Emulate, but Choose Your Model with Care

By Bernard Wood
October 20, 2011

Way back in the Neolithic, when I was in the UK equivalent of US high school, we took two sets of examinations. They were called ‘ordinary’ (hence ‘O-levels’) and ‘advanced’ (hence ‘A-levels’) level exams. In those days you needed good grades in at least three ‘A-levels’ to go to university.

You had to be very dim not to get a few ‘O-levels’ and the lowest hanging fruit in that respect was reckoned to be English Language O-level. Well, I managed to fail English Language O-level. I was (and still am) completely befuddled by clauses and adverbs and the niceties of punctuation (as you will observe I sprinkle commas around like so much pixie dust and my paragraphs sort of ‘happen’). One of the many impressive features of the US educational system is that most students know the technicalities of writing. I am incapable (and I write this with no pride at all) of explaining the technical reasons why a piece of written work is not up to scratch. All I know is that it does not “look right” and that hardly passes muster as constructive criticism! So, as the technicalities were plainly beyond me I realized that for me the best way to learn to write was to read.

One of the treasures of the UK is the London Review of Books; the US equivalent, the New York Review of Books, is even more impressive. So I made, and still make, a point of reading non-fiction in the LRB and the NYRB by writers who make writing look deceptively easy. People like Alan Bennett, Bruce Chatwin, Tony Judt, Alan Parks and Jonathan Raban (but the reality is that the editors of the NYRB are so good that they make most of the contributors look at least half-decent). If you want to experience that same high standard of writing in biology then try Max Perutz. In our own field all you need do is read anything by W.W. (Bill) Howells. Non-fiction writing works better than fiction for me because the former is what researchers like me do; we write (hopefully) non-fiction.

Emulation also works well if you are trying to work out how to be a good researcher. It does not take long to get a sense of the people who should claim your attention. Who is it that makes their peers stop and take notice? Whose work gives rise to new directions of research? Who regularly challenges ‘conventional wisdom’? And make sure you are not over-influenced by the impact factor of the journal. Some of the best science gets published in Science, Nature and the PNAS, but some of the worst science also manages to finds its way into those august publications.

Once you have picked your researcher you can get a sense of the arc of their research career from their CV. In what order did they do things? Who did they collaborate with? How did they write up their research? Where did they publish it?

We need exemplars for all aspects of our lives. Good parents beget children who become good parents. In my humble opinion we do not make enough use of the exemplars in paleoanthropology. True, they do not grow on trees but they are there if you look for them. Buy me a decent pinot noir in Portland and I will tell you who my picks would be.