Jabberwocky Ecology

A message to journal editors/managers about RSS feeds

  1. If you don’t have an easily accessible RSS feed available (and by easily accessible I mean in the browser’s address bar on your journal’s main page) for your journal’s Table of Contents (TOCs), there is a certain class of readers who will not keep track of you TOCs. This is because receiving this information via email is outdated and inefficient and if you are in the business of content delivery it is, at this point, incompetent for you to not have this option (it’s kind of like not having a website 10 years ago).
  2. If, for some technophobic reason, you refuse to have an RSS feed, then please, pretty please with suger on top, don’t hide the ability to subscribe to the TOCs behind a username/password wall. All you need is a box for people to add their email addresses to for subscribing and a prominent unsubscribe link in the emails (if you are really paranoid you can add a confirmation email with a link that needs to be followed to confirm the subscription).
  3. Most importantly. Please, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, DO NOT START AN RSS FEED AND THEN STOP UPDATING IT. Those individuals who track a large number of feeds in their feed readers will not notice that you stopped updating your feed for quite some time. You are losing readers when you do this.
  4. If you have an RSS feed that is easily accessible (congratulations, you’re ahead of many Elsevier journals) please try to maximize the amount of information it provides. There are three critical pieces of information that should be included in every TOCs feed:
    1. The title (you all manage to do this one OK)
    2. All of the authors’ names. Not just the first author. Not just the first and last author. All of the authors. Seriously, part of the decision making process when it comes to choosing whether or not to take a closer look at a paper is who the authors are. So, if you want to maximize the readership of papers, include all of the authors’ names in the RSS feed.
    3. The abstract. I cannot fathom why you would exclude the abstract from your feed, other than to generate click throughs to your website. Since those of you doing this (yes, Ecology, I’m talking about you) aren’t running advertising, this isn’t a good reason, since you can communicate the information just as well in the feed (and if you’re using website visits as some kind of metric, don’t worry, you can easily track how many people are subscribed to your feed as well).

If this seems a bit harsh, whiny, etc., then keep this in mind. In the last month I had over 1000 new publications come through my feed reader and another 100 or so in email tables of contents. This is an incredible amount of material just to process, let alone read. If journals want readers to pay attention to their papers it is incumbent upon them to make it as easy as possible to sort through this deluge of information and allow their readership to quickly and easily identify papers of interest. Journals that don’t do this are hurting themselves as well as their readers.

A quote and some random thoughts on plagarism

During the course of this long volume I have undoubtedly plagiarized from many sources–to use the ugly term that did not bother Shakespeare’s age. I doubt whether any criticism or cultural history has ever been written without such plagiary, which inevitably results from assimilating the contributions of your countless fellow-workers, past and present. The true function of scholarship as a society is not to stake out claims on which others must not trespass, but to provide a community of knowledge in which others may share.

-F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance 1941.

Thanks to academhack for pointing me to this great quote. Given the spirit of the quote I don’t think he’ll mind me reposting it. I find this to be a particularly relevant in light of recent discussion about tracking down self-plagarism and how grave an offense it may be. I’m not saying that self, and regular, plagarism aren’t serious issues. I’ve been involved in reporting a case of self-plagarism myself and it’s disturbing when you see it. It’s also clearly bad for science. It clutters the already crowded literature, has a negative influence on broader perceptions regarding the ethics of scientists, and results in undue credit (which presumably influences funding and promotion). That said, I think it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. We are, after all, in the business of ideas. Words are important for communicating those ideas, but the ideas themselves are the currency of interest. Our ideas are influenced by everyone we talk to, colored by every paper we’ve ever read and talk we’ve ever seen. The goal of science is (or at least should be) to progress our knowledge as rapidly as possible. I think that conversations surrounding plagarism, and what it means in this new era, should start from this core goal and proceed from there.

A catch 22 of length limits in publication

It is increasingly common for journals to employ fairly strict length limits on submissions. I’m actually a big fan of this. I feel that the most important points of most manuscripts will fit into 6-8 published pages and details that only a small fraction of an already small readership will be interested in can easily be placed in online supplements. Keeping papers short forces authors to write succinctly and makes it easier to manage the overwhelming amount of literature being published every year.

That said, I’ve recently been running into a catch 22 with respect to these limits. The issue stems from the fact that in order to make a full blown research paper short, you have to make some tough decisions. In the course of conducting your research you’ve almost certainly explored more ideas and checked out more details than will fit in 6-8 printed pages, so you can’t include it all. Making these decisions is a good thing. It forces the authors to focus on what’s really critical to the paper. This can be a difficult task to learn but it is important for effective scientific communication in the modern era.

The catch 22 occurs because reviewers almost always request that additional information be added to manuscripts. Sometimes this information is important, but often it is not necessary to the manuscript and includes such things as analyses that are largely tangential, more discussion of the reviewers area of research, more citations, etc. The reviewers almost never consider the length issue (which is OK) so they don’t typically recommend anything to remove, and the the AE sends the paper back with a form letter asking the authors to incorporate the reviewer comments. The authors do this because they want the paper to be accepted and send it back but… oops… now the paper is too long. So, for the paper to be submitted to and published in the journal it has to be shorter than the limit, but in order for it to be accepted it has to be longer than the limit.

In a recent experience at Ecology satisfying the reviewer comments caused the manuscript to go from being the length of a Report to being the length of an Article. This would have meant that that the article was no longer open access and would have cost us an additional $1000 for the color figures (color is free for Reports). Fortunately the Managing Editor and I got it worked out with some last minute trimming (David Baldwin is a really nice guy btw). In an even more classic catch 22 (with a journal whose name I will leave out to protect the guilty) we were asked by a reviewer to move material from the supplement to the body of the ms. We made this change, which caused us to go over the figure limit, and then the journal wouldn’t even allow us to resubmit. They unsubmitted our ms and told us to cut down to the appropriate number of figures. It was awesome.

So if we’re going to keep these strict length limits in place for revisions as well as original submissions, and I think we should, then the burden falls on the AEs to consider the length limits of the submission when requesting revisions. If the AEs could provide guidence to the authors when a revision is requested as to whether they deem particular additions of sufficient importance to cut something else, and if so, provide some guidence as to what should be cut, I think it would take care of this problem. But, that is probably a lot to ask, so until then I guess I’ll just keep combining two figures into a single two-panel figure and tightening my writing (which always seems to have space to give).

Why senior authorship is bad for ecology (and probably science in general)

I’ve been giving a fair bit of thought recently to the concept of “senior authorship”. Senior authorship is the practice whereby the last position on an author line is occupied by the leader of the lab in which the project was conducted (i.e., the P.I., the advisor, whatever terminology you prefer). Being the senior author on a paper is considered a sign of leadership on the project and is arguably at least as prestigious as being the first author. The importance of this position on the line is illustrated by the fact that Nature in its RSS feed lists the senior author, not the first author, on the ‘by line’ for the abstract. This practice is commonplace (i.e., practically required) in the cellular, molecular & biomedical fields, and is becoming increasingly prevalent in ecology.

This practice might make a certain amount of sense in traditional lab environments where it is practically impossible to do research without grant money and where most work is conducted primarily by members of a single lab, but it makes a lot less sense in ecology. For starters, many graduate student projects don’t depend on grant support from the advisor: field projects are done on the cheap with only small dollar support directly to the graduate student, increasing amounts of research are based on already collected data, and theory plays a prevalent role. Certainly advisors still play important roles in these projects (well, some of them anyway), but not necessarily in some way that is inherently different than that of other contributors.

But whether or not the advisor/PI “deserves” special recognition for projects conducted entirely by members of their labs isn’t the real issue. The real issue is that ecology is increasingly a collaborative science. Ecology is increasingly so interdisciplinary that it is difficult or impossible for a single lab to conduct the most interesting research on its own. Numerous projects combine field work and genetics, field work and theory or advanced statistical analysis, work on multiple major taxonomic groups, etc. The best way to conduct this type of research is for there to be collaboration among labs with different areas of expertise and this practice is increasingly common. But if several labs and therefore several faculty members are involved in a project then who should be senior author?

I have been involved in this type of collaboration and this issue can, in some cases, lead to substantial tension regarding who should be the senior author. I’ve had friends who have had similar experiences as well. These always get sorted out, and if you’re working with the right people there are no hard feelings in the end, but does it even make any sense to elevate one faculty member who has done just a little bit more than another to a position that conotes to the wider world a completely different level of contribution? The logical answer is simply no. In fact this is what causes the resulting tension in the first place. If the issue was who should be second or third author it wouldn’t be such a big deal because there is a level of gradation to the contributions, but senior authorship is completely distinct from all other positions. This doesn’t reflect the reality of cross-laboratory collaboration (except in some very specific circumstances) and it shouldn’t be reflected in the author line.

Now, I don’t care much about author order personally (unless someone else is trying to take a position they clearly don’t deserve), but I’m actually really concerned about this issue. The reason is that I suspect that the increasing emphasis on senior authorship that I’ve been seeing in ecology (an increasing prevalence in its practice, distinction of senior authorship for promotion and tenure, etc.) is actually going to decrease the number of truly collaborative cross-lab projects, just when we need them the most. Increasing pressure for faculty to be the senior author on papers can only lead them to spend less time working on projects where they will not (or risk not) being senior author. This means both not starting collaborative projects and also investing less in those collaborative projects when they do start them (I’ve heard a disturbing number of young faculty say things that support this possibility recently).

I suspect that these kinds of problems have impeded cross-disciplinary research in other fields, but I fear that the concept of senior authorship may be so ingrained in those fields that it may be too late to change it. In contrast, in ecology we still have a chance to insist that our discipline maintains its traditional approach to authorship where the author line is ordered from start to finish with respect to contribution. I believe that this will foster the cross-lab interdisciplinary collaborations that are so critical to understanding ecology and ecological challenges. Or, we can let the tail wag the dog and accept measures of personal success that impede scientific progress. The choice is up to you.