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Writing a popular article

28 October 2020

Why write a popular article?

You may have noticed that in the MeaseyLab there are quite a few popular articles written (if you haven't noticed, click here to see links). This is something that I encourage all students to do, especially after they've recently published a paper. But why?

Here are some reasons why: 

  • Inform tax-payers who funded research what you found
  • Increase profile of your work and you as a researcher
  • Reach a far bigger audience than your scientific paper ever will
  • Reach other researchers (who also read popular articles)
  • Open more doors to other potentially cross-disciplinary work
  • Gain new insights into how your work appears to the general public

The Conversation Africa is an online magazine that we go back to time and again. It is written by academics about the subjects that they know best. We have a great relationship with their editors, and they've previously held a writing competition in conjunction with the CIB (see here). 

In an effort to facilitate your popular article writing, here's a few pointers to help you get started:

What’s the hook?

Your popular article will not be the same as your chapter or paper. You should plan to have a single fact or message that you want the public to walk away with after reading your article. This is unlikely to be the same as the main result in your chapter or paper. 

When composing your article, you need to be single minded about achieving the understanding of your hook. The article cannot take any side roads or distractions, but must stick to the main point. Once that’s done, provide the “so what” that allows the public to see the bigger picture, and maybe where you would go next.


Don’t get complex or technical

If your whole article hinges on something technical, you might have to start by explaining it simply. If you can’t easily explain it, then this is probably the wrong subject for a popular article. Don’t worry about leaving out key details, you can always refer the reader to your article if they want to know more. 


Always refer to your published work

Make sure that you always have some reference to your work that’s published. Provide a hyperlink, but preferably give the full citation.

Be aware that news items count towards metrics of your article, so be sure to link it correctly.

You must always mention the CIB & Stellenbosch University - they do most of the funding for our work


Pictures, videos and even sound files

These are great to help readers engage with your work. Try to choose images that tell the same information as you have in your article. Try to remember that you will need these when doing your research as it will help later. 

  Lab  Writing

Insights into Guttural Toads as invaders

24 October 2020

Insights into Guttural toad impact on Mauritius


Guttural toads were introduced to Mauritius nearly 100 years ago in order to control cane beetles on the island. They have spread from the plantations all over the island, including into indigenous forest. For a long time there has been speculation that the toads predate on endemic threatened snails. Now we have published data from two dietary studies that shows that these snails make up a significant component of Guttural toad diet.



I visited Mauritius back in October 2017 (see here) when I worked with Denzel Citta in his final year project on the stomach contents of Guttural toads from different forests on the island. Denzel completed his project, but Vincent Florens and Claudia Baider already had dietary data from another student, Yuvna Perianen, who had done a similar project 10 years earlier. Luckily, they still had the dataset, and it is complementary to the one collected by Denzel. 

Vincent is an expert on the endemic snails of Mauritius, and had identified all of the different species that had been found in the guts of Guttural toads. Over the years, he had even found, and then relocated, a species previously thought to be extinct but that popped up in the toads stomach contents. Needless to say, toads eat snails and together the two studies were able to assess the level of impact.



James Baxter-Gilbert was able to combine these dietary datasets and write up a paper for African Journal of Ecology:

Baxter Gilbert, J.H., Florens F.B., Baider, C., Perianen, Y.D., Citta, D.S., Measey, J. (in press) Toad-kill: Prey diversity and preference of invasive guttural toads (Sclerophrys gutturalis) in Mauritius.African Journal of Ecology https://doi.org/10.1111/aje.12814

James has also written a piece for The Conversation:

https://theconversation.com/the-diet-of-invasive-toads-in-mauritius-has-some-rare-species-on-the-menu-149371


Re-assessing impact for all frogs

15 October 2020

The cost and complexity of assessing impact


The idea was a simple one. Using EICAT impact assessments of alien amphibians, could we get the costs of the studies and see whether more expensive studies resulted in higher impact assessments? Or, perhaps more worryingly, were cheaper studies resulting in lower impacts of invasive species?

But this paper turned out to be a huge undertaking. 

First, my dedicated team of MeaseyLab amphibian fundis who were kicking their heals after the CIB ARM in November 2019, committed to scoring all unscored amphibians since we did the same exercise in 2015 (seehereif you aren’t familiar with that). Initially, we thought that this would be a short order, but we discovered that all those invasive amphibian people out there in the world had been working overtime. Specifically, they had generated about the same number of papers that we’d scored in 2015, but in only 4.5 years!

We drank a lot of coffee and all sat around together in my office to answer any potential queries regarding EICAT scoring of amphibians.

While James and Nitya certainly made the most noise, it turned out that Carla quietly did most of the assessments. 

After that first exercise, we started begging. We approached everyone who had published in the last 4 years with a paper that had resulted in one of our EICAT scores and we gave them a questionnaire to work out how much money they had spent on the project that had produced that paper.

The questionnaire was approved by Stellenbosch University ethic’s committee, and was given the green light by our economics Prof: Elizabeth Pienaar. 

Sharp eyed blog readers will recognise Elizabeth from the July 2019 postgraduate field trip where she taught her module on economics and invasive species (see here). Sadly, Elizabeth couldn’t join us in person, so we simply sent the data from all of our (very kind) contributors who had taken the time to produce costs for us. Their anonymity was assured. You know who you are, and we are very grateful for your help. We know that it was a big ask.

Once Elizabeth had converted all of those different currencies into some dollar price parity, we could run our models and see whether the price of the study predicted the level of EICAT impact for the amphibians.


Here comes the big reveal: 

Yes - it did!

This is actually quite shocking, as what it means is that if you don’t have a lot of cash you are unlikely to find that your invasive species has a high impact. It follows that if your sitting in a part of the world where you don’t have much cash, then it might be extra difficult for you to make your case that your invasive species is actually a big problem. 

Next, Nitya had the idea of looking at the complexity of these studies. Would studies that were more complex result in higher impact scores? He based the complexity on a new study by Christie et al (2019), who found that more complex designs resulted in more robust results. Nitya beavered away for several weeks scoring all of the papers. Finally, when they were all done, we were able to run our models. 

And we found that - yes again! More complex study designs were indeed likely to result in higher impact scores. 

This result goes hand in hand with our economic result above, as more complex study designs often cost more. 

So please do go and read all about it:

Measey J, Wagener C, Mohanty NP, Baxter-Gilbert J, Pienaar EF (2020) The cost and complexity of assessing impact. NeoBiota 62: 279-299.https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.62.52261



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