Category Archives: Bugbears

Paper reviewers are a valuable resource – Editors, please treat them with respect

Maybe I’m getting grumpy in my old age, but I think not.  In fact, I think I am now seen as the go to nice Referee 3 for when the Editor wants a sympathetic split decision breaker; something on the lines of he is a bit of an old-fashioned grammar pedant, but he is always willing to see the positive side of a study so long as the methodology is sound :-). I know what of I speak. As an Editor myself, I have a mental list of which Referee 3 to approach to help me soften the blow, put in the knife or contradict what I consider an overly harsh Referee 2.

Referees, or reviewers as we now tend to call them, are the life-blood of a successful journal; as I have written before, good reviewers are worth their weight in gold and should be treasured and encouraged.  A major problem is that with what seems to be an exponential increase in the number of journals and papers submitted, reviewers of any sort, good, bad or average, are in short supply.  The problem is exacerbated by a misguided notion held by many potential reviewers of how many reviews they should do a year (Didham et al., 2017).

As someone who does far more than my fair share of paper reviewing, I average about three to four papers a month, I think this puts me way ahead of the pack. To back this up, Publons tells me that over the last twelve months, I have reviewed 42 papers, 1.4 reviews for every paper that I have published.  I think that by any criteria this makes me a good citizen, if not a saint :-).

I was thus somewhat miffed*  the day before yesterday, when, with one week to go before the agreed due date for a review of a paper I had, against my better judgement, agreed to do, the following email arrived.

 

“Dear Dr Leather:

Recently, I asked you to review Manuscript XX-XXX-000 entitled “How to annoy a reviewer”

It has since become apparent that I will not need you to review at this time. If you have already put some work into it and are near completion, you could send it along to us, just email to: inconsderateditor@journalwhichjustlostmygoodwill

If you have not started the review, then you can relax and cross it off your “to do” list.

Many thanks for your good intentions and I hope you will be able to review other manuscripts in the near future.”

 

 

I’m not a great fan of the late Mr Morrison, especially his politics, but this reverse quote sums my feelings exactly.

Gritting my teeth, I very politely replied, to the Editor, thanking him for letting me know that my services were no longer needed. In reality, I was fuming and almost instantly posted an anonymised Tweet to let off a bit of steam.  Now, I don’t know about you, but as an Editor I would never do this.  If you have, as all Editors do, invited more than two potential reviewers at the same time, it is extremely poor editorial practice, ten days later, to tell a reviewer they were superfluous to requirements.  As it happened, I was, when the email arrived, just about to write the review.

Now, as an Editor, I would have no compunction in sending a similar email to a reviewer who was showing up as overdue on the system.  To someone who was well within the specified return date, I would never ever consider dumping them at this stage, even if by some miracle, I had already received three reviews, not just the magical two.  I don’t think any author would begrudge an extra day or two to hear back from the journal.  In my judgement, this is an extremely effective way to antagonise reviewers, and I, for one, will no longer be willing to review for this particular journal.

 

What do you think?

 

Some editors may try to blame the automated system for the email, but that is a very poor excuse.  The system tells you when the required number of reviews (usually two) has been achieved.  As an Editor, if you still have a reviewer listed as awaiting review, you just change the number of reviews required to three, thus preempting the automatic email. Easy peasy, and very importantly, you have not lost the good will of your reviewer.

Reference

Didham, R.K., Leather, S.R. & Basset, Y. (2017) Don’t be a zero-sum reviewer. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 10, 1-4.

 

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Should entomologists change their name to insectologists?

In case you are wondering, this is not a totally tongue in cheek post. Over the years it has become very clear to me, that many people, even those with degrees, have no idea what an entomologist is. On being told that I am an entomologist, most people look blankly at me, and pass on rapidly to another topic. Despite the importance of the subject, the term entomology is not very widely known.  Sadly, to those of us who study insects, this is no longer hugely surprising.  More surprising though, is how few of those people then ask me what an entomologist is. I haven’t asked any ornithologists, botanists, zoologists, my paediatrics daughter, or my consultant gynaecologist brother if they suffer similar responses on being asked their occupations, but I suspect that they suffer from far fewer blank looks than I do.

So, what can we do about this lamentable state of affairs?  I, and other entomologists have long lamented the lack of knowledge and interest in these, the most important, and to me, most fascinating members of the animal world, shown by the majority of humans. What is it about entomology that makes it such a niche subject?

All is not lost. When I do get the chance to enlighten those that ask, and tell them that entomologists study insects, I am relieved to find that they do know what they (insects) are, even if they do respond, with “oh bugs, that’s what I thought”, which is at least preferable to “creepy crawlies” which is another common response. So are we too elitist, too proud of our discipline to give it a more accessible name? Ornithologists don’t, as far as I know, call themselves birdologists, and herpetologists don’t need to go around describing themselves as frogologists, snakeologists or whateverologists?  They don’t have to, they live in a world surrounded by the constant stream of vertebrate propaganda coming from the biased charismatic mega-fauna, backbone dominated world we live in. (I’m not bitter, honest).

Going back to my question about elitism in our discipline.  Our societies worldwide are known as entomological societies, some such as the one I have been a proud Fellow since 1977, are even preceded by the word Royal, and the Royal Entomological Society of London is not alone, there is also the Royal Belgian Entomological Society :-). What about the journals that entomological societies produce and those in which entomologists publish?  As you might expect the majority of the titles contain the word entomology but not exclusively.  The two biggest entomological societies, The Royal Entomological Society (RES) and the Entomological Society of America (ESA), produce six and eight journals respectively in addition to their newsletters and handbooks.  Of the six RES journals, two use insect instead of entomology, Insect Conservation & Diversity and Insect Molecular Biology. Similarly the ESA have two insect named journals, Journal of Insect Science, Insect Systematics and Diversity, and also two that eschew mention of both entomology and insects, Journal of Integrated Pest Management, and Arthropod Management Tests. The International Union for the Study of Social Insects, not technically a society, produces the well-known and highly respected journal, Insectes Sociaux.

Outside the world of learned entomological societies there are a handful of entomological journals that use insect instead of entomology, namely, Journal of Insect Conservation, Journal of Insect Physiology, Insects and Insect Science, three of which I have published in (Cameron & Leather, 2012; Oliver et al., 2012, Cooper et al., 2014). There is also of course, The Bulletin of Insectology, in which I have also published (Benelli et al, 2015).

Entomology is obviously not a sacred term, and in the interests of getting more people interested in the wonderful world of insects and letting them know what it is we do, we should perhaps, be less precious about being entomologists, and become insectologists when appropriate.  That said, I don’t think I will ever be able to bring myself to say that I am a bugologist or creepycrawlyologist, but I I could certainly live with being an insectologist now and then.

 

References

Benelli, M., Leather, S.R., Francati, S., Marchetti, E. & Dindo, M.L. (2015) Effect of two temperatures on biological traits and susceptibility to a pyrethroid insecticide in an exotic and native coccinellid species. Bulletin of Insectology, 69, 23-29.

Cameron, K.H. & Leather, S.R. (2012) Heathland management effects on carabid beetle communities: the relationship between bare ground patch size and carabid  biodiversity. Journal of Insect Conservation, 16, 523-535.

Cooper, L.C., Desjonqueres, C. & Leather, S.R. (2014) Cannibalism in the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Insect Science, 21, 750-758.

Oliver, T.H., Leather, S.R. & Cook, J.M. (2012) Ant larval demand reduces aphid colony growth rates in an ant-aphid interaction. Insects, 3, 120-130.

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Should we boycott journals that use bullying tactics to speed up their review process? The Verdict

In which, Dear Reader, I reveal the results of my recent poll, discuss the dilemmas faced by journal Editors and call most earnestly upon the scientific community to help us in our endeavours.

Three weeks ago, incensed by a request (from a journal that shall remain nameless), to turn round a review within a week, I put fingers to keyboard and asked the world if we should boycott such journals.  I rarely run polls, but I did on this occasion; for two reasons, one I was genuinely interested in how others felt about this, and second, because as an Editor the topic regularly comes up when we meet with our publishers, who are always keen to reduce the time allowed to referees to return their reviews.

My first question was whether we should boycott those journals that ask referees to return their reviews within one week.  As you can see, the response was overwhelmingly in favour of such a boycott.

87% of respondents thought we should boycott journals that ask for a one-week turnaround

My other question was to do with what people felt was a reasonable time to complete a review. As you can see most respondents felt that at least

Respondent’s views on the reasonable time in which to complete a review

three weeks was a reasonable time in which to complete a review, with a hefty (note that, tempted as I was, I did not use the word significant) proportion suggesting a month as the ideal time span in which to complete their review.

I was reasonably happy with the results of the polls as the two journal that I edit both ask for a three-week turnaround, and we have so far, resisted pressure from the publishers to reduce this to two weeks.  As Editors, we rightly feel a responsibility to our authors to make a decision on their manuscript as quickly as possible, although as Steve Heard has pointed out, authors need to be realistic about how long they should expect to wait. Spoiler alert, it is a lot longer than a week.  We also have considerable pressure from our publishers to constantly “improve” our turnaround times as this is one of the metrics they push when ‘selling’ our journals.  They tell us, time after time, that as well as the dreaded Impact Factor, time to publication, which is a function of review turnaround time, is one of the metrics that influences author journal choices.

Journals need good submission rates to allow us, the Editors, to fill our page allocations with high quality manuscripts.  If paper submission rates fall we can panic and fill the pages with poorer quality papers, or stand firm, and either delay publishing an issue (not good from the point of view of the publishers and Web of Science), or produce a timely, but thin issue (not ideal for our subscribers). The pressure from the publishers, even if you are lucky enough to be editing a journal for a learned society, can, on occasion, be quite stressful. Given this, you may well wonder, why people choose to be Editors; this post from some time ago might help you understand our motives. 🙂

Good referees are like gold dust, and as most journals do not pay them, we very much rely on their good will. Now this is where we have a dilemma. Good referees are experts in their fields, which they have proven by having published in journals such as those I and others edit. As an Editor I know how difficult it is to get the minimum two referees needed to maintain, however imperfectly, the academic standards we all hold dear.  My record to date is thirteen refusals, for a paper that was perfectly fine, but for some reason, unclear to me, no one seemed to want to review. It is at times like those that I have some sympathy for the views of those who feel that we should do away with the current peer review system and let papers find their own level (Kovanis et al., 2017).  This is, of course untenable, as although specialists in the field would know to steer clear of the dross, there would be many, and not just the media, but those with either hidden agendas or lack of discernment, who, either knowingly or unwittingly, would report them as fact. In my opinion, which I think is an informed one, a robust and peer review system is still a necessity. Imperfect as the one we currently have, it is the best available.  We need to conserve what we have, whilst acknowledging that we can, and should improve upon it, not wreck it by imposing impossible demands on referees by assuming that authors are selfish self-seeking opportunists*.  So, authors step up to be referees, and journal editors, resist the demands of publishers to impose unrealistic turnaround times on your editorial teams and reviewers.  Editors and referees, are, in the main, also authors, so we should all be on the same page, or am I being incredibly naive? 🙂

 

References

 

Didham, R.K., Leather, S.R. & Basset, Y. (2017) Don’t be a zero-sum reviewer. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 10, 1-4.

Kovanis, M., Trinquart, L., Ravaud, P. & Pörcher, R. (2017) Evaluating alternative systems of peer review: a large-scale agent-based modelling approach to scientific publication. Scientometrics, 113, 651–671.

 

*

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Should we boycott journals that use bullying tactics to speed up their review process?

This morning, the 26th March, I received an email from a journal for which I had agreed to referee a paper.

I should add that this is one of those journals that asks you to return your review within ONE week and if you accept and click on their little calendar you find that the longest you can delay the return date is to a generous (!) ten days. As an Editor myself, and knowing how difficult it is to get referees at the best of times, I, against my better judgement, agreed to review the paper, but did say in my return email, that three weeks was a better time frame. I was thus somewhat surprised, a mere three days after accepting the invitation, to get this email from the Editorial Office.

You will note that they totally ignored my request for extra time

If you were an old softie like me, always willing to see the best in everyone, you might call this passive-aggressive behaviour, but really, I think you can construe this as bullying, especially, if, unlike me, you are new to the reviewing game. I was very tempted to reply saying that I had changed my mind and wasn’t going to review the paper after all.  I had, however, read the paper and made my preliminary notes, so despite my anger, they will get a review from me this time, but I have vowed to turn down all future invitations from this particular journal.

Given that Steve Heard thinks that the fastest review time an author should expect is seven, yes SEVEN weeks, then, by golly, asking a reviewer to do it in one week is just wrong, wrong, wrong.  Yes, we don’t want to return to those days in the 1980s, when I once waited 18 months for a decision from the Journal of Applied Ecology, but there are limits, and one week, is as far as I am concerned, taking the mickey.  I know from personal experience, that as journal Editors we are under pressure, (unduly so I think), from our publishers to improve our turnaround time, for example, the four journal with which I am involved, ask reviewers to return their reports within three weeks, but I am always happy to extend this if asked*, but I will say this again, one week is just not on!

 

I don’t often do polls, but here we go.

 

Finally, as an Editor, can I just add two pleas; first, if asked by a journal to review a paper, please reply promptly, even if it is to say no; second, if you do agree to review a paper, please either return by the stipulated date, or ask for an extension.  We will, and I am sure I speak for the majority of Editors, be happy to oblige.

 

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Leaf blowers – disturbing the peace and fatal to insects?

There is a petition doing the rounds at the moment hosted by the 38 Degrees organisation calling for a ban on leaf blowers, citing their detrimental effect on insects as the raison d’etre.  I’ve signed it, mainly because of the noise and the air pollution effects, especially as “Leaf Blower Man” goes past my office frequently at this time of year😊

The Leaf Blower Man in action outside my office and the aftermath – I wonder what happens to the leaves next?

You may, (or perhaps not), be wondering what has brought about this most recent media outburst against leaf blowers.  Taking this as a great opportunity to procrastinate still further, I tracked down the first media mention about the dangers of leaf blowers to a newspaper article published in the German newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine on November 14th in which it reported a press release, dated the 16th October, from The German Ministry for the Environment and Nature Conservation, strongly advising people not to use leaf blowers because of the danger they  cause to the environment, not just from pollution but because of the harm they do to insects and other small animals.

Der Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz (BUND) fordert nun nicht nur Privatleute, sondern auch die Kommunen zum Verzicht auf den Einsatz auf: „Laubbläser sind nicht nur ohrenbetäubend laut und verschmutzen die Luft durch ihre Verbrennungsmotoren, sie schaden auch der Bodenbiologie gravierend“, sagt die Artenschutzexpertin des BUND, Silvia Bender. „Denn neben Blättern werden auch Insekten und Spinnen aufgesaugt und gehäckselt sowie Pflanzensamen zerstört.“ Ohnehin seien die Geräte überflüssig: „Wir empfehlen daher Grundstücksbesitzern und auch Kommunen dringend, auf Laubbläser und Laubsauger zu verzichten und stattdessen wieder zu Rechen und Harke zu greifen.“”

“The Federal Government for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) now demands not only private individuals, but also the communities to abandon the use: “Leaf blowers are not only deafening loud and pollute the air through their internal combustion engines, they also harm the soil biology seriously,” says the species protection expert of the BUND, Silvia Bender. “In addition to leaves and insects and spiders are sucked up and chopped and plant seeds destroyed.” Anyway, the devices are superfluous: “We therefore recommend landowners and communities urgently to dispense with leaf blower and leaf vacuum and instead to rake and rake again.”

If you want to read the original source it is here; it also extols the virtues of the exercise you gain from raking up your leaves 😊

Although it had taken almost a month for the German press to latch on to the story, presumably they were waiting for autumn to properly kick-in; BBC World ran with the story on 15th November and the first British Newspapers by  18th November and a feature piece by Kate Bradbury in the Daily Telegraph appeared on November 26th which finally prompted me to put fingers to keyboard 😊

Kate mentioned in her article that there was no scientific evidence that leaf blowers directly harmed insects and after spending some time with Google Scholar and Web of Science, I can confirm this. Perhaps someone might like to do a project on it?  I’m sure it might appeal to a keen undergraduate or MSc student.  Kate correctly points out that leaves form leaf litter and as she aptly puts it “are natures’ winter blanket” providing shelter for countless animals. Including vertebrates. Those insects that overwinter on the ground, or in the upper layers of the soil, despite their fantastic anti-freeze chemistry (Leather et al., 1983) are also very grateful for a nice thick layer of leaves to help buffer the effects of a cold winter and keep them hidden from natural enemies (Thomas et al., 1992). Additionally, leaf litter also provides a valuable food source for the very important, and often overlooked ecological recyclers such as the soil dwelling flies (Frouz, 1999) and of course, the invaluable and underappreciated earthworms (Cothrel et al., 1997).  An example of how important leaf litter is for insect survival, is the way in which the horse chestnut leaf miner can be controlled in gardens and parks by the removal of the leaves from under infested trees as soon as leaf fall has ended (Kehrli & Bacher, 2003).  Leaf blowers may not be harming insects and other invertebrates physically, (although I imagine that being blasted by what must seem like a hurricane, can’t be a totally benign experience), but they certainly have the potential to reduce their populations, which given the current worries about Insectageddon (Leather, 2018), Is not something we should be happy to encourage.

So, if they are not physically damaging our invertebrate friends, and there is, as yet, no scientific evidence that they do so, how are leaf blowers harming insects and their allies.  Leaf litter is an invaluable resource, it not only provides nutrients for plants and helps sequester carbon (Berg & McLaugherty, 2008), and as I mentioned earlier, it provides livelihoods for fungi, bacteria, insects and other invertebrates, and the litter grazers in turn, provide tasty meals for other invertebrates further up the food chain* (Scheu, 2001; Miyashita et al., 2003).  By removing fallen leaves to satisfy health and safety directives and/or some folks preferences for tidy pavements and lawns, we are at the same time as we pollute our atmosphere with nasty hydrocarbons, depriving these useful organisms of much-needed resources ☹ Whilst I sympathise with local councils and their desire to keep their citizens safe from potentially slips and falls, I really don’t see the need for leaf-free lawns and parks.

Shiny, leaf-free (almost), and safe for humans versus beautiful, leaf strewn and good for earthworms and their ilk and aesthetically pleasing (to me at any rate).

And if you must keep your pavements leaf-free then why not use a quieter and less polluting alternative such as a human with a stiff broom or if a mechanical alternative is the only option, then an electrically powered mechanical road-sweeper is an acceptable substitute.

I like this one as it is a Scarab 😊

Leaf blowers have been used to harm insects, albeit on a larger scale than that wielded by the local council worker or gardener, and in conjunction with a vacuum device.  Inspired by the use of tractor driven vacuum machines developed to control Lygus bugs in strawberry fields (Pickel et al., 1994), Phyllis Weintraub and colleagues (Weintraub et al., 1996) developed a tractor-propelled blower-vacuum combi to manage insect pests in celery and potato crops. The insects are first dislodged by a blower and then vacuumed up for later disposal ☹  More recently, a similar technique has been used to control Colorado Potato Beetles.

There may be no scientific evidence to show that leaf blowers used as intended are bad for insects but on the other hand there is no evidence that shows the opposite, and given the noise and atmospheric pollution they produce and the undoubted harm they cause by litter, my sympathies lie with those wanting to ban the things.

I think that most entomologists would say that the only good leaf blower is one that has been reverse engineered to be a G-Vac and used for insect sampling.  I suspect that insects would have a different opinion as most of those insects we catch usually end up dead, even if it is for the good of science 😊

My colleague Andy Cherrill demonstrating his patent G-vac or ‘Chortis’ as we call it 😊

 

References

Berg, B. & McClaugherty, C. (2008) Plant Litter – Decomposition, Humus Formation, Carbon Sequestration. Springer, Berlin 338 pp.

Cothrel, S.R., Vimmerstedt, J.P. & Kost, D.A. (1997) In situ recycling of urban deciduous litter. Soil Biology &Biochemistry, 29, 295-298.

Frouz, J. (1999) Use of soil dwelling Diptera (Insecta, Diptera) as bioindicators: a review of ecological requirements and response to disturbance. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 74, 167-186.

Kehrli, P. & Bacher, S. (2003) Date of leaf litter removal to prevent emergence of Cameraria ohridella in the following spring.  Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 107, 159-162.

Leather, S.R. (2018) “Ecological Armageddon” – more evidence for the drastic decline in insect numbers. Annals of Applied Biology, 172, 1-3.

Leather, S.R., Bale, J.S. & Walters, K.F.A. (1993) The Ecology of Insect Overwintering. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Miyashita, T., Takada, M. & Shimazaki, A. (2003) Experimental evidence that above ground predators are sustained by underground detritivores. Oikos, 103, 31-36.

Pickel, C., Zalom, F.G., Walsh, D.B. & Welch, N.C. (1994) Efficacy of vacuum machines for Lygus Hesperus (Hemiptera: Miridae) control in coastal California strawberries. Journal of Economic Entomology, 87, 1636-1640.

Scheu, S. (2001) Plant and generalist predators as links between the below-ground and above-ground system. Basic & Applied Ecology, 2, 3-13.

Thomas, M.B., Sotherton, N.W., Coombes, D.S. & Wratten, S.D. (1992) Habitat factors influencing the distribution of polyphagous predatory insects between field boundariesAnnals of Applied Biology, 120, 197-202.

Weintraub, P.G., Arazi, Y. & Horowitz, A.R. (1996) Management of insect pests in celery and potato crops by pneumatic removal.  Crop Protection, 8, 763-769.

 

 

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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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Insectageddon, Ecological Armageddon, Global insect Apocalypse – why we need sustained long-term funding

“To him that countryside, largely unspoiled in his early days, was an inexhaustible source of delight and a subject of endless study and mediation…And as the years passed and the countryside faded away under the withering touch of mechanical transport, that knowledge grew more and more precious. Now, the dwindling remnants had to be sought and found with considered judgement and their scanty material eked out with detail from the stores of the remembered past”  R Austin Freeman The Jacob Street Mystery (1942)

The recent release of the IPBES report highlighting the significant global declines in biodiversity has prompted me to revisit the “Insectageddon” debate, some of the ramifications of which I wrote about earlier this year.

 

Summary from the IPBES report – note that even a well-known group like dragonflies is quite data deficient*.

Insects may be in decline, but papers about their decline have been around for almost twenty years and even more are appearing as we entomologists begin to hope that people may at last be beginning to listen to us.

A selection of some of the many papers that have documented insect declines over the last several years.

Using the now infamous search term “insect decline” in the Google Trends function I was not surprised to see the steep increase since 2016, as 2017 was the year in which the paper reporting  the 75% decline in flying insect biomass appeared (Hallmann et al., 2017), but I was intrigued by what appeared to have been a peak in mentions since 2004.

Google Trends using the phrase insect decline – last data point is 2019 at the time of writing

I wondered what caused the peak in 2004, so using the same key words as Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys (2019), checked Google Scholar and Web of Science to see if I could track down a paper that might have caused a media splash at the time.  I also checked 2003, in case there was a delay in reporting. To my surprise I couldn’t find anything relevant in 2004, but 2003 threw up three papers (Hopkins & Freckleton, 2002; Kotze & O’Hara, 2003; Dennis & Shreeve, 2003).  The first was about the decline of taxonomists, which although a serious problem is unlikely to have generated that much attention, the other two were about long-term declines in Carabid beetles (Kotze & O’Hara, 2003) and the third about the decline of French butterflies (Dennis & Shreeve, 2003) which again, I suspect were probably not high enough profile to generate a big splash.  I was puzzled but then I thought, why not just put it into Google with the date 2004, and sure enough it directed me to a Nature News item with the headline Insect deaths add to extinction fears, which in turn led me to Thomas et al., (2004) which I am pretty certain generated the peak in interest and also highlights the fact that ecologists and entomologists have been worrying about this problem for some time.

Since the appearance of the, now, infamous paper, that sparked the most recent round of Armageddon stories (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys, 2019), a lot has been, quite justifiably, written about the short-comings of the study both in scientific journals (e.g. Komonen et al., 2019, Simmons et al., 2019; Thomas et al, 2019, Wagner, 2019) and in blog posts, such as this thoughtful piece from Manu Saunders.

What does need to be stressed, is that although these commentators recognise the shortcomings of the paper, none of them, including the most scathing of commentators (Mupepele et al., 2019) dispute the fact, that insects, in general, are in decline. Unfortunately, the climate change deniers and their ilk, have, of course, used the criticisms to try and spread a message of “nothing to fear folks”.

Hopefully a failed attempt at downplaying the insect decline stories, but a great example of how climate change deniers are keen to muddy the waters

For humans with our relatively short lifespans, shifting baselines can be a problem (Leather & Quicke, 2010; Tree, 2018), in that people accept what they have known in their childhoods as the natural state of nature.  It can of course work the other way. I can remember the late great Miriam Rothschild telling me in the early 1990s, how as a “gel” in the 1920s a particular butterfly species that was currently at very low numbers compared with the 1970s which was what I and similar aged colleagues were remarking upon, was 50 years before that, also very low, her message being “populations cycle”.  It is because of this propensity, which is nicely illustrated by some of my 20-year data sets, all from the same 52 trees, that we need access to long-term funding to monitor insect populations.  Chop my data sets into three-year concurrent periods, the time-span of a typical PhD study or research grant, and you end up with some very different pictures of the populations of three common insect species.

The Silwood Park Winter moth, Operophtera brumata – dramatic shifts in population levels

Twenty years of the Sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis, at Silwood Park.  First five years versus last five years – what happened? Does this fit with the recent paper by Stephen Heard and colleagues that species chosen for study because they are common or easy to find, are almost certainly to show declines over the long-term?

 

The Maple aphid, Periphyllus testudinaceus – twenty-year data run from Silwood Park

Given the above, and the fact that most of the evidence for insect declines is largely based on studies from Europe, the UK heading the list (Wagner, 2019) and on top of that, the evidence from tropical locations is open to different interpretations (e.g.  Willig et al, 2019), there is an urgent need for something to be done.  So, what do we need to do?  I think there are three things that need addressing, sooner, rather than later.

Monitoring

First, we need to build on the work that has been done in Germany (Hallmann et al., 2017) and the UK via the Rothamsted Insect Survey (Bell et al., 2015) and establish active insect monitoring networks using repeatable sampling methods, but on a global scale. New monitoring programs will not help establish past baselines, but they can help us determine trends from this point forward. We can make this truly global by engaging the public through community science. These programs will need to use standardized methods, such as Malaise traps, pitfall traps, light traps, and effort-based counts, with species diversity, abundance and biomass being primary measures. Although biomass is an imperfect estimator because it can be sensitive to changes in abundances of large species, it is still a valuable metric from the ecosystem perspective. Determining biomass trends also does not require fine-scale taxonomic knowledge, which is often lacking in citizen science initiatives. It would, even if it were possible, be incredibly expensive, to try to monitor all insect species from any community with appreciable diversity.  A much better option, and one that will certainly appeal to a wide range of citizen scientists would be to monitor taxa like butterflies, macro-moths, dragonflies, bees, and some beetle groups.  All these can serve as indicator species for other insect groups and, tongue in cheek, many can be observed using binoculars, thus encouraging ornithologists and mammalologists to join in 😊

Innovative use of past data

At national levels, a few long-term monitoring schemes already exist, for example, the UK Environmental Change Network (http://www.ecn.ac.uk/ ) collects biotic and abiotic data, including many insect groups, from 57 different sites across the UK using identical protocols (Rennie, 2016).   Multiple Long-Term Ecological Research projects track different facets of ecosystems in different ways (Magurran et al., 2010). In fact, the LTER network, if expanded to a global scale, could be the natural framework to make a global network proposal feasible, possibly through a targeted step change in funding (Thomas et al., 2019).  This is great for the future, but unfortunately, all the active long-term monitoring schemes are younger than modern agricultural intensification.  A way forward would be to use museum collections and to construct data sets by going through back numbers of those entomological journals that pre-date the 1940s.  There are some long-term historical long-term data that are already accessible, for example the 150 year record pine beauty moth infestations in Germany dating from 1810 (Klimetzek, 1972) and I am sure that others must exist.

Funding

Whatever we do, it will need long-term funding. There needs to be a recognition by state research funding agencies that entomological survey and monitoring work, although appearing mundane, should receive a step-change in funding, even if it is at the expense of other taxa  Funding should reflect the diversity and abundance of taxa, not their perceived charisma (Clark & May, 2002; Leather, 2013).  Crowd-funding may draw in some funding, but what is required is stable, substantial and sustained funding that will allow existing and future international collaborations to flourish.  For this to happen and failing sustained state funding, we need to convince philanthropic donors such as the Gates Foundation to turn their attention from insect eradication to insect conservation.

We do, however, need to act quickly, stop talking to just our peers, meet the public, and, if needs be, personally, or via our learned societies, lobby governments; there is no Planet B.

 

References

Bell, J.R., Alderson, L., Izera, D., Kruger, T., Parker, S., Pickup, J., Shortal, C.R., Taylor, M.S., Verier, P., & Harrington, R. (2015) Long-term phenological trends, species accumulation rates, aphid traits and climate: five decades of change in migrating aphids. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 21-34.

Cordoso, P. & Leather, S.R. (2019) Predicting a global insect apocalypseInsect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 263-267.

Dennis, R.H.L. & Shreeve, T.G. (2003) Gains and losses of French butterflies: tests of predictions, under-recording and regional extinction from data in a new atlas. Biological Conservation, 110, 131-139.

Hallmann, C.A., Sorg, M., Jongejans, E., Siepel, H., Hoflan, N., Schwan, H., Stenmans, W., Muller, A., Sumser, H., Horren, T., Goulson, D., & De Kroon, H. (2017) More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoSONE, 12(10), :e0185809.

Hopkins, G.W. & Freckleton, R.P. (2002) Declines in the numbers of amateur and professional taxonomists: implications for conservation. Animal Conservation, 5, 245-249.

Klimetzek, D. (1972) Die Zeitfolge von Ubervermehrungen nadelfressender kiefernraupen in derPfalz seit 1810 und die Ursachen ihres Ruckanges in neuerer Zeit. Zeitschrift fur Angewandte Entomologie, 71, 414-428.

Kotze, D.J. & O’Hara, R.B. (2003) Species decline – but why?  Explanations of Carabid beetle (Coleoptera, Carabidae) declines in Europe. Oecologia, 135, 138-148.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.J.L. (2010) Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment?  Environmentalist, 30, 1-2

Magurran, A.E., Baillie, S.R., Buckland, S.T., Dick, J.M., Elston, D.A., Scott, M., Smith, R.I., Somerfiled, P.J. & Watt, A.D. (2010) Long-term datasets in biodiversity research and monitoring: assessing change in ecological communities through time. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 25, 574-582.

Møller, A.P. (2019) Parallel declines in abundance of insects and insectivorous birds in Denmark over 22 years. Ecology & Evolution, 9, 6581-6587.

Mupepele, A.C., Bruelheide, H., Dauber, J., Krüß, A., Potthast, T., Wägele, W. & Klein, A.M. (2019). Insect decline and its drivers: Unsupported conclusions in a poorly performed meta-analysis on trends—A critique of Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys (2019).  Basic & Applied Ecology, 37, 20-23.

Rennie, S.C. (2016) Providing information on environmental change: Data management, discovery and access in the UK Environmental Change Network data.  Ecological Indicators, 68, 13-20.

Sánchez-Bayo, F. & Wyckhuys, K.A.G. (2019) Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers. Biological Conservation, 232, 8-27.

Thomas, C.D., Jones, T.H. & Hartley, S.E. (2019) “Insectageddon”: a call for more robust data and rigorous analyses. Global Change Biology, 6, 1891-1892.

Thomas, J.A., Telfer, M.G., Roy, D.B., Preston, C.D., Greenwood, J.J.D., Asher, J., Fox, R., Clarke, R.T. & Lawton, J.H. (2004) Comparative losses of British butterflies, birds, and plants and the global extinction crisis. Science, 303, 1879-1881.

Tree, I. (2018) Wilding, Picador, Pan Macmillan.

Wagner, D.L. (2019) Global insect decline: comments on Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys (2019). Biological Conservation, 233, 332-333.

Willig, M.R., Woolbright, L., Presley, S.J., Schowalter, T.D., Waide, R.B., Heartsill Scalley, T., Zimmerman, J.K.,  González, G. & Lugo, A.E. (2019) Populations are not declining and food webs are not collapsing at the Luquillo Experimental Forest. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116, 12143-12144.

*

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British Ecological Society Annual Meeting 2018 – representing ecologists but not ecology?

I managed to get to the BES annual meeting this year.  I hadn’t been since 2014 as I boycotted the 2015 meeting*  and the timing of the 2016 and 2017 meetings meant I couldn’t attend those due to teaching commitments.  This time the meeting was in Birmingham and term had ended so there was nothing to get in the way of reconnecting with the annual meetings, the first of which I attended in 1977.  I arrived, soaked to the skin, at the International Conference Centre on a very rainy Sunday afternoon.  Despite the inauspicious start, I was heartened to have a reminder of the BES Undergraduate Summer School; one of my fluorescent beetles from the evening “track a beetle” exercise was on display 😊

Fluorescent carabid beetle, the star of the evening at the Malham BES Summer School 2018

In general, despite the sad memories the pre-Christmas period carries with it, It was good to catch up with old friends and former students.  As a bonus there were some fantastic plenaries; I particularly enjoyed Sam M Gon III’s talk on The Hawaiian Islands as a Model for Biocultural Conservation, which opened with a traditional Hawaiian chant.

A most unusual and very enjoyable plenary

Great to see lots of very special insects

Another great plenary was Danielle Lee’s on science communication and the importance of getting local non-scientists involved in one’s research programmes.

Danielle Lee – On the importance of science communication, a subject close to my heart

There were a lot of great talks, but as is often the case with large meetings, a lot of clashes and hard decisions to make about which talks to miss.  As a member of the Twitterati I was made very aware of this by seeing the Tweets about talks I was missing 😊

Alistair Seddon – a Doctor Who fan

One thing that struck me very forcibly, was that entomology seemed to be very under-represented compared with when I first started attending BES meetings.  There were no specific sessions dedicated to invertebrates; in earlier years it was relatively easy to find insect-themed sessions and talks.  This year, and perhaps this is a modern trend in ecology, even the titles of many of the talks didn’t mention the study organism, the abstract being the only clue about what was being discussed.  I have noticed this trend in paper titles recently too, and will, I am sure, address this in a future blog post 😊 It worries me somewhat that conservation biologists and ecologists have, despite the warnings that a number of eminent ecologists have made in the past, former BES President, Bob May, for example (Clarke & May, 2002) that funding and practical conservation is heavily biased in favour of vertebrate (Seddon et al., 2005), which are hardly representative of global macro-biodiversity. As far as the British Ecological Society goes, one would expect that a Society that has, over the last decade or so, become increasingly politicised, and on the face of it, publicly engaged with climate change and other ecological issues, to actively implement a change in direction of the research supported and showcased.

I have previously taken the Journal of Animal Ecology to task for ignoring most of the world’s animal life, yes you guessed it, invertebrates 😊 Their cover images are similarly biased.  Sadly, I am now going to have to take the British Ecological Society to task. I mentioned earlier that I felt the general content of the talks and posters was not representative of the world we live in and on leaving the conference decided to see if my gut feeling was a true reflection of the event.  Amy Everard of the British Ecological Society, kindly supplied me with the abstracts of the talks and posters which I then categorised according to the study organism(s) covered.  Some were a bit difficult, as even with the abstract it was difficult to decide where the focus was, so fungi and microbes may be a little more under-represented than they were in reality, particularly where the talk was on the interactions between fungi, microbes, insects and plants and in some cases, vertebrates.  I lumped all invertebrates together, although as you might expect, most invertebrates were arthropods and those were mainly insects. Plants included trees and forests where the focus was on the role the plant component played and general includes models and multi-organismal studies.  Vertebrates, which were largely birds and mammals, also includes fish, and the very few studies on amphibians and reptiles. Crude, but I feel it gives the overall picture.

First, just to remind you how life on the planet is divided up between the various taxa based on species described to date (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Relative proportions of plant, animal, fungi and microbial species described to date.

So how does this compare with what attendees at BES2018 saw and heard about? As you can see, my gut was right, the little things that run the world were under-represented in both the talks (Figure 2) and posters (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Taxa represented in talks at BES2018 (plants 32%, vertebrates 25%, invertebrates 20%, general 19%, fungi and microbes 4%)

 

Figure 3. Taxa represented in posters at BES2018 (plants 34%, vertebrates 31%, invertebrates 15%, general 13%, fungi and microbes 7%).

Of some comfort to plant scientists is that despite the often cited unpopularity of plants among students, about a third of all the talks and posters were plant-based.   If one goes purely by biomass, then this is an under-representation of the importance of plants.  A recent paper (Bar-On et al., 2018), estimates that plants make up almost 90% of the planet’s biomass, with the animal kingdom making up perhaps as little as 5% (Figure 4). Given that insects and other invertebrates account for perhaps 97% of all animal life, this further emphasises that the time and funding given to vertebrate ecology is totally unjustified.

Figure 4. Biomass of organisms on Earth from Bar-On et al (2018)

Unfortunately, the British Ecological Society is not alone in overemphasising the importance of the tiny number of vertebrates.  Perhaps more disturbingly is the fact that references to insects in introductory biology textbooks have declined hugely over the last century (Figure 5) while those to vertebrates have increased (Gangwani & Landin, 2018).

 Disappearing insect references (Gangwani & Landin, 2018).

This is a serious problem and one that the British Ecological Society for one, should be doing something about.  Yes, the BES might represent ecologists in general, but they certainly don’t represent ecology.  The Trustees of the BES should take note of the following statement from a group of ecological entomologists “the neglect of insects as study organisms has led to serious bias in our understanding of the functional ecology of ecosystems” (Basset et al., 2019) and the concerns echoed by conservation practitioners (Figure 6) and if that isn’t enough, then perhaps this will “a broader taxonomic base for threatened species assessments, adequately representing invertebrates, will facilitate more profound conservation and policy decisions” (Eisenhauer et al., 2019).

Figure 6. What people on the ground say; a haphazard selection from Twitter

I’ll just leave you with this thought, there are as many aphid species in the world as there are mammal species, just over 5000, but you wouldn’t know it from the number of PhD and post-doctoral positions that are advertised annually, and as for Tipulids (craneflies), a similar sized family….

 

References

Bar-On, Y.M., Philips, R. & Milo, R.  (2018) The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115, 6506-6511.

Basset, Y., Miller, S.E., Gripenberg, S., Ctvrtecka, R., Dahl, C., Leather, S.R. & Didham, R.K. (2019) An entomocentric view of the Janzen-Connell Hypothesis.  Insect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 1-8.

Clarke, J.A. & May, R.M. (2002) Taxonomic bias in conservation research. Science, 297, 191-192.

Eisenehauer, N, Bonn, A. & Guerra, C.A. (2019) Recognizing the quiet extinction of invertebrates. Nature Communications, 10, 50

Gangwani, K. & Landin, J. (2018) The decline of insect representation in biology textbooks over time. American Entomologist, 64, 252-257.

Seddon, P.J., Soorae, P.S. & Launay, F. (2005) Taxonomic bias in reintroduction projects. Animal Conservation, 8, 51-58.

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…at random

It’s coming up to Christmas so I thought I would be a bit of a Grinch 🙂  As someone who has refereed a lot of papers in my time, one of my particular bugbears is when I come across the phrases,  “taken at random”, “sampled randomly” or variations thereon. My edition of the OED defines at random as “haphazard without aim or purpose, or principle, heedlessly”; the statistical part of the definition qualifies this further as “equal chances for each item to be selected”.  Whenever I see the word random in the methods and materials section I annotate the paper with the phrase “truly random or haphazardly?”  Almost without exception*, when the author responds to my query, it is to admit that in reality they meant haphazardly.

There is a commonly held belief among field biologists that random sampling can be quickly and safely done by standing in a field and throwing a quadrat over their shoulder or closing their eyes and throwing the quadrat into the air. The late great Sir Richard Southwood  deals with this myth in his usual no nonsense style  “Biologists often use methods for random sampling that are less precise than the use of random numbers, such as throwing a stick or quadrat.  Such methods are not strictly random” (Southwood, 1966).  If you have ever tried this yourself, you will, I hope, be the first to admit, that you position yourself in all sorts of non-random ways, to make sure that the quadrat is not going to get lost, get hung-up in a tree, end up in a lake or river or miss the only green bit of vegetation in the field. Other so-called random approaches include the walking around the tree/into the meadow/along the path approach and examining the first leaf/branch/plant you come across after x number of steps and counting what you see on that. Again, this is equally subject to being confounded by the terrain and location of the site, and it is a rare person who isn’t subconsciously swayed for or against a leaf because of its appearance.  I was convinced that this mode of sampling, which is more accurately described as haphazard, was commonly called professorial random sampling.  A recent request by me on Twitter for people to tell me if they had heard of, or used the term themselves, resulted in a zero response rate, so perhaps it was just something we used in our lab. Of course, it wasn’t a random survey so I shouldn’t read too much into it 🙂

So, if you are going to claim that you sampled randomly or selected/arranged randomly, make sure you use a random number generator.  It is very simple to do, although somewhat time-consuming to implement in reality. When I was a student, most good statistics books included among all the other useful tables, a page of random numbers to help you meet a state of true randomness.

Pre-prepared random numbers from my copy of Sokal & Rohlf (1973)

 

Nowadays, you can, if you use Excel, generate random numbers using the function RAND. Those of you who are not fans of Excel can try this handy link https://www.random.org/sequences/

If you’re reading this, you now have no excuses left.  If you are going to claim that you did something randomly make sure you actually did so, or confess that you sampled haphazardly; it is nothing to be ashamed of 🙂 and is much faster than true random sampling, hence its popularity.  Alternatively, you can avoid the whole issue and sample along a stratified transect or arrange your experimental blocks using a Latin Square.

 

References

Sokal, R.R. & Rohlf, F.J. (1973) Introduction to Biostatistsics.  W.H. Freeman & Company, San Francisco.

Southwood, T.R.E. (1966) Ecological Methods.  Chapman & Hall, London.

*I have, on a few occasions, had an author respond that yes, they did indeed use random number tables and/or generators.

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Dear Dr Researcher – Epic Predatory Journal Fails!

As a follow-up to my earlier post on predatory journals I thought I would share some of the many invitations I have received since it appeared 🙂   What I do find annoying is that our email Firewall system sis extremely efficient at intercepting real emails and putting them on hold for us to approve, but that all the emails shown below got straight through the system without any trouble.

 Over the top glorification!

Beware of journals that use over the top language trying to appeal to your vanity.

 

Poor English is always a clue that things are not what they seem.

Precious indeed!

 

Totally wrong discipline

It is always a bit of a give-away when over the top language is coupled with a journal title where the field is somewhat removed from your own.  I am an entomologist and ecologist.

 

and then you have this journal – they desperately need a proof reader 🙂

These journals make the mistake of advertising a totally unrealistic publication schedule

 

It is possible that if they had put a more realistic publication schedule an engineer might have fallen for this one.

 

Cunning ploys

Here are a couple of examples where they are trying a bit harder and getting a bit more sophisticated.

 

The name of a real journal, Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment highlighted to take advantage of the careless reader.

The suggestion that they are on the look-out for reviewers implies a certain degree of respectability.

 

I am sure that you have all had similar emails, but if you have had even more outrageous or more cunning invitations, please feel free to share.

 

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