It isn’t easy being an applied ecologist – working on crops limits publication venues

“This is Simon Leather, he’s an ecologist, albeit an applied one” Thus was I introduced to a group of visiting ecologists by my then head of department at the Silwood Park campus of Imperial College. As you can imagine I was somewhat taken aback at this public display of the bias that ‘pure’ scientists have against those that they regard as ‘applied’.  I was (and still am), used to this attitude, as even as an undergraduate doing Agricultural Zoology when we shared modules with the ‘pure’ zoologists, we were regarded as a slightly lower life form J  Working in Finland as a post-doc in the early 1980s it was also obvious that there was a certain degree of friction between the pure and applied entomologists, so it was not a phenomenon confined entirely to the UK.  To this day, convincing ecology undergraduates that integrated pest management is a suitable career for them is almost impossible.

I was an ecologically minded entomologist from early childhood, pinning and collecting did not interest me anywhere near as much as insect behaviour and ecology, but I knew that I wanted to do something “useful” when I grew up. Having seen my father in action as a plant pathologist and crop protection officer, it seemed to me that combining entomology with agriculture would be an ideal way to achieve this ambition.  A degree in Agricultural Zoology at Leeds and a PhD in cereal aphid ecology at the University of East Anglia (Norwich) was the ideal foundation for my chosen career as an applied ecologist/entomologist.

I started my professional life as agricultural entomologist working both in the laboratory and in the field (cereal fields to be exact), which were easily accessible, generally flat, weed free and easy to manipulate and sample.  In the UK even the largest fields tend to be visible from end to end and side to side when you stand in the middle or edge (even more so now than when I started as wheat varieties are now so much shorter, less than half the height they were in 1977).



Having fun as a PhD student – aphid ‘sampling’ in Norfolk 1978


I haven’t grown since I did my PhD so wheat must have shrunk 🙂

See the post script to see what wheat used to look like.

Laboratory experiments, even when working on mature plants were totally do-able in walk-in growth rooms, and at a push you could even fit whole earing wheat plants into a growth cabinet.

I then spent ten years working as a forest entomologist, where field sites were the exact opposite, and extreme measures were sometimes required to reach my study animals, including going on an official Forestry Commission tree climbing course.


Pole pruners – (of only limited use) and tree climbing (great fun but laborious)


Scaffold towers for really high work, but expensive (and scary on sloping hillsides).

And as for lab work, not a chance of using mature plants or even plants more than two to three years old.  Excised branches and/or foliage (rightly or wrongly) were the norm*.

Doing field work was, despite the sometimes very physically challenging aspects, a lot of fun, and in my case, some very scenic locations.  My two main field sites were The Spey Valley and


Sutherland and Caithness, both of which provided magnificent views and of course, a plethora of whisky distilleries


where I discovered what is now my favourite single malt 🙂

The real fun came when it was time to submit papers.  Journal choice was (and is) very important.  As Stephen Heard points out, journals have a ‘culture’ and it is very important to pick a journal that has the right editorial board and ethos. The laboratory work never seemed to be a huge problem, referees (perhaps wrongly) very rarely criticised the use of young plants or excised foliage. I was able to publish the output from what was a very applied project, in a range of journals from the very specialised to the more ecological. This selection for example, from 1985-1987 (Leather, 1985, 1986; Leather & Burnand, 1987; Leather et al., 1985), appeared in Ecological Entomology, Oecologia, Functional Ecology and Bulletin of Entomological Research respectively.

Papers reporting field-based work were a little bit harder to place in journals outside the mainstream forestry ones, particularly when it came to experimental work.  One of the problems was that ecological referees unused to working in forests tended not to have a grasp of what was involved in setting up and servicing an experiment in a forest plantation or stand.  A farmer has no great objection to an entomologist removing 100 wheat tillers a week from his 2 ha field (at 90 stems per metre2, even a 16 week field season would only remove a tiny fraction of his crop).  A forest manager on the other hand with a stocking density of 3000 stems per hectare would look askance at a proposal to remove even 100 trees a month from a hectare plot, especially if this was repeated for seven years.  Sample size was thus a problem, even when using partial sampling of trees, e.g. by removing say only one branch.  When it came to field scale replication, to compare for example, three treatments and a control on two different soil types, where each treatment plot is a hectare, things get a bit difficult. The most that we could service, even with help (since we did not have huge financial resources), was three replicates of each treatment.  In agricultural terms this seems incredibly low, where 10m2 plots or even smaller, are very often used (e.g. Staley et al., 2009; Garratt et al., 2011).

We thus ended up with our experimental papers in the really specialised forestry journals (e.g.  Leather, 1993; Hicks et al., 2007).  On the other hand, those papers based on observational, long-term data were easier to place in more general ecological journals (e.g. Watt et al., 1989), although that was not always enough to guarantee success (e.g. Walsh et al., 1993; Watt et al., 1991).  Another bias that I came across (perhaps unconscious) was that referees appeared, and still do, think that work from production forests is not as valid as that coming from ‘natural’ forests, especially if they are tropical. We came across this when submitting a paper about the effects of prescribed burning on carabid populations in two sites in Portugal (Nunes et al., 2006).  We originally sent this to a well-known ecological journal who rejected it on the grounds of low replication, although we had also replicated it temporarily as well as geographically.  I was not impressed to see a paper published in this journal shortly after they had rejected our manuscript in which the authors had reported changes in insect communities after a one-off fire event in a tropical forest, without even the benefits of pre-fire baseline data.  We had in the meantime, given up on general ecology journals and submitted our paper to a local forestry journal.  Such is life.

I originally started this essay with the idea of bemoaning the fact that publishing studies based in production forests in more general journals was more difficult than publishing agriculturally based papers, but got diverted into writing about the way applied ecologists feel discriminated against by journals and pure ecologists.  I may or may not have convinced you about that.  To return to my original idea of it being more difficult for forestry–based ecologists to break out of the forestry journal ghetto than it is for agro-ecologists to reach a broader audience, I present the following data based on my own publication record, which very convincingly demonstrates that my original feeling is based on fact, albeit based on an n of one 🙂


Numbers of agricultural and forestry based papers published by me in different journal categories.

I might also add that being an entomologist also limits where you can publish, so being an applied entomologist is something of a double whammy, and when it comes to getting research council funding, don’t get me started!


 Garratt, M.P.D., Wright, D.J., & Leather, S.R. (2010) The effects of organic and conventional fertilizers on cereal aphids and their natural enemies. Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 12, 307-318.

Hicks, B.J., Aegerter, J.N., Leather, S.R., & Watt, A.D. (2007) Differential rates of parasitism of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) depends on host tree species. Scottish Forestry, 61, 5-10.

Leather, S.R. (1985) Oviposition preferences in relation to larval growth rates and survival in the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea. Ecological Entomology, 10, 213-217.

Leather, S.R. (1986) The effect of neonatal starvation on the growth, development and survival of larvae of the pine beauty moth Panolis flammea. Oecologia, 71, 90-93.

Leather, S.R. (1993) Influence of site factor modification on the population development of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) in a Scottish lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) plantation. Forest Ecology & Management, 59, 207-223.

Leather, S.R. & Burnand, A.C. (1987) Factors affecting life-history parameters of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (D&S): the hidden costs of reproduction. Functional Ecology, 1, 331-338.

Leather, S.R., Watt , A.D., & Barbour, D.A. (1985) The effect of host plant and delayed mating on the fecundity and lifespanof the pine beauty moth,  Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae): their influence on population dynamics and relevance to pest management. Bulletin of entomological Research, 75, 641-651.

Nunes, L.F., Silva, I., Pité, M., Rego, F.C., Leather, S.R., & Serrano, A. (2006) Carabid (Coleoptera) community change following prescribed burning and the potential use of carabids as indicator species to evaluate the effects of fire management in Mediterranean regions. Silva Lusitania, 14, 85-100.

Staley, J.T., Stewart-Jones, A., Pope, T.W., Wright, D.J., Leather, S.R., Hadley, P., Rossiter, J.T., Van Emden, H.F., & Poppy, G.M. (2010) Varying responses of insect herbivores to altered plant chemistry under organic and conventional treatments. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 277, 779-786.

Walsh, P.J., Day, K.R., Leather, S.R., & Smith, A.J. (1993) The influence of soil type and pine species on the carabid community of a plantation forest with a history of pine beauty moth infestation. Forestry, 66, 135-146.

Watt, A.D., Leather, S.R., & Stoakley, J.T. (1989) Site susceptibility, population development and dispersal of the pine beauty moth in a lodgepole pine forest in northern Scotland. Journal of Applied Ecology, 26, 147-157.

Watt, A.D., Leather, S.R., & Evans, H.F. (1991) Outbreaks of the pine beauty moth on pine in Scotland: the influence of host plant species and site factors. Forest Ecology and Management, 39, 211-221.


Post script

The height of mature wheat and other cereals has decreased hugely over the last two hundred years.  Cereals were originally a multi-purpose crop, not just providing grain for humans, but bedding straw for stock and humans, winter fodder for animals, straw for thatching and if really desperate, you could make winter fuel out of discarded straw**.


John Linnell  – Wheat 1860  You wouldn’t have been able to see Poldark’s (Aidan Turner) manly chest whilst he was scything in this field!


Pieter Breugel the Elder – Die Kornernter – The Harvesters  (1565) – Head-high wheat crops and not just because the average height was lower in those days.


*As I was writing this article I came across this paper (Friberg & Wiklund, 2016) which suggests that using excised plants may be justifiable.  Friberg, M. & Wiklund, C. (2016)  Butterflies and plants: preference/performance studies in relation to plant size and the use of intact plants vs. cuttings.  Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 160, 201-208

**My source for this is Laura Ingalls Wilder – Little House on the Prairie, to be exact 🙂



Filed under Bugbears, Uncategorized

5 responses to “It isn’t easy being an applied ecologist – working on crops limits publication venues

  1. An absolutely fascinating article. It really brought home to me how much wheat has shrunk (which I knew intellectually, but there is nothing like seeing some pics, especially the one from the 70s). Also I was very interested in the descriptions of the practicalities of doing research in the different habitats. It’s a shame the journals and the academics cause such silo-ing. You’d think more people would have noticed by now that it is the scientists who have broad interests and more than one string to their bow who produce the most interesting results.


  2. jim KIRBY

    Thank you for your mail. Among other things it reminds me of my childhood in Ireland getting in the wheat and putting it in stooks ,then gathering and loading on the haywain pulled by a giant Grey horse called surprisingly Paddy.

    After even a few minutes gathering stooks ones hands would become swollen from nettle stings and ones nose running from the dust . Then the heat and quickly the thirst. No wonder cider and lying under a tree was popular. Grinding wrk,you should pardon the pun. Yes the wheat was high ,certainly for me but it was also full of nettles and I seem to remember thistle heads .Times have indeed changed.


  3. Pingback: Recommended reads #89 | Small Pond Science

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