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Reporter meets pine tree invasion

18 October 2021

Getting a reporter's view

When I got an email from Wendell Roelf, Reuters news agency, asking for information about invasive trees and any frogs that they may impact, there was one clear example that sprung to mind. We have been monitoring the rough moss frog on the Klein Swartberg near Caledon for around 10 years now. In that time the invasion from pine trees on the massif has been spectacular. Since a fire in 2011, we have seen the mountain turn from blackened earth to a carpet of pine seedlings, and now thick sways of pines that are so dense that individuals are as thin as sticks but have reached 3 to 4 m in height. 

In amongst all this the Rough Moss Frog, Arthroleptella rugosa, can be found in fewer spots on the mountain. Where it is still present among the pines the calls are far fewer. Oliver Angus, Honours student in the MeaseyLab, has been using aSCR to determine the density of the remaining populations of the Rough Moss Frog. Stay tuned to see the outcome of his findings here.

The MeaseyLab (myself, Oliver Angus and Andrea Melotto) took Wendell Roelf and cameraman Mike Hutchins up the Klein Swartberg where we introduced him to Andrew Turner from CapeNature, Lampie Fick chairman of the Klein Swartberg nature conservancy, and a team of contractors who are cutting fire breaks that will form the basis of a rotational burn on the mountain that should see it free of pines in the future. After getting the full picture, Wendell took himself off into the pines to jot down notes for his story.

It was a fun day and great to see that Wendell wrote a great article that has been syndicated all over the world.

To read Wendell's article, click the image below:

They also put together a neat video that shows what it takes to remove invading pine trees:

See copies of Wendell's article:

  aSCR  Frogs  Lab

Welcome Stephane

07 October 2021

At long last, it's great to welcome Stephane Boissinot from the Boissinot Lab New York University - Abu Dhabi (Saadiyat Island campus). Stephane has been collaborating with the MeaseyLab for a while. He has been trying to visit for his sabbatical for more than a year now. And finally, the stars have aligned so that he can leave Abu Dhabi and come into South Africa. 

While at Stellenbosch, Stephane will take part in fieldwork to collect African clawed frogs in an altitudinal transect in the southwestern Cape. Click here for the blog post on our altitudinal transect of the northeast.

Next week, we will be joined by post-docs Dareen and Sandra who will join us on the field trip. Watch this space...

  Frogs  Lab  Xenopus

The Peter Principle in Academia

01 October 2021

The Peter Principle

From time to time I come across old ideas, often from different disciplines, that encompass phenomena that I experience in my professional life. It was a delight then to hear about thePeter Principle, on a recent podcast of the BBC’s Witness History (you canfollow this link to listen), from the world of management studies.

Laurence Peter was an educator who was frustrated with what he experienced as incompetence in hierarchies. He noticed that in any hierarchical structure, people talented at their job would receive a promotion to manage others in the same position. His frustration, as will be known to many of you, was that people who are good at their jobs are not necessarily good at the level above what they do: i.e. managing others who do that job. Management positions are very different roles and involve a lot more investment of time in the people in your team, building relationships and inspiring those around you to work together. Hence a woman who is excellent at selling cars will not necessarily be the best person to manage a team of people who sell cars. 

Peter took this idea forward in an interesting way. He reasoned that people who are good at what they do get promoted. But when they stop being good at what they do, they stop being promoted. The Peter Principle then states that people are promoted in a hierarchy until they reach a position at which they are incompetent. Once they reach the  level of incompetence, they will no longer be promoted, but rest in that position. According to the Peter Principle then, in any hierarchy we can expect that people in positions up the hierarchy are all actually incompetent at what they do, but would have been competent at the level below. 

Douglas Adams had his own particular spin on this idea when he said:

“Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

It is never particularly hard to see that politicians have arrived in their positions of power through sheer determination and ambition. These are qualities that allowed them to get ahead of countless others both in party politics, but also in attracting votes. Yet, we see on a daily basis that these qualities are not what it takes to lead wisely. 

The reality is that people get jobs and are promoted for all sorts of reasons, not purely for their competence in their current role. In academia, a strongly hierarchical system, we know that many academics are highly averse to being promoted away from positions where they teach and research as they are fully aware that they are unsuited to such positions. However, they may motivate very strongly to move into positions that have more power in order to choose the way in which they spend the majority of their time. But the oddities still exist: why would full professors have the lowest teaching load - surely they are the best teachers?

Perhaps where we see academics struggling the most is when they become heads of departments, deans of faculties, or managers of research units. Nothing in their background has prepared them for a role in management. Indeed, one could argue that becoming a good academic has involved a lot of movement away from any training in a management position. Academic departments need heads, and the head is always a senior academic, although not necessarily the most senior. Could it be any other way? Could the head of an academic department be a manager who represents the ideas and thoughts of the academics in their departments? 

Nevertheless, academic institutions and funders persist with the notion that senior academics that are competent at research will make good directors. The reality is that competent directors make good directors, and academics will only be as good as the management team that supports them. In my experience, this regularly comes down to a single supporting individual, and if they leave, the resulting void is difficult or impossible to fill. Of course, Peter would say that if they are performing well in their job, then those in the supporting roles have not yet reached their level of incompetence, and so there’s a chance that they will be promoted away from what they do best.

Laurence Peter also had an antidote to the Peter Principle, and he called this creative incompetence: when you create the impression that you have already reached your level of incompetence.

So next time you view those higher up than you in the academic hierarchy to which you belong, remember the Peter Principle, and maybe spare a thought for those that support the academic figureheads.

Happy Birthday Mum!


Academic capture

27 September 2021

Academic capture

The 21st century has brought with it some new terms that have not been welcomed. One of these was ‘state capture’: when the government and its institutions’ policies and laws are significantly influenced by private individuals and their companies for profit. This became a hallmark of governments in Europe (Hungary, Bulgaria, western Balkans), several Latin American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Columbia and Mexico) and South Africa. Some have also suggested that the USA under Donald Trump was undergoing ‘state capture’. 

The lament of academics that publishers are profiteering from their labours through charging ever increasing sums to access their work are familiar to most of us. We are caught in a system whereby our employers judge us by the prestige of what we output, and typically these outputs are publications published by the same profiteering publishing companies. Choosing to opt out would result in academic suicide for any Early Career Researcher who cannot show that they are capable of publishing in upper quartile journals. Similarly, publishing in the highest ranked journals can facilitate and define a career - so much so that some academics are prepared tocommit fraudin order to publish there. Moreover, pushing for increasingly high metrics perpetuates dynasties ofbad sciencethat jeopardise the centralscientific tenets of rigour, reproducibility, and transparency. 

Björn Brembs and colleagues have just revealed a much darker side to this story in apreprint on Zenodo. In it, they describe what we could describe as the incipient capture of all academia by the same four publishing giants that are dominating the publishing conundrum described above. In it, they describe the shift of profits by these companies from publishing towards data. We know that Elsevier owns Scopus and so are able to drive the listing of all of their own journals therein, and ensure that they attain maximum benefit from inflation of metrics. But did you know that the new academic database on the block, Dimensions, is owned by publishing supergroup SpringerNature? 

When an institution subscribes to one of these databases, they also subscribe to a whole set of access to metrics that inform them about their own academics, and any prospective academics that they may want to employ. Owning the company that makes the metrics, makes sure that the publisher gets a controlling stake in the future of publishing in that institution. But the most startling revelation by Brembs et al. is that discovery and publishing are just the two ends of what these four publishing houses are attempting to acquire: the complete academic workflow.

Figure 1. The academic workflow undergoing capture 

In the central figure of their manuscript, Brembs et al. provide a breakdown of each of the companies acquired by Elsevier, SpringerNature (Holtzbrinck), Wiley-Atypon and Taylor & Francis. It might not surprise you to know that Elsevier and Holtzbrinck are far ahead of the others in terms of completing their work-flow capture. Holtzbrinck, for example, also own Digital Science, a new company that owns Dimensions, Elements and Altmetrics. This captures the discovery, outreach and assessment ends of the work-flow. They also own Overleaf (the writing component) and a raft of analytical tools. It goes without saying that they have all Springer, BMC and Nature journals in the publication sector. 

And once they’ve captured the workflow?

We should be aware by now that companies that capture a lot of data are in a commanding position to find plenty of customers. Who do you think are the customers for all publicly funded science? 

Imagine the worst implications of theCambridge Analytica data scandal, and then apply this to the entire academic workflow. Not a pretty picture for sure. But it’s one that should strike fear into the hearts of all academics. This is happening now, and you and your research is feeding it. These publishers don't even need to install spyware onto our computers as their tools do it all for them. Once collected, individual data on employees can be sold to employers, or third parties interested in our research topics. At least with Cambridge Analytica you had to be duped into giving over your data. Right now, we are giving our entire academic workflow into the hands of the same people that have prompted our greatest obstacles to free and open science. 

For those of us who have lived through state capture, we felt powerless and could only watch as institutions were plundered. Right now, we are willing participants in the capture of our own academic freedom. 

Academic capture: when the institutions’ policies are significantly influenced by publishing companies for their profit. 

How can we prevent academic capture?

There is a growing community of academics that are pushing for Open Research, and in particularOpen Source Tools. Always use open source software, and avoid using any software offered for free by publishers (e.g. Mendeley, Overleaf, Peerwith, Authorea, etc.). 

Where possible, we should be avoiding publishing work with the big four academic publishers, and when necessary ensuring that they do not hold any rights to our data or our work. Support smaller publishers where possible, and promote their use in your scholarly societies. If possible, advocate for diamond open access using platforms likeOverlay Journalswith any journals that you conduct work for. Discourage your library from subscribing to databases run by big publishers. 

An economic solution, offered by Brembs et al., is to ensure that publishers can be replaced through competition. In this vision, currently adopted by funders such as the EU’s Horizon 2020, publishers win contracts to publish research and bid to win consecutive contracts with no right to being locked-in. Although it is possible that market forces may move profit from unreasonable numbers towards actual costs, it seems unlikely that our big academic publishing companies will ever release their grip on profits. Instead, we can expect them to fill in the missing gaps in our academic workflow, and increase the rate at which they capture our data.


Björn Brembs, Philippe Huneman, Felix Schönbrodt, Gustav Nilsonne, Toma Susi, Renke Siems, Pandelis Perakakis, Varvara Trachana, Lai Ma, & Sara Rodriguez-Cuadrado. (2021). Replacing academic journals. 

  Lab  Writing

A 'massive turd' or an eminent physicist?

16 September 2021

Who is your co-author? I've never heard of them

Yesterday we had a lab meeting about SciSci and ever increasing publishing trends. Somehow we got side-tracked along the way by fake authors, and so I decided to write this blog post about some of the things we learned. Today, while I’m having breakfast, I find that fake authors of scientific articles are very popular topics for blog posts, and there’s a number out there that you can read if you are interested (here,  hereand here). 

What motivates people to invent co-authors? 

When I was doing my PhD at Bristol University, there was a competition among post-grads about getting dodgy words or phrases published in their papers. I don’t remember any examples from back then, but my contribution was to add a condom into the first paper published during my PhD (Measey & Tinsley 1997) - all quite legitimate in that I really did use a Durex Gossamer to waterproof the microphone.

Obviously, people have their own reasons for wanting to add their pets or fictional authors to their by-line. Here are a few that caught my eye:

One of the most touching stories (for me) is that of Polly Matzinger who wrote her paper on T cells in the active tense, but apparently was uncomfortable using “I”. When she was asked to re-write her paper in the passive tense, she chose instead to keep using “we” and added her dog (seehere). Apparently, the editor was so upset that he banned her from authoring more publications in the journal until he died. In these days of Emotional Support Animals, shouldn't we all have the right to add our pets as supporting companions on our papers? It's not just me that believes this, my dog feels the same way... 

The mathematician Jack Hetherinton had also used “we” instead of “I” when writing a paper on atom exchange, and rather than typing out the manuscript entirely from scratch, added his cat, Chester (see the cat’sWikipedia page).

Others have genuinely felt that their study animals should receive credit in the papers that inspired them. This includes Madge the parrot who was first author on a paper on her use of a tool to scratch the back of her head. Strangely, Madge wrote about herself in the third person. Maybe she hadn’t learned how to use the typewriter at that point?

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh  added her three bonobo subjects (and the inspiration for a lot of her work) as co-authors on her paper about the welfare of apes in captivity. 

Last, but not least, in the animals as authors line-up is a hamster named Tisha. Tisha was levitated by giant magnets by Nobel and Ig-Nobel prize winner, Andre Geim.  

There are also totally fictional entities that have been elevated to author status. In the Max Planck institute in Munich, for example, a sign next to a door reading “Alois Kabelschacht” (or ‘cable duct’ in English) prompted physicists there to use Prof. Alois Kabelschacht as a fictional member of the institute, and a straw man in their arguments. Consequently, Alois Kabelschacht was added to a number of their publications for several years. 

Others have opted for authors to stand as cryptic messages to their readers. In their paper on the stochastic Gross-Pitaevskii equation, Gardiner and Anglin added a constant that they couldn't account for, and so their co-author "This Is A Fudge" was born.

The last story is that of Prof. Stronzo Bestiale. If you know Italian, you will already know that ‘stronzo bestiale’ is common slang meaning a massive turd (or similar). According to William Hoover, the man responsible for adding this Italian insult to the scientific literature, he heard two Italian woman on a flight to Paris repeatedly using the phrases ‘stronzo bestiale’  and ‘che stronzo’ (what a shit) in their conversation. Later, he asked a colleague what this meant, but decided that Stronzo Bestiale sounded like a great name and should work as a co-author. Hoover has a specific role in mind. He had had a series of rejections from journals regarding a new piece of work that he was proposing. He thought that if he added an international colleague to his author line up, then the ideas might be better received. Whether it was luck, or the addition of the Italian Prof. Stronzo Bestiale to the author line, we shall never know, but Hoover’s paper did get accepted and another paper published with Prof. Bestiale as a co-author. 

You can read the true story of Stronzohere

Happily for all Italian speaking physicists, the author now has a SCOPUS profile that they can laugh at:

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about the lighter side of scientific co-authorship. It’s not all astronzo bestiale !


Breitenlohner, P. and Kabelschacht, A., 1979. The auxiliary fields of N= 2 extended supergravity in 5 and 6 space-time dimensions. Nuclear Physics B148(1-2), pp.96-106.

Dittmaier, S., Kabelschacht, A. and Kasprzik, T., 2008. Polarized QED splittings of massive fermions and dipole subtraction for non-collinear-safe observables. Nuclear physics B800(1-2), pp.146-189.

Gardiner, C.W., Anglin, J.R. and Fudge, T.I.A., 2002. The stochastic gross-pitaevskii equation. Journal of Physics B: Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics35(6), p.1555.

Geim, A.K. and Ter Tisha, H.A.M.S., 2001. Detection of earth rotation with a diamagnetically levitating gyroscope. Physica B: Condensed Matter294, pp.736-739.

Hetherington, J.H. and Willard, F.D.C., 1975. Two-, three-, and four-atom exchange effects in bcc he 3. Physical Review Letters35(21), p.1442.

Hoover, W.G., Posch, H.A. and Bestiale, S., 1987. Dense‐fluid Lyapunov spectra via constrained molecular dynamics. The Journal of chemical physics87(11), pp.6665-6670.

Janzen, M.J., Janzen, D.H. and M Pond, C., 1976. Too-Using by the African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Biotropica 

Matzinger, P. and Mirkwood, G., 1978. In a fully H-2 incompatible chimera, T cells of donor origin can respond to minor histocompatibility antigens in association with either donor or host H-2 type. The Journal of experimental medicine148(1), pp.84-92.

Measey, G.J. and Tinsley, R.C., 1997. Mating behavior of Xenopus wittei (Anura: Pipidae). Copeia1997(3), pp.601-609.

Moran, B., Hoover, W.G. and Bestiale, S., 1987. Diffusion in a periodic Lorentz gas. Journal of Statistical Physics48(3), pp.709-726.

Savage-Rumbaugh, S., Wamba, K., Wamba, P. and Wamba, N., 2007. Welfare of apes in captive environments: comments on, and by, a specific group of apes. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science10(1), pp.7-19.

Read more:

Erren, T.C., Groß, J.V., Wild, U., Lewis, P. and Shaw, D.M., 2017. Crediting animals in scientific literature: Recognition in addition to Replacement, Reduction, & Refinement [4R]. EMBO reports18(1), pp.18-20.

Penders, B. and Shaw, D.M., 2020. Civil disobedience in scientific authorship: Resistance and insubordination in science. Accountability in research27(6), pp.347-371.

  Lab  Writing
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