A poorly written paper on a lovely rodent

June 26, 2014 • 5:58 am

Note to readers: it took me 1.5 hours to write what’s below, so you’d better read it!

Somebody called this paper to my attention (I can’t recall who), and I read it even though I had to wade though prose about as tedious as I’ve ever seen in a scientific paper. I don’t know the authors, and I guess their results are somewhat interesting, but the paper is written so badly that it’s hard to distill its essence. I am talking about a new paper by P. W. Bateman and P. A. Fleming in Journal of Zoology (reference and link at bottom).

For example, have a gander at the title and then the abstract.

Screen shot 2014-06-22 at 10.41.53 AM

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 7.30.57 AM This is scientific writing at its most opaque. The title should be “Do squirrels run away when you’re approaching them or looking at them?”  And the abstract should be this:

Both learning and natural selection predict that animals should balance their “flight” distance—the distance from which they flee an approaching animal that might be dangerous—against the benefits of remaining where they are. Animals who flee when the supposed danger is too far away risk losing food and wasting energy; those who flee only at the last second risk death. We tested this by observing squirrels at a housing project in Manhattan, New York. We found that when observers approached foraging squirrels on a well-marked  footpath, the flight distance was smaller than when the observers left the footpath and walked toward the squirrels. Flight distance was also increased when the observers were looking directly at the squirrels. In other words, squirrels get freaked out when you deviate from what they consider a “normal” path and when you’re staring the little buggers down. Those are both cues that, in fact, an approaching animal might be a predator.

Well, that’s is a bit lighthearted, and I wrote it in about two minutes and could do much better with a couple of revisions, but compare that to the tangle of words above. Why not say “squirrels” instead of “successful urban exploiters,” for crying out loud?

This is the kind of writing that Steven Pinker warns against in his new book A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, which I’ve just read in galleys. It’s very good, and anyone aspiring to clear writing should order it (it’ll be out September 30). I won’t give the contents away, but it is a guide to writing in what Pinker calls “the classic style,” an easygoing style that’s like having a conversation with the reader. There is also a list of many contentious words and grammatical usages, and Pinker’s judgement on whether they’re good or verboten. It’s a great book to have if you aspire to avoid writing like the authors above, and it’s already helped me with the prose in my own book (which, by the way, will be done by July 4).

I will summarize the results briefly, and am doing so only because this paper involves my favorite rodent. The researchers did a study approaching Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinenesis; same species as Tufty E. and his two siblings) foraging on the grounds of Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town, an apartment project in lower Manhattan. The grounds are criss-crossed by footpaths. The observers were told to walk towards foraging squirrels, walking in a way that would take them 2 meters from the squirrel when they passed by.  They used two variants of this design.

The first involved staying on the footpath, and approaching squirrels within 2m of the footpath versus straying from the footpath to approach the squirrel.  (Most people stay on the footpaths.)  The second was to stare at the squirrel while approaching it versus pretending to ignore it and watching it only with your peripheral vision. Observers then determined what proportion of squirrels fled before they were 2 m away from it.  Here is the graph showing the proportion of squirrels fleeing (height of black bar) versus staying put (white bar) for all four combinations of staying/straying on footpath and looking/not looking.


Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 7.32.09 AMNo surprise here: squirrels stay put, by and large, when you stay on the footpath, but flee readily when you deviate from the footpath. In both cases they flee a lot more often when you’re looking at them. I suppose the second bit is mildly interesting, for it shows that the squirrels are aware of the direction of your gaze.

In the second part of the study (note that the sample sizes are small–about 20 sqrlz/replicate), they measured three things in each of the four treatments: “alert distance” (AD), the distance at which the squirrels sit up and take notice; the “flight initiation distance”” (FID), the distance from the observers at which the squirrels begin to flee; and the “distance fled” (DF), the distance that the squirrel ran before it started foraging again. Here are the data. The zero point for distance is actually 2 meters, the distance that the observers calculated that they would come closest to the rodent. In other words, they were instructed to get no closer than 2 meters, so that’s called “zero distance”:

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 7.32.25 AM Figure 2 Alert distance (AD), flight initiation distance (FID) and distance fled (DF) for squirrels approached by a pedestrian that was either looking or not looking at them, and either remained on footpaths or approached the squirrels directly (moving off the footpaths). Letters/ numerals indicate the results of post hoc analyses for each distance measure independently.

The salient results:

  • If you don’t look at the squirrels and stay on the path (second group of results), they stay put. Being used to humans, they are brazen little things.
  • If you look at them but stay on the footpath, they become alert when you’re about 5 meters away, but they don’t run away. That’s probably because everybody in the apartment complex stays on the footpaths, so it’s normal human behavior.
  • If you go off the path and stare at the squirrels, they get alert when you’re about 7 meters away, and flee when you’re just a bit closer. They tend to run about 6 meters before resuming their activities.
  • If you go off the path but pretend that you aren’t looking at the squirrels, they get alert when you’re even farther away: about 8 meters. But they don’t flee at all—they clearly perceive that your intentions are honorable.

The upshot is that it makes a big difference whether or not you’re looking at the squirrels, although staying on the footpaths also keeps them calmer. That’s an interesting result, so why did they bury it in contorted prose? Look how they finish the paper:

We have identified cues that are likely to be important for risk perception by an urban animal species monitoring its environment. Together with direction of attention of people, urban squirrels were more reactive to pedestrians that showed a divergence from ‘usual’ behaviour (e.g. pedestrians entering areas which are usually human-free), even when not associated with closer approach or changes in speed. In addition to being arboreal (which can include use of anthropogenic structures), which minimizes vulnerability to diurnal terrestrial ‘predators’ (see Herr, Schley & Roper, 2009), general trophic and social flexibility (Baumgartner, 1943; Don, 1983; Koprowski, 2005) may help explain why eastern grey squirrels are successful urban adapters.

Further research should consider how, despite habituation to human presence, urban taxa modulate their reactions according to subtle differences in human behaviour. Assessment of, and potentially habituation to, human activity is an important criterion for successful urban adapters and urban exploiters. In the face of increasing urbanization across the globe, the life history and behavioural attributes of those taxa that are good urban adapters.

This is how people write when they want to sound “science-y,” and it’s how we scientists are taught to write. But it needn’t be that way. In fact, when I read a paper this tedious, I tend to turn off and put it down. If you want people to read your scientific work (or anything you write), put it in clear language and, if you can, try to be a bit lively. Three people whose papers are consistently clear are David Sloan Wilson, Dick Lewontin (my Ph.D. adviser) and—in his earlier days—Stephen Jay Gould. If you know of others, name them in the comments.

But the authors of this squirrel paper need a lesson from Pinker! There is never a reason, I think, to use the kind of contorted language seen above, even in one’s most serious academic papers. You can, of course, write more formally for your colleagues (omitting, for example, contractions like “it’s”), but there’s no need to say stuff like “anthropogenic structures” or “how. . urban taxa modulate their reactions according to subtle differences in human behavior.” Academics are people, and like everyone we appreciate clear writing. The only ones who don’t are postmodernists, who use unreadable prose to hide their lack of ideas.

I won’t correct the language above as it would take forever. Let me just say that “showed a divergence from” could be changed to “altered” or “deviated from,”  and “anthropogenic structures” (JEBUS!) could be “buildings” or “human constructions.”

All those words to show that squirrels pay attention to unusual human behavior and eye contact!

After all that, we need a LOLsquirrel (I wonder how this one was rescued):


Having interacted a lot with squirrels over the last two years, I can vouch that the males do indeed have prominent testicles.


Bateman, P. W. and P. A. Fleming. 2014. Does human pedestrian behavior influence risk or assessment in a successful urban adaptor? J. Zoology. Article first published online: 12 June, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12156

52 thoughts on “A poorly written paper on a lovely rodent

  1. “the males do indeed have prominent testicles” – to be technical, surely the term is nuts?!
    Sorry… 😉

    1. To be serious, it would be interesting to see the same bahaviour in feral pigeons. It is the same stay or flight decision. Also some people feed them, which make make a difference. In one week on one occasion – forgive me if I have said this before – I was accidentally bitten twice by a squirrel (in a nearby London Park) that accidentally mistook a finger for a peanut I was holding. I was obviously a tad agitated (ouch d@~#m flipping heck etc!) & that may have coloured the squirrel’s future behaviour – or not.

      Try it with pigeons though someone.

      1. There’s a guy in Washington Square Park (in NYC) who comes everyday and feeds the pigeons. When they see him coming they all fly over and gather around. They land on his head and shoulders and walk around with him. They let him put them on other people, too. If there are no pigeons there when he arrives, he calls out to them and they come from all over the park.

        1. Observe if all the pigeons go to him. I have watched them go to someone who feeds them, & there is a three stage process –
          1 a few spot the feer & fly over
          2 that precipitates the bulk to follow even if they have no idea what is happening – presumably he flew over so there must be good nosh for me…
          3 a few stay as they are probably too late to get food & there may be an advantage in staying as a small group on this side of the park

          I have observed this at least & that was my assessment of what might be happening.

          1. Pigeons have an extremely flexible and adaptable behavior. What you said actually happens. However, pigeons and many birds are more than capable of individual human recognition and association. Note the poster mentioned this person comes daily. It’s extremely likely that a portion of the pigeons recognize him as a reliable food source. Of course once he starts feeding there will be an obvious chain reaction.

  2. I bet it was an undergrad project. The whole “trying to sound sciencey” while getting in the way of your actual science is a classic rookie mistake I’ve seen many times.

  3. Is it possible that the creature in the unhappy position is in fact a late creature, positioned by the photographer?

  4. Good stuff.

    Never use more words than you must.
    Never use jargon where a simple word will do.

    Orwell’s assay, Politics and the English Language is excellent.

    1. Reminds me of this item posted in a talk by the great Steven Pinker:

      “I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
      Blaise Pascal, 1656

  5. Lost in all this verbiage is the fact that this got past an editor and several reviewers. Granted, the role of reviewer is primarily to review the scientific merits of the paper, but surely presentation is still important. If a paper is poorly written, the reviewers bear some responsibility in letting the editor know that it should not be published, regardless of the scientific content.

    1. I dunno. Usually you get a form to fill out with specific questions, and I don’t recall ever getting a question about writing style. I think you need both reviewers and an editor, and neither should do the job of the other.

    2. To add to what John says, in my experience reviewers get an early copy of the paper – not even a preprint. This significantly adds to the (correct) perception that copy editing is ‘someone else’s job.’

    3. The only times I’ve ever noticed journal editors making changes, it was to alter the sense of what I’d intended to write or stuff up taxonomic terms. True that improvements would not stand out as much as corruptions of sense, but eds clearly don’t have much time (at most journals) to think about any changes they do make, even if they do see it as their job. Often you can pick non-native speakers from the title of a paper alone, which editors and referees are most reluctant to mess with.
      Another issue is the number of authors: if one introduces a bad expression or erroneous interpretation, the other(s) may either miss it or let it slide out of ‘professional respect’, i.e. laziness or cowardice.
      I used to get paid for fixing up English expression in non-natives’ manuscripts, and it was never my job (at the price) to attain actual good writing, only to fix ambiguity or complete obscurity (plus spelling and grammar fails). I do the same thing (for free!) on every manuscript I review, because you can’t judge the content of a paper if you can’t tell what it is.

  6. It’s a terrible problem: the decline in proper copy editing of research papers. Some don’t do it at all any more, it seems, and I’ve heard of journals that CHARGE authors for correction of the English language. I suppose it’s down to economics, but it’s a great shame.

  7. It’s a terrible problem: the decline in proper copy editing of research papers. Some journals don’t do it at all any more, it seems, and I’ve heard of journals that CHARGE authors for correction of the English language. I suppose it’s down to economics, but it’s a great shame.

  8. Aaaah! The authors have taken to red wine to alleviate the pain and perhaps improve their loquacious use of extraneous verbosity! :->

  9. The data is quite clear, but to singularly test for urban adaptation they should repeat the study in a location where humans are rare. I admit that would be very difficult, especially in the case of the Eastern grey squirrel.

    1. Actually, I think the data could have been presented more clearly. The extreme cases — on path and not looking v. off path and looking — should be at the extremes of the figures, instead of buried in the middle.

  10. Just overheard somewhere in the halls of academia:

    “Oh wow! It’s such a great day don’t you think? The sun is shining, we’re about to tune in the World Cup game, and our urban adapter paper has just been published! Let’s check in to WEIT for a second just to see the topics for today – – – – Oh Shit!!”

  11. Interesting that a paper in Journal of Zoology is an experiment that literally anyone can do, probably in an afternoon. You could come up with the idea, do the experiment and write up the paper in a day.

    Might make an interesting student project come to think of it.

    Nice to see boxplots being used, I always recommend them as a good way of comparing a bunch of groups/treatments all in one simple picture.

    Also, rather nicely, for most of the “treatments” the distributions of the measurements have long tails.

  12. In writing, the only thing worse than academic obfuscation is business BS. On a weekly basis I’m forced to wade through memos that say things like “Going forward, all staff will utilize market presence synergy to leverage wins.”

    1. I never directly visit HuffPo, but a science blog linked this:


      Similarly, you can read others gripe here:


      Lab employees sound like they are teenagers texting one another and this is what program managers sound like today:

      “Look I wanted to touch base and circle back regarding the bandwidth issue and have an impactful discussion where we utilize all the buzzwords. You weren’t helpful and decided it best to table the discussion and deep dive the engagement lest it go viral and cost the program its usual value-add as shown on the one-sheet as a contract deliverable. The work product should have elements that incentives and take it to the next level. I’d hate to see the program come to a hard stop because we weren’t on congresses radar. I suggest doing your due diligence by demonstrating some 360-degree thinking in order to bring about the paradigm shift we are attempting to force and globalize the program goals. I think as an action item you should push the science to the bleeding edge just short of killing it, to synergize with our “work-for others” partners and claim the low-hanging fruit!”

  13. Damn! That guy is infringing on my patented squirrel trap.
    I just can’t figure out how he got his to work.

  14. Too bad. Probably think they need turgid prose to sound “scholarly” writing about squirrels. Given your translation, could be an interesting read. But who would wade through that stuff unless they had to? Could you assign it to undergrads? The problem is pervasive in economics. Boring prose augmented by impenetrable math. Inaccessible to the students.

  15. The opacity of that abstract is not as bad as some condensed matter theorists trying to write about unrealistic experiments to support their claims. Still I marvel at how 1.5 hours could have been endured to get through that.

  16. I don’t see anything wrong with the style of the original abstract. It’s not overly verbose for a technical paper. I also think the use of “successful urban exploiters” was appropriate. The authors did not mean the phrase to refer only to squirrels but were clearly generalising their observations to other animals who would be successful exploiters of urban environments. See when I tried to rephrase I ended up using more words than the authors did.

    1. The issue is it seems the authors tried to fancy up their paper instead if up just using plain language. I didn’t find it hard to read, but it was tedious. It is better to write plainly and be understood than try to write fancy and be misunderstood. If I had read this, the first thing u would have said to the authors is, “what are you trying to say?” I guarantee they would not have used these words in giving me a rundown of what they wanted to say. After telling me what they wanted to say, I’d advise, “then write that”. It is surprising how often this happens. My advice if people struggle with how to word things: write an outline and bullet points then go from there. In school, when writing essays during exams, we spent half the time planning our essay first. Now writing is much easier (and you really do need to plan under exam conditions since you cannot actually cut and paste when you are writing by hand).

    2. I think it’s okay to use more words if the result is clearer. But even using the same number of words or less, “successful mammal urban adapter” in the title could just be “animal adapted to cities”, I think, and “squirrels are successful urban adapters” could be “squirrels thrive in cities”.

      I realize that “urban adapter” and “urban exploiter” are jargon terms with specific meanings, but I don’t see that they’re needed to communicate the results in this case.

  17. Too bad. Probably think they need turgid prose to sound “scholarly” writing about squirrels. Given your translation, could be an interesting read. But who would wade through that stuff unless they had to? Could you assign it to undergrads? The problem is pervasive in economics. Boring prose augmented by impenetrable math. Inaccessible to the students.

  18. Yep, I had to pause on anthropogenic structure.

    And then, the last sentence of theirs that you put up seems only to contain a highly decorated subject:
    In the face of increasing urbanization across the globe, the life history and behavioural attributes of those taxa that are good urban adapters. (Where’s the verb, for starts?)

  19. Damn, I was thinking these must be very early-career researchers, but Google Scholar shows they’ve been publishing for a decade or two (respectively). Also they live in the same city as I do (it ain’t New York, but as far away as it’s possible to get on the same planet), so I’d better shut up now. I’ve been guilty of some pretty leaden prose in journals myself.

  20. Yeesh! that is one bowl of nasty-looking word salad! I’m tempted to try and see if I could track down the Eighth-grade English teacher of any of these authors and pass this along, but any good such an act might do would be offset by the pain it would cause the teacher.

  21. I too thought the abstract was pretty clearly written. I understood it with minimal effort, and I’m a social scientist. Lots of bad writing in academia, but this doesn’t seem to be the egregious example you’re making it out to be.

  22. If you know of others, name them in the comments.

    In physics, N. David Mermin is a champion of clear, conversational writing. His Boojums All the Way Through contains (among other things) the most accessible and engaging explanation of Bell’s Theorem I’ve ever encountered.

  23. my own book (which, by the way, will be done by July 4)

    Woo-hoo! Conga rats!

    Have you planned the obligatory celebratory meal and footwear yet?


  24. I have a friend who used to be a medical writer. Often when you see things published by medical doctors, they are ghost written by someone else. We used to laugh that people thought they were reading something written by a seasoned MD but they were reading something written by a girl in her 20s (at the time) because MDs are often horrible writers.

  25. A professor once told me he was doing an experiment the Ancient Greeks could have done. I suppose they could have done this one with something other than grey squirrels.

    I look on reviewing as an opportunity to help out colleagues, so I do comment on style. This has been particularly appreciated by colleagues whose first language is not English.

  26. I’ve got some pretty bold rabbits that like to visit my back yard and chew up the plants. They aren’t phased by yelling or mean looks. I have to get my kids to chase them. They don’t move until the kids get close. I’ll have to take notes and write a paper.

    1. “Successful mammal adapters to an anthropogenic rural simulation associated with a domestic structure reach lower flight distances in the presence of juvenile humans demonstrating approximately predatory behavior. Also, heightened vocal displays by the juvenile humans cause a reduced fear response in the successful mammal simulated-rural-environment adapters (for short).”

      Gah, I feel dirty.

  27. Thanks for this. I too was taught to write in the style of the paper you have discussed. Imagine my surprise the first time I had one of my publications reviewed by a really good editor! I have been working to improve my writing by reducing jargon and unwieldy and unnecessary words ever since. I consider myself a work in progress.

  28. This is all great advice, but all for naught when journal editors / reviewers routinely object to “informal language”.

  29. I 85% agree with Coyne on this. But, I think there are good reasons to use the phrase “urban adapters” and “optimal escape theory”. Both are general, technical terms that place the work in their academic context, and make it WAY easier to search for using a search engine. True, you could relegate the technical terms to the key words, but I’m not sure if Google or Google Scholar (where I usually do a quick first pass) would notice those.

    As for editors? Don’t make me laugh. We spend days copy-editing and typesetting papers, and they charge us to publish them. Sometimes I’m kind when reviewing a paper, and try to provide editorial comments like this, but it can be way too much work.

    1. If the idea of adaptation is important here, then one might say “Squirrels are notoriously well adapted to urban life.” Or perhaps “Squirrels adapt well to cities.”

      Obscurant academic writing happens because young people emulate the professional style of their elders: they are trained to write that way.

      When I left academic life years ago it was ten years before I could bring myself to read anything remotely academic, I stuck to mystery novels. Silly and repetitive as that form can be, obscurity is limited to plot devices and character development. The language itself is generally straight-forward.

  30. I wonder to what extent a style (if one can call it that) of this kind is designed to disguise the triviality and banality of a study such as this one. Anyone with minimal powers of observation knows how animals and birds that are accustomed to human beings about behave, and that they behave in this way even though distances may not have been measured down to the nearest millimetre. The writers of this study have – unlike, say, Karl von Frisch and Martin Lindauer – chosen a ‘problem’ that is of very little interest and of no great difficulty; the most difficult thing about it, I should think, was writing it up in such a way as to sound ‘scientific’ and as though such discoveries as were made were important. Pitiful journeyman stuff.

  31. Regarding the poor trapped squirrel–the very same thing happened once on my 2-branched shepherd’s hook pole. (I saw no humor in it, nor, I dare say, did the squirrel.)

    Every attempt I made to rescue him resulted in only further wedging his leg into the vee. Finally I hit upon using the tip of a broom handle to spread open the two crooks enough for him to be able to free himself, which he promptly did; then ran down the broom handle to my arm and up my arm to my shoulders, then across my shoulders till he finally jumped to the ground. A memorable day for both of us.

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