Tag Archives: science writing

When did I become it? The fall and rise of passive and active voices in science writing

 

A few weeks ago, one of Stephen Heard’s excellent blog posts reminded me about the passive versus active voice debate.  I was once a passionate opponent of the active voice and the use of the first person singular and plural (Leather, 1986)*. In fact, during my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of Ecological Entomology (1996-2003) my Editorial Assistant/Copy Editor took great pleasure in converting, the mainly USA-authored actively written papers to passive conformity 😊 People often mention that they were ‘trained’ to write in the third person as this was regarded as being more scientific and less likely to lead to biased interpretations of data. In my 1986 paper I adopted a similar view and added that using the first-person singular could lead to a sense of ‘ownership’ and a subsequent reluctance to accept criticism.  But that was then, this is now, and those of you who read my scientific papers as opposed to my blog, will see that the first person singular and plural are to be found there.

Stephen says in his blog “Most of us were trained to write science in the passive voice, and most of us are accustomed to reading science in the passive voice.” In an idle procrastinating moment, I wondered when the impersonal passive way of writing became standard.  As an Editor of a couple of society journals (Annals of Applied Biology and Insect Conservation & Diversity) I have free access to the back numbers of the journals of the Association of Applied Biologists and the Royal Entomological Society to the year dot.  I decided to do a rather limited, and I hasten to add, not very replicated study, on the rise and fall and return of the active voice in two journals, Annals of Applied Biology and Ecological Entomology (formerly Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society).

As an aphidologist I felt compelled to start with a quote from one of our most distinguished alumni, the great Thomas Henry Huxley.  Just to complicate things, it is also in neither of the two journals I surveyed 😊. Huxley (1858) not only uses I profusely, but also cites and quotes chunks of papers written 50 years earlier which also use I.  It seems that Victorian entomologists and their predecessors had no problems with ‘owning’ their opinions and observations.

If we jump forward sixty years or so to the first issue of Annals of Applied Biology (1914) we see, even though the writing is not exactly thrilling, that it is active, and the authors, as demonstrated by the following example, had no problems with using the personal pronoun.

“This seemed to the present author to be a very important question about the two life-cycles described for Aphis rumicis. It intimated that the two parallel life-cycles might be merged into one by crossing from Euonymus to Broad Bean and from Rumex to Poppies. If the two life-cycles proved to be absolutely constant and separate, a very important feature would be established, namely the establishment of two biological species (A. euonymi and A. rumicis), both resembling each other in structure but differing physiologically in habitat. As the results obtained in these experiments will show, Aphis euonymi will heavily infest Broad Beans, and Aphis euonymi reared on Rumex will heavily infest both Broad Bean and Poppies.  Thus the two life- cycles may be merged into one.  The life-history, however, has not been completed, as owing to leaving England in September, I have been unable to trace the history of the sexuparae.”  (Davidson, 1914).

We also find a very similar style in articles published by the Royal Entomological Society in the same year (e.g. Lamborn et al., 1914).

I wondered if the traumatic experience of the First World War would have affected scientific writing styles, but found, at least in my two sample journals, that during the 1920s nothing much changed in the style in which papers were written.  In Annals of Applied Biology, the change from personal pronouns and active voices begins in the early 1930s, 1933 being the last year in which the majority of papers still used the more personal style, but the following examples show, the tide was turning.

“So far as we are aware, no systematic investigation of the carbohydrates of crinkle infected plants has been made heretofore, and the present work was initiated and carried out on the same lines as was employed by us for leaf-roll. It should also be mentioned that our colleague, Mr George Cockerham, has carried out a similar investigation on mild mosaic at the substation” (Barton-Wright & McBain (1933).

“In 1930 we grease-banded sixty plum trees before the sawflies had emerged and on these we caught seventeen adults.  Later on it was noticed that these trees were badly infested with sawfly larvae.  From this it would appear that most of the sawflies must have flown on to the trees, either directly from the ground or from neighbouring trees. In order to study their habits, adults were collected in the orchard and kept on plum shoots in cages” (Petherbridge et al., 1933).

The early to mid-1930s marks an emerging trend toward the third person appearing, for example; “This paper describes our work on this disease during 1932. We consider that we have collected sufficient evidence to show conclusively that the disease is caused by the feeding of the tea mosquito bug (Helopeltis bergrothi Reut.) on the more mature green stems of tea.  We consider that fungi play a purely secondary part in the etiology of the disease. We suggest the name ((gnarled stem canker” as being a more descriptive name for the disease than ((stem canker” or “branch canker,” which may include many different diseases” (Leach & Smeed, 1933). The rest of this paper is, however, strongly third person impersonal.

Jackson (1933) writing about the tstetse fly refers to himself as The Author and has a very dry and impersonal third person reporting style throughout. In a similar style, here is Maldwyn Davies**, “The writer has been concerned solely with entomological studies and the relation that the work has to the seed potato and virus problems” (Maldwyn Davies, 1934).

This, the last pre-war use of the first person in the Annals, is, coincidentally, in the form of a tribute to the aforementioned Maldwyn Davies; “Dr W Maldwyn Davies died in February 1937 after preparing the first draft of this report; and it has therefore fallen to me, as one very closely associated with him in his ecological work on aphides, to prepare the Report for publication. I have endeavoured simply to make the necessary verbal corrections which, I feel confident, Dr Davies himself would have desired” (Maldwyn Davies & Whitehead, 1939).

Post-war the third person and passive voice is firmly established (e.g. Prentice & Harris, 1946) and in this paper I was pleased to see the authors capitalizing Petri as in dish and comparing with not to, two errors commonly evident in modern papers 🙂

Over at the Royal Entomological Society and in their flagship journal, Transactions, things are very different.  Here in 1949, some 15 years after the last mention of the personal pronoun in the Annals, we find a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Indian Medical Service writing very actively indeed:

“It was not until 1877 that Selys gave the first definition of the genus Agriocnemis, listing under it ten species, including in this number exilis, but excluding solitaria and rufipes ; the former was placed in a new genus, Argiocnemis, the latter relegated again to its former genus, Agrion! It is diacult to fathom the Selysian reasons for this volte face, for he had the type of rufipes before him in his own collection: nor can he be said to have forgotten his original reference, for he actually cites Pollen and Van Dam where rufipes is listed under Agriocnemis“ (Fraser, 1949).

I then jumped forward in time to 1955, an excellent year, the year a new entomologist was hatched; I was born 🙂  In the Annals I found only one paper with a first person mention and that was in the acknowledgements (Shaw, 1955).   In Transactions however, there is a mixture, for example Tottenham (1955), a Vicar, using the active first person singular and Downes (1955) a government taxonomist using the third person passive.  There are however, indications that the third person passive style is growing in popularity, and by 1962 you can read passages like this “It was desirable to obtain data on the dispersal of adults to supplement results obtained in the weekly samples” (Anderson, 1962).  This was done at my old stamping ground, Silwood Park and marks the increasing number of professional entomologists beginning to publish in the Transactions.  By 1965, the year we left Jamaica, there is only one instance of active, first person plural reporting, in the persons of Trevor Lewis and Roy Taylor, two legendary entomologists from Rothamsted, the former still alive and relatively well (Lewis & Taylor, 1965).  They were, however, not the last to follow this practice. In 1975, the final year of Transactions (metamorphosed to Ecological Entomology in 1976, both forms are still in use. In the Annals on the other hand, the papers in the issues of 1965 and 1975 are both firmly passive and impersonal.

So why the difference between the two journals?  It has nothing do with being an entomologist per se.  Rather I think, it is to do with the difference in fields of study.  Annals of Applied Biology is, and was, run by the Association of Applied Biologists, so from the very beginning, it was the mouthpiece of professional biologists working in agriculture and forestry, who were mainly employed at Government Research Institutes or Universities.  The Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, on the other hand, had a much longer history, and was, for almost the first century of its existence, dominated by the output of Fellows of the Royal Entomological Society, most of whom were, what we would now call amateur entomologists.

My hypothesis, admittedly based on very limited data, is that as “professional scientists” applied biologists were more likely to perceive writing in an impersonal passive manner as more appropriate to their standing as paid scientists, whereas the parsons, medical practitioners, military officers, gentlemen and other amateur naturalists writing on entomological matters, felt no such compulsion.  That does not however, explain why my Editorial Assistant for Ecological Entomology, had a constant battle against the use of the active and personal voice by authors from the USA; one of the first countries to have a professional entomological extension service J  Perhaps one of my North American readers can suggest an answer?

Although I am still sparing in my use of the personal pronoun and the active voice in my formal scientific writing, I am no longer averse to taking ownership of my work.  Regular readers of my blog will know that I have fully embraced the practice in my less formal offerings and revel in the freedom to express my personal viewpoints with vim and vigour, although of course all firmly backed up with documented evidence 🙂

References

Anderson, N.H. (1962) Bionomics of six species of Anthocoris (Heteroptera : Anthocoridae) in England. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 114, 67-95.

Barton-Wright, E. & McBain , A. (1933) Studies in the  physiology of the virus diseases of the potato. II. A comparison of the carbohydrate metabolism of normal with that of crinkle potatoes; together with some observations on carbohydrate metabolism in a “carrier” variety. Annals of Applied Biology, 20, 525-548.

Brierley, W.B. (1934) Some viewpoints of an applied biologist. Annals of Applied Biology, 21, 351-378.

Davidson, J. (1914) The host plants and habits of Aphis rumicis Linn., with some observations  on  the  migration of, and infestation of, plants  by  aphides.  Annals of Applied Biology, 1, 118-142.

Doncaster, J.P. & Kassanis, B.  (1946) The shallot aphis, Myzus ascalonicus Doncaster, and its behaviour as a vector of plant viruses   Annals of Applied Biology, 33, 66-68.

Downes, J.A. (1955) Observations on the swarming flight and mating of Culicoides (Diptera: Ceratopogonidae. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 106, 213-236.

Fraser , F.C. (1949) The Zygoptera of Mauritius (Order Odonata). Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 100, 135-146.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the Agamic Reproduction and Morphology of Aphis.–Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society London, 22, 193-219. 

Jackson, C.H.N. (1933) On an advance of tsetse fly in Central Tanganyika. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society, 81, 205-222.

Lamborn, A., Bethune-Baker, G.T., Distant, W.L., Eltringham, H., Poulton, E.B., Durrant, J.H. & Newstead, R. (1914) XX. On the relationship between certain West African insects, especially ants, Lycaenidae and Homoptera. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 61, 436-498.

Leach, K. & Smeed, C. (1933) Gnarled stem canker of tea caused by the capsid bug (Helopeltis bergrothi Reut.). Annals of Applied Biology, 20, 691-706.

Leather, S.R. (1996) The case for the passive voice.  Nature 381, 467.

Lewis, T. & Taylor, L.R. (1965) Diurnal periodicity of flight by insects.  Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 116, 393-43.

Maldwyn Davies W. (1934) Studies on aphides infesting the potato crop: ii. aphis survey: its bearing upon the selection of districts for seed potato production. Annals of Applied Biology, 21, 283-299.

Maldwyn Davies, W & Whitehead, T. (1939) Studies on aphides infesting the potato crop: vii. Report on a survey of the aphis population of potatoes in selected districts of Scotland (25 july-6 august 1936). Annals of Applied Biology, 26, 116-134.

Petherbridge, F.R., Thomas, I. & Hey, G.L. (1933) On the biology of the plum sawfly, Hoplogampa flava L.†, with notes on control experiments. Annals of Applied Biology, 20, 429-438.

Prentice, I.W. & Harris, R.V. (1946) Resolution of strawberry virus complexes by means of the aphis vector Capitophorus fragariae Theob.  Annals of Applied Biology, 33, 50-53.

Shaw, M.W. (1955) Preliminary studies on potato aphids in north and north-east Scotland   Annals of Applied Biology, 43, 37-50.

Tottenham, C.E. (1955) Studies in the genus Philonthus Stephens (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society, 106, 153-195.

 

Post script

The following couple of sentences must surely be a contender for the prize of most impersonal writing “The first to apply the theory of of parallel evolution to entomophagous parasites was Mackauer (1961, 1962b).  He found that the host range of members of the…”  Why you are now asking is this such a great example of impersonal writing?  All becomes clear when I reveal that the author of these sentences is writing about himself (Mackauer, 1965).

Mackauer, M. (1965) Parasitological data as an aid in aphid classification.  Canadian Entomologist, 97, 1016-1024.

 

*This paper, my only appearance in Nature, received a lot of negative published responses, but a lot of personal emailed positive ones.  Even with my thick skin I felt a little bruised by the experience 😊

**The entomologist, not the tenor

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Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring reach and impact of science community blogs

At the end of the year there is a tendency for some scientific bloggers to take advantage of the statistics provided by their host platform to produce a round-up of their year and to compare their figures with previous years.  I too am one of the number crunchers and revel in the data available 🙂  One of the frustrating things, for me at any rate, is the lack of a benchmark, how are you doing compared with other bloggers?  This year I decided to try and get some data and approached Jeff Ollerton to see if he would let me look at his 2016 data, which he kindly did and this allowed me to produce a comparative graph.  Much wants more.  As an entomologist an n of 2 is small beer.  I needed more data to satisfy my craving.  I also talk to our postgraduate students about the value of social media, including blogging, but rely mainly on personal anecdotes.  What was needed was something concrete to support my assertions.

I subscribe to, and follow a number of blogs, but there are a few that I feel are somewhat similar in their aims and scope to mine.  One is Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog, the others are Dynamic Ecology, Ecology Bits, Ecology is Not a Dirty Word, Scientist Sees Squirrel and Small Pond Science.  Jeff is also a follower of these blogs and when I suggested that it would be a good idea to try to write something about the value of blogging to academics and why our employees should support us in our endeavours he promptly suggested that we get in touch with those bloggers.  I couldn’t see a downside to this so first approached Manu Saunders of Ecology is Not a Dirty Word and Steve Heard of Scientist Sees Squirrel as these were the two bloggers with whom I had interacted most.  Steve then helped bring the others on board and that is how it all began (at least that is how I remember it).

The Blogging Consortium

Manu very kindly took charge of the data collation and I made a first stab at drafting the paper in mid-January.  Steve did a very good job of rewriting it and Meg Duffy (Dynamic Ecology) Jeff Ollerton and Amy Parachnowitsch (Small Pond Science) got into the swing of things as well.  By the end of January we were really motoring and bouncing ideas of each other and the rapidly growing draft.  As with all non-mainstream activities, the day jobs got in the way and we had a couple of months where very little happened.  I felt that things were slipping a little and in the spring had another go at the draft and this stimulated another flurry of action from what we were now calling the blogging consortium, with major contributions from Meg, Jeff and Steve, which put us all on our mettle and something that was beginning to look like a completed paper appearing.  By May Manu had got us all working on a Google Doc document which greatly improved our efficiency.  As we were now heading toward June, some further analysis was needed and Manu bravely volunteered to become the lead author and general butt kicker 🙂 It worked, and by the beginning of July we were ready to submit and had started discussing potential journals.  As the paper was all about science communication we were very keen to get it in a high-profile Open Access journal, but one that didn’t charge an arm and a leg as our paper had no grant income associated with it.  After a couple of enquiries Manu found a journal that fitted our requirements and was willing to have a look at it and on July 20th 2017 Manu submitted our paper to Royal Society Open Science.  Six weeks later we were euphoric!

Oh frabjous day!

The comments of the reviewers were some of the best I have ever seen, and I submitted my first paper in 1979 🙂  I have never had the word limpid applied to my writing, it just shows what can be achieved by cooperation.   I can’t resist sharing some of the comments from the reviewers

Associate Editor Comments to Author:

 

Both reviewers are very positive about this manuscript and indeed I agree with them. It is an important piece and a very inspirational read.

Reviewer: 1

At one time, my favourite t-shirt slogan was “More people are reading this t–shirt than your blog” – those days are clearly gone as this paper shows, at least in ecology! ……..Their thoughts on citing blogs will, I suspect, launch many posts and comments on their respective blogs. I think this paper will be an important contribution to what is very much a developing field. I have no comments to add and, for the first time for me, I recommend acceptance without revision.

Reviewer: 2

 This is a fantastic and much needed piece that deserves to be published widely. ……….The authors clearly state this upfront: ‘academics wish to understand whether particular activities influence various audiences’. I command the authors for this rare instance of honesty and for aiming to publish this manuscript with the best academic journals in their discipline. The manuscript is limpid and very well written. The style is engaging and the results significant for the wider academic community. I fully support its publication.

 

These last nine months working on the paper were personally very rewarding and to me, a vindication that becoming a blogger was a good decision.  It was also a huge buzz to work with such a dynamic group of bloggers.  I think Steve sums it up for all of us in this Tweet

If you are not yet a science community blogger or don’t think that they have a place in mainstream science, please take the time to read our paper which you can find here.  It won’t cost you anything but time 🙂 and if any reporters are reading this – here courtesy of Manu, is our press release.

Blogs are no longer simply online personal journals. We define an overlooked category of blogs that holds immense value for the scientific community: science community blogs are written by practising scientists for scientists. As academics and active bloggers, we use data from our own blogs to show how science community blogs are a valuable outreach and professional development tool. Blogs are also a citable primary source with potential to contribute to scientific knowledge. It’s time for blogs to be accepted as a standalone medium with huge benefits for individual scientists and the science community as a whole.   

 

Post script

If you want to know what my fellow authors thought about our collaboration you can find Manu’s story here, Steve’s here, Amy and Terry’s here and Meghan’s here.

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Planned and accidental landings – Search terms that found my site

Unbelievably yet another year has gone by which means that I have managed to complete three years of blogging at Don’t Forget the Roundabouts writing articles at about ten-day intervals. This post will be my 105th since I started blogging on January 1st 2013.  I have written over 15 000 words about aphids and another 31 000 words on other entomologically related subjects ; so at least one book if I can get around to linking the various posts into a coherent form 🙂  My views on the usefulness of blogging at a personal level and in terms of science communication remain as positive as ever and I fully intend to continue blogging for the foreseeable future.  At this time last year last year I summarised my facts and figures in terms of views and international reach.  This year I have decided to ‘borrow’ an idea from three of the blogs I follow, Scientist Sees Squirrel, Small Pond Science and The Lab and Field and speculate about some of the search terms that direct people to my site.

So first the bare facts, I reached 150 countries (145 last year) and received 29 385   views

Countries 2015

Top nine countries for views during 2015

(24 616 last year) and as yet the figures seem to suggest that I will continue to gain more views during 2016, but it is only a simple regression and a pessimist might see a plateau appearing 🙂

Blog stats

My top post, as last year, was Not All Aphids are Vegans closely followed by  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering both with over a thousand views.  So how do people find me, which search terms do they use?  As you might expect the most frequently used search terms are those that ask do aphids bite people (humans)? In fact most of the search terms that plonk people down on my blog are aphid related.  Jiminy Cricket also turns up a lot; this is because of one of my very early posts in which I pointed out that Jiminy Cricket should really be Gregory Grasshopper.  On the other hand, some people do actually search for me and my site specifically.  There are, however, some weird and wonderful search terms that send people my way, a few of which are worth commenting on.

 

Do police dogs follow the scent of fear?  An easy one to start with, this directed the searcher to my post on aphid alarm pheromone, which will of course, not have answered her/his question.

Police dog cartoon

 

These two are obviously linked to the name of my blog.

Who are the roundabouts in Pinocchio? I didn’t know that roundabouts featured in Pinocchio but Jiminy Cricket certainly does 🙂  On reflection this may have been a misspelling of roustabouts, in reference to the two villains who kidnapped Pinocchio.

Why were roundabouts so big back in the day?  An intriguing question to which I have no answer.

 

This one takes the prize for the most specific set of terms entered.

What is the name of the male group of entomologists that is the oldest group in the world and has recently invited Dr Helen Roy to become a member? – the answer is of course The Entomological Club.

 

I was extremely flattered that Google directed this inquirer to my blog  🙂

Where is the latest global discourse in entomology?

 

Obviously all my trips to Paris and France have upped my international profile,

article sur aphis nerii et ses parasitoides

 

but these are pretty obscure to say the least!

her wellies got sloppy pictures, but probably (s)he meant soppy? so here you are

soppy wellies

it’s raining get coat and umbrella study module to get a first in exam results

what is a milligram?  I have no idea how that ended up on my site and as for this one?

joni printed 50 pages, then he took a pair of scissors and carefully cut 300 tag and signed all of them

 

And finally a couple of X-rated ones:

 why girls bum sap changes having sex? I’m guessing that (s)he meant shape –  being directed to an article about aphids ingesting phloem sap must have been a bit deflating!

video sex girls avenae  this one must have really been disappointed but if (s)he comes this way again (s)he might like to watch this video produced by the Silwood Revue which is well worth a view https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sBzNsaSzdM

 

I could go on, but enough is enough, and the rest are mainly aphid related.

I continue to find blogging immensely satisfying but would really like to have more comments and interactions via the blog. Twitter is where most exchanges occur at the moment.  As far as I can make out other bloggers, even those with much larger readerships than me, also say that comments on their blogs have fallen over the last couple of years.  It would be nice if everyone who followed me on Twitter read my blog!  That said I must acknowledge my most frequent commenters and bestowers of likes.  These are Emily Scott http://adventuresinbeeland.com/, Jeff Ollerton http://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/, Amelia from A French Garden, Emma Tennant http://missapismellifera.com/, Manu Sanders http://ecologyisnotadirtyword.com/ and Philip Strange https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/.   I am also very grateful to the 175 people (40 more than last year) who subscribe to my blog.

Many thanks to you all for your interest and kind words and A Prosperous and Happy New Year to you all.

 

Post script

As a late Christmas present to you all, my favourite roundabout of the year!

Surgeres

On the edge of Surgeres (Charente Maritime) – not very ecological but certainly literary!

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Journal Editing – Why do it? Masochism, machisimo or just plain nosiness?

I have been involved in scientific journal editing since the mid-1980s when I took on the role of Editor of an in-house newsletter run by the UK Forestry Commission’s Forest Research arm, EntoPath News. This basically involved writing short articles about what was going on in Forest Research and persuading colleagues to write about their research, mainly for a lay audience. This was pretty much a home-made effort, typed up and then photocopied by members of the Typing Pool (now those were the days!). Then in 1991 I was asked if I would like to edit Antenna, the in-house journal of the Royal Entomological Society. This was a step-up – we actually had a printer, although this was in the days of cut and paste when cut and paste meant exactly that. I was sent the proofs in what were termed galleys, long sheets of printed pages, together with template pages, marked out with blue lines to indicate margins etc. I then grabbed a pair of scissors and a pot of glue and literally cut the proofs to fit the pages and then glued them on to the templates. These were then returned to the printer who in due course produced a set of page proofs which I had to check and approve and these were then returned to the printer and then finally the finished version would appear.

Antenna 1993

Nowadays of course all this has long departed and Antenna is a much glossier and electronically produced affair.

Antenna 2012

I was next asked if I would like to edit Ecological Entomology a much grander job all together and one that I did from 1996-2003.

Ecological Entomology 2001

 

When I first started editing Ecological Entomology, all manuscripts were submitted as hard copy paper versions (usually three copies) but with an accompanying floppy disc. The review process involved posting out the hard copy to possible reviewers, usually without any preliminary enquiry as to the willingness of the referee to undertake the task, although as time passed we did start to ask referees beforehand by email. The use of paper copies enabled referees to write directly on to manuscripts and also allowed me as an Editor to mark required changes. My Editorial Assistant also imposed stylistic and language change to manuscripts. Accepted manuscripts were always returned with a huge amount of mark-up for authors to attend to and incorporate into their finished version which was returned on disc together with a paper copy. It was quite interesting to see how many authors were so enamoured of their original version that they tried to pull the wool over my editorial eye by returning an appropriately edited paper version but their original manuscript on the disc! These were most severely edited by my Editorial Assistant 😉

I then had a couple of years off as a full editor but remained on the boards of Ecological Entomology, Journal of Animal Ecology and Agricultural & Forest Entomology, all of which I still do despite becoming one of the Senior Editors of the Annals of Applied Biology in 2005 and in a moment of weakness not only agreeing to become the Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity in 2006, but to launch it from scratch!

One of my conditions for agreeing to edit Insect Conservation & Diversity was that we would be on-line submission from Day One. Interestingly enough we were the only journal of the Royal Entomological Society’s large stable that were. This year the last of the journals finally gave in and became on-line submissions only.

One of the things that I have noticed with most of the journals that were originally paper-based submissions is that the instructions for authors still refer back to the paper submission days – why for example do we need to upload tables and figures separately – why don’t we just incorporate them in the text in the way they would appear in print and submit one file? Old habits die hard I guess.

So why do I edit journals? The simplest answer is because I enjoy it, I find it interesting, albeit sometimes frustrating, especially when authors send you papers that are completely out of the scope of the journal, or formatted in the style of the journal they have just been rejected by! You also find out that some papers come with a referee repellent attached to them. Some papers you get the right number of referees agreeing immediately, others that look perfectly acceptable often take ten or eleven referee requests before you get your two referees.   I have written about the search for referees before so will not dwell on this part of the editing process. On the plus side you get the chance to read things that you might not do normally and, by judicious choice of your editorial board can influence the papers that are submitted to your journal.

How hard is it to be a journal editor? Not as hard as you might think. We certainly don’t do the same job that we used to; the red pen is a thing of the past. To a certain extent we act as filters, deciding which papers we are going to send on to our Associate Editor, so we do have to read everything that is submitted, although some are very easy to ‘instant reject’ and need little more than a cursory skim. The harder ones are those that are perfectly sound but don’t have the right feel for the journal, the ones that you know are going to be rejected but which are perfectly publishable, just not in your journal. In some of these cases you might have to pass it on to an Associate Editor, as with the best will in the world you can’t be an expert in everything.   The Associate Editors choose the referees and make a recommendation to you as the Editor; you then have to read the paper again and see if you agree with his/her recommendation. As an Editor you have to be tougher than your Associate Editors because of space requirements and the fear of a fall in your Impact Factor or submission rate. When I first started editing, Impact Factor was not a consideration; now we are, despite our belief that it is an imperfect metric, all aiming to be the best. We also have pressures from the publishers to increase the speed of our decision-making processes which is why the decision ‘reject and resubmit’ is now becoming increasingly common and ‘major revision’ less common.

Rejections can sometimes result in not only angry emails from rejected authors but also, but not that often, disgruntled Associate Editors. When I first started editing I was more prone to backing down when contacted by an author demanding a recount, especially if it was someone who I knew quite well. I soon learnt though that if you stood your ground firmly it was better for you and the authors, as they were all too often rejected after another round of reviewing. Your friends generally understand this quite soon and as professionals realise that you have to be impartial. That said, I did find it very hard when I found myself rejecting a paper submitted by my old PhD supervisor. He appears to have forgiven me 😉

Do we get paid as editors? It depends on the journal; some pay a fairly generous stipend, but remember most of your editing takes place at home and at weekends, so some compensation is appropriate. The Royal Entomological Society journals don’t pay their editors but do treat them very well and pay for travel to some conferences and meet their registration and accommodation costs at most of their own conferences.

So what qualities are needed to be a journal editor? A thick skin, the ability to make a decision and not to keep asking for yet another opinion; you’re the final arbiter, make that decision and stick with it; the detachment to be impartial and go with the science not with your own personal prejudices or friendships. You also need to be aware of what other journals are doing and be constantly thinking of ways to improve your journal; it is very tempting to think that everything is fine so why change things. Personally I feel that an Editor should step down after about seven years or so as there is a tendency to get very parochial and stuck in a rut. You can definitely get very possessive about ‘your’ journal if you are not careful. [Note to self, I have edited Insect Conservation & Diversity for almost eight years now and I have had an approach from another journal, but I would really miss those Royal Entomological Society Publication Committee meetings ;-)]

Do I regret being an Editor?  Not one little bit. It is actually a great job and one that I can thoroughly recommend to anyone who is offered the chance.

Post script

Apropos of my mention of submitting paper copies to journals, I do feel that authors do not get the same amount of feedback from referees as they used to. Referees who take the time to download a pdf version and annotate and comment directly are definitely in the minority. This means that most referees only comment on the scientific details and all those helpful hints about punctuation and style are omitted. As a referee I do sometimes make suggestions for rewording and overall grammatical suggestions, but line by line editing which I used to do is now a thing of the past.

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Referees – Your Journals Need You!

Editor-in-Chief

I have thought about writing on this subject for a while but it was this Tweet from Britt Koskella http://brittkoskella.wordpress.com/ on the 19th November 2013 that finally stirred me into action.

Britt 1

As an editor (I am for my sins, Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1752-4598)  I love people like Britt.  It is such a joy to be able to select their names from the journal data base and assign them a manuscript, knowing that nine times out of ten they will accept my invitation to review a manuscript and that on that tenth occasion they will very kindly suggest an alternative (sometimes two or three) reviewer who will also almost certainly accept my invitation.  Britt Koskella, I love you and those like you 🙂  My reply to Britt was as follows:

Britt 2

You will have noticed that I confessed to doing too many myself; in fact in addition to those manuscripts that I read as an Editor I do on average, forty to fifty reviews for other journals.  Like Britt I have a hard time saying no.  I am getting better though – I actually turned down two this month 😉

There is a lot of debate at the moment about the peer review process in general with a number of journals adopting an open mass review process and other journals opting for the as long as the science is sound it is publishable approach.  We are, however, mainly, despite its many flaws, still operating on the traditional two referees per paper peer review system.

So how many papers should you referee asks Britt?  The general rule of thumb to entitle you to call yourself a good citizen is to agree to referee two papers for every paper that you submit as that is the minimum number of referees that you would expect to look at your own papers.  To be on the safe side and to feel that you are making a real contribution to your community, I would suggest that a 3:1 ratio is very acceptable.  In my experience as an Editor of two journals and as an Associate Editor on three other journals, there are a number of people who referee many more papers than that and a disturbingly large number of prolific authors whom, as far as I can see, never ever agree to referee papers.

As an Editor, what do I want from a referee?  In a nut-shell, someone who reads the paper thoroughly, checks first that the experimental design and statistical analysis are sound; if the experiment is not designed properly then it doesn’t matter how well the paper is written, it is not worth proceeding with; that the appropriate literature is cited (and by this I don’t just mean the referee’s own papers) and that the paper fits the remit of the journal and advances the subject area significantly.  I also do not want the referee to say how good the paper is in the comments to authors section and to tell me in the confidential comments that it is crap.  If you don’t like it then have the guts to tell the author why, don’t leave it up to the poor Editor to try to explain why he/she is rejecting their paper despite the apparently favourable comments they can see in the referee’s reports.  I also expect total impartiality; you might not agree with what you read but unless the methodology is flawed that is not a reason to reject the paper.  Be open-minded and fair above all.  If you are rejecting a paper, be constructive, authors at the start of their career are not as resistant or as resilient as old timers http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/are-you-resistant-or-resilient-in-the-face-of-rejection/.  Above all be fair, write your report bearing in mind the sort of review that you as an author would like to receive.  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you and that goes double for those of you who don’t referee as many papers as you should!  I am very tempted sometimes to do an instant reject on authors who have turned down my invitation to review a paper, especially if I have just accepted one of theirs.

Post script

I used to run a course for PhD students about getting published and it always used to amaze them that decisions on whether papers were published or not was dependent on the opinions of two to three people.  My response was that if you think that is bad, decisions about grant funding are often made with just as few opinions and those decisions have even greater implications for career prospects.

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How Stephen Jay Gould wrote Macbeth – Not giving credit where it’s due: lazy referencing and ignoring precedence

There are two linked things that really annoy me when I come across them in the scientific literature; first the habit of citing citations within a paper alphabetically rather than chronologically, for example, cereal aphid fecundity is affected by the growth stage of their host plant (Leather & Dixon 1981; Watt, 1979).  Flattering as it is to get my name ahead of my old friend Allan Watt’s by virtue of the position L in the alphabet, my paper was a follow-up to Allan’s and therefore he has scientific precedence and the citation should read (Watt, 1979; Leather & Dixon, 1981).

The second, which is perhaps much more serious, is the habit some authors in recent years have adopted; namely, inappropriate citation of authors in relation to discovery of a particular fact.  So for example, suppose an author writing a paper about barley infestation by cereal aphids, wants to support his/her arguments by saying that barley is probably more susceptible to aphid attack because as it grows quickly there is a trade-off in respect to  reduced plant defences.  Instead of going to a primary source, the author remembers reading in another paper, for sake of this argument, a paper by Rowntree et al., (2010) studying growth of the grain aphid Sitobion avenae on barley, where those authors in their discussion mention that barley is probably poorly defended against herbivory, in turn citing Coley et al., (1985). Our fictional author in his/her paper, now states, “in my experiment barley plants were more susceptible to aphid attack than the slower growing grass, Festuca ovina, probably because plant resistance against herbivory in barley, was reduced due to the trade-off between rapid growth and defensive chemistry (Rowntree et al., 2010)”.  This is of course, a totally inappropriate citation, because a) Rowntree and colleagues did not report any such data and b) the paper by Coley et al., did not deal with barley.  We thus have a totally erroneous chain of citations.  In this case I have invented the whole scenario.  I can assure you however, that as an Editor, referee and reader, I have come across similar erroneous citation chains on many occasions in the recent past and not just in undergraduate student project reports or MSc and PhD theses.

Macbeth

So how could Stephen Jay Gould have written Macbeth, which I am sure you all know is actually by William Shakespeare.  Well, in Dinosaur in a Haystack (Gould, 1996), in an essay entitled Dinomania, Gould quotes the first line of Macbeth’s soliloquy, “If it were done, ‘twere well it were done quickly”.  Now, whilst no scientist, or I hope any scholar, would state in a piece of work, something like “Macbeth wondered if he should kill King Duncan (Gould, 1996)”, many authors seem to have no problems with doing exactly the same sort of thing in their introductions or discussions in scientific papers.  Please, please, check your sources and give credit where it’s due.

Coley, P.D., Bryant, J.P. & Chapin, F.S., (1985) Resource availability and plant herbivore defense Science, 230, 895-899. http://biologylabs.utah.edu/coley/ColeyPubs/07-Res_Avail.pdf

Gould, S.J. (1996)  Dinosaur in a Haystack, Jonathan Cape, London

Rowntree, J. K., A. McVennon & Preziosi, R.F.  (2010). Plant genotype mediates the effects of nutrients on aphids. Oecologia ,163,  675-679. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00442-010-1609-1#page-1

Postscript.  Less serious, but equally annoying (at least to me), and also an example of poor scientific practice, is the habit of only citing work that refers to your own particular study area, and either ignoring or not looking for studies involving the same concepts but for example, involving insects instead of mammals or being too lazy to search the older literature.   I have previously published a short diatribe about this subject (Leather, 2004) so will not repeat myself here.

Leather, S.R. (2004) Reinventing the wheel: on the dangers of taxon parochialism and shallow reference trawling.  Basic & Applied Ecology, 5, 309-311. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S143917910400012X

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