Monthly Archives: February 2016

The future of UK entomology is in safe hands – Royal Entomological Society Postgraduate Forum 2016

A couple of weeks ago (11-12 February), I had the privilege and honour to attend the latest in the excellent series of Royal Entomological Society Postgraduate Forums, this year held at Harper Adams University (HAU) and organised by Claire Blowers and Jordan Ryder, both of whom are PhD students at HAU. Although the Royal Entomological Society (RES) is sometimes still thought of as being a somewhat stuffy and traditional learned society, compared with, for example, the British Ecological Society, which had student membership rates long before the RES, it has in some student-related areas, led the way, the Postgraduate Forums being a great example. The RES ran the first PG Forum in, as far as I can tell, 2000, although their reports are only published from 2007 onwards. The PG Forums are run by postgraduate students and the idea is to give PhD and MSc students the opportunity to present their work to their own community. A few more established entomologists are usually invited as keynote speakers to address topics that are of particular interest to the organising committee, and hopefully, give delegates useful advice and/or examples of how an entomological career might develop. If I remember correctly I was one of the first ‘more established entomologists’ guest speakers.   I think I spoke about how to get published without being too traumatised by the experience. I was asked back a few years later (2008) and spoke about the future of entomology as a discipline, with a somewhat pessimistic title, despite which my conclusion was

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decidedly upbeat, although my optimism about NERC was not borne out as they managed to fund the

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the wrong sort of taxonomy.

This time I was asked to talk about applied entomology, so decided to base the talk on my own career as I felt this would give the audience a flavour of what they might expect and also of course the opportunity to laugh at the long-haired 1970s version of me and to

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recall my introduction to the concept of Integrated Pest Management (and of course aphids).

I also highlighted the huge changes that have happened in the technology surrounding paper writing since I wrote my first paper in 1979.

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Our figures were drawn using graph paper, tracing paper, Rotring pens, Indian ink and, if you did not have LetraSet© using a stencil.

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My overall message was that you shouldn’t feel constrained by the subject of your PhD, many opportunities are open to you and being a university academic is not the only way to have an enjoyable career in entomology, as Richard Greatrex (Syngenta Bioline), Simon Carpenter (Pirbright) and Sarah Beynon (Dr Beynon’s BugFarm) pointed out, and most importantly, never forget team work and collaboration make life so much easier and productive.

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Always give credit where it is due.

Sarah Beynon gave a hugely entertaining talk, I was so pleased that I had gone before her, as otherwise I would have felt very inadequate 🙂

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Amoret Whitaker spoke about her career in forensic entomology

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and the conference concluded with a brief presentation by Luke Tilley the Outreach Officer for the Royal Entomological Society.

Most importantly of course were the next generation of entomologists, who gave excellent talks and produced some great posters. Unfortunately I had other appointments on the second day so missed some of the talks but I was able to see the winning talk by Dave Stanford-Beale about his experiences in Honduras collecting Saturnid moths for his MSc project.  Incidentally, Dave successfully completed the MSc in Entomology at Harper Adams University in September 2015.

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There were some excellent posters, all were very good, and it was great to see some of my former MSc students again.

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The social side of things is always important and we enjoyed a superb conference dinner with an accompanying entomological quiz; won by the younger generation rather than us ‘old timers’ :-), which also gave the contestants the chance to use their imagination in devising team names.

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The winning team and their entomological prizes

On the evidence of the two days, the excellence of the oral presentations and the subject matter and high standard of presentation of the posters, I am confident that the future of UK entomology is in good hands. Well done all of you and especially to Jordan and Claire for volunteering to take on the responsibility for organising the event.  I also think that we should tank Scott Dwyer, currently on the MSc Entomology course, but heading off to Warwick University to do a PhD in October, who has volunteered to host next year’s event.

 

Post script

And many thanks to all those delegates who posted pictures on Twitter, which allowed me to record this event with more, and better photographs, than I managed to take.

 

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Conflicts of interest – are there ever any situations where there aren’t?

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Two seemingly unrelated factors stimulated me to write this post. One print-based, the other ‘ether’ based.

At the back-end of last year (2015) I was reading an article in The Times Higher Educational Supplement (29-10 – 4.11.2015 volume 2227 pp 6-7) about the fall in success rates of grant applications to UK research councils.  A sub-heading of the article, Reviewers are stretched, pointed out that the research councils, like journals are struggling to find enough reviewers.  A week later I came across this ‘conversation’ on Twitter.

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Coincidentally I had just accepted an invitation to review a grant application, having just submitted one the week before and as I was, in my Editorial capacity, inviting Reviewer number 9 to cast judgement on a submission to Annals of Applied Biology, I felt I ought to respond to the invitation. I had tried desperately hard to wriggle out of reviewing the grant application, pointing out that I had been a Co-Investigator with the Principal Investigator on a earlier grant, that I had been the PhD supervisor of one of the Co-Is and published three papers with them and that I had taught the other Co-I.  I think you could say that I knew them very well indeed.

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This image ‘borrowed’ from the University of Houston http://www.uh.edu/research/compliance/coi/

So full disclosure of the facts and surely, I thought, enough conflicts of interest there to rule me out! To my surprise the Research Council involved, replied saying that as long as I declared this on the review form, they were quite happy for me to referee the proposal.  I am used to the Research Councils being very flexible when it comes to the time allocated to do a review, they find it so difficult to get people to agree that they are very willing extend deadlines for several weeks if you promise that you will eventually deliver a report.  This response to what I saw as a major conflict of interest was, however, somewhat surprising. To say that I was gobsmacked* is a bit of an understatement, but as this had been my main reason for not accepting the task, I felt honour bound to do the review and make a recommendation.

So what exactly is a conflict of interest and how worried should we be about their potential to influence our responses in a scientific context? Here are a couple of definitions that I gleaned from the web.

A situation that has the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person’s self-interest and professional interest or public interest.

http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/conflict-of-interest.html#ixzz3tjt5c5l7

The real or apparent conflict between one’s personal interest in a matter and one’s duty to another or to the public in general regarding the same matter.

Webster’s New World Law Dictionary © 2010 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.
So pretty clear, if there is a connection, personal or business, with the person(s) that you are asked to comment on, or their work, then you have a potential conflict of interest.

I am, as some of you may know, Editor-in-Chief of Annals of Applied Biology and was, until last year, Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity, so potential conflicts of interest have been part of my life for many years.  How do we handle this as Editors and Handling Editors? In the letter that our Handling Editors at Annals send out to potential reviewers we state:

If you agree to referee the paper please declare to the handling editor if you have:

published papers, submitted grant proposals, or supervised students with an author. It is essential that you declare this information before reviewing the manuscript.”

So very clear what we mean by a conflict of interest here. But given the shortage of people willing to review papers and note that it is common practice to initially invite four to get the minimum two that we aspire to for a fair and balanced decision, how fussy can we afford to be? On one memorable occasion, I once had to approach thirteen potential reviewers before I found two willing victims!  In the UK, if you are in a specialist field such as applied entomology, you are almost certain to know just about everyone who works in that area, either personally or by reputation.  Given the virtual insistence these days by the national grant funders on collaborative projects, you also have a fairly high probability of having been in joint grant application with many of them as well.  Most journals now ask for suggestions of preferred and non-preferred reviewers when you submit a paper.  These are highly likely to be people you know personally, and your preferred reviewers are also unlikely to be people you think will regard your work unfavourably.  Is this a conflict of interest?  As an Editor you can take notice of these names, often ignoring them because you suspect that the preferred reviewers have been chosen because of the possibility of them delivering a favourable review.  You then have a decision to make as to which reviewers to select; do you read through the references and see who has been cited most and pick them, do you resort Web of Science and look for publications in a similar area involving the same systems or use the keywords in your particular Editorial manager system?  Whichever way you go you have a high chance of picking people who know the author(s) and/or have worked with them at some stage, but if you want an expert opinion you are pretty much stuck with those choices.  It is further complicated by the fact that some people are more likely to respond in the affirmative than others, so your choice is narrowed still further.

As a potential reviewer receiving an invitation from a journal that doesn’t ask you for as much information as the Annals of Applied Biology does (looking back at last year’s 50+ requests to review that I receive, it seems that we at the Annals are much more up-front in this respect than other journals) what constitutes a conflict of interest?  Even if you don’t know the author personally, which if they are from the USA** or other country where entomologists are still fairly numerous is quite likely, does the fact that they have cited you a lot constitute a conflict of interest?  A favourable review may ensure publication and add to your citation index.  On the other hand, if the paper doesn’t cite you when you feel it should, is that also a conflict of interest and what about when it cites you unfavourably, are you sure  that you will write your review impartially? Should we also ask if you have received a favourable or non-favourable disclosed review from the author(s) for one of your own papers?  I can’t help but think that having had a favourable review from someone, you are, despite how impartial you consider yourself to be, likely to look more kindly on a paper from that person than one from someone who has said that your paper should be rejected.  I know there are a number of people who feel that open review is the way forward but I am not the only one that thinks it just adds to the conflicts of interest dilemma.

Leaving those issues aside. What about if you have answered yes to the questions posed by the Annals in that you have published papers, submitted grant proposals, or supervised students with an author?  Interestingly I have just noticed that we don’t ask whether the potential reviewer has supervised or taught one of the authors.  As someone whom to date, has supervised 50 PhD students, more than 130 MSc project students and about 150 undergraduate project students, not to mention the 1000+ students whose names I learnt when teaching them, this is yet another area of potential conflict of interest. The last time I co-authored a paper with my PhD supervisor was 1989, is that still a conflict of interest in 2016? I freely admit that I have reviewed more than one of his papers and even recommended rejection once or twice (I don’t think he reads my blog :-)).

I am not saying that our current review system is fatally flawed, in fact I think it works quite well and feel that the open reviewing system advocated by some has just as many, if not more, opportunities for potential conflicts of interest to arise. See this post by Dynamic Ecology which puts the case for pre-publication review very clearly.

When does it stop being a conflict of interest to review a paper by one of your former PhD students? Five years, ten years or longer?  I will put my hand up now and admit that I have reviewed papers written by former students, but only after what I consider a decent five-year interval since the last co-authorship.  What about co-authors who were not students or RAs? Often you end up on multi-author papers arising from working groups, do you apply the same rules in those cases when asked to review a paper or a grant proposal?  I don’t but should I?

When it comes to PhD examinations the situation is even more acute, at least in my case. I have examined about 50 PhD students and had 48 of my own examined in return.  As far as I can recall, of those that I have examined only three of them have been students of people who I didn’t know personally.   Of the students of mine examined, I think three of them were by people I didn’t know personally (these were bird projects), but the co-supervisor knew them.  This of course is totally understandable within the UK system, where the usual PhD viva panel consists of an internal examiner, an external examiner and, increasingly more common, an independent chair.  You are hardly likely to choose examiners you don’t know to give your students a grilling.  You choose someone who is fair and has a good reputation, which generally speaking means someone you know personally.   Given the paltry fee paid by UK universities for a PhD examination***, friends are much more likely to agree to do the job than total strangers 🙂

Should we have a system where only examiners who have no personal contact with the supervisors are allowed? This would almost certainly mean that in the UK, all examiners would have to come from overseas; I suspect that the Universities would baulk at the increased costs associated with such a system.  They are already very stingy when it comes to travel and accommodation costs for UK examiners so the added cost of getting someone from across the water is unlikely to appeal.

Where does this leave us? Not much further forward I suspect. I think, that as scientists, we all regard ourselves as being able to decide if, and when a real conflict of interest is likely to arise and would, I hope, inform the person(s) requesting the review of the pertinent facts.

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Footnotes

*for non-native English speakers or English speakers from other parts of the world, a literal translation would be “like being hit unexpectedly in the mouth” 🙂

**although I have just noticed that a paper I have accepted an invitation to review from an American journal, has, hidden away in the middle of the author list, someone who did their PhD in the same research group as me at the same time, and with whom I have spent many a night drinking pints of Courage beer in The Mitre pub, on the Earlham Road in Norwich 🙂

***approximately £200 if you are lucky – say the viva takes 3 hours minimum, plus you have to read the thesis, say 150 pages, so even if you read very quickly you are looking at another 5 hours minimum, more likely closer to ten hours as you have to take notes as you go along, then add on an hour for the report and four hours travel time, that makes a total of 17 hours or so giving you an hourly rate of about £12, and that is before tax 🙂

 

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Butterflies Galore – visual treats from two very different books

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I have written a lot of book reviews over the last thirty years or so; initially for mainstream scientific journals; those were the days when journal editors had never heard of impact factors and space was specifically set aside for such articles. And latterly, for the in-house member’s bulletins of learned societies such as Antenna; the excellent and very glossy publication of the Royal Entomological Society.  Book reviews are generally a bit of a chore, especially if the book in question is an edited volume, but busy academics can sometimes be persuaded to take a review on if they think that the book (the only payment you receive is a free copy) will justify the effort.  Occasionally one gets the chance, or feels the urge, to use a book review as a means of getting a particular message across to a wider audience.  I once managed to have one of my ‘on the importance of entomology’ rants published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution (Leather, 2008) using this route.  Up until now however, unless you count my somewhat tongue-in-cheek review of Anna Aphid, I have not used my blog in this way.   This is, however, about to change.

At the end of November last year (2015), I received an email from Caroline Young of Firefly Books who wondered if I would like to review a new entry to their catalogue, Butterflies, by Ronald Orenstein and Thomas Marent.   It was such a flattering email that I succumbed to her blandishments, hence this first official book review on my site.  To retain some scientific integrity however, I decided that I would do a comparative review.  Fortuitously, it just so happened, that I had to hand another book about butterflies; one that I had semi-promised to review for the Royal Entomological Society (Howse, 2014), but until now, had never got around to doing.  In one fell swoop I was thus able to salve my conscience and do two favours 🙂

When reviewing a book I have a little mental list of questions that I answer as I read it.

  1. Would I buy it?
  2. Would I recommend a colleague to buy it?
  3. Would I recommend it to students as worth buying?
  4. Would I ask the library to buy it?
  5. Would I recommend it to anyone to buy it?

All these have the same subsidiary questions attached to them; If not why not, if yes, why?

First, Butterflies, billed by the publisher’s blurb as a “visual feast that showcases the beauty and mystery of butterfly and moth species from around the globe”.  A good place to start with a book review is with a summary of the contents and the aim(s) of the author(s).  There are eleven named chapters in total, with a thirty page introductory chapter, aptly titled Introducing butterflies.  This chapter, which like all the others, is beautifully illustrated with stunning photographs, briefly covers the main features of butterfly biology and ecology, from evolution, taxonomy, flight, mimicry, courtship, oviposition, development, feeding, predation, migration and concludes with climate change and conservation.  There is no overall ‘mission statement’ per se, but towards the end of the introduction the authors write “We need to know more and to do better. In many parts of the world, butterflies are disappearing at a rapid rate.  We need to understand what is happening to them, and why, if we are to stop or reverse their decline.  We need to create space for butterflies.”

From this I take it that the purpose of the book is to inspire adult non-entomologists to take an interest in butterflies in general and to create habitats for them in their gardens. I also think that there other aim is to inspire the younger generation to become involved with butterfly conservation either professionally or as an extra-mural interest.  The twelve chapters that follow the introductory piece are first, taxonomically based, e.g. Swallowtails, Skippers, Whites and then to do with their biology and ecology, covering topics such as wings, life history, diet, mimicry etc.  The last chapter is about those too-often overlooked Lepidoptera, the moths.  Each chapter is dominated by the beautiful photographs, each of which is accompanied by a succinct pen sketch giving a brief description of the species shown and some useful nuggets of information about the distribution, taxonomic position of the species and something about their biology.  Some of these nuggets were new to me, perhaps not surprisingly, as I am not primarily a lepidopterist 🙂

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I was, for example, interested and intrigued by the suggestion that eggs of The Map, Araschnia levana are mimics of the flowers  of its larval host plant, nettle (Urtica spp.).

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http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/2011/homolka_kail/reproduction.htm   ttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urtica_dioica.JPG

In fact I was so intrigued that I felt the need to test it out by searching for photographs of nettle flowers. These shown are the closest I could find that come close to matching the eggs and so to a certain extent I remain unconvinced.  I will however, leave that up to you to decide for yourselves.

In summary, this book is as advertised, “a visual feast that showcases the beauty and mystery of butterfly and moth species from around the globe.”  It is not a text-book, nor is it an exhaustive pictorial catalogue, you could not use it as an identification guide. It does however, give a good and accessible overview of some basic butterfly biology and ecology and also great factoids to store away for use at an opportune moment.  So the bottom line:

  1. Would I buy it?   – No, in my opinion, it does not contain enough entomological detail for me as a professional to justify the $45 price tag.
  2. Would I recommend a colleague to buy it? Probably not for the same reason as above.
  3. Would I recommend it to students as worth buying? Again, probably not, but I might suggest that they put it on their Christmas or birthday lists.
  4. Would I ask the library to buy it? Yes, I think that it contains enough useful information to make it attractive to a non-specialist student reader interested in an easy to understand book with enough useful essay material in it.

and finally, would I recommend it to anyone else to buy it,? Yes it is a nice book, albeit of the coffee table variety, but in my opinion at the upper end of that market and anything that might spark an interest in entomology amongst the as yet unconverted, can only be a good thing.

And now, Philip Howse’s book, Seeing Butterflies, which is subtitled, New Perspectives on Colour, Patterns and Mimicry.  The publisher’s blurb in this instance states “See living butterflies and moths through new eyes through Philip Howse’s fascinating text and superb imagery….This new way of looking at these beautiful and iconic images will inform and inspire nature-lovers, photographers artists and scientists.”  Some major claims are being made here, implying that this is a serious book aimed at specialists, yet with the potential to appeal to a much wider readership.  Does it live up to these claims?

As with Butterflies, we are presented with twelve beautifully illustrated chapters.  Here though, with a chapter entitled, Seeing: Illusion, deceit and survival, we know from the start that this book is about vision, about visibility and invisibility and about optical illusions.  Chapter two continues this theme, being about defence and illusion while Chapter three examines the evolution of butterflies and mimicry.  The remaining chapters, as with Butterflies, are taxonomically based and examine the very varied visual defence mechanisms exhibited across the various butterfly families.  The photographs may not be as professional, as many or as stunning as those in Butterflies, but the science is much stronger, yet still very accessible to the lay reader.  There is also much more natural history, although again, this is not a book that would be useful for identification purposes.  On the other hand there are some marvellous nuggets and factoids, with which to regale friends, students and anyone else that you can catch.   One that sticks in my mind particularly, is that apparently the small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae was once known as the ‘devil butterfly’ in Scotland. Philip speculates that this might be because it “comes out of the darkness of winter and hibernation, marked in red and black”.  As with Butterflies there were numerous factoids that intrigued and interested me.  In particular Philip’s claims for the eyed hawkmoth, Smerinthus ocellata, that he feels can impersonate a bracket fungus, a pile of dead leaves and a fox-like animal!

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The first two I am quite happy about, but the third suggestion seems to need quite a stretch of the imagination 🙂

There is more of the author apparent in Seeing Butterflies than in Butterflies; Philip recalls childhood memories, and other personal experiences to illustrate the points that he makes and this gives the book a very user-friendly feel that is, to a certain extent, lacking in Butterflies. I also think that on the whole, the book manages to live up the somewhat over-hyped blurb.

And so the bottom line:

  1. Would I buy it? – Yes I would, very nicely priced, well-written and enough science to keep me happy and interested.
  2. Would I recommend a colleague to buy it? Yes, even a non-entomological colleague would be likely to find it worth the money.
  3. Would I recommend it to students as worth buying? Yes, I would certainly suggest it to my PhD students and MSc Entomology students, but probably not to undergraduates although I would definitely suggest that they put it on their Christmas and/or birthday lists.
  4. Would I ask the library to buy it? Yes, both as a recommended book for the entomologists and it contains enough useful information to make it attractive to a non-specialist student reader interested in an easy to understand book with useful essay material in it.

 and finally, would I recommend it to anyone else to buy it,? Yes it is a nice book and should appeal to anyone who has a genuine interest in the natural world.

 So there you have it, my first official ‘blog’ book review. There may be more to come, not necessarily commissioned ones, but just books that take my fancy, but if there are any publishers, or authors out there who think that I might like to review one of their books, feel free to contact me to discuss it.

 

References

Howse, P. (2014) Seeing Butterflies, Papdakis Publisher, Winterbourne, UK.  Paperback, 176 pp, £16.99 ISBN-13: 978-1-906506-46-9

Leather, S.R. (2008). Conservation entomology in crisis. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 123, 184-185

Orenstein, R. & Marent, T. (2015) Butterflies, Firefly Books, Buffalo, USA. Hardback, 288 pp, $45 ISBN-13: 978-1-77085-580-0; ISBN-10: 1-77085-580-7

 

Postscript

For anyone seriously interested in writing academic book reviews I can recommend this site by Dr Perpetua Turner https://peptalkecology.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/writing-an-academic-book-review/

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