Monthly Archives: July 2010
We have a postdoc position available for someone interested in the general areas of macroecology, quantitative ecology, and ecoinformatics. Here’s the short ad with links to the full job description:
Ethan White’s lab at Utah State University is looking for a postdoc to collaborate on research studying approaches for unifying macroecological patterns (e.g., species abundance distributions and species-area relationships) and predicting variation in these patterns using ecological and environmental variables. The project aims to 1) evaluate the performance of models that link ecological patterns by using broad scale data on at least three major taxonomic groups (birds, plants, and mammals); and 2) combine models with ecological and environmental factors to explain continental scale variation in community structure. Models to be explored include maximum entropy models, neutral models, fractal based models, and statistical models. The postdoc will also be involved in an ecoinformatics initiative developing tools to facilitate the use of existing ecological data. There will be ample opportunity for independent and collaborative research in related areas of macroecology, community ecology, theoretical ecology, and ecoinformatics. The postdoc will benefit from interactions with researchers in Dr. White’s lab, the Weecology Interdisciplinary Research Group, and with Dr. John Harte’s lab at the University of California Berkeley. Applicants from a variety of backgrounds including ecology, mathematics, statistics, physics and computer science are encouraged to apply. The position is available for 1 year with the possibility for renewal depending on performance, and could begin as early as September 2010 and no later than May 2011. Applications will begin to be considered starting on September 1, 2010. Go to the USU job page to see the full advertisement and to apply.
If you’re interested in the position and are planning to be at ESA please leave a comment or drop me an email (email@example.com) and we can try to set up a time to talk while we’re in Pittsburgh. Questions about the position and expressions of interest are also welcome.
UPDATE: This position has been filled.
The peer review system has recently been under increasing pressure as the number of papers submitted has been skyrocketing. Jeremy Fox and Owen Petchey have recently proposed a new system for fixing this, so called, “tragedy of the reviewer commons.” The crux of the argument is that for every paper a researcher submits they must review three papers in exchange (thus balancing the review load imposed by each submitted paper). A centralized PubCred bank would keep track of reviews, submissions and the balance of credits for each researcher.
At first look this seems like kind of a cool idea and I’ve seen a recent surge of interest in it via email and an enthusiatic post over at i’m a chordata urochordata. However, there are, as I see it, two major challenges for this type of system. The first is that in order to make it function properly there have to be a bunch of detailed rules in place for special circumstances. The authors of the proposal address some of these and acknowledge that there will be others†. But who should make these rules? Certainly we won’t all agree on the best solutions (e.g., I think that forcing reviewers to rereview manuscripts without additional credit, as proposed, is dangerous and likely to lead to increasingly poor editorial practice*), so who decides. I,for one, would be loathe to hand this responsibility off to the publishers‡, so I guess we’ll need some sort of council of researchers, from across a breadth of disciplines and countries, preferably elected in some sort of democratic process and then they can meet and vote on the rules. That sounds difficult to setup and organize, but we are talking about a group that is going to control a major aspect of the scientific process, so we’d better do it right.
The other major challenge is setting up the actual technical aspects of the system. Fox & Petchey suggest that given currently available web technology that the basic setup should be no more than three person-months, and that sounds about right to me for the basic site. But it ignores some important complexities. The most serious of these is the lack of a universal author identification system. There are tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of individuals contributing to the writing and review of papers across disciplines and this will lead to numerous instances where authors/reviewers have similar/identical names. There are initiatives underway to address this problem (primarily motivated by search issues), but none of them is complete and we are probably years away from an agreed upon standard within disciplines (let alone among them). Until such a system becomes established it is difficult to understand how PubCreds could properly operate. I suppose the PubCred system could try to take on this responsibility itself, but I suspect that the political realities of numerous groups competing to provide this service will make that complicated. In addition we would presumably need to consider a secure solution for validating payments from non-lead authors (in the proposal authors are allowed to split up the “cost” of review however they deem appropriate). If this is really going to be such a valuable currency as to solve the reviewer issue then it will be valuable enough to generate unseemly behavior. Maybe a simple email confirmation process would suffice, but we need something to prevent the lead author from unilaterally deciding on how to divide up the cost. Regardless, my point is simply that while the basic system is easy, if we are going to use this to literally govern whether or not a (potentially important) scientific paper can be submitted, then the system needs to be about as robust as a banking system, and accounting for complex contingencies and putting together appropriate security makes this quite a bit more than a 3 person-month job.
So I guess we’d better get to work, because to do this properly is going to take a lot of organization and some serious effort. Or, we could just “privatize the reviewer commons” in exactly the same way we “privatize” everything else. We could use money. This has already been proposed quite eloquently in an editorial by Lonnie Aarssen (and he even implemented this idea for a while at his new journal – IEE; see also the follow up editorial) that we’ve discussed here before. The current proposal discounts this possibility because:
…a fee-to-submit system would disadvantage authors who lack the means to pay, might require exorbitant payments in order to attract referees who would not otherwise agree to serve, likely would cause authors to avoid journals charging submission fees, and would require frequent currency exchange due to the international nature of science.
I consider the first three points to be logically flawed relative to the proposed system for the following reasons (in the same order as the original objections):
- We’re all broke in PubCred land. We all start with zero credits and have to earn enough to submit manuscripts. If we replace credits with a fixed payment – fixed fee system where each reviewer is paid one third of the cost of a submission for each review then this is exactly the same situation as if I have $0 in my bank account. I have to review 3 papers to have earned enough money to submit one.
- It doesn’t matter how high these numbers have to get because they are offset by the cost of submitting a paper.
- Just like the proposed PubCred system, this only works if a large number of powerful journals are involved in a coordinated manner. Clearly having a small number of journals implement either system will lead to authors simply avoiding those journals (as happened to IEE when it tried implementing the money based system).
So, it seems to me that a simple logical substitution of dollars for credits negates all but one of the supposed objections to a monetarily based system. The final point related to currency exchange simply seems inconsequential.
In addition to being more straightforward than implementing a new PubCred system, I think that a monetary approach has an additional advantage. It allows the market to operate on the peer review system. I’m sure that I haven’t even begun to imagine all of the ways that the market could influence peer review, but here’s a short list of things that come to mind:
- Great reviewers could be rewarded more than mediocre reviewers. PubCred treats reviews dichotomously. They are either good enough for credit or not. But we all know that reviews and reviewers don’t just fall into two groups, so why not reward reviewers on a sliding scale. Each journal can keep track of the quality of reviews and use that information to decide how much to offer a reviewer to entice them to review.
- Journals that want papers reviewed faster can offer higher payments to entice reviewers.
- Top journals that want more reviewers can charge higher submission fees to cover the expense.
- Down the road this potentially provides an avenue for appropriately charging for-profit journals for the massive amount of… free… labor upon which they rely to make large profits.
- Funding agencies and universities could potentially stop funding publication costs.
In conclusion I should say that I am super impressed with Fox & Petchey for being some of the first folks out there to actually put forth a serious suggestion for fixing the current problems with peer review and I think that they have (with an appropriately long lead-time and substantial up-front investment) come up with a system that would actual work. It’s just that overall it seems like there is a much simpler approach available. Take their approach, replace each credit with a fixed number of dollars (to start), and as a result get rid of all of the decision making and infrastructure.
UPDATE: Owen Petchey’s name is now spelled correctly. Sorry Owen.
†Even the most basic rule of a 3:1 ratio of reviews to submissions seems like it should be a topic of discussion. What about journals like Science and Nature that due to an abundance of caution often get 3-5 reviews on a manuscript instead of the standard 2. Because the current proposal does not allow different journals to charge different numbers of credits for submissions or provide less credit for reviews, journals that utilize more reviewers will put a burden on the system (NB: editors also receive credit for managing manuscripts so the 3:1 ratio is really appropriate for a standard 2 reviewer system). So, should the ratio be increased to 4:1 or 5:1 or should journals be given flexibility with regards to credits and/or payments?
*We here at JE have noticed an increasing trend of late in the number of re-reviews requested and an apparent unwillingness on the part of some editors to take the time to evaluate whether the changes recommended by the reviewer have been provided. Instead they simply keep sending the paper back to the original reviewers until they have no comments left. This slows down the system, wastes reviewer time and motivation, frustrates authors, and under the proposed system there is no disincentive to stop editors from doing this ad nauseum – the reviewer has no recourse because if they don’t complete the potentially never ending re-reviews they receive no credit.
‡Who are in most cases motivated more by profit margins than the good of science. This is perfectly reasonable given that in the vast majority of cases they are private corporations, but it means that we don’t want them being the ones who are making critical decisions that would have large impacts on the scientific process.
Some days I really wonder whether the bureaucratic infrastructure at institutions of higher education has any idea whatsoever that their job is to support the research and teaching missions of the university.
Successfully doing creative science is hard. The further along you get in a research career the more things are competing for your time and energy and the more distracted you are from your primary goals. This distraction becomes increasingly problematic when it distracts your subconscious as well as your conscious mind. A short post by Paul Graham does an excellent job of describing why this is the case and how you can manage access to that creative part of your brain. In particular he recommends minimizing the amount of time spent chasing money and being involved in disputes. These are both things that we end up doing a lot of in academia and in my experience Graham is right about their ability to consume the productive thought processes we rely on. I also love this quote from Newton:
I see I have made myself a slave to Philosophy, but if I get free of Mr Linus’s business I will resolutely bid adew to it eternally, excepting what I do for my private satisfaction or leave to come out after me. For I see a man must either resolve to put out nothing new or become a slave to defend it.
(via James Horey)
Our inaugural Things you should read post is about Brian McGill’s new paper on unifying unified theories of macroecological patterns.
One of the major challenges to understanding ecology is that there are so many different ways to characterize the structure of ecological systems. This means that we spread our intellectual efforts across a large number of different questions making progress in any given area relatively slow. In recent years the field has begun to recognize that many of these patterns are related to one another meaning that understanding ecological structure may be simpler than we thought. This has resulted in the publication of a number of theories that appear to successfully predict multiple ecological patterns. McGill’s contribution is to recognize that all of these theories are successful because they produce three simple things:
- Spatial aggregation of individuals within species
- A broad scale distribution of abundances with many rare species and few common species
- And independent occurrence of individuals of different species
Instead of claiming that this simply makes ecology null and uninteresting McGill recognizes that it just simplifies our challenge and makes a general understanding of many ecological patterns something that might be tractable. The challenge for (macro)ecologists is now to understand the three patterns above along with patterns of species richness and total community abundance. Go read.