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Tips for Students of Biology and Links to Websites of Interest

Using Microsoft EXCEL for statistical analyses

Students intending to utilise Microsoft Excel for their statistical calculations or to draw graphs/charts with, are requested to note that these aspects of this software’s performance have raised some concern in the scientific community.  Students are requested to consult the following papers in this regard:

McCullough, B.D. & Heiser, D.A. (2008). On the accuracy of statistical procedures in Microsoft Excel 2007.  Computational Statistics & Data Analysis Volume 52, Issue 10, 15 June 2008, Pages 4570-4578
You can read the abstract here:

Yu-Sung, S. (2008).  It’s easy to produce chartjunk using Microsoft®Excel 2007 but hard to make good graphs.  Computational Statistics & Data Analysis Volume 52, Issue 10, 15 June 2008, Pages 4594-4601.  
You can read the abstract here:
This website also draws attention to a number of issues with Microsoft Excel:

Sandro Lanfranco
22nd October 2010

Bibliographic software/citation managers

Students will gradually realize that their collection of scientific papers and other articles of interest, both in PDF and hard copy, will rapidly increase to the point where a systematic indexing system is required.  As such, it is recommended that all students familiarize themselves with bibliographic software in order to keep track of their collections as well as to facilitate the citation of references in document that they would be compiling.  A number of well-known packages (such as Reference Manager, Pro-Cite and EndNote) provide the user with most features they could conceivably require but are relatively expensive.  A number of similar packages may be downloaded as freeware and are proving to be popular in the scientific community.  The following synthesis was posted on the ECOLOG-L mailing list recently:

This page on Wikipedia compares various reference managers:

Packages include:
Bibdesk ( (only works with Macs).

Zotero (; integrates into Word, OpenOffice and web browsers.  Allows users to modify existing output formats easily as they are in an XML format. In addition, users post ones they create to the Zotero website.

JabRef:  (including Linux and Mac systems).
Mendeley: (  It's a free program, although they plan on transitioning to a paid format sometime in the future.  However, it seems that the program itself will always be free; you will in future be able to pay for storage space online if you want to keep the PDFs from your library on their servers.

CiteProc ( Works with the OpenOffice suite (

Look for the following features:
(1) Integration with your preferred wordprocessor in order to facilitate the insertion of citations into documents that you’re writing.
(2) Automatic creation of reference list/bibliography at the end of the document as you insert citations.
(3) Ability to store (or link to) papers in PDF within the reference manager software itself.
(4) Ability to create database entries for papers by scanning the website or document.  Mendeley does this by scanning the web page that the document is displayed on and extracting the title, author name etc.  EndNote imports reference data from PDFs by looking for the doi (digital object identifier), cross-referencing that with a doi database on the internet and automatically retrieving bibliographic information from that source.  This is a very accurate system but requires that the papers being referenced are properly formatted at source.
(5) Ability to accept exported citations from webs sources.   Many journals will export citation data directly to your reference manager.  Make sure that the software you choose supports one of the most common export formats (RIS, Rich Text, etc.)

Sandro Lanfranco
22nd October 2010

Eco-Tools (online calculations for ecology and conservation biology)

The Eco-Tools website performs a number of common calculations from ecology and conservation biology. Users submit a data file, and numerical and graphical results are returned as a web page. Current tools include life table calculations, species richness estimation, F-statistics, timeseries autocorrelation, taxonomic autocorrelation, ordination and simple count-based PVA. The site is free, and open source. The calculations are performed by Mathematica, and the calculation code is available for inspection. Modules are based on published sources. The present version is a beginning -- a number of additional tools are in development, and more are planned.


Searching the WWW (compiled by PJS)

The Internet and especially the World Wide Web is a ‘virtual’ library of millions of pages and affords the user the ability to search a body of knowledge heretofore unthinkable. There is no single online search tool which has an index to the entire contents of the Internet. Each search engine uses different search techniques and various software tools (called spiders) to build indexes of the Internet. When doing searches through them, they also yield different "views" of the Web and the Internet as a whole. So first and foremost, after connecting to each search tool for the first time, always read the tool's description, search options, and rules and restrictions before trying to perform a search. 

Citing Electronic Documents and Sources (compiled by PJS)

Information is increasingly becoming available in electronic format, including e-mail communications, newsgroup postings, Internet websites, DVDs and videos. As withmore traditional sources of information such as printed journals, books and reports, standard formats for providing formal citations for electronic sources have been formulated. It is recommended that a citation format based on the MLA (Modern Language Associated) style for Web Publications  

Evaluating WWW resources (compiled by PJS) (Updated)

The Internet is a vast source of information, however, there is very little quality control, editing, peer-review or other filtering that printed information is usually subjected to. Almost anyone can publish almost anything on the Internet, and just because a piece of information appears on the ‘net it does not mean it is accurate, reliable or even true (see examples). Students using the Internet as a source of scholarly information have to tread carefully. The following sites provide some guidance on evaluating the worth and quality of sources of information on the Internet. 

How To Evaluate A Web Site, by LaJean Humphries, library manager for Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt of Portland, Oregon, USA.

Criteria for evaluation of Internet Information Resources, compiled by Aleteia Greenwood, Science and Engineering Reference Librarian, University of British Columbia. Click on the tabs and note that there is a summary video at the end.

These sites provide links to additional resources concerned with scholarly writing that are well worth following.

See also the Information Quality WWW Virtual Library, which is a large set of pages that keeps track of online resources relevant for evaluation, development and administration of high quality factual/scholarly networked information systems.

Dr Chris Staff from the Department of Computer Science and AI at the University has a very successful presentation titled 'Using the Internet as an Academic resource'


Presenting information: Writing Guidelines for Science Students

A task that most students find very difficult is how to write and produce presentations (such as seminar presentations to a class or a presentation at a conference), and how to design a technical poster or write a scientific report (such as a laboratory report, a dissertation or a scientific paper). Some very good advice and plenty of examples on how to design and write different types of scientific works as well as memos, letters and a curriculum vitae (which is referred to as a résumé in the US) is provided at a site titled ‘Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students’ produced by the Pennsylvania State University. 

The different types of scientific literature

Do you know the difference between primary, secondary, tertiary and grey literature ? If not, click here [PDF]


MSc (Research) and PhD application deadlines
Application Deadlines for Academic Year 2017/18 
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Last Updated: 10 October 2017

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