Monthly Archives: July 2019

What it says on the tin – should the titles of papers tell you what the paper is about?

I have recently discovered a new bugbear; titles of papers that give you no clue as to what the paper is about, even to the extent that reading the abstract still leaves you wondering if the paper is about an animal or a plant or whatever!  I may be exaggerating slightly, but perhaps not. My impression is, however, that in ecology, the higher the Impact Factor of the journal, the more likely you are to find papers with titles that are opaque to say the least.  Take a look at these for example, all taken from current issues of the journals and not involving a lot of searching or filtering.

Towards a unified framework for connectivity that disentangles movement and mortality in space and time

This one from Ecology Letters, it takes until line 9 of the abstract before you find out that it is about an insect herbivore, but you have to wait until the introduction to actually find out which species the authors are using as their exemplar.

Faster movement in nonhabitat matrix promotes range shifts in heterogeneous landscapes

Here from Ecology, it isn’t until line 8 of the abstract that you know what the subject organism of the paper is; on the plus side you do get the species name, a butterfly.

Seasonal host life‐history processes fuel disease dynamics at different spatial scales

Not an entomological example this time 🙂 This one from the Journal of Animal Ecology,  takes until line 7 of the abstract to reveal that the paper is about wild boar, not that you would have guessed from the title.

Non‐resource effects of foundation species on meta‐ecosystem stability and function

Another non-entomological example, this time from Oikos; you only have to read to line 6 of the abstract to find out that the paper is about mussel beds.

Contrast this with the next two journals, both lower impact than the previous examples, but still leaders in their fields with impact factors over the magic 2;

Ecology and conservation of the British Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio machaon britannicus: old questions, new challenges and potential opportunities

from Insect Conservation & Diversity, you know exactly what this paper is all about

The responses of wild jacamars (Galbula ruficauda, Galbulidae) to aposematic, aposematic and cryptic, and cryptic butterflies in central Brazil

and the same here for Ecological Entomology.

So what is it with these “guess what the hell this paper is about” titles?  There is a very obvious answer, but isn’t there always? It’s all about marketing. As authors we live in a crowded marketplace, as academics we are ducking and diving for tenure, grants, promotion and kudos in general; our currency is publications and the value of our currency is judged by citations, clicks and chutzpah. Back in the day, titles that began with the words “The effect of, the influence of …”, were, especially in the applied world, de rigueur. Nowadays, scientific writing courses and books about how to write paper, will all tell you that titles like that are the kiss of death, and won’t even get you past the Editor-in-Chief’s triage, let alone in the reviewers in-box. You need to sell your story, and ironically, it appears that selling your story means obfuscating it!

I’m as guilty of this as the next author.  My first papers stuck rigidly to the time-honoured applied format of titles such as “The effect of cereal growth stage and feeding site on the reproductive activity of the bird‐cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi and “The effect of previous defoliation of pole-stage lodgepole pine on plant chemistry, and on the growth and survival of pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) larvae”, even, when, as in the case of the latter, it was in a very ecological journal. Now, yes, I still do produce papers with similar titles, if I am aiming at a general ecology journal I succumb to the obfuscatory and hyperbolic, with the obligatory colon and question mark. I too have sold out. For many years I ran a paper writing course for postgraduates and final year undergraduates, part of which dealt with titles, and of course, I dealt harshly with the old fashioned, tell it as it is title, giving a personal example. Here is a paper I published with the informative title unlikely to grab the attention of a general audience:

“The effect of two lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon) seed origins (South coastal and Alaskan) on the growth, survival and development of larvae of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) in the presence and absence of predators in a Scottish field site.”

Here, however, is the snappy title that it was published under in Oecologia.  It used every trick in the trade, including hooking it on to, what was at the time, the latest ecological fad;

Sub-lethal plant defences: the paradox remains

In my defence line 1 of the abstract told you the plant species and by line 3 you knew it was pine beauty moth 🙂

The question that I would like you,  as fellow authors, to answer, is, have we gone a step too far, is it time to return to the honest, tell it as it is title, or are we doomed to an endless treadmill of devising ever more bizarre and over the top titles in that attempt to get ourselves noticed from the rest of the crowd?

 

Post script

I have, according to the Web of Science, published 207 papers, twenty of which include the words The Effect of and six, The influence of, in their titles, the most recent of which was in 2012.

Afterword

If you are interested in title structure and choice, albeit from a social science point of view, then I thoroughly recommend this post by Patrick Dunleavy.

 

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Pick & Mix 34 – a very mixed bag

UK Butterfly numbers continue to nosedive, figures show

Not just in the UK, evidence of butterfly abundance declines in parts of the USA too

Fascinating read from Ray Cannon’s blog  – Polymorphic mating in bumblebee hoverflies

How ethically should we treat insects?

Can we grow crops without plant protection products – see this review by the European Commission for an in-depth analysis

Sloppy science – whose problem?

To me this is a perfect example of what happens when people pay to publish and publishing is outwith the control of learned societies – how this got through peer review is hard to fathom!

Science is in trouble when the getting of grant funding is seen as an end in itself rather than a means to the end of doing good research

Richard Jones asks how many ant fossils should there be?

Why lime trees (Tilia cordata) can kill bees.

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It might have been wet, but we had a great time – British Ecological Society Undergraduate Summer School 2019 #BESUG19

 

The beginning of July was a busy time for me, first a week of my Crop Protection Summer School based at Harper Adams University and the following week saw me driving north to Scotland. This time I was heading for the Isle of Great Cumbrae and the Field Studies Council Centre at Millport.

My trusty, rusty car, safely on board the ferry to Millport, leaving grey Largs behind me. I had to drive as I didn’t think I could cope with the Vortis and other collecting equipment on the train 😊

This was the fifth time that I have had the privilege of being allowed to introduce the wonders of entomology to undergraduates aspiring to careers in ecology.  I first joined the BES undergraduate summer school team in 2015 at the inaugural event at Malham Tarn.  On that occasion I did it on my own but since 2016 the entomology team has been greatly strengthened by the very welcome addition of my former student Fran Sconce, now the Outreach Officer at the Royal Entomological Society.

When I arrived in the afternoon it wasn’t raining, although it was rather grey. Fran arrived shortly afterwards and we did the preliminary setting up, getting the lab ready, digging in pitfall traps and deploying the yellow pan traps.  I also gave Fran a quick tutorial in how to use the Vortis as next year, sadly, the Summer School clashes with the International Congress of Entomology which is where I will be instead.

Fran helping with preliminary setting up and learning (after all these years), how to use the Vortis suction sampler.

Yellow pan traps deployed in the hope that the rain forecasted for the night won’t make them overflow 😊

After we had got everything set up, we went for a drive round the island – it didn’t take very long but there was some spectacular scenery on offer, despite the grey skies.

 

View of Bute in the distance.

This must be fantastic when the sun shines.

We then joined the students for our evening meal; after a week of Harper Adams’s excellent catering, I can’t bring myself to call it dinner 😊  It was, however, a great chance to get to know some of the students ahead of our ‘Entomology Day’.  I also took the opportunity to go and listen to Natalia Pilakouta from the University of Glasgow who gave a very entertaining and informative talk about the effects of climate change on sociality.   A whole new concept to me; who would have thought that rising temperatures would affect how individuals interact.  What really made her talk memorable was that she interspersed human examples amounts the sticklebacks and dung beetles 😊 You can also find her on Twitter @NPilakouta

Chris Jeffs (another former student of mine) introducing Natalie Pilakouta for the first plenary of the course.

The bar finally opened at 9 pm where I hastily made my way to get a glass of red wine; after a lifetime of having wine with my evening meal, I was in sore need of this 😊.  It also gave me a chance to meet some more of the students and to get to know them a bit better.   Thence to bed hoping that the weather forecast for Tuesday was wrong.

Unfortunately the Meteorological Office got it right and the view from my bedroom window at 6 am was not quite what I had hoped to see.

The view from my window – Dawn Entomology Day!

Us entomologists are a hardy lot and despite the weather and the slight handicap it put on the use of sweep nets and other sampling devices we headed out to the field, but not before I had subjected the students to my introductory lecture extolling the virtues of insects and their extremely important roles in ecology.

A no-brainer really – if you are a zoologist/ecologist, insects are where it’s at 😊

Once out in the field, despite the rain we had a lovely time pooting, sweeping, beating and using the Vortis, all good fun and as my old games teacher used to say as he ushered us out into the rain to run a cross-country or play rugby, “Character building”.  More seriously though, it was a good introduction to ecological field work and the concept of environmental variability, the sun doesn’t shine all the time.

Sweeping, beating and sucking and perhaps contemplating a swim?

After forty minutes of running about in the rain we headed back to the lab for an hour of sorting and identification for everyone before we started the ‘expert’ session.  We were very pleased that 20% of the students stayed on for the extra hour of getting to grips with insect taxonomy.

Learning how to identify insects in the lab.

After the evening meal, it was time for the now, very traditional, glow in the dark insects and a lecture on moth trapping from Fran.

Using UV torches and fluorescent dust to track carabid beetles.

Fran lecturing on moth trapping and then with the early risers helping her and Chris Jeffs empty and identify the catch; one of which made a bid for freedom, necessitating a bit of ladder work 🙂

Despite the rain we did catch some moths, this Swallowtail for me at least, was the star of the show.

Moths identified it was time for breakfast and getting the car packed; luckily the nets had all dried out overnight and heading for the ferry and the long trip back to Shropshire. It was a great couple of days and I really enjoyed it and am incredibly sad that I will not be able to take part next year. The whole event is a great initiative by the BES, and I am glad that it and the allied summer school for ‘A’ Level students are now a firmly established part of the ecological calendar.   I have only described entomology part of the week, other things were happening; for an excellent account of the whole week I recommend this blog post by one of the students, and not just because she gave me a good report 😊  You can follow her on Twitter too @ecology_student and track down the other comments about the week by using #BESUG19

Although it rained quite hard at times we never had to use this 😊

In terms of hard-core entomology,  this was actually my second collecting insects in the rain experience of the year – you may remember it rained in Bristol!

I am very grateful to the British Ecological Society for inviting me to participate in the first ever Summer School and to keep on inviting me back.  Special thanks to Fran and Chris and also to Christina Ravinet (whom I also taught) from the BES for keeping things running so smoothly.

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Crop Protection Summer School – CROPSS 2019 – the grand finale?

The first week of July was a happy time but also a sad time.  I was privileged and very happy to spend a week with sixteen enthusiastic undergraduates keen to learn about crop protection, but at the same time, sad that the BBSRC funding to run my Crop Protection Summer School has now come to an end. Last year at this time I wrote about how pleased I was with the positive response of the students to working in, what to them, was a totally novel subject area.

Like last year, the Summer School started on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with an introduction from me about why crop protection was important and how Integrated Pest Management is all about ecology, NOT spraying and eradication, something I have been banging on about for many years and which needs to be reiterated again and again, so here I am reiterating it yet again 😊.

Our Sunday evening venue for the last two years, The Lamb Inn, the pub closest to the university, is closed at the moment so we

had to take a couple of taxis (large ones) to an alternative watering hole, The Last Inn. I was relieved to find that it was an excellent choice and we had a magnificent meal which I interrupted periodically to remind the students that they were also supposed to be doing a Pub Quiz 😊

As with last year, the quiz was all picture rounds.  The first round was all about charismatic megafauna (almost all answered correctly), then common British wild flowers (about 60% correct), common British trees (50% correct), common British insects (30% correct), I think you can see where I am going with this😊  This year, however, one of the teams cored 100% on the insect round thanks to the presence of an extremely keen entomologist, which meant I couldn’t feign resigned disappointment as much as I have in the past.

Catering for the rest of the week was in our excellent campus refectory and as last year, the students were all very complimentary about the quality of the food and the choices available.

We continued with the successful format of previous years, with specific days allocated to the main crop protection areas, agronomy, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, weed science and spray technology. Each evening after dinner, we had a speaker from ‘industry’; Jen Banfield-Zanin, a former student of mine who works at from Stockbridge Technology Centre, Rob Farrow from Syngenta, Bryony Taylor from CABI, Nicola Spence the Chief Plant Health Officer and Neal Ward from BioBest.  They were all very well received and had to answer a lot of interesting questions, both in the classroom and in the Student Union Bar afterwards.

The students and staff involved found it a very rewarding week, and as I did last year, I will let the pictures tell the story.

Let’s go on a nematode hunt! Matt Back briefing his troops

Sweep nets and pooters

Suction sampling with Andy Cherrill

Looking for weeds with John Reade

Labs and classrooms

Glorious weather and fantastic plants

Science communication and chasing fluorescent beetles in the dark

I think they liked the course and we loved their enthusiasm and commitment.

This year we did take the picture when we are all there!

Just to remind you why we need a well-trained youthful cadre of crop protection scientists.

 

 

I do hope that we will be able to secure some further funding to enable us to continue with this excellent initiative.  Perhaps the AHDB, the British Society of Plant Pathology and the Royal Entomological Society might consider chipping in?

Many thanks to Matt Back, Andy Cherrill, Louisa Dines, Simon Edwards, Martin Hare, Valeria Orlando, John Reade and Fran Sconce who all gave of their time freely to help deliver the course and to those MSc students who came and joined us in the bar.  I am especially grateful to our external speakers and their inspirational stories of how they ended up in crop protection.

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Pick and Mix 33 – resilience, entomophagy, entomology, the windscreen phenomenon and writing habits

How resilent is your garden?

Angela Saini’s third book, Superior: The Return of Race Sciencemakes the compelling case that scientific racism is as prevalent as it has ever been, and explores the way such backward beliefs have continued to evolve and persist and here is a review

They may be small but they can move very large distances – insect migration in the news

Edible insects? Lab-grown meat? The real future food is lab-grown insect meat

Good advice from Megan Duffy on writing your discussion – to be sure

Aphids are wonderful – a long time ago they borrowed some virus genes to help them decide when to produce winged individuals

Here Stephen Heard defends the use of parenthicals

Botanists are arguing amongst themselves as to whether plants have brains or not – what do you think?

What sort of conservationist are you?

Manu Saunders on the windscreen phenomenon – another viewpoint on insect declines

 

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Sowing the seeds of virology–entomology research collaborations to tackle African food insecurity

Success!

At the end of last month (June) I had the privilege of taking part in CONNECTEDV4. In case you’re wondering, this was a two-week training event at which a group of early career researchers from 11 African countries got together in Bristol, UK. Nothing so unusual about that, you may think.

Yet, this course, run by the Community Network for African Vector-Borne Plant Viruses (CONNECTED), broke important new ground. The training brought together an unusual blend of researchers: plant virologists and entomologists studying insects which act as vectors for plant disease, as an important part of the CONNECTED project’s work to find new solutions to diseases that devastate food crops in Sub-Saharan African countries.

The CONNECTED niche focus on vector-borne plant disease is the reason for bringing together insect and plant pathology experts alongside plant breeders. The event helped forge exciting new collaborations in the fight against African poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity.  ‘V4’ – Virus Vector Vice Versa – was a fully-funded residential course which attracted great demand when it was advertised. Places were awarded by competitive application, with funding awarded to cover travel, accommodation, subsistence and all training costs. For every delegate who attended, five applicants were unsuccessful.

The comprehensive programme combined scientific talks, general lab training skills, specific virology and entomology lectures and practical work and also included workshops, field visits, career development, mentoring, and desk-based projects. Across the fortnight delegates received plenty of peer mentoring and team-building input, as well as an afternoon focused on ‘communicating your science.’

New collaborations will influence African agriculture for years to come

There’s little doubt that the June event, hosted by The University of Bristol, base of CONNECTED Network Director Professor Gary Foster, has sown seeds of new alliances and partnerships that can have global impact on vector-borne plant disease in Sub-Saharan Africa for many years to come.

In writing this, I am more than happy to declare an interest. As a member of the CONNECTED Management Board, I have been proud to see network membership grow in its 18 months to a point where it’s approaching 1,000 researchers, from over 70 countries. The project, which derived its funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund, is actively looking at still more training events.

I was there in my usual capacity of extolling the virtues of entomology and why it is important to be able to identify insects in general, not just pests and vectors.  After all, you don’t want to kill the goodies who are eating and killing the baddies.  My task was to introduce the delegates to basic insect taxonomy and biology and to get them used to looking for insects on plants and learning how to start recognising what they were looking at. Our venue was the University of Bristol Botanic Gardens as the main campus was hosting an Open Day. This did impose some constraints on our activities, because as you can see from the pictures below, we didn’t have a proper laboratory.  The CONNECTED support team did, however, do a great job of improvising and coming up with innovative solutions, so thanks to them, and despite the rain, my mission was successfully accomplished.

Me in full flow, and yes, as is expected from an entomologist, I did mention genitalia 🙂

It’s genitalia time 🙂

A hive of activity in the ‘lab’

Collecting insects in the rain

The V4 training course follows two successful calls for pump-prime research funding, leading to nine projects now operating in seven different countries, and still many more to come. Earlier in the year CONNECTED ran a successful virus diagnostics training event in Kenya, in close partnership with BecA-ILRI Hub. One result of that training was that its 19 delegates were set to share their new knowledge and expertise with a staggering 350 colleagues right across the continent.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day, despite the rain, and was just sorry that I wasn’t able to spend more time with the delegates and members of the CONNECTED team. Many thanks to the latter for the fantastic job they did. The catering and venue were also rather good.

Project background

Plant diseases significantly limit the ability of many of Sub-Saharan African countries to produce enough staple and cash crops such as cassava, sweet potato, maize and yam. Farmers face failing harvests and are often unable to feed their local communities as a result. The diseases ultimately hinder the countries’ economic and social development, sometimes leading to migration as communities look for better lives elsewhere.

The CONNECTED network project is funded by a £2 million grant from the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund, which supports research on global issues that affect developing countries. It is co-ordinated by Prof. Foster from the University of Bristol School of Biological Sciences, long recognised as world-leading in plant virology and vector-transmitted diseases, with Professor Neil Boonham, from Newcastle University its Co-Director. The funding is being used to build a sustainable network of scientists and researchers to address the challenges. The University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, of which Prof. Foster is a member, also provides input and expertise.

Did I mention that it rained? 🙂

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