) I’m going to change my mind and suggest that Clare is referring to male Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) – I think the “never absent couzen” part is the give-away.
“And never absent couzen, black as coal, That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs”
This has to be the female Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) which is all black except for its orange pollen brush on its rear legs, and which also nests in old walls.
“The black and yellow bumble first on wing, To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers, Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring”
I’m going to suggest that this is referring to the Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), the queens of which tend to emerge earlier than other, similar species, hence “first on wing“. It also usually nests in rodent holes.
“In livery dress half sables and half red, Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass”
This can only be the Red-shanked Carder Bee (Bombus ruderarius) the only red and black bee in the UK that makes a mossy nest above ground.
“And russet commoner who knows the face, Of every blossom that the meadow brings”
Finally, this must be one of my favourite bumblebees, the all-brown, Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum), which is as common as the name suggests, and is renowned for foraging on a wider range of flowers than most others, and therefore “knows the face of every blossom“.
If you have any suggestions for alternative bee identifications, please comment below.
UPDATE: it occurred to me after I posted this that all of the bees that Clare describes are still common in Northamptonshire with the exception of the Red-shanked Carder Bee (Bombus ruderarius) which has seen a huge decline throughout its range – see the BWARS account for this species.