At last year’s ESA meeting there was some discussion among members of the Theoretical Ecology section about how, with the exception of Am Nat, leading general ecology journals seem not to publish much theory. And further, that general ecology journals increasingly seem to demand that the theory they do publish be “realistic”. Meaning in practice that there needs to be data supporting the assumptions, estimating (or at least constraining) the model parameter values, and/or testing the model’s predictions.
Which seems problematic, at least to me.* I think leading general ecology journals should seek to publish the best work that ecologists do, including theoretical work. It’s not true that only “realistic” theory is of interest to empiricists, with “pure” theory belonging in theory journals. I don’t think it’s fair to expect theoreticians to test their own models, but not expect empiricists to develop their own models. And think of all the important theoretical papers that rightly have a had a big influence on all of ecology without being “realistic”. Bob May’s work on chaos. The Rosenzweig-MacArthur model. Charnov’s marginal value theorem of optimal foraging. Many others. Yes, I know that none of those were published in general ecology journals–but the idea that they couldn’t or shouldn’t have been because they weren’t “realistic” (in the sense of being tightly linked to data) bothers me.
I wonder if the issue here isn’t just an empiricism-vs.-theory thing. I wonder if some of it also reflects the increasing popularity of models over theory in ecology. I wonder if we’re so keen to link models and data, and getting so good at it, that we’re coming to see models not linked to data as either of little value, or as some separate thing that belongs in its own journals.
I’m curious about whether you share my admittedly-anecdotal impression here, and if so, whether you think it’s a bad thing. So here’s a little three-question poll, which I encourage both theoreticians and non-theoreticians to take:
*Although I admit that, when serving as a reviewer for general ecology journals, on at least one occasion I’ve asked authors of a theory paper to add in data demonstrating the real-world applicability of their approach.