Jan 122017

Earlier today I reflected on my start as a Blogger™ over on Twitter, which is basically where I blog now (hashtag blogging is dead or something). Stephen Heard (who has his own blog) suggested I post it here too, and I figured for old time sake (and so I don’t forget my login information) that that sounded like a great idea.

You can read that first introductory post here if you want. The first “real” post is here (which I’m pleasantly surprised to admit stands up pretty well 7 years later).

Jun 182016

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been tracking the newly described animal species that have made the news with their introduction to science, with the intent of understanding what factors make a new species newsworthy. I’m still collecting data and figuring out how to make sense of it all, but in the process I’ve come to realize that a fair number of taxonomists and journals are either unaware of the rules of nomenclature, or perhaps just don’t care.

There are a surprisingly large number of rules that govern how and where new species of animals can be legitimately described, rules that are created and occasionally adapted by the governing body of animal taxonomy, the ICZN. These rules are in place to ensure the language of biodiversityspecies, genus, and family names—are consistent and stable worldwide, ensuring that when a scientist in China refers to the genus Micropeza, scientists in Canada, Peru, and South Africa can all understand explicitly what the organism they are referring to is. Without stable names agreed on internationally, we would have a gigantic mess on our hands, and all of biology would grind to a halt.

One of the important tenets of stable names is establishing what name came first, and then using it forever (barring some scenarios in which the oldest name can be suppressed, which we won’t bother going into). This is called the Principle of Priority, and may be the most important (and sometimes, trickiest) rule to follow. Obviously, when trying to address what name was created first, it’s vital to know the exact date that name met all the criteria set forth by the ICZN and was officially coined. Again, there are a lot of rules that stipulate when a name is considered “official”, but one in particular is, for some reason, apparently being ignored more often than the others, and which can cause names to become complicated, quickly.

This rule, introduced in 2012, allows for new species names to be published in digital format (either as an early view version ahead of traditional printing, or entirely digital, like PLoS One for example). Up until this rule was introduced, only names published in journals or other publications that were printed out on paper (in multiple copies) and distributed to a couple of libraries were considered legitimate. But, recognizing that the world of scientific publication is changing (rapidly), the ICZN finally adopted a new rule allowing names to become official in digital publications, but only if the authors take one extra step: register their publications in a new database called ZooBank. This registration process does two things: 1) it allows for papers that have new names introduced in them to be more easily tracked, and 2) the registration process includes a stipulation that the journal intends to archive a non-editable PDF of the paper, so if the internet and all digital media are destroyed, we still (hypothetically) have records of these new names (although I reckon we’ll have bigger issues to deal with than worrying about correct taxonomy in that situation…). Regardless of the intent, these are the new rules, and for any names published in a digital format, the paper must be registered in ZooBank (and state in the paper somewhere that it has been), a process that takes less than 10 minutes to do. Simple enough, right? Apparently not.

In the past 6 months, of the roughly 120 taxonomic papers that have made the news, I’ve found at least 5 that have failed to meet this ZooBank qualification, meaning that any names introduced by the authors aren’t actually real (yet). Five papers out of 120 may not seem like that big a deal, but when you expand that ratio to the roughly 15,000 new animals species described every year, we’re potentially looking at 600 new species that unknowingly remain without an official name!

So what’s the big deal if a few more species remain nameless, there are millions left to be discovered anyways, right? And if the name is being published as an early view in a journal that still releases paper copies, the names will eventually become official once the paper versions are printed and distributed (perhaps weeks or months later). Basically, for scientists that have spent months or years examining specimens and collecting data only to fail to meet this one tiny requirement is akin to a person running a marathon, and then stumbling and falling on the very last step and being disqualified from the race, yet celebrating their “accomplishment” anyways. It may be awkward, or embarrassing, and it should be avoided by all means necessary, but won’t it all get fixed eventually? Well…

Besides the professional embarrassment, there’s a big problem just waiting to happen when names aren’t correctly, and formally, published: someone else scooping the naming rights for your species. Until the name is fully published and all the qualifications met, either by the name being printed out on paper when its assigned issue is published, or alternatively by someone else publishing their own paper that does meet all of the rules, there is no requirement that the name proposed by the original authors actually be used. In fact, nothing is stopping anyone from finding one of these inadequately named species, and turning around a quick paper coining a name of their own for the taxon, establishing priority and ensuring they are recognized for eternity, and not the people who did all the hard work. This type of taxonomic sniping isn’t unheard of, although to my knowledge there have not been any examples of ZooBank robbing, yet.

Is it shady? Definitely. Is it likely to happen? Eventually. Is it avoidable? Absolutely.

So as I’ve stumbled across these named-but-actually-unnamed species by accident, I’ve been sending out cautionary messages on Twitter reminding taxonomists or anyone else in the process of describing a new species about the ZooBank rule, or straight-up condemning repeat-offender journals and advising people not to publish new names in them (looking at you Scientific Reports). Which is what I did again Friday afternoon regarding another new species, published in a prestigious journal that should know better, but which failed the ZooBank test. Unlike previous times however, I linked to the paper, and called out the journal directly, mostly because I hold it in high regard, and also because subtweeting an entire field of science clearly wasn’t working.

To my surprise, within 30 minutes my cell phone was ringing, and the lead author of the paper in question was on the line asking not only what they did wrong, but more surprisingly, that I please delete my tweets calling attention to the issue. The author was aware that the ICZN had recently changed the rules to allow digital publication but didn’t know the specifics, and the journal they submitted to had apparently not published a new species description since the changes came into effect, and so weren’t prepared to comply on the author’s behalf either.

I ended up spending a good deal of time explaining the ZooBank rule to them, and suggesting how they can work with their journal editor to fix it, but I remained uneasy about deleting and retracting my tweets. However, after talking more with the author, and recognizing that they were genuinely afraid of a specific person known for their unscrupulous taxonomic practices learning of their mistake and taking advantage of it, I agreed to take down my tweets, but with the understanding that I would be disclosing the series of events and actions here, albeit with their anonymity intact. Frankly, the taxonomic community has enough challenges facing them, and I’d rather not contribute to those challenges further simply to prove a point at the expense of someone else’s hard work.

So be warned, readers working to document and describe Earth’s biodiversity! Spend some time learning the rules of nomenclature, and ensure that the journals that you submit your science to are equally knowledgeable of what it takes to name a species. And if you’re unsure of a journal’s dedication or experience publishing taxonomic research, take the responsibility for your hard work into your own hands and register your taxa and your papers yourself, and avoid the potential pitfalls of naming species in the digital era. You’ll be glad you did when you see your species spoken of with the name you intended!

Nov 062013

There’s a pretty remarkable fly photograph making the rounds of social media today, and while it originally had me going “Oooooh!”, the more I think about it, the more I feel like we’re staring at clouds.

It started when Ziya Tong tweeted a photo of a Goniurellia tridens (a fruit fly in the family Tephritidae) displaying its wings:

Continue reading »

Aug 312013

I was browsing Malcolm Campbell’s (highly recommended) weekly science link collection this morning, and came across an article in Nautilus on the newly described olinguito species. I was really enjoying the article, until the third to last paragraph, which triggered a bit of Twitter rant. Continue reading »

Jan 102013

Yesterday Scientific American published “Men and Women of (Limited) Letters: Must-Follow Twitter Accounts of 2013“, a list of the Top 20 science-related Twitter accounts which they think everyone should follow. It’s a great list and I 100% recommend following everyone on it if you use Twitter (and if you don’t yet, then it’s a great place to start), but I noticed a heavy bias towards the physical sciences, and a distinct lack of biologists among the recommendations.

Seeing as biology is the best, I figured I’d put together my own Top 15 list1 (in no particular order) of Tweeting Biologists who will undoubtedly make 2013 a fun, educational and most-definitely squishy year! Continue reading »

  1. Of course I love all the people I follow, and can heartily recommend each and every one of them!
Oct 102012

A few weeks ago I was invited to help out with a cool project connecting high school students with working scientists via Twitter called SciStuChat. The program, started by high school science teacher Adam Taylor, encourages students and other inquisitive minds to talk about science, ask questions and get to know their friendly online-neighbourhood scientist!

I tuned in to September’s chat which centred on sharks and marine biology, and it seemed like fun for both the students and the scientists who participated. It turns out that October’s theme will be Insects, so when Adam (@2footgiraffe) invited me to help out, I jumped at the opportunity!

I know there are a lot of entomologists on Twitter who really enjoy outreach and spreading the good word about bugs, so I hope that some of you might be interested in joining the discussion. The chat will be taking place this Thursday, October 11 starting at 8pm CST (9pm EST or 6pm PST), and I think it’s scheduled for about an hour or so. All you need to do is log on to Twitter, follow the hashtag (#SciStuChat), and start interacting with curious minds! There is such a diverse field of entomologists on Twitter that I’m confident that we can answer and engage with any questions people may have regarding insects.

Finally, don’t worry if you’re not on Twitter, I’ll round up all the discussions and post them here later in the week so you can see how it went, although this as good a reason as ever to sign up for Twitter if you’ve been thinking about doing so!

May 092012
Ryan Fleacrest

Ryan Fleacrest Approves of these Insect Songs

I’ve mentioned before how useful Twitter can be, and how the #hashtag can be a real life saver for researchers and entomologists. Today however, the #hashtag reached an all new level of awesome, and provided the Twitterverse with an afternoon’s worth of free comedy.

#InsectSongs is where cheesy Saturday afternoon music anthology commercials meet entomology, with countless creative song titles scrolling down the screen. I’ve Storified some of my favourites here (grouped by taxonomic order of course), but be sure to check out the full list of Bugboard 100 hit titles!

Insect nerds are a creative lot and they put their hivemind to work coming up with some amazingly Punny #InsectSongs!


Ironically there were a large number of Beatles songs included in this list…

Of course if you want to hear some actual music about insects, check out my Tuesday Tunes playlist.

Jan 022012

Spoof cover of book Twitter for ScientistsToday is my 1 year Twitterversary, making it as good a time as any to share why I think Twitter is one of the most important resources available to scientists, how to make the most of it, and what makes it great for interacting with non-scientists.

Twitter is as simple a social network as you can get, “limited” to text-based updates of 140 characters telling people “What’s Happening” in your life. But as they say, it’s not the size of the tweet that matters, but rather how you use it, and there are roughly 2 million ways in which to interact with the Twitterverse, sharing and finding all manner of relevant content, ideas, and information!

So what makes Twitter the ultimate scientific resource? Networking. If there’s one thing I’ve realized about academia, it’s that what you know is not all that matters when it comes to finding opportunities (although it is extremely important). Many times it also matters who you know, and maybe more importantly, who knows you! Through Twitter I’ve “met” entomologists of all disciplines; apiculturists, IPM consultants, taxonomists, ecologists and physiologists across the spectrum of amateurs, graduate students, post-docs, museum staff or university faculty. But I’ve also interacted with individuals who I would normally never come in contact with, like marine biologists, scientific illustrators, botanists, bioinformaticians, evolutionary biologists, statisticians, microbiologists and many, MANY science writers! Joshua Drew (a marine biology post-doc in Chicago) hit the nail on the head:


These people won’t be at the usual conferences I attend, but that doesn’t mean my research isn’t related to theirs. By exposing myself to a wide array of scientists, I have found inspiration to apply to my own projects, methods to experiment with in future, and kindred spirits who are also working their way through the trials of academia and provide invaluable advice. As I move forward, who knows how these individuals may influence my career, with each “tweep” a potential collaborator, advisor or hiring committee member; fortune favours the prepared, and Twitter has allowed me to diversify my knowledge base significantly, better preparing me for future research obstacles.

With over 200 million users posting more than 95 million tweets per day, you may find it daunting to discover tweeters relevant to your field of science. Luckily there are several ways to get the most out of Twitter with minimal time investment. You can easily subscribe to lists of scientist twitter users, or super-tweeters like @BoraZ who share content from a wide variety of scientists (or you can start with who I follow even). It’s important to note that when you follow someone on Twitter, the information being shared is unilateral, meaning you can see what that person posts, but they don’t see what you post (unless they reciprocate and follow you). This means you can tailor the information you receive to only those you find interesting, without getting inundated with updates by all the people who may follow and interact with you.

However, to unlock the real power of Twitter, I recommend exploring the #hashtag. Integrated by Twitter as an automatic search term, hashtags allow you to filter tweets from all 200 million+ users simply and directly. There are a number of interesting and widely adopted science hashtags which may interest you, but you can create, use and follow any hashtag which you consider interesting or relevant (like #Diptera, or #ScienceShare perhaps). There are 2 in particular however which I have found to be the most powerful; #madwriting and #IcanhazPDF.

#madwriting is a rallying call for those that may struggle with writing or dedicating the time to do so. Created to develop a shared sense of community, accountability and encouragement, #madwriting bouts last about 30 minutes, and encourage undistracted writing, followed by a sharing of progress after the time is up. Major portions of my Master’s thesis were accomplished thanks to the #madwriting community, as well as numerous blog posts (including this one).

Although grammatically terrible, #IcanhazPDF is the most useful hashtag for scientists in my opinion. If you or your institution does not have access to a journal, it can be frustrating, time-consuming and difficult to obtain a copy of a paper. Traditionally this obstacle would be overcome using interlibrary loan or contacting authors or other colleagues at different institutions and requesting copies directly. With #IcanhazPDF, the Twitter community has changed the game, crowd-sourcing paper requests from complete strangers across the world. The speed at which you can obtain a paper has now gone from days or weeks to minutes, allowing you to go on with your research & writing without delay. I can personally attest to this system, having made a request last spring and receiving the PDF via email less than 20 minutes later. While no different from making direct requests from colleagues (which has gone on for decades), there is the potential for legal trouble, so be sure to make an informed decision before taking part.

As you can see, there are numerous ways for scientists to benefit from Twitter, but Twitter is also a great way to reach out to the general public and give back. Whether you share tales from your research (or more personal stories that demonstrate that scientists are human too), pass along links to popular science articles or blog posts (or even open-access journal articles), develop citizen science projects, or simply interact with the public by answering questions, it’s easy to give back on Twitter and potentially inspire future generations of scientists. I’ve helped identify insects for people, provided answers on biodiversity, and tried to change people’s opinions about flies in general, all via Twitter. The 140 character limit I mentioned earlier has also forced me to become more concise with my writing, and lead me to change my use of verbose terms common to scientific jargon. I can also see Twitter being incorporated in the classroom, facilitating interactions between students and teachers/professors or being used as extra credit (recording wildlife sightings, extracurricular readings, etc).

While I understand scientists are busy people and may be hesitant to join a(nother) social network, I feel that careful integration of Twitter into a research program can actually increase productivity and innovation. If you’re not already tweeting, I encourage you to give it a chance and explore what you may be missing!

You can find me on Twitter @BioInFocus.
UPDATE (Jan. 3. 2011, 00:30): @BoraZ sent me a link to another great clearing house of science twitterers, Science Pond. At this time their tweet display algorithm seems to be down, but you can still browse the long list of scientist users on the left hand side.
Dec 112011

This week I’ll be running a whole series of posts and ideas on using social media as a scientist; both for connecting with other researchers, but also as a tool to communicate with the general public. I encourage you to chime in and share some of your own ideas on how to use social media in science, either here in the comments section, on your own blog, or through any of the plentiful social network sites. If you don’t have a blog and want to expand on some ideas, contact me and we can set up a guest post here!

I’ll be using the hashtag #ScienceShare throughout the week (and beyond I hope) while discussing the topic on Twitter and Google+, so feel free to follow along across the web!

I figured I’d start the week off by sharing a talk I gave at both the Entomological Society of Ontario and Entomological Society of America meetings this past fall, which should serve as an overview of where this week may go!

If you’re interested in exploring some of the things I discussed, here’s the Prezi I gave at the ESO meeting. I’m looking forward to seeing where this week takes us! Be sure to stay tuned!


(You can move around and interact with this Prezi to explore some of the links and sources included within it)

Jan 022011

Happy New Year! Time for a little blog-cleaning!

Regulars likely noticed the blog has had a make-over recently. Not usually one for change, I had little choice after discovering that my old theme was being destroyed by Internet Explorer. After testing 3 different versions of IE (6, 7, & 8), I found that each version rendered my blog differently, and none for the better! Photos were skewed and distorted (a major no-no in my books), sidebars disappeared and formatting was practically non-existent. Since almost one third of the people who visit are using Internet Explorer, I wanted a more consistent theme. Why Microsoft continues to fail at web browsing is beyond me, but I would recommend anyone using Internet Explorer to consider making the switch to another, more web-friendly browser (my favourite is Mozilla Firefox, but Google Chrome is another great choice). [/rant]

As a consequence of this theme shift, I had to reset my RSS feed, so if you had previously subscribed, you’ll probably need to resubscribe. Click the green button on the right and choose your feed aggregator of choice from FeedBurner.

Now that the blog is looking good and working for everyone (hopefully), I’m going to keep the content coming at a more regular pace. The last few months have been a little more hectic than usual, but with a final road map to completion for my Master’s set out and the majority of work completed and written, I’m anticipating having more time to set aside for blogging. I’ve got some weekly features to implement, topics to catch up on, and plenty more!

Along with more content, I’ve signed on to Twitter, so get ready for a daily stream of posts, links, and other entomological miscellanea ready to help you procrastinate! You can click the button on the right, or follow me @BioInFocus. If you’re on Twitter, drop your tag in the comments below, or pass along those that you find worth a click!

Thanks for sticking around, I’m definitely looking forward to ringing in my second year as a part of the blogosphere!