Category Archives: Science writing

Does naming your study animals introduce observer bias?

I think, that most, if not all entomologists, will confess to a bit of funding envy when talking with those of their colleagues who work with the “undeserving 3%”, the large charismatic mega-fauna and the modern dinosaurs. The terminology gives us away, although the evidence is overwhelmingly on our side (Leather, 2009).  As entomologists, particularly those of us working in the field, we are used to reporting numbers collected in the tens of thousands (Ramsden et al., 2014 ), if not the hundreds of thousands (Missa et al., 2009) and  even a short six-week study can result in the capture of thousands of ground beetles (Fuller, et al., 2008).  Naming our subjects, much as we love them, is not an option, even if we wanted to. Even behavioural entomologists counting individual flower visits by pollinators are used to dealing with hundreds of individuals.   In the laboratory, although numbers may be smaller, say tens, we still assign them alphanumeric codes rather than names, even though one might look forward to counting the number of eggs laid by the unusually fecund moth #17 or hope that aphid #23 will be dead this morning as she is becoming a pesky outlier for your mortality data 🙂

Our colleagues who work with mammals in the field, seem however to adopt a different strategy. It appears quite common for them to name their animals as the following examples from Twitter make clear.

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From her dissertation field note book, Erin Kane @Diana_monkey but not yet published.

Published data in McGraw et al., (2016) are from another study where the animals are not named.

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Anthropomorphic judgement values

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Anne being very involved with her cheetahs, although the paper (Hillborn et al., 2012) does not mention them by name.

 

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Another example of subjects with names Hubel et al., 2016), but this time named in the paper.

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Although in the description of methodology and results animals are referred to as subjects, the Table gives it away! (Allritz et al., 2016).

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Another example of named subjects (Stoinski et al., 2003).

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More named subjects (Dettmer & Fragaszy, 2000), but as these were captive the names almost certainly not chosen by the observers.

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In this case (Blake et al., 2016), use no human-based names either in the methods or tables, so exemplary, although of course I have not seen their field note books 🙂

My concern, highlighted by these examples, is that by naming their study animals, the observers are anthropomorphising them and that this may lead them to inadvertently bias their observations. After all, the names have not been chosen at random, and thus could influence the behaviours noted (or ignored). I say ignored, because of two very specific examples, there are more, but I have these two to hand.

Victorians used birds as examples of good moral behaviour, erroneously believing them to be monogamous, probably because of seeing the way they fed their chicks cooperatively. Tim Birkhead (2000)* quotes the Reverend Frederick Morris who in 1853 preached  “Be thou like the dunnock – the male and female impeccably faithful to each other,”  and goes on to point out that despite a hundred years of ornithological science it was not until the late 1960s that  the promiscuous behaviour of female birds was revealed, interestingly enough coinciding with the new moral code of the 1960s.

Descriptions of penguin homosexual behaviour and their penchant for acts of necrophilia so shocked George Levick’s publishers that they removed them from his 1915 report but printed them and privately distributed them to selected parties marked as “Not for Publication” (Russell et al., 2012).  He also transcribed his descriptions of this ‘aberrant’ behaviour in Greek in his notebooks, presumably to make it less accessible.

And finally from me, this recent report about ‘sacred and ritualistic’ behaviour in chimpanzees Kuhl et al (2016),   where, I feel the authors have really allowed themselves to over-anthropomorphise with their subjects, very much to the detriment of scientific  detachment.  I have yet to find an entomologist who agrees with their interpretation. http://www.nature.com/articles/srep22219

AND NOW SOMETHING NEW for my blog, an embedded comment/riposte. I thought that it would be useful to get a response from someone who works on large charismatic mega-fauna and who names their subjects.  Anne Hilborn, whom many of you will know from Twitter as @AnneWHilborn, has kindly agreed to reply to my comments.  In the spirit of revealing any possible conflicts of interest I should say that I taught Anne when she was an Ecology MSc student at Silwood Park 🙂

Over to you Anne…..

“Hello, my name is Anne and I name my study animals.”

Decades ago this might have gotten me jeered out of science, the assumption being that by naming my study animals I was anthropomorphizing them and that any conclusions I drew about their behavior would be suspect. Thankfully we (at least those of us who have the privilege of working on megafauna) have moved on a bit in our thinking and our ways of doing science.

There are two parts to Simon’s concern about naming study animals. One is that naming leads to anthropomorphization, the second is that the anthropomorphizing leads to biased science. I would argue that the naming of study animals doesn’t necessarily increase anthropomorphism. On the Serengeti Cheetah Project we don’t name cheetahs until they are independent from their mother (due to a high mortality rate).  During my PhD fieldwork I spent a lot of time following a young male known as HON752MC (son of Strudel).  Several months after I started my work he was named Boke. My interest in his behavior, my chagrin at his failures and happiness when he had a full belly didn’t change when he was named. Many of us get emotionally attached on some level to our study animals, whether they have names or numbers.

An interesting thing to ponder is that if naming does lead to anthropomorphizing, does it only happen when human names are used? What human characteristics am I likely to attach to cheetahs named Peanut, Muscat, Strudel, Fusili, or Chickpea?

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As to whether anthropomorphism leads to biased science… it definitely can if, as Simon points out, certain behaviors are not recorded because they do not fit the image of the animal the researcher had in their head. I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect this is extremely rare now days. Almost all researchers have had extensive formal training and know the importance of standardized data collection. I study cheetah hunting behavior, and I record how long a cheetahs spends spend stalking, chasing, killing, and eating their prey. I record the number of animals in the herd they targeted, how many second the cheetah spends eating vs being vigilant, and at what time they leave the carcass. No matter my personal feelings or attachments to an individual cheetah, the same data gets recorded.

Research methods have advanced a lot in the past decades and we use standardized methodologies and statistics expressly to prevent bias in our results. Anthropomorphism is just one possible source of bias, others include wanting to prove a treasured hypothesis, the tendency to place plots in areas where you suspect you will get the best results, etc..

As Adriana Lowe (@adriana_lowe ) puts it “Basically, if you’ve got a good study design and do appropriate stats, you can romanticise the furry little buggers until the cows come home and it won’t have a massive effect on your work. Any over interpretation of results would get called out by reviewers when you try to publish anyway.”

Simon points out examples of people being shocked when birds didn’t follow the dictates of contemporary human morality. I would like to think that biologists no longer place human values on animals. I can admire hyenas because the females are bigger bodied and socially dominant to males, but that doesn’t mean I draw parallels or lessons from them to human society (not in the least because the females give birth through their elongated clitoris and the cubs practice siblicide). As scientists we are capable of compartmentalizing, of caring deeply for our subjects, of shedding a tear when Asti turns up with one cub when previously she had five, without that changing the way we record data. In our training as biologists, we are taught not impose our own feelings or values on our study animals. We may find infanticide in lions (Packer and Pusey 1983), extra pair copulations in birds and primates (Sheldon 1994, Reichard 1995), or siblicide in boobies (Anderson 1990) to be repugnant, but we record, analyze, and try to publish on the phenomenon all the same.

To go on the offensive, there are ways naming study animals actually improves data collection.

Again, Adriana Lowe “If you’re doing scan sampling for instance, so writing down all individuals in a certain area every 10 minutes or so, names help. At least for me, it’s harder to remember if someone is M1 or M2 than Janet or Bob, particularly if you have a big study troop/community. So it can improve the quality of the data collected if you’re less likely to make identification errors.”

Because of our own training and peer review, assigning emotions or speculating about the intent on animals rarely makes it into scientific papers. However the situation is very different for those of us who wish to present our results outside of the ivory tower. While fellow scientists might be willing to wade through dry descriptions about how M43 contact called 3 times in 4 minutes when he was no longer in visual contact with M44, the public is not. Effective science communication needs a story and an emotional hook to draw people in. It is much easier to do that when you tell a story about Bradley and Cooper and not M43 and M44.  I will admit this does get into grey areas with the type of language we use outside of scientific papers. I tell stories about the cheetahs in my blog posts and even assign emotions to individuals. But if I am answering questions from the media or the public, I am still very careful not to make any definitive claims about behavior that haven’t been backed up by statistical analysis.

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Here I use language and make assumption in tweets that I never would in a scientific paper.

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There are a lot of issues that negatively affect the objectivity of science ie. the majority of funding going to well established entrenched researchers, papers being reviewed primarily by people from the same school of thought, the increasing pressure to have flashy results that generate headlines, but naming of study animals is not high on the list.

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So now, over to you the readers, what do you think? Please comment and share your views or at the very least, please cast your vote.

VOTE NOW

 

 

References

Allritz, M., Call, J. & Borkenau, P. (2016) How chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) perform in a modified emotional Stroop task. Animal Cognition, 19, 435-449.

Anderson, D. J. (1990) Evolution of obligate siblicide in Boobies. 1. A test of the insurance-egg hypothesis. American Naturalist, 135, 334–350.

Birkhead, T. (2000) Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition and Sexual Conflict. Faber, London.

Blake, J.G., Mosquera, D., Loiselle, B.A., Swing, K., Guerra, J. & Romo, D. (2016) Spatial and temporal activity patterns of ocelots Leopardus pardalis in lowland forest of eastern Ecuador.  Journal of Mammalogy, 97, 455-463.

Dettmer, E., and Fragaszy, D. 2000. Determining the value of social companionship to captive tufted capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 3, 293-304

Fuller, R. J., Oliver, T. H. & Leather, S. R. (2008). Forest management effects on carabid beetle communities in coniferous and broadleaved forests: implications for conservation. Insect Conservation & Diversity 1, 242-252.

Hillborn, A., Pettorelli, N., Orme, C.D.L. & Durant, S.M. (2012) Stalk and chase: how hunt stages affect hunting success in Serengeti cheetah. Animal Behaviour, 84, 701-706

Hubel, T.Y., Myatt, J.P., Jordan, N.R., Dewhirst, O.P., McNutt, J.W. & Wilson, A.M. (2016) Energy cost and return for hunting in African wild dogs and cheetahs. Nature Communications, 7, 11034 DOI:doi:10.1038/ncomms11034

Kühl, H.S., Kalan, A.K., Arandjelovic, M., Aubert, F., D’Auvergne, L., Goedmakers, A., Jones, S., Kehoe, L., Regnaut, S., Tickle, A., Ton, E., van Schijndel, J., Abwe, E.E., Angedakin, S., Agbor, A., Ayimisin, E.A., Bailey, E., Bessone, M., Bonnet, M., Brazolla, G., Buh, V.E., Chancellor, R., Cipoletta, C., Cohen, H., Corogenes, K., Coupland, C., Curran, B., Deschner, T., Dierks, K., Dieguez, P., Dilambaka, E., Diotoh, O., Dowd, D., Dunn, A., Eshuis, H., Fernandez, R., Ginath, Y., Hart, J., Hedwig, D., Ter Heegde, M., Hicks, T.C., Imong, I., Jeffery, K.J., Junker, J., Kadam, P., Kambi, M., Kienast, I., Kujirakwinja, D., Langergraber, K., Lapeyre, V., Lapuente, J., Lee, K., Leinert, V., Meier, A., Maretti, G., Marrocoli, S., Mbi, T.J., Mihindou, V., Moebius, Y., Morgan, D., Morgan, B., Mulindahabi, F., Murai, M., Niyigabae, P., Normand, E., Ntare, N., Ormsby, L.J., Piel, A., Pruetz, J., Rundus, A., Sanz, C., Sommer, V., Stewart, F., Tagg, N., Vanleeuwe, H., Vergnes, V., Willie, J., Wittig, R.M., Zuberbuehler, K., & Boesch, C. Chimpanzee accumulative stone throwing. Scientific Reports, 6, 22219.

Leather, S. R. (2009). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist, 56, 10-13.

McGraw, W.S., van Casteren, A., Kane, E., Geissler, E., Burrows, B. & Dsaegling, D.J. (2016) Feeding and oral processing behaviors of two colobine monkeys in Tai Forest, Ivory Coast.  Journal of Human Evolution, in press.

Missa, O., Basset, Y., Alonso, A., Miller, S.E., Curletti, G., M., D.M., Eardley, C., Mansell, M.W., & Wagner, T. (2009) Monitoring arthropods in a tropical landscape: relative effects of sampling methods and habitat types on trap catches. Journal of Insect Conservation, 13, 103-118.

Packer, C. & Pusey, A.E. (1983) Adaptations of female lions to infanticide by incoming males. American Naturalist, 121, 716–728.

Ramsden, M.W., Menéndez, R., Leather, S.R., & Wakkers, F. (2014) Optimizing field margins for biocontrol services: the relative roles of aphid abundance, annual floral resource, and overwinter habitat in enhancing aphid natural enemies. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment, 199, 94-104.

Reichard, U. (1995) Extra-pair copulations in a monogamous gibbon (Hylobates lar). Ethology ,100, 99–112.

Russell, D.G.D., Sladen, W.J.L. & Ainley, D.G. (2012) Dr. George Murray Levick (1876-1956): unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin.  Polar Record, 48, 387-393

Sheldon, B. C. (1994) Male phenotype, fertility, and the pursuit of extra pair copulations by female birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 257, 25–30.

Stoinski, T.S., Hoff, M.P. & Maple, T.L. (2003) Proximity patterns of female western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) during the six months after parturition. American Journal of Primatology, 61, 61-72.

 

Post script

I said that entomologists don’t name their study animals but they do name their pets. Some of our PhD students had an African flower

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Soulcleaver; despite his name he seems quite cute when viewed side-on, perhaps even with a cheeky grin, although as an entomologist I couldn’t possibly say that 🙂

beetle, Mecynorhina ugandiensis, which they named Soulcleaver, and I know that some beekeepers name their Queens https://missapismellifera.com/2016/03/17/the-decay-of-spring/

 

*note that Tim Birkhead also falls into the very trap that he describes by using the word promiscuous in the title of his book, a human judgemental term relating to moral behaviour, multiple mating would have been more appropriate.

 

 

 

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When frustration becomes serendipitous – My second most cited paper

For most of the 1980s and the early 1990s I worked for the UK Forestry Commission as a research and advisory entomologist. As a civil servant I was subjected to a lot more rules than I am now as a university academic. The most frustrating set of rules in my mind, were those associated with publishing papers. The initial consultation with a statistician before your experiment was planned and any subsequent collaboration with the analysis was very sensible, and I had no problems with that part of the process at all. Our statisticians were very good in that they helped you decide the analysis but expected you to learn GenStat (the Forestry Commission standard statistics programme) and do it yourself unless you were really stuck.

The next bit was the frustrating part. When it came to writing papers you first submitted your paper to your line manager. They then read your paper, very frustrating indeed for me, as my immediate boss considered papers a very low priority and it could be several months before he got around to passing it back with comments and suggestions. Then it was passed to a member of one of the other department such as silviculture, tree breeding or pathology for them to read and make comments. The idea behind this being that it helped make the paper accessible to a wide audience, again a good idea. The problem at this stage was that once again your paper was likely to be a low priority, so yet more delay. Once that was done you then had to submit your paper to the Chief Research Office for him to read and comment on, so once again yet more delay. This meant that quite often it was a year before you actually were able to submit your paper to a journal, which could be deeply frustrating to say the least.

Frustrated

In 1986 a new journal to be published by the British Ecological Society was announced, Functional Ecology. In those days, the dreaded Impact Factors had not yet raised their ugly heads, and one tended to publish in journals relevant to your discipline, or, as in this case, the fancy took you.  I thought it would be cool to publish in the first issue of the first volume of this new journal.  I therefore set to work, with the help of one of our statisticians to produce a paper about life history parameters of the pine beauty moth, from a more ecological point of view and not from the more applied view-point of it as a forest pest (my job remit). I was very proud of the paper and confess to having got somewhat carried away in the discussion, so much so, that it was suggested by all who read it in the very lengthy internal appraisal process, that most of the discussion should be cut as being too far away from the main story. As the process had taken so long already I decided to go with the flow and eventually submitted my paper about a year after first writing it, incidentally giving my statistician a co-authorship. It was accepted and did indeed appear in the first volume of Functional Ecology, albeit the last of the year (Leather & Burnand, 1987)! It has to date (14th October 2015) being cited 53 times, by no means a disgrace, but certainly not my second-most cited paper.

I mentioned earlier that I was really proud of my discussion and I decided that I was going to publish it regardless. I reworked it slightly and submitted it to Oikos as a Forum piece, taking the calculated risk of not submitting it through the official Forestry Commission system. My reasoning was, that a), it was unlikely to be read by anyone in the Forestry Commission, being a very ecological journal, and b), if challenged I would say that it had already been seen by the powers that be, albeit not officially. To my relief it was accepted as is (Leather, 1988) and my immediate boss never mentioned it. To my surprise and delight this is now my second-most cited paper, having so far acquired 207 citations and still picks up a reasonable number of cites every year. I guess that I should actually be grateful to all those internal referees who insisted that I cut my discussion down so drastically.

References

Leather, S.R. (1988) Size, reproductive potential and fecundity in insects: Things aren’t as simple as they seem. Oikos, 51, 386-389.

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

 

Post script

In case you wondered, my most cited paper is an Annual Review paper, written with one of my former PhD students, Caroline Awmack, and now has almost a thousand citations (994 as of today).

Reference

Awmack, C. S. &Leather, S. R. (2002). Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology 47, 817-844.

 

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Journals of Irreproducible Research – downgrading reproducibility and fact checking

As far as I am concerned, good science is about communication and reproducibility, or, as Stephen Heard argues, at least being able to believe that it is reproducible.  I would argue a bit more strongly than Stephen, in that I think you should, at the very least, be able to be confident that you could reproduce the experiment without having to contact the author(s) and that you can also easily check the cited literature.   In this context, there are two things that really annoy me about some of the so-called ’high impact’ established print journals and their on-line would be rivals.  First, the way in which the methods and materials section is relegated to the end of the paper, often in smaller font, and in some cases to the supplementary material section  In other journals e.g. Nature, the methods section is also very minimal and I defy anyone to repeat those experiments!  My second bugbear is the habit that some journals have, possibly to reduce space, in making you use numbers to denote references, placing them either in parentheses or superscript in the main text.

Perhaps I am alone in this, but I do like to know whose work is being cited without having to constantly refer to the references section.  What  particularly annoys me, are those journals that not only insist on numbered references but then list them in number order and not in alphabetical order!  I once wrote a review paper for Annual Review of Entomology, which has the numbering system, but subverted it by listing my references alphabetically – the editor never noticed 😉

You may say that what all these journals are doing is merely structuring the paper in the order that people tend to read them which is, I admit, a valid point. To me however, they are saying to the scientific community, perhaps not overtly, but certainly subliminally, that methods and materials are something you don’t really need to bother about, somewhat akin to those things that you store in an attic or basement, just in case you might want them at some time in the future, but probably not often, if at all.

Hidden methods

This sends a strong and erroneous message to authors that despite the methodology being the most important part of how we do our science, as long as they report the general gist of how they did things it is fine.  To referees the subversion of the methods section sends an equally strong signal; you don’t really need to spend a lot of time reading about the methodology as long as the rationale for the work is justified and that the results are significant and well presented.

As someone who works on insect-plant interactions I constantly come across inadequate methods and materials sections both as a referee and as a reader of published work.  The thing that perhaps causes me the most annoyance are descriptions of plant phenology.   Herbivorous insects have a very intimate relationship with their host plants and the growth stage of their host plant or the age of the plant tissue that they are feeding on can have very marked effects on their development, survival and fecundity (Awmack & Leather, 2002).  I so often came across methods descriptions along the lines of “10 day-old cabbage seedling” “ 3 week old pepper plant”,  “2 week-old wheat plant”, that in desperation I wrote an editorial (Leather, 2010) explaining how important it was to use a measure that didn’t depend on the temperature,  photoperiod, nutrient or water status that the plants were grown at i.e. the BCCH scale.  I also compiled a virtual issue of Annals of Applied Biology, with relevant examples drawn from the journal which has a long and distinguished history in publishing such articles.  If you can’t find your host plant in past issues of the Annals you will find that most plants have a published version somewhere, even if only on Wikipedia.  Despite my efforts however, I still often have to remind authors to describe the phenological stage of their host plants accurately and precisely.

Methods and materials, please come back, we need you!

 

References

Awmack, C. S. & Leather, S. R. (2002). Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology 47, 817-844.

Leather, S. R. (2010). Precise knowledge of plant growth stages enhances applied and pure research. Annals of Applied Biology 157, 159-161.

 

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