The trouble with citing “recent calls” for more work on X as a reason for working on X

One of your most important tasks as an author of an ecology paper or grant is to explain why your work (or your proposed work, in the case of a grant) is interesting and important. Why should others pay attention to/fund/emulate/etc. whatever it is you’re doing, as opposed to paying attention to/fund/emulating something else?

One common way ecologists make the case that their work is interesting and important is to cite others who’ve recently called for more of that sort of work. You can see why ecologists do this. We’d all like to be able to say that we’re doing the sort of work that everyone agrees most needs doing right now.

The trouble is, we all can say that–and all of us are equally right. Meaning we’re all equally wrong. Because the recent literature includes calls for every sort of work ecologists do, on every topic ecologists study.

I’m too lazy to look up and link to all the citations, but just off the top of my head I can think of recent calls that ecology needs more place-based observational natural history, more field experiments, more microcosm and mesocosm experiments, more long-term data, more remotely-sensed data, more theoretical work, more applied work, more math, less math, more sophisticated statistics, less sophisticated statistics, more synthesis of existing data, more emphasis on collecting new data, and last but not least more work on [name of your favorite ecological topic] and more work on [name of your least-favorite ecological topic].

This isn’t to say that every topic is equally interesting and important, and that every approach to studying topic X is equally valid and informative. It’s just to say that ecologists disagree with one another on those matters. Part of why we disagree is that deciding what research is “interesting” or “important” isn’t a purely objective decision, but isn’t purely subjective either. It’s possible but difficult to make a case for the value of your work that resonates with other people. But there’s no alternative except to make your case as best you can. Citing someone else who’s made the same case isn’t a bad thing–I’ve probably done it myself, though I haven’t gone back and checked. But it doesn’t really help your case much, because anybody can do that.

There’s an old joke the economists have correctly predicted seven of the last four recessions. Well, ecologists have called for more work on seven of the four topics that most need more work, using seven of the four most promising approaches. So when making the case for your own work, try to keep the focus on ecology, not on what other ecologists have said about ecology.

Related:

What should ecology students learn less of?

6 thoughts on “The trouble with citing “recent calls” for more work on X as a reason for working on X

  1. Jeremy, for once I’m going to disagree with you. I think you have this backwards in an interesting way. (This, by the way, is the best kind of disagreement.)

    You say “Because the recent literature includes calls for every sort of work ecologists do, on every topic ecologists study.” I don’t think this is true. I mean, it’s true for the sort of sweeping big-picture stuff you list, like field work or theory. It’s absolutely not true at the finer-scale level of questions. My favourite example (I’ve had a blog post half-written on this for years): virtually nobody (except me) is calling for more work on whether or how insect herbivores can regulate plant population sizes. In fact, what I think of as my most undercited paper (https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/whats-your-most-undercited-paper/) is about this. Partly because nobody was calling for work on this topic, we had a lot of trouble getting this published, and post-publication, it’s been largely ignored. And yet I think it was important.

    I would even go further. Our past record at predicting where breakthroughs would come from is poor. We argue this all the time with respect to attempts to tie research to short-term industrial priorities vs. basic science, but it applies to basic science too. The fact that everyone is calling for work on Question X might say little about how important research on Question X is. It might even suggest that more research on Question X isn’t very important (because it will tend to happen anyway). It’s Question Y, that nobody has on their radar, that we ought to be incentivizing. (Notice that if you think too hard about this it goes down a self-referential rabbithole….)

    But: I’ve written that “ecologists have called for more work on X, and in this paper we’ve done it” sentence too. And I probably won’t stop 🙂

  2. This is good pushback. And it’s a big improvement over the implicit pushback I’m getting from everyone else, which is to just not read the post and ignore it on Twitter. 🙂 It’s drawing very little traffic and very little interest on Twitter compared to a typical post for us, which is often a sign that the post is some combination of boring, bad, wrong, or of very narrow interest.

    At the risk of derailing my own thread, I think there’s a tension between your next-to-last paragraph and Peter Adler’s recent guest post for us on “conceptual fragmentation” in basic research. At what point, if any, does spreading our collective efforts across many systems/questions/approaches stop being sensible bet-hedging and devolve into failure to have any priorities, or to even be a coherent scientific discipline at all? I don’t have an answer, which is why I’m asking the question–it’s your job to answer! 🙂

    Re: “ecologists have called for more work on X, and in this paper we’ve done it”, I’m now imagining
    #overlyhonestintroductions. “Ecologists have called for more work on X, and in this paper we’ve done it. Other ecologists have called for more work on not-X, but we ignored them.” 🙂

  3. Just a comment: but I imagine another reason for writing “recent calls to do X” may be an attempt to efficiently (also lazily) tap into the wider literature on X without using many words to describe the reasons/processes/mechanisms for why X is important.

    For example, calls to do ecosystem-based management are widespread and the reasons for doing so are all over the place (protecting food webs and trophic linkages, umbrella effects, maintain social connections between economic sectors, achieve multiple stakeholder objects, etc.). There’s a tradeoff of describing these details explicitly v. saying “recent calls to do ecosystem-based management” with those kinds of details implied.

    Maybe facing this tradeoff is more common now given the push for shorter journal articles?

    • Could be. But as you say, if you’re citing different papers that use the same terms but say different things in the name of “efficiency”, well, that makes “efficient” the same thing as “vague” or “confusing”. You see this a lot with papers about “stability” and its determinants and consequences. “Stability” has many different meanings. So you have no choice but to spend however many words are necessary to tell the reader which meaning you intend and why that’s the right meaning for your purposes.

      Part of the problem here is authors reaching for too much breadth or generality. “Stability” is a broad concept that’s of interest to many people, by virtue of its breadth. So if you just write about “stability”, without specifying what sense if “stability” you mean (or freely switching back and forth between different senses), you make your paper of interest to many readers. At the cost of making it vague or confusing. “Biodiversity” is another very broad ecological term with many different senses, that gets used to mean a range of (often vaguely-defined) things.

      I like short introductions myself, and I’m trying to make my own shorter. But I’m trying to make them shorter by getting right to the point and without putting the point in a vague or overbroad way.

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