Last week I polled readers on whether they shared my impression that general ecology journals only want to publish “realistic” theory, meaning theories tightly linked to data. I also asked readers if they thought general ecology journals should only publish realistic theory.
The answers were loud and clear: yes to my first question, no to my second.
We’ve gotten 102 responses as of this writing (about 24 h after the poll went up), and from past experience we know that the results won’t change much since most responses come in the first 24 h. It’s not a random sample from any well-defined population, obviously. But it’s large enough to be more than anecdotal, I think.
Respondents were a balanced mix of ecologists who primarily do empirical work (37%), theory (29%), or a mix (32%).
Almost everyone either shares my impression that general ecology journals (besides Am Nat) only want to publish “realistic” theory (43%), or isn’t sure (48%). Only 8% disagree with my impression.
Only 10% think general ecology journals should only publish “realistic” theory. The vast majority (80%) disagree. Another 9% aren’t sure.
Looking at the crosstabs, those who think that general ecology journals only want to publish realistic theory skew towards theoreticians (39%) and people who do both theory and empirical work (41%); only 20% are empiricists. Those who said “not sure” are disproportionately empiricists. And most (8/10) people who think that general ecology journals should only publish “realistic” theory are empiricists. The other 2/10 do both; none are theoreticians.
As discussed in the comments in the previous post, it’s not actually clear if general ecology journals are in fact only interested in publishing realistic theory. It might be a case of author perception becoming reality to some extent. And not all unrealistic theory is created equal; some of it really isn’t of wide interest to ecologists (the same is true of any sort of work, of course). See the excellent comments from Andre de Roos, a theoretician and an editor at Ecology, for what he looks for in theoretical papers submitted to Ecology. But even if general ecology journals only have a perception problem, I think that’s still a problem. You don’t want authors seeing you as unwelcoming to papers that you’d actually welcome.
Not sure what can be done about this. But the fact that most ecologists don’t like this perceived state of affairs would seem to provide an opportunity. A general ecology journal that manages to convincingly signal its receptivity to good theoretical work might reasonably expect to start attracting more of it–work that would otherwise go to specialized theoretical journals. That could be an attractive proposition to both the journal, and to the authors, who presumably want to reach a broad audience*. Convincing signals might include running special features on theoretical work, and publishing theory papers from the journal’s editors.** Andre for instance notes that he publishes his theoretical work in general ecology journals, including Ecology.
*Of course, insofar as people doing “pure” theoretical work see their audience as comprising other theoreticians, they’re going to keep submitting to theoretical journals whether or not they see general ecology journals as receptive to “pure” theoretical work.
**Not that any journal wants to be a house organ for its editors, obviously. But if the theoreticians on the journal’s own editorial board don’t see the journal as an outlet for their own work, why should anyone else?