Thoughts on the ASN Young Investigator Awards (UPDATED)

Recently, I had the privilege of serving with David Pfennig (Chair) and Rebecca Safran on the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hill Young Investigator Award (YIA) committee. The award goes to investigators less than 3 years post-Ph.D. for promising, outstanding research in any field covered by the ASN. The award winners have just been announced. Serving on the committee was a very rewarding experience. It also provided an interesting little window into changing research and authorship practices in evolution, ecology, and behavior. Including how things aren’t changing, even though everyone thinks they are…

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Where do ideas come from, and what counts as “novel”?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend


During my very first research experience in ecology (mid-1990s), Graham Bell, a famous evolutionary biologist, talked about the forest plants we were studying as if they were essentially just large and slow versions of the algae multiplying rapidly in the highly simplified test tubes of his lab. The other undergraduate field assistants and I (the “Carex crew”) – all of us thrilled to have paid jobs to tromp about in Wild Nature – felt that this perspective sucked all the beauty and wonder out of the forest that we so loved. But it stuck with me.

This is a second guest post expanding upon thoughts and some personal reflections that arose while I wrote a book on community ecology during sabbatical last year. The first post is here, and I couldn’t help noticing that it was given the tag of “New Ideas” by Jeremy. Hmmm…I wonder how we decide whether an idea is “new”? I think the answer has rather important implications for how we judge papers and the scientists that write them. All the top journals want “novelty”, but what is that exactly? And where do ideas come from in the first place?

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Should you care (much) if you make our Friday linkfest?

Margaret Kosmala has a “secret” goal for her new ecology blog:

My secret goal is to get picked up by Dynamic Ecology’s Friday links at least once a month.

I’m sincerely flattered that Margaret would set this as a goal. And while I don’t know of anyone else who’s ever set “make the Dynamic Ecology linkfest on a regular basis” as a goal, I do occasionally see people tweeting how happy and even honored they are at making our linkfest. But besides feeling flattered, I have slightly mixed feelings. (attention conservation notice: brief navel-gazing post ahead)

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Chill out about Jingmai O’Connor’s criticism of bloggers (UPDATEDx2)

Today in Things the Science Twitterverse is Predictably Upset About: paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor’s interview in Current Biology in which she says that

Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog.

I was going to comment on this in the Friday linkfest, but I decided I had enough to say that wasn’t already being said on Twitter that I’d turn it into a post. It’s an experiment–this is the first time I’ve ever tried to use the blog to intervene in a social media firestorm in real time.

tl;dr: Chill out, everybody. Yes, she’s wrong, but it’s not a big deal. She’s probably just overgeneralizing from her own experiences, and you’re being unfair if you’re ripping her, rather than merely disagreeing with her.

(UPDATE 2: Definitely looks like she’s speaking from personal experience in that interview; see the comments. I think this is useful context, but delving further into the personal context here would get us away from a discussion of broader issues. So in the interests of a productive comment thread, I ask that future commenters stick to general issues rather than focusing on O’Connor’s personal experiences.)

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Let’s identify all the zombie ideas in ecology!

As regular readers know, I worry a lot about zombie ideas–ideas that should be dead, but aren’t. Zombie ideas are the most important failures of science’s self-correction mechanisms: they’re big, widespread errors or misconceptions that aren’t recognized as such. Over the years, I and our guest posters have identified several zombie ideas in ecology:

The intermediate disturbance hypothesis

r/K selection

Species interactions are stronger and more specialized in the tropics

Humped diversity-productivity relationships

“Neutral” = “dispersal-limited”

“Neutral” = “drift”

Local-regional richness relationships (specifically, the ideas that linear ones are ubiquitous, and that linear ones show that colonization not local species interactions controls local community membership)

And we’re starting to see folks identify other candidate zombie ideas in other venues. For instance, Luke Harmon thinks the notion of ecological limits on continental scale species richness is a zombie idea. I don’t agree, but I can see the argument. Peter Abrams thinks ratio-dependent predation is a zombie idea, though I’d call it a lost cause. Terry McGlynn just listed a couple from his own fields of entomology and tropical biology (three-toed sloths are Cecropia specialists; canopy ants are dominant because of their high-sugar diet).

Here’s my question to you: Is that it? Are those the only zombie ideas in ecology? Or are there others, shambling around unrecognized, eating the brains of the next generation of students even as we speak?* Tell us in the comments: What are the other zombie ideas in ecology?

Remember, zombie ideas are widespread errors. We’re not looking for personal criticisms of individual scientists here, and no such criticism is implied by discussion of zombie ideas. Having proposed or supported a zombie idea doesn’t make anyone a bad scientist. Science is hard and we all get things wrong sometimes.

p.s. I can’t believe I never thought of this post idea before!

*Textbooks are a refuge for zombie ideas.

Axios Review continues to take off; you should try it

As many of you know, I’m on the board of Axios Review, an independent editorial board for ecology and evolution. For a modest fee, Axios Review helps authors improve their mss by providing independent reviews, just like at a journal. We then help authors refer the ms to the best-fitting and highest-impact journals. The fact that the ms comes with independent reviews attached is a huge plus in the eyes of the journal receiving the referral, and minimizes time wasted by repeated rounds of rejection and resubmission (see here for details on how it all works).* It’s a win-win for authors, journals, and science as a whole. I think it’s a great idea, which is why I joined the board and why I’ve used the service once myself (see also).

Managing Editor and founder Tim Vines just updated the editorial board on the growth of Axios Review in 2015, and with his permission I’m sharing the good news.

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How much time should you spend reading scholarly literature? (a poll)

Meg’s recent post on #365papers inspired lots of questions and comments (and other blog posts). It led into questions about what kind of papers, how to read them (skim vs in detail), how to choose them, etc. But it led me to wonder if there was a consensus opinion on the even more basic question of how much time we should be spending on reading papers (and scholarly books such as monographs or others aimed at graduate students and above)? Continue reading

Trying to understand ecological data without mechanistic models is a waste of time

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Greg Dwyer.


Jeremy invited me to do a guest post because he saw my 2014 ESA Ignite talk, in which I argued that data are almost worthless without some connection to mechanistic models (Jeremy posted interesting comments on the session shortly after it happened).   That statement is a little stronger than what I actually believe, but the status of mechanistic models in ecology is so weak that it is hard for me to avoid losing my patience when confronting ecological research that is unconnected to an explicit model.   For the purposes of this essay, I am therefore going to stand by my talk title: Trying to understand ecological data without mechanistic models is a waste of time.   I think that the only caveat that I would add would be “except in cases where the underlying question is too trivial to be interesting.”

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