Tag Archives: novelty

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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Waifs and strays – those papers nobody cites (or reads?)

I guess, like most, if not all of us, who publish papers, we hope that not only will our papers be read, but that they will be cited by others, not just ourselves.  From a purely practical point, it is after all, how academics impress promotion boards or prospective employers. From a more personal point of view, the papers we publish represent a lot of effort, not just in gathering the data or having the idea, but also the nightmare of turning it into deathless prose and then the battle with editors and reviewers.  We all have a few papers that we hope will make our name and perhaps become a citation classic, although as Stephen Heard has pointed out not just once, but twice, our favourites are not always everyone else’s, with some papers significantly failing to meet expectations.  A recent article in Times Higher Education, showed that in some disciplines, notably in the arts, 77% of papers were still uncited five years after publication and even in the sciences, about 40% of papers suffered a similar fate.  For ecologists, the hot area is ecological modelling, with only 6% of papers remaining uncited after five years. As someone with an advanced case of imposter syndrome, this is really quite reassuring; although I have twelve papers that are uncited (according to Web of Science), they only represent 6% of my output (and I am not a modeller 😊), of which only one dates back to 2012 (0.5%).  I do, however, have another 34 papers, that although they have been cited, have been cited fewer than five times, 17% of my output, or, if I add in my never been cited papers, 23% of my work has had relatively little impact on the ecological and entomological world.

Despite this, I was curious about what, if anything, these unwanted (=uncited) waifs and strays had in common, and how they differed from my most cited papers; absolutely nothing to with the fact that Stephen Heard only had four zero papers, all of which were recent papers 😊 In Steve’s analysis he looked at time since publication and found a positive correlation, his oldest papers had accrued the most citations.  I have a somewhat larger corpus of work than Steve, so concentrated my analysis on my top twenty papers.  There was absolutely no relationship (Figure 1), all pretty much of a muchness apart from the massive outlier, but even with that removed, still nada.

Figure 1. My top twenty papers.  The massive outlier is my single Annual Review of Entomology paper.

My least cited papers, do however, show a relationship between years since publication and the paltry number of citations that they have received (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The foot of the table papers.

If I combine the two data sets and leave out my star paper, there is a relationship between time since publication and the number of citations gained (Figure 3), so I expect, but I could be wrong, and I am not going to invest the time in finding out, that if I analysed all my papers that there would be a similar relationship as that shown by Steve’s analysis.

Figure 3. Relationship between time since publication and number of citations accrued for my most and least cited papers (excluding the massive outlier).

So, what makes a paper a waif, or reversing the question, a star?  Editors, of which I am one, are great fans of Reviews, believing, usually correctly, that they garner a lot of Impact Factor points, authors perhaps less so, as they tend to take away citations from your other papers. After all, who writes a review without citing themselves? 😊 The other thing that helps a paper get cited is their title, Andrew Hendry over on Eco-Evo Evo-Eco suggests that two main factors come into play. The first is that those papers that have a very good “fill in the box” titles are much more likely to be cited than those with more specific titles. He points out that a paper he and colleagues published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biology paper is the only one in the literature with Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics being the sole words in the title so, any paper writing about eco-evolutionary dynamics can use that citation to “fill in the citation box” after their first sentence on the topic.  The second inflation factor he cites, is that citations beget citations. When “filling in the box”, authors tend to cite papers that other authors used to fill in the same box.  In other words, authors tend to be lazy and use what other people have cited in their introductions.  This is not something to be encouraged, as it can lead to people being wrongly attributed; I have raged against this practice in the past.  Stephen Heard over at Scientist See Squirrel reckons that his most original papers are cited less because they report research from “outside the box” and most people are working “inside the box”.  Dorothy Bishop over at Bishopblog suggests that the best way to bury your work is to put it in a book chapter in an edited book.

So, what about my stars and strays?  My most cited paper is indeed a review, and for an entomologist, being in that most prestigious of review journals, the Annual Review of Entomology, it is no surprise to me that it tops my top ten chart, with just over 1000 cites.  Incidentally, number 4 (Leather et al., 1999) and number 7 (Leather et al., 1989) in my top 10, are also reviews.  My second most cited paper (Leather, 1988), is also, I guess, a review of sorts, albeit very short, although I prefer to think of it as more of a synthesis cum speculation paper.

What about the duds, those that no-one cites, not even me.  If I ignore the most recent papers, those published this year (2018) and last 2017), as being unlikely to have had time to be read, let alone cited, then all my zero papers are either editorials or commentary papers (e.g. Leather, 2014).  Don’t let yourself be fooled by the hope that a commentary paper, even with a sexy title and published in a top-notch journal will get cited.  My effort in Journal of Animal Ecology in early 2015 being a prime example, even the magic words, “climate change” failing to elicit a single citation to date (Leather (2015).

It is hard to see a pattern in my other lesser cited papers, they don’t seem to be markedly different from my more frequently cited papers, being published in my usual journals and covering the same subject matter, aphids, agricultural and forest pests and biological control in the main.  I confess to being very disappointed in the low number of citations to my aphid cannibalism paper (Cooper et al., 2014) especially as it got a lot of media attention, but I guess it falls into the too original box, not many people work on aphid cannibalism 😊

Sadly, it seems that Steve Heard is right, despite the journal blurbs, we don’t value originality, and the message for both journal editors and authors, is clear, if you want citations, publishing reviews and sticking to well ploughed fields is the safest bet.

References

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

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. (2014: Modifying glucosinolates in oilseed rape – Giamoustaris & Mithen (1995): a top-twenty paper in the Annals of Applied Biology. Annals of Applied Biology, 164, 318-319.

Leather, S.R. (2015) Title: Onwards and upwards – aphid flight trends follow climate change. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 1-3.

Leather, S.R., Walters, K.F.A. & Dixon, A, F.G. (1989) Factors determining the pest status of the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum-padi (L) (Hemiptera, Aphididae), in Europe – a study and review.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 79, 345-360.

Leather, S.R., Day, K.R. & Salisbury, A.N. (1999) The biology and ecology of the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis (Coleoptera: Curculionidae): a problem of dispersal? Bulletin of Entomological Research, 89, 3-16.

 

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Pick and mix 11 – Another ten links to look at

I’m still on holiday in France so just a series of links this week.


Links to things I thought interesting (picture is the room door of the Ibis Style hotel we stayed at in Paris)

 

Is “novelty” holding science back?

Using radio tagging to improve the conservation of stag beetles

How ‘Nature’ keeps us healthy, from potted plants to hiking

How scientists at Rothamsted Research and the University of North Texas have engineered a relative of cabbage to produce fish oil

Agricultural efficiency will feed the world, not dogma

A really interesting article about migration and movement of people

Dave Goulson’s work on pesticide residues in garden plants summarised by plant ecologist Ken Thompson

Using a field journal to strengthen learning

At the risk of seeming big-headed an interesting episode of Entocast

I don’t normally post about birds but after this golden oriole

committed suicide against our patio doors thought that this deserved a mention

 

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