Category Archives: Science writing

Is it time to abolish Vancouver?

How about that for a clickbait title?  I was going to call it “Editors of journals with number based referencing systems – use your power to change the system” but in these days of impact factors I thought I would emulate those journals with exceedingly high IF scores, which seem to specialise in non-informative, yet grabby paper titles, and many of which persist in using my bête noire, the Vancouver style of referencing.

The hated (by me) Vancouver style

So why am I sounding off now? Well, I was just about to submit an invited review, but thought I had better read the instructions to authors first 🙂  To my horror, I discovered (yes, OK, I should have read the instructions to authors before starting to write the paper) that the journal in question wanted the references formatted in Vancouver style. I don’t have much time for even vaguely sensible numbered citation styles such as the Chicago system, but as you will already have gathered, the Vancouver style really, really, annoys me.

Source – http://www.idioms4you.com/img/angif-blow-your-top-scen02.png

Defenders of the system (and I am sure there are some) might point out that in these days of reading online,  journals such as Science,  that use this awful system have active links to the numbers within the text which bring up the citation in a separate box. This does, however, involve moving your mouse/cursor/finger to it instead of reading it instantly. As a reader I find this unsatisfactory to say the least. I like to see the authors as I read the text.  It may seem picky, but this gives me instant context.  As someone who has been around a while and usually knows the field quite well and, as a field ecologist, blessed with an excellent memory, seeing the name and date, gives me a pretty good idea of the accuracy of the citation context. Displaying references in non-alphabetical order also gives me brain ache. I visualise my brain in two ways, first as a series of file record cards and then as a series of filing cabinet drawers in which the folders (memories) are arranged alphabetically and by date. I then mentally find the right folder and on reaching the appropriate record access it.  My office may be (in)famous for its chaotic appearance, but my brain

My office – the perfect working environment (I know where everything is) 🙂

is obsessively and very neatly arranged and catalogued 🙂 as are my bookshelves and offprint collection. The office is a different matter.

As a referee, where, in my opinion, you most definitely need to know the citation context, you do not have the click and display facility that readers of the published paper have. This makes checking references onerous, frustrating and very annoying.

As an author the situation is even worse, although I guess those folk who have sophisticated cite as you write systems will laugh knowingly and make comments about being stuck in the past. What really is frustrating to me is that I have to

Stuck in the past – me?

go through the paper line by line and manually convert the author date citation in the text (I have to use that system when composing, to keep track of what I am referring to) to numbers and then if I find that I have to add a new reference or if Referee 3 demands that their papers are cited, renumber everything.  Arghh!!

It would be so much simpler if all journals used the same system, preferably that used by the journals of which I am an Editor, and as an example and to to gratuitously draw your attention to another of my bugbears, in the text, (Leather 2004) and in the reference list, Leather, S.R. (2004) Reinventing the wheel – on the dangers of taxon parochialism and shallow reference trawling! Basic and Applied Ecology, 5, 309-311.

One reason given for using the Vancouver and Chicago systems is that it saves space. This might have held some water in the days of print journals and page budgets, but now that most journals are electronic and page budgets no longer exist, it is not a valid excuse. I therefore implore my fellow editors, reviewers and authors to join me in condemning the Vancouver system and to convince their publishers to abolish Vancouver, the system that is, not the city, which I am sure is a beautiful place and well worth preserving and visiting.

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Why using an expert to review a paper is sometimes a bad thing

I have written about the importance and role of paper reviewers before, but a recent experience has prompted me to put fingers to keyboard yet again. As an Editor, my practice when choosing referees is to invite, whenever possible, an early career researcher (ECR) and a well-established expert in the field. My reasoning behind this being that the ECR will be very au fait with the current literature and techniques (statistical and experimental), and very likely to do the job quickly. The ancient professor old fogey well established expert, may take longer to respond, but will definitely know the early literature and be in a good position to judge the novelty of the work and point out if the wheel is being reinvented (Leather, 2004).

Until recently I thought that this was a fool-proof approach, but then I had the opportunity to referee a paper right up my street; the study organism was the subject of my PhD and I have continued working with it (albeit recently, mainly via PhD and MSc students) for the last forty years.  The paper described a well-designed and analysed experiment, and, miracle of miracles, cited me all the relevant literature.  I had only a few minor points and enthusiastically recommended publication with only minor revision.  I was a bit surprised when I received notice of the journal’s decision to see that they had given the author a major revision. On reading the other reviewer’s report, (the practice of copying the reviewer’s reports to each reviewer is a fantastic service), I realised why.

Having being involved with the topic for a life-time, I knew exactly what the author had done and what their rationale was, so hadn’t picked up on the fact that some of the methodology and whys and wherefores would be somewhat opaque to non-experts.  This is of course why we get (or should) our colleagues to read our papers before we submit them.  Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but it can certainly lead to a false sense of how niche one’s research area actually is.

I will, despite this, still continue to use well-established experts to review papers but will try not to weight their opinions more highly than those of the ECRs. As for me, I will, in future be looking much more critically at the approaches and rationale of papers that deal with subjects very close to my heart. Alternatively, I could just give up reviewing papers 🙂

Reference

Leather, S.R. (2004) Reinventing the wheel – on the dangers of taxon parochialism and shallow reference trawling! Basic and Applied Ecology, 5, 309-311.

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A rose by any other name – In praise of the Rosaceae

I’ll start with a question. What do Lady’s Mantle, Great Burnet, Agrimony, Mountain Avens, Cotoneaster, cinquefolil (Potentilla), strawberries, raspberries, cherries, sloes, apples, rowans and almonds all have in common? The answer may come as a surprise to many; they are all members of the Rose family. This may shcok some of you, but I don’t have a great deal of time for the domesticate hybrid tea roses so common in many gardens.

Hybrid tea rose – looking nothing like the real roses

I think they’re vastly overrated and as many varieties do not produce pollen or nectar as far as insects are concerned they are a waste of space. My experience of working on members of the Rosaceae arose as a by-product of working on the bird cherry-oat aphid, the primary host of which is the bird cherry, Prunus padus (Leather & Dixon, 1981), and the bird cherry ermine moth, Ypomeuta evonymellus which specialises on the bird cherry (Leather & Lehti, 1982). Strangely, it was my interest in island biogeography, in particular the species-area relationship, that got me hooked on the Rosaceae.  I had noticed while sampling bird cherry trees that relatively few insects attacked them, and so wondered if they were special in some way compared with other species of Prunus, and sure enough using host plant records, they did seem to be less insect friendly than their congeners (Leather, 1985). Having got hooked on counting dots on plant distribution maps and realising that the Rosaceae would be a great plant family to test the idea that the species-area relationship would be improved by confining it to a single family (Kennedy & Southwood, 1984), I embarked on a marathon dot counting and host plant record seeking quest (Leather, 1986).

For the paper, I restricted my analysis to the 59 species that Perrings & Walter (1962) listed as native or naturalised to the British Isles, but there are of course many more members of the Rosaceae than that to be found in Britain. They are an extremely important plant family both economically and horticulturally speaking, with over 2500 species in 90 genera to choose from (Sytsma, 2016). The Rose family is divided into four subfamilies based primarily on their fruit. The Amygdaloideae, those species characterised by the possession of fleshy stone fruits, almonds, cherries, peaches, plums etc. The Maloideae, trees with pomes, fruits in which the floral hypanthium becomes fleshy, e.g apples and pears. The Rosoideae, which includes species such as roses, and burnets, with dry fruits that do not open (achenes), and the brambles, raspberries and strawberries, which have drupelets, small, aggregated drupes, and finally the Spiraeoideae, species with dry fruits that open on one side (follicles) e.g Spirea, Physocarpus).

Rosaceous fruit

To me, however, the thing that makes a rose a rose, is the flower. Typically, rose flowers have five sepals which are easier to see before the flowers open and five petals, although there are always some exceptions; for example, Mountain

Sepals for the uninitiated; luckily I have a rose bush that seems to be able to flower all the year round (this picture taken October 28th)

Avens, Dryas octopetala, which as the name tells us, has eight petals but still manages to have that rose ‘look’.

Dryas octopetala an exception that proves the rule J By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28317727

As you might expect from a family that has produced the much loved (but not by me) hybrid tea roses, not all the flowers are white, even within the same species, brambles for example, range from the ‘normal’ white to rich

Pink hedgerow brambles, Sutton, Shropshire September 2020.

pinks, and many of the herbaceous members have bright yellow (e.g. Agrimony and Wood Avens) or orange (e.g Water Avens) flowers.

Delicate herbaceous plants with white and yellow flowers.

White flowers do, however, seem to be the rule in the woodier members of

Shrubby bushes with white flowers.

the family, although pink shading is not uncommon.


Tall fruity trees with white flowers some with pink hints.

The ways in which the flowers are presented can also vary between species, single flowers being the exception rather than the rule.

Cloudbursts (corymbiform panicle),  racemes and compound cymes, but still roses. Fun fact, Meadowseet, Filipendulal ulmaria, is rich in salicylic acid and can be used to cure headaches.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this ramble through the roses as much as me, but finally, as an entomologist, it would be remiss of me not to point you at one or two spectacular examples of insect-rose interactions.

References

Kennedy, C.E.J. & Southwood, T.R.E. (1984) The number of species of insects associated with British trees: a re-analysis. Journal of Animal Ecology, 53, 455-478.

Leather, S.R. (1985) Does the bird cherry have its ‘fair share’ of insect pests ? An appraisal of the species-area relationships of the phytophagous insects associated with British Prunus species. Ecological Entomology, 10, 43-56.

Leather, S.R. (1986) Insect species richness of the British Rosaceae: the importance of host range, plant architecture, age of establishment, taxonomic isolation and species-area relationships. Journal of Animal Ecology, 55, 841-860.

Leather, S.R. (1991) Feeding specialisation and host distribution of British and Finnish Prunus feeding macrolepidoptera. Oikos, 60, 40-48.

Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1981) Growth, survival and reproduction of the bird-cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, on it’s primary host. Annals of Applied Biology, 99, 115-118.

Leather, S.R. & Lehti, J.P. (1982) Abundance and distribution of Yponomeuta evonymellus (Lepidoptera,Yponomeutidae) in Finland. Notulae Entomologicae, 62, 93-96.

Perring, F.J. & Walters, S.M. (1962) Atlas of the British Flora. BSBI Nelson, London & Edinburgh.

Sytsma, K.J. (2016) Rosaceae, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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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 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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We can’t all be groundbreakers – we need bricklayers too

Groundbreaker – someone who changes the way things are done, especially by making new discoveries

Groundbreaking – new and original, not like anything seen before from the Cambridge Dictionary

All of us who aspire to publishing our hard-won data will recognise the phrases below, taken from the overview pages of highly reputable ecological and entomological journals. Everyone wants to push back the frontiers of

Anonymised quotes from journal overview pages – I am sure that you will recognise some of them

knowledge, but I feel that the focus by journals and funding bodies on ‘novelty’ is bad for science and bad for researchers.  I am certainly not the first one to say it, but it bears repeating, there is a tyranny of novelty pervading the research community and this has also infected the way that science is reported. This focus on ‘novelty’ and its link to promotion, grant application success and job tenure, can mean that careers are damaged, research areas ignored (Leather & Quicke, 2009), an imbalance of disciplines within university departments leading to piece-meal degrees and the dilemma of where to publish. The dilemma being do you publish where it does the most good for science and wide access or for your career, which are often mutually incompatible.

Looking at the selection of journal guidelines above, for me, this particular phrase is the most disturbing, “Confirming or extending the established literature, by for example showing results that are novel for a new taxon, or purely applied research, is given low priority.”   In terms of science, at the very least, this stance leads to nobody checking to see if a study is truly valid or just a statistical artefact or, as is very likely, a special case. A recent paper suggests that in ecology, less than 0.03% of published papers are true replicates of previously published studies (Kelly, 2019), while in behavioural ecology, the figure is a round zero, although about 25% of studies are partial replicates (Kelly, 2006).

Although I am not a great believer in the Open Access author pays dogma (after all, in the world of novelists and poets, only those who can’t find publishers pay and we term that ‘vanity publishing’), the publishing ethos of  PLOS ONEWe evaluate submitted manuscripts on the basis of methodological rigor and high ethical standards, regardless of perceived novelty”, is very welcome. It is a shame that more journals, particularly those where publication is free of charge, have not adopted the same principle.  The preoccupation with ‘novelty’ also has the consequence that academics, particularly those at the start of their careers or those working in institutions where ‘novelty’ is seen as the only way to gain advancement or retain one’s position,  feel under pressure to only publish in certain journals and to emphasise ‘novelty’.  This can, and I am sure it is inadvertent in the majority of cases, result in authors limiting their search for previous work to the immediate horizon rather than diving deeper into the ocean of past literature, and often ‘reinventing’ the wheel’ (Lawton, 1991; Leather, 2004), which does past academics and science a great disservice.

An alternative title to this post might have included the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants”, often attributed to Isaac Newton but according to Wikipedia almost certainly older than that.  As some of you may know, one of the categories on my blog is “Ten papers that shook my world” (now supplemented by Ten more papers that shook my world), in which I discuss papers that have had a major influence on my scientific development and publication list.  According to the Web of Science I have written 210 papers*, of which, in my opinion, only one is truly ‘novel’**. I hypothesised from field evidence (Leather, 1988), and later demonstrated experimentally (Leather, 1993), that insects sharing the same host plant could, by altering plant architecture, compete, despite being separated temporally and spatially.  Actually, now that I reflect upon it, even this idea could be said to be based on the ‘apparent competition’ hypothesis put forward by Bob Holt (Holt, 1977).  I should add that neither of those ‘novel’ papers of mine have made the big time, both have been cited a mere eleven times, in contrast to those papers where I was inspired by the work of others.

To end on yet another building metaphor or two; I have, in my forty-two years as a research scientist, never felt that I have wasted my time. I have been content with adding bricks to the scientific edifice, grouting in between entomological and ecological tiles and adding pieces to the vast jigsaw of life. Yes, there is a problem in that some institutions are reluctant or unwilling to recognise the contributions made by those of us who reinforce the various academic structures, but my message to you is Illegitimi non carborundum, don’t give up and be proud of what you have achieved.  There may be times when you feel unappreciated, or indeed, as I have at times, rather angry, but remember, they need us, for without us, the whole structure will fall into ruins.

People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” Dorothy Day

References

Gish, M. & Inbar, M. (2018) Standing on the shoulders of giants: young aphids piggyback on adults when searching for a host plant.  Frontiers in Zoology, 15, 49.

Holt, R.D. (1977) Predation, apparent competition, and the structure of prey communities.   Theoretical Population Biology, 12, 197-229.

Kelly, C.D. (2006) Replicating empirical research in behavioural ecology: how and why it should be done but rarely is. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 81, 221-236.

Kelly, C.D. (2019) Rate and success of study replication in ecology and evolution. PeerJ:e7654

Lawton, J. H. (1991). Warbling in different ways. Oikos, 60, 273–274.

Leather, S.R. (1988) Consumers and plant fitness: coevolution or competition? Oikos, 53, 285-288.

Leather, S.R. (1993) Early season defoliation of bird cherry influences autumn colonization by the bird cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Oikos, 66, 43-47.

Leather, S.R. (2004) Reinventing the wheel: on the dangers of taxon parochialism and shallow reference trawling!  Basic & Applied Ecology, 5, 309-311.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.L.J. (2009) Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education, 43, 51-52.

Murphy, S.M., Vidal, M.C., Hallagan, C.J., Broder, E.D., Barnes, E.E., Hornalowell, E.S. & Wilson, J.D. (2019) Does this title bug (Hemiptera) you? How to write a title that increases your citations. Ecological Entomology, 44, 593-600.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., Pickup, J. & Harrington, R. (1998) Mortality during dispersal and the cost of host-specificity in parasites: how many aphids find hosts? Journal of Animal Ecology, 67, 763-773.

 

*

my own publication list has me at 298, but that includes books, conference papers, research notes and popular articles; Google Scholar has me at 235.

**

I have not included a paper that I am a co-author on (Ward et al., 1998), as although ‘novel’, it was not my idea.  I supplied the data and the whisky and acted as a sounding board during one very long evening of mathematical inspiration by Seamus Ward 😊 The following day I made a blood donation and fainted shortly afterwards, resulting in a nasty head wound and a visit to the local hospital!

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Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about? Yes, but not the way Simon/Steve thinks

Image: You know what you’re walking into. © Gary J. Wood via flicrk.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

This is a joint post (argument and rejoinder) from Steve Heard and Simon Leather.  You can find it on either of their blogs.

Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about?  Yes, but not the way Simon thinks.

Steve opens with – A few weeks ago, Simon Leather blogged about one of his writing pet peeves: “titles of papers that give you no clue as to what the paper is about”.   I read this with great interest, for a couple of reasons – first, Simon is consistently thoughtful; and second, I’m terrible at titles and need to learn as much about good ones as I can!  Much to my surprise, I found myself disagreeing strongly, and Simon was kind enough to engage with me in this joint post.

I don’t mean that I disagree that a paper’s title should tell you what it’s about.  That’s exactly what a good title does!  My disagreement is, I think, more interesting.  Simon offered some examples of titles he scored as failing his tell-you-what-it’s-about criterion, and some he scored as passing.  I found myself scoring those examples exactly the opposite way: the ones that failed for him, succeeded for me; and vice versa.

What gives?  Well, most likely, I’m just wrong.  Simon has a couple of years more experience than me in science, has published many more papers than I have, and has significantly more editorial experience.  But “oh, I guess I’m just wrong” doesn’t make a very interesting blog post; so I’m going to work through my thinking here.

Here are two titles from Simon’s disliked list:*

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

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

And here’s one from Simon’s liked list:

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

They’re on exactly opposite lists for me.  Simon dislikes the first one because “it takes until line 9 of the Abstract before you find out it’s about an insect herbivore, [and] until the Introduction to find out which species” (he dislikes the second for the same reason).  Simon likes the third because “you know exactly what this paper is all about”.  I think this is all wrong (sorry, Simon).   Since I’ve been writing about scientific writing as storytelling lately, let me put it this way.  Simon would like to know that the paper is “about” an insect herbivore, or “about” the British Swallowtail Butterfly.  But to me, that isn’t what it means to say a paper is “about” something – the study species is character, not plot.  Would you say that The Old Man and the Sea is “about” Santiago, or that Slaughterhouse-Five is “about” Billy Pilgrim?  Well, maybe in casual conversation, but not in a book review you were getting graded on.

I want a paper’s title to tell me about its plot.  By “plot”, I mean the questions the authors ask, and the way the experiments (or observations, or models) answer them.  That’s what a paper is “about” – the way The Old Man and the Sea is about a man’s struggle with his catch, his failing career, and his mortality (but I should stop before I venture further into literary criticism for which I am poorly qualified).  The “unified framework” and “seasonal life-history” titles tell me what questions the papers ask and answer.  It’s true that they don’t tell me which characters (species) they answer them with, but that’s not what I’m looking for in my first pass at a title.  And the swallowtail title?  It tells me nothing other than that the paper has to do with conservation of the swallowtail.  It mentions “questions”, but doesn’t say what they are; and it mentions “challenges” and “opportunities”, but these remain similarly shrouded.

A title that announces what species a paper is about doesn’t grab me, unless I already work on the species (or a similar one).  Who would pick up the swallowtail paper, except someone already interested in swallowtails or similar butterflies?  Is that the only audience the authors want?  What if the paper asks questions with implications for the conservation of mammals, or birds, or orchids?  Those audiences won’t be engaged.  With a title that announces what question a paper is about (and if possible, what the answer is), authors can recruit a broader audience.**  And readers can find out what species the question is asked with (and ponder whether the answer applies more broadly) at their leisure.

 

Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about?  Yes, but not the way Steve thinks.

Simon replies – I totally see where Steve is coming from with his point about plots and storylines and his references to Slaughterhouse-Five and the The Old Man and the Sea (although I could of course, somewhat tongue in cheek, riposte with a whole slew of titles such as Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield to name just a few.***) I think that I come at paper titles from two aspects of my academic profile.  First as an applied entomologist, I really do want to know if the paper is about the particular species or related group of species that I am working on – so referring back to Steve’s footnote about Tables of Contents (or even Current Contents)****, both of which I remember – yes, the title needs to be highly specific. Second, this is a debate I have had with conservation biologists working with vertebrate animals.

I am, as my Twitter handle indicates, an entomologist, and at the risk of being seen as narrowly partisan and parochial, means that I, and all other invertebrate zoologists, work on, until evidence is presented otherwise, the animals most relevant to ecology in general 🙂 . A paper on the movement ecology of zebras, for example, is unlikely to give me any insight into the migratory behaviour of aphids (of which there are more species than there are mammals), whereas an insect migration paper might give a mammal ecologist something to think about (incidentally I just realised that this helps Steve’s argument, in that an unwitting mammalogist might read an opaquely titled paper about insects). As a PhD student, when I first got interested in life history traits, I noticed that many vertebrate zoologists were publishing papers addressing concepts that were already well known to entomologists (e.g. Tinkle, 1969*****),  but not referring to those studies; so much so that I made rather a point of referring to vertebrate papers in my thesis whenever possible 🙂

And in the spirit of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch, third, (yes I know I said two things initially) is the point I made in my blog post about ‘scientific fashion’ and what we now call ‘click bait headlines’ (my example of one of my own titles in that post underlines this very neatly).  On the other hand, as Steve and other commentators have pointed out, there is a cost to both download and citation rates when titles of papers are very specific and lengthy (Letchford et al., 2015), which is surely why high impact and more general journals encourage the titles I abhor, and Steve favours. A new pet hate of mine, and something favoured by high impact general ecology journals, are titles with question marks: it is obvious that the answer is always going to be yes!

A thought (oops, now a fourth point – the Spanish Inquisition strikes again) that occurred to me as I was writing this and beginning to feel that I was succumbing to Steve’s cogent and compelling arguments, has to do with science communication.  We are being encouraged (some would say forced) to become ever more open access so that in theory  the whole world can read our outpourings (although I suspect that most proponents of Open Access are more concerned with their ability to instantly access data, than for the general public to access the ever increasing number of academic papers).  If this is the case, then surely, rather than use titles that are said to increase scientific citation rates, we should perhaps be using very explicit titles that will enable the general public to know what to expect?

To wrap up: Steve admits to being terrible at titles, and to Simon being a more experienced author and editor than he is.  And yet Simon admits that Steve’s arguments had him (ever so briefly) questioning his own.  So we’d like to turn this over to you.  Where do you stand on titles, character, and plot?  Please tell us in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard and Simon Leather August 27, 2019


*^I decided that I wouldn’t actually read any of the papers.  I wanted to react to titles as I would if I encountered them in a Table of Contents (anybody remember those?) or in a Google Scholar alert.

**^The obvious compromise is a title that reveals both of those things.  I like that sort of title, although the cost is they can get long, and there’s empirical data suggesting that they reduce citation rates.

***^Steve can’t help himself, and footnotes Simon’s half of the post (chutzpah!) to point out that saying that David Copperfield is a novel about David Copperfield is true, but not particular enlightening.  He doubles down on his argument, therefore, while wondering what the Dickens was up with that particular novelist’s penchant for character-based titles.

****^I felt that as this is a joint effort with Steve, parenthetical interjections were essential 🙂

*****^Incidentally, the title of that paper fits Steve’s point under his second – that the ideal paper title reveals both character and plot, although this one does it even better: “Grazing as a conservation management approach leads to a reduction in spider species richness and abundance in acidophilous steppic grasslands on andesite bedrock”.


Letchford, A., Moat, H.S. & Preis, T. (2015) The advantage of short paper titles. Royal Society Open Science, 2, 150266.

Tinkle, D.W. (1969) The concept of reproductive effort and its relation to the evolution of life histories of lizards. American Naturalist, 103, 501-516.

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Talking the talk – my top tips for giving a good talk

I’m writing this a week before I’m due to give a talk at ENTO’19, the Royal Entomological Society’s annual meeting (I’m also on holiday in France, so don’t tell my wife that I’m working). I’ve been struggling a bit getting my talk prepared, probably because being on holiday makes it hard to concentrate on work, so to try and get in the right frame of mind I dug out the talk that I give to our PhD students about how to prepare for and give a presentation 😊 What I say in my talk, which is actually a demonstration, is that the pointers I give are transferable to all types of talk, be it a lecture to university students, a departmental seminar, a talk to a local natural history society, a garden club, a youth group or whatever. The general principles remain the same.  As this post is a result of me getting ready for a conference, I will, however, aim this at those of you giving conference talks for the first time, although I hope that some of you with more experience, will read this and add your thoughts in the comments section.

The first thing to remember, is that, as with writing a paper, you are telling a story.  You need a clear idea of where you are going, and in most cases, your audience also likes to know where you are planning on taking them.  It might seem trite and boring but a slide like this spelling out exactly what you are going to do in your talk, does no harm at all and also helps you get off to a good start, by allowing you to get your thoughts in order.

Tell them what you are going to tell them

 

So, what is your story?  How much time have you been allocated? Who are you talking to?  What do they know?  The more au fait your audience is with your subject area, the less time you will need to spend on your introduction and the more time you will need to spend on your results and what they mean.  On the other hand, if you are speaking to a more general audience you will need to have a relatively long introductory section in which you spell out why what you are talking about is important and worth listening to.

Keep your story straightforward, simple and linear.

You will note that I have put a bullet point called know your stuff.  By this I mean make sure you know something about the areas that your subject might impinge on.  You never know what someone might ask you, especially when you are talking to a general audience.  For example, whenever I am talking to natural history societies, garden clubs or Rotary Clubs, I always check what might be a problem in people’s gardens at that time of year, regardless of what subject my talk is about.  Entomologists are always being asked how to kill things. For a conference talk, you won’t have to be quite as broad as all that but do think about what sort of question someone not working in your discipline might come out with.  Going back to your timing and structuring, do remember to keep your conclusions (not discussion as you are not writing a paper), as simple and as short as you can.  Preferably one or two succinct bullet points, and whatever you do don’t start on to another slide.  My heart always sinks when I see a slide come up with the heading “Conclusions (1)”, because as sure as eggs is eggs, there will be another slide with the heading “Conclusions (2)”.  At a conference you are competing with a lot of other talks, you want to leave you audience with something that they can grasp easily and which when they leave the lecture theatre is firmly embedded in their minds. The more conclusion points you make the more confusion you sow, you want them to be talking about your work in the bar afterwards, not the number of slides that you had 😊

Avoid big blocks of text, even in lectures; anything that gets in the way of your story and makes it harder for your audience to understand what you are saying is not a good thing.

Not what your audience wants to see

In the same vein, and also something you should avoid, even in a conventional lecture setting, but definitely in a conference talk, are tables, no matter how simple you think they are.  Anything that needs the speaker to go through line by line, unless it is in a classroom situation where you are explaining the workings of a calculation, has no place in a talk.   Avoid tables, even simple ones, use figures instead.  People can absorb figures much more easily than they can text.  Keep thigs simple for your audience, don’t get in the way of your story by making things too complex.

Face your audience, speak up and make eye contact. I don’t mean find someone in the audience and stare lovingly into their eyes; scan the whole audience so they feel that you are speaking to them personally. Keep looking at the audience, don’t look at the ground.  Don’t use pointers* – they encourage you to turn your back on your audience, they reveal how nervous you are and if your slides are well designed you shouldn’t need them.

Use PowerPoint (or whatever you use for presentations) to point it out for you. Absolutely no need for a pointer, laser or otherwise.

You need to feel comfortable to give a good talk, and this can be affected by what you are wearing.  The degree of formality expected, will, to a certain extent, depend on your audience and your seniority.  I have written about this before, so will not repeat myself here, but my take-home message is to feel comfortable in yourself and if that means dressing smartly then so be it.

You may be wondering about how to remember what you are going to talk about, do you need notes? Fortuitously, this brings me on to aide memoires and hands and feet.  A good talk is a performance.  I am, like many scientists, (or is it just entomologists?), an introvert.  To give a good talk means engaging with people and projecting your personality.

A good talk is a performance.  Use those hands!

A good talk is a performance. This means that you may have to exaggerate parts of your personality, you need to be outgoing, voluble and perhaps even funny 🙂  I wrote about the dangers of unscripted humour last year; unscripted is the key word here.  To give a good talk, you need to feel at ease; as well as dressing comfortability and being confident about your story, you need to be able to tell your story without using notes.  Notes steal your spontaneity by encouraging you to read from them, they aid and abet introverts by giving you an excuse to look at them instead of the audience. Notes should be avoided. This is where rehearsal and acting comes to the fore.  I have been giving professional talks since my first disastrous PhD Departmental upgrading seminar in 1979.  I was nervous, ill-prepared, unrehearsed and, as result of a lunchtime drinking session to calm my nerves, slightly drunk.  Since that fateful day I have run through my talks at least five times.  When I say run through I mean I give my talk, albeit to an empty room, exactly as I am going to give it to a real audience, I use arm movements, I stride around the ‘stage’, I speak as loudly as I will on the day.  Treat your practice talk as a rehearsal but not as a ‘by rote’ script, otherwise you run the chance of losing the spontaneity factor. Your choreography and rehearsal should be the only aide memoires you need, although I do find it useful to have a little hint on a slide to tell me, for example, that the next slide is a picture, in this case a red bullet point.  Doing a proper, out loud performance also makes sure that you will keep to your time limit.

Two of the slides from my, because I have been on holiday, very under-rehearsed ENTO19 talk 🙂

Use your hands to emphasise points, there is nothing wrong with a bit of arm waving – I do it all the time as you can see from the title pictures 🙂 I also think, unless you arc anchored by a fixed microphone, to walk around a bit.  Movement adds life to your presentation.  If you just stand behind the lectern in the dark and fixed to the spot, your audience might as well listen to a recorded voice over.  Add personality to your talk by being an active participant although too much running around the stage and excessive arm waving might make your audience think that you are attempting take flight and prove distracting 🙂

Something to bear in mind if you are feeling apprehensive, is that the people in your audience have chosen to come to your talk because they are interested in what you are going to say. They have not, well I hope not, come to hurl abuse at you or laugh at your performance.  They are a self-selected set of fans, they have come to be informed and entertained, and, if you are confident, have a good story to tell and are well rehearsed, your talk should be fun for you and them.

And my final bit of advice. We all know when we have been at a good talk.  What was it that made Dr X’s talk so good, what did she do that you can ‘steal’ to make your talk even better.  Conversely, we have all been to bad talks, what made that talk by Professor Y so awful, what did he do that sent you to sleep or made you cringe?  Do you have any of those bad habits?  If so, brutally excise them from your next performance.

 

Post script

Don’t worry if you feel nervous before giving a talk, I still do after 40 years of standing up and talking at conferences and other venues.  A bit of adrenaline helps give your talk that ‘real’ feel.

 

*I’m not the only one who hates pointers, see this post by Steve Heard

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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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