Also this week: was ecology more combative in the 70s and 80s, grade inflation at British universities, citation inequality is declining, a peer review experiment at eLife, MC Intermediate Disturbance, and more. Grab a coffee and settle in, there’s some very interesting stuff this week, on which I’ve commented more substantively than usual.
A very interesting remark from Anna-Liisa Laine:
The subsequent convo includes this remark from Stuart Auld:
The whole thing is worth a look. I would only add that you shouldn’t over-generalize from “the bits of ecology from the ’70s and ’80s that are widely-remembered today” to “all of ecology in the ’70s and ’80s”. The null model wars were atypical even at the time. That doesn’t mean they were unimportant (atypical != unimportant), or that one should only ever characterize a field by averaging over a large random sample of equally-weighted papers. But maybe the right question to ask is “How come so much of the small fraction of ’70s and ’80s ecology that’s still widely-remembered today is distinctive and often combative in tone?” And maybe part of the answer is “Such papers are unusual, so they stick in people’s minds.” Decades from now, maybe what’ll be remembered from ’00s and ’10s ecology is battles over biodiversity trends and blog posts about “zombie ideas“, and ecology students in 2040 will be going “Boy, ecology in the 2000s and 2010s was so combative and personal!” Or maybe not, maybe these days things really are different; I dunno. Related: this old comment from Andy Gonzalez, on the upsides and downsides of how today’s ecology papers all conform to a single “martini glass” template:
We are conforming to an approach that makes it easier for busy editors to make a decision, but maybe diminishes the creativity or at least the variety of approaches to writing a paper. I am casting my mind back to papers you could find in Am Nat in the 60s and 70s. There was a much greater variety of styles of writing papers then (not all Martini glass papers!). I enjoy reading those too.
See also the comment thread of this old post for a related conversation in the context of graduate student training. How do you create a climate in which students feel comfortable asking and answering challenging questions about their work, while keeping the conversations professional? And see my review of The Silwood Circle, a history of some very successful British ecologists of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s (Bob May, Mike Hassell, Mick Crawley, John Lawton, et al.). The Silwood Circle speculates that those ecologists share(d) attributes (including ambition, competitiveness, heightened yet selective awareness of what others are doing and thinking, a greater than usual willingness to make evaluative judgments about other scientists and their work, and self-consciously seeking to pursue and promote a particular approach to ecology) that may have contributed to their scientific success. But one might wonder whether other attributes might lead to equal scientific success, and if the attributes that lead to scientific success might change over time as social and professional norms change.
“I am a firm believer that before you use a [statistical] method, you should know how to break it.” I would generalize this to any method.
Citation inequality is decreasing as fewer papers go uncited. The proportions of citations going to very old and very recent papers also are dropping. (ht Retraction Watch)
eLife is trialing a peer review experiment. An editor first decides if the work meets “the highest scientific standards and potential significance.” If it does, it gets reviewed as usual for eLife mss (which as an aside is a slightly different review process than at other journals); otherwise I presume it gets rejected without review. But here’s the twist: authors of mss that get sent out for review are free to respond to the reviews however they want, because eLife will publish the paper no matter what (well, unless the authors decide to withdraw it from consideration). In response to the authors’ revisions (if any), the editors and reviewers decide if the published ms addresses their concerns, or if minor or major concerns still remain. Their assessment of the final paper gets published prominently at the end of the paper’s abstract. Interesting experiment. How it works in practice I think will depend a lot on the editor’s judgments about what papers to send out for review. “Solve for the equilibrium,” as Tyler Cowen likes to say. For instance, if the editors only send out for review stuff that they really like, well, that probably means the reviewers will like it too (not because of any nefarious conduct on the part of editors, but just because if one expert likes a paper then odds are other experts will too). Which if so means that, in practice, eLife will basically be offering desk acceptance plus a short News & Views-type commentary to some small fraction of submissions and desk rejection to the others. Which, when you put it that way, doesn’t…sound…like…a…great…idea? But I’m speculating that that’s how it might work out, and the only way to find out is to try it. Maybe editors will be willing to take more risks than I’m giving them credit for, and most authors will be willing to make requested revisions even if they don’t have to. Also, I think the editor/reviewer assessments will need to be abstract length, or else have abstracts. I doubt many people will read an abstract-free assessment that goes on for a page or more, even if it’s prominently placed. (ht Dan Bolnick, via Twitter)
Stephen Heard on the choice to write scientific papers in a dry style as an example of the trolley problem from moral philosophy. My undergraduate philosophy professor won the subsequent comment thread. Sort of. 🙂
Grade inflation at British universities appears to have accelerated in the last five years. I don’t know enough to comment on the linked article’s speculation as to the reasons. Perhaps Jeff Ollerton or other British commenters can chime in. (ht @kjhealy)
And finally (ht @kjhealy):
I’m either MC Intermediate Disturbance or MC Neutral Theory. If we allow methods as well as explanations, I could be MC Randomized Species x Sites Matrix. In the comments, I’ll give +1000 Internet Points to anyone with a worse rap name than any of those. 🙂