A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next two questions, from Andy Park:
- For undergraduate courses in which students are expected to read journal articles, are you finding it harder to find current papers that are relatively easy for an undergraduate to follow? The statistics in current papers are getting more complex.
- On the same theme: how many studies are being published these days in which the statistics are a black box to many of the authors?
Brian: I call this statistical machismo. I’ll go you one better. It’s increasingly hard to find papers that ecology faculty or ecology graduate students can read or understand. I teach an advanced graduate stats course. And one of the things I always point out to students is that they now know more statistics than 95% of their readers and communicating with your reader is more important than slight improvements in statistics. A t-test or regression goes a long ways. I think one problem is many people feel like if a paper has fancier statistics it is somehow a better paper. But that is ridiculous (if a statistical method appears in the title it should be a serious warning sign). Your experimental (or observational) design and inference is what makes a great ecology paper. In fact you could argue, the worse the design, the fancier the statistics you need just to save it.
And to your second point. Yes I am convinced that R has made it easy enough to access complex statistics that people who have no idea what the software is doing and whether what they’re using it for is appropriate are running it and publishing it. I hope to have more on this theme this fall.
Jeremy: Re: your #1, why do the undergrads need to read newly-published papers? I think for most bits of ecology, study design, and statistics that you’d want to teach to undergrads, you’ll be able to find examples they can comprehend from the recent-ish literature (so, not so old as to be totally outdated). I suppose the exception might be an upper-level undergraduate seminar on “current topics in ecology”; my undergraduate college had such a course. But even there, I bet with a bit of effort you could find papers using fairly simple stats.
Also, what I sometimes do for lab exercises in biostats courses is to give students simplified versions of datasets and analyses that figured in recently-published papers. For instance, right now the undergrads in my advanced biostats course are learning GLMs using a simplified version of the dataset of Waldron et al. 2017 Nature. They’re not reading the paper itself, but I’m giving them a synopsis and just enough background information to understand the scientific question and how to address it with GLMs.