Jabberwocky Ecology

An open letter to Ecology Letters and the British Ecological Society about preprints

UPDATE: Both Ecology Letters and the British Ecological Society journals now allow preprints. Thanks to both groups for listening to the community and supporting the rapid and open exchange of scientific ideas.

Dear Ecology Letters and the British Ecological Society ,

I am writing to ask that you support the scientific good by allowing the submission of papers that have been posted as preprints. I or my colleagues have reached out to you before without success, but I have heard through various grapevines that both of you are discussing this possibility and I want to encourage you to move forward with allowing this important practice.

The benefits of preprints to science are substantial. They include:

  1. More rapid communication and discussion of important scientific results
  2. Improved quality of published research by allowing for more extensive pre-publication peer review
  3. A fair mechanism for establishing precedence that is not contingent the idiosyncrasies of formal peer review
  4. A way for early-career scientists to demonstrate productivity and impact on a time scale that matches their need to apply for postdoctoral fellowships and jobs

I am writing to you specifically because your journals represent the major stumbling block for those of us interested in improving science by posting preprints. Your journals either explicitly do not allow the submission of papers that have preprints posted online or lack explicit statements that it is OK to do so. This means that if there is any possibility of eventually submitting a paper to one of these journals then researchers must avoid posting preprints.

The standard justification that journals give for not allowing preprints is that they constitute “prior publication”. However, this is not an issue for two reasons. First, preprints are not peer reviewed. They are the equivalent of a long established practice in biology of sending manuscripts to colleagues for friendly review and to make them aware of cutting edge work. They simply take advantage of the internet to scale this to larger numbers of colleagues. Second, the vast majority of publication outlets do not believe that preprints represent prior publication, and therefore the publication ethics of the broader field of academic publishing clearly allows this. In particular Science, Nature, PNAS, the Ecological Society of America, the Royal Society, Springer, and Elsevier all generally allow the posting of preprints. Nature even wrote about this policy nearly a decade ago stating that:

Nature never wishes to stand in the way of communication between researchers. We seek rather to add value for authors and the community at large in our peer review, selection and editing… Communication between researchers includes not only conferences but also preprint servers… As first stated in an editorial in 1997, and since then in our Guide to Authors, if scientists wish to display drafts of their research papers on an established preprint server before or during submission to Nature or any Nature journal, that’s fine by us.

If you’d like to learn more about the value of preprints, and see explanations of why some of the other common concerns about preprints are unjustified, some colleagues and I have published a paper on The Case for Open Preprints in Biology.

So, I am asking that for the good of science, and to bring your journals in line with widely accepted publication practices, that you please move quickly to explicitly allow the submission of papers that have been posted as preprints.

Regards,
Ethan White

[Preprint] Nine simple ways to make it easier to (re)use your data

I’m a big fan of preprints, the posting of papers in public archives prior to peer review. Preprints speed up the scientific dialogue by letting everyone see research as it happens, not 6 months to 2 years later following the sometimes extensive peer review process. They also allow more extensive pre-publication peer review because input can be solicited from the entire community of scientists, not just two or three individuals. You can read more about the value of preprints in our preprint about preprints (yes, really) posted on figshare.

In the spirit of using preprints to facilitate broad pre-publication peer review a group of weecologists have just posted a preprint on how to make it easier to reuse data that is shared publicly. Since PeerJ‘s commenting system isn’t live yet we would like to encourage your to provide feedback about the paper here in the comments. It’s for a special section of Ideas in Ecology and Evolution on data sharing (something else I’m a big fan of) that is being organized by Karthik Ram (someone I’m a big fan of).

Our nine recommendations are:

  1. Share your data
  2. Provide metadata
  3. Provide an unprocessed form of the data
  4. Use standard data formats (including file formats, table structures, and cell contents)
  5. Use good null values
  6. Make it easy to combine your data with other datasets
  7. Perform basic quality control
  8. Use an established repository
  9. Use an established and liberal license

Most of this territory has been covered before by a number of folks in the data sharing world, but if you look at the state of most ecological and evolutionary data it clearly bears repeating. In addition, I think that our unique contribution is three fold: 1) We’ve tried hard to stick to relatively simple things that don’t require a huge time commitment to get right; 2) We’ve tried to minimize the jargon and really communicate with the awesome folks who are collecting great data but don’t have much formal background in the best practices of structuring and sharing data; and 3) We contribute the perspective of folks who spend a lot of time working with other people’s data and have therefore encountered many of the most common issues that crop up in ecological and evolutionary data.

So, if you have the time, energy, and inclination, please read the preprint and let us know what you think and what we can do to improve the paper in the comments section.

UPDATE: This manuscript was written in the open on GitHub. You can also feel free to file GitHub issues if that’s more your style.

UPDATE 2: PeerJ has now enabled commenting on preprints, so comments are welcome directly on our preprint as well (https://peerj.com/preprints/7/).

Some alternative advice on how to decide where to submit your paper

Over at Dynamic Ecology this morning Jeremy Fox has a post giving advice on how to decide where to submit a paper. It’s the same basic advice that I received when I started grad school almost 15 years ago and as a result I don’t think it considers some rather significant changes that have happened in academic publishing over the last decade and a half. So, I thought it would be constructive for folks to see an alternative viewpoint. Since this is really a response to Jeremy’s post, not a description of my process, I’m going to use his categories in the same order as the original post and offer my more… youthful… perspective.

  • Aim as high as you reasonably can. The crux of Jeremy’s point is “if you’d prefer for more people to read and think highly of your paper, you should aim to publish it in a selective, internationally-leading journal.” From a practical perspective journal reputation used to be quite important. In the days before easy electronic access, good search algorithms, and social networking, most folks found papers by reading the table of contents of individual journals. In addition, before there was easy access to paper level citation data, and alt-metrics, if you needed to make a quick judgment on the quality of someones science the journal name was a decent starting point. But none of those things are true anymore. I use searches, filtered RSS feeds, Google Scholar’s recommendations, and social media to identify papers I want to read. I do still subscribe to tables of contents via RSS, but I watch PLOS ONE and PeerJ just as closely as Science and Nature. If I’m evaluating a CV as a member of a search committee or a tenure committee I’m interested in the response to your work, not where it is published, so in addition to looking at some of your papers I use citation data and alt-metrics related to your paper. To be sure, there are lots of folks like Jeremy that focus on where you publish to find papers and evaluate CVs, but it’s certainly not all of us.
  • Don’t just go by journal prestige; consider “fit”. Again, this used to mater more before there were better ways to find papers of interest.
  • How much will it cost? Definitely a valid concern, though my experience has been that waivers are typically easy to obtain. This is certainly true for PLOS ONE.
  • How likely is the journal to send your paper out for external review? This is a strong tradeoff against Jeremy’s point about aiming high since “high impact” journals also typically have high pre-review rejection rates. I agree with Jeremy that wasting time in the review process is something to be avoided, but I’ll go into more detail on that below.
  • Is the journal open access? I won’t get into the arguments for open access here, but it’s worth noting that increasing numbers of us value open access and think that it is important for science. We value open access publications so if you want us to “think highly of your paper” then putting it where it is OA helps. Open access can also be important if you “prefer for more people to read… your paper” because it makes it easier to actually do so. In contrast to Jeremy, I am more likely to read your paper if it is open access than if it is published in a “top” journal, and here’s why: I can do it easily. Yes, my university has access to all of the top journals in my field, but I often don’t read papers while I’m at work. I typically read papers in little bits of spare time while I’m at home in the morning or evenings, or on my phone or tablet while traveling or waiting for a meeting to start. If I click on a link to your paper and I hit a paywall then I have to decide whether it’s worth the extra effort to go to my library’s website, log in, and then find the paper again through that system. At this point unless the paper is obviously really important to my research the activation energy typically becomes too great (or I simply don’t have that extra couple of minutes) and I stop. This is one reason that my group publishes a lot using Reports in Ecology. It’s a nice compromise between being open access and still being in a well regarded journal.
  • Does the journal evaluate papers only on technical soundness? The reason that many of us think this approach has some value is simple, it reduces the amount of time and energy spent trying to get perfectly good research published in the most highly ranked journal possible. This can actually be really important for younger researchers in terms of how many papers they produce at certain critical points in the career process. For example, I would estimate that the average amount of time that my group spends getting a paper into a high profile journal is over a year. This is a combination of submitting to multiple, often equivalent caliber, journals until you get the right roll of the dice on reviewers, and the typically extended rounds of review that are necessary to satisfy the reviewers about not only what you’ve done, but satisfying requests for additional analyses that often aren’t critical, and changing how one has described things so that it sits better with reviewers. If you are finishing your PhD then having two or three papers published in a PLOS ONE style journal vs. in review at a journal that filters on “importance” can make a big difference in the prospect of obtaining a postdoc. Having these same papers out for an extra year accumulating citations can make a big difference when applying for faculty positions or going up for tenure if folks who value paper level metrics over journal name are involved in evaluating your packet.
  • Is the journal part of a review cascade? I don’t actually know a lot of journals that do this, but I think it’s a good compromise between aiming high and not wasting a lot of time in review. This is why we think that ESA should have a review cascade to Ecosphere.
  • Is it a society journal? I agree that this has value and it’s one of the reasons we continue to support American Naturalist and Ecology even though they aren’t quite as open as I would personally prefer.
  • Have you had good experiences with the journal in the past? Sure.
  • Is there anyone on the editorial board who’d be a good person to handle your paper? Having a sympathetic editor can certainly increase your chances of acceptance, so if you’re aiming high then having a well matched editor or two to recommend is definitely a benefit.

To be clear, there are still plenty of folks out there who approach the literature in exactly the way Jeremy does and I’m not suggesting that you ignore his advice. In fact, when advising my own students about these things I often actively consider and present Jeremy’s perspective. However, there are also an increasing number of folks who think like I do and who have a very different set of perspectives on these sorts of things. That makes life more difficult when strategizing over where to submit, but the truth is that the most important thing is to do the best science possible and publish it somewhere for the world to see. So, go forth, do interesting things, and don’t worry so much about the details.

UPDATE: More great discussion here, here, here and here. [If I missed yours just let me known in the comments and I”ll add it]

On making my grant proposals open access

As I announced on Twitter about a week ago, I am now making all of my grant proposals open access. To start with I’m doing this for all of my sole-PI proposals, because I don’t have to convince my collaborators to participate in this rather aggressively open style of science. At the moment this includes three funded proposals: my NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship proposal, an associated Research Starter Grant proposal, and my NSF CAREER award.

So, why am I doing this, especially with the CAREER award that still has several years left on it and some cool ideas that we haven’t worked on yet. I’m doing it for a few reasons. First, I think that openness is inherently good for science. While there may be benefits for me in keeping my ideas secret until they are published, this certainly doesn’t benefit science more broadly. By sharing our proposals the cutting edge of scientific thought will no longer be hidden from view for several years and that will allow us to make more rapid progress. Second, I think having examples of grants available to young scientists has the potential to help them learn how to write good proposals (and other folks seem to agree) and therefore decrease the importance of grantsmanship relative to cool science in the awarding of limited funds. Finally, I just think that folks deserve to be able to see what their tax dollars are paying for, and to be able to compare what I’ve said I will do to what I actually accomplish. I’ve been influenced in my thinking about this by posts by several of the big open science folks out there including Titus Brown, Heather Piwowar, and Rod Page.

To make my grants open access I chose to use figshare for several reasons.

  1. Credit. Figshare assigns a DOI to all of its public objects, which means that you can easily cite them in scientific papers. If someone gets an idea out of one of my proposals and works on it before I do, this let’s them acknowledge that fact. Stats are also available for views, shares, and (soon) citations, making it easier to track the impact of your larger corpus of research outputs.
  2. Open Access. All public written material is licensed under CC-BY (basically just cite the original work) allowing folks to do cool things without asking.
  3. Permanence. I can’t just change my mind and delete the proposal and I also expect that figshare will be around for a long time.
  4. Version control. For proposals that are not funded, revised, not funded, revised, etc. figshare allows me to post multiple versions of the proposal while maintaining the previous versions for posterity/citation.

During this process I’ve come across several other folks doing similar things and even inspired others to post their proposals, so I’m in the process of compiling a list of all of the publicly available biology proposals that I’m aware of and will post a list with links soon. It’s my hope that this will serve as a valuable resource for young and old researchers alike and will help to lead the way forward to a more open scientific dialogue.

Daily Routines [Things you should read]

I just restumbled over the Daily Routines blog. The blog is about “how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days” and is basically just excerpts from interviews with famous creative folks. The blog appears to be “on hold” pending an upcoming book, but I definitely recommend pulling it up some lazy afternoon and working your way through how some of the most creative people around structure their days.

I think we make things that we like and… [Quote]

I think we make things that we like and that we think our friends would like, and we cross our fingers and hope that enough other people like it that we can earn a living. Rather than trying to guess, ‘What is it that the American public wants right now and let’s see if we can give it to them.’

Aaron Sorkin

Creativity = Science + Writing

A group of 5th and 6th graders where asked to define either “science” or “writing” and when the answers were combined this definition of creativity was the result. In scientific education, and as we conduct scientific research, we often lose track of the fact that creativity is critical to the scientific process. This is a great reminder of its importance.