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Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa

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More science, Gromit?: Publishing research as a conservation biologist

I submitted a journal article about the contents of poo today. I want to get a big fat marker out and cross that journal article off my to do list. It’s been on my list for far too long. In fact, it was on my finish before the end of 2017 list. Uhh that didn’t happen. Instead it’s been quietly haunting me while I waited for feedback from co-authors and for a long enough stretch of time so I could proofread it properly without a two year old driving a toy car on my head. The last time my son did this, he turned it on and the electric wheels got caught in my hair and I needed rescuing. I did not want that to happen again while I was checking my p-values.

Despite the elation of hitting the submit button (which is bigger than yours by the way), I can’t cross this paper off my list because it might get rejected or get major corrections (my nemesis) or minor corrections. Whatever, happens it’s not over yet.

Publishing scientific research is hard and tedious. In fact, I imagine that getting your research published is kind of like making Wallace and Gromit. Although it is apparent that a fair chunk of work goes into every scientific publication, on first glance a scientific paper looks relatively short and straightforward. You can do a good skim read through a journal article in about five minutes. But the amount of time, sweat, money, and tears that goes into every paper is phenomenal and is rarely ever fully grasped until you go through it yourself. This is why it’s like Wallace and Gromit. Using stop motion animation is really slow and it can take the animators days to create a four second shot. Most of the 30 minute Wallace and Gromit productions took about 18 months to create. And the same holds true of a roughly 16 page scientific paper, it take years of data collection and then a long period of analysis, shouting at R, writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, submitting, waiting, rewriting, resubmitting, etc, etc, ad infinitum.

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And some journals, well a lot of journals, even make the scientists who conducted the research and wrote the paper pay lots of money to publish with them. Maybe you’ve heard of starving artists, starving conservation biologists are real too. I’ve seen them wearing rags and sleeping rough in remote field sites. It’s a crazy old world. And here’s the thing, I’m sure that it costs a lot to make Wallace and Gromit (just like doing scientific research) but after the Wrong Trousers is made, the production team can make money on it. They can sell it to TV stations and they can produce merchandise. I had a Wallace and Gromit stationary box when I was younger. With science, you put in lots of effort and money so you can share your findings with the world and in conservation, so you can make a difference to protecting threatened species. There’s not a whole lot of financial return, which is okay because that’s not the point but it’s a shame that it costs young scientists so much to publish in the first place. Post-publication merchandise is not really a viable option. Somehow I don’t think too many people will buy a t-shirt with a picture of brown hyaena and leopard poo on it.


In 2003 starting out in wildlife research. A very sweaty Sam and I sleeping in a shelter we constructed in the Indonesian rainforest .

Sam is my science guru. He’s great at producing precise figures, running the statistics that make me want to stab things a million times, and he’s also really great at waiting for peer review feedback and calmly adapting his manuscript without taking it personally. I am more impatient and less forgiving. I think if Sam made a Wallace and Gromit show, he would firstly eat a lot of cheese for inspiration and secondly he would intricately and carefully orchestrate every tiny movement of our clay-molded protagonists. He would get on with it like a champ. I, on the other hand, would try for a bit, get annoyed, and then roll Wallace, Gromit, Shawn the sheep, and that penguin who dresses up like a chicken into one big rainbow coloured ball. But today I submitted a journal article. So until the reviewers get back to me and possibly crush my hopes and dreams, I’m going to give myself and my coauthors a big pat on the back and forget about it.

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Running stats in the scat lab.


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