Tag Archives: tyranny of the new

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


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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