A few weeks ago, I lamented the passing of papers like Janzen’s Why mountain passes are higher in the tropics (1969) or Janzen’s Herbivore and richness hypothesis (1970) (the Janzen half of Janzen & Connell hypothesis) or the Hairston, Smith & Slobodkin (HSS 1960) paper best known as “why is the world green” even though that is not really the title. These papers were highly speculative, waved a little bit of data around, but mostly put out a hypothesis that attracted researchers for decades. But you don’t really see these kinds of papers any more. Hence my question of whether we should assume this category of paper has come to rest in peace (RIP) (i.e. are dead).
There are plenty of reasons to think we’re better off without such papers. Their handwaviness has caused people to spend decades either unsure or arguing about exactly what the paper said. It might be that we should expect more precision in a hypothesis in this day and age. I can understand that point of view. But ultimately I come down on the side of ecology sure is more boring without those kinds of papers. Those papers created new subfields and galvanized research for decades and despite being oversimplistic gave a sense that there could be real motion and progress in ecology.
But I fear a much less lofty and bold form of paper may now be equally endangered: opinion pieces. Most journals have a “forum” or “concepts & synthesis” or such which is supposed to take 3000-5000 words (depending on the journal). These pieces are also common in TREE (Trends in Ecology and Evolution), but traditionally most journals have had them. As you might suspect given my attraction the Janzen type papers, I also am attracted to these less lofty opinion pieces as well (and have written a few of them).
But recent experiences both as an author and especially as an editor-in-chief have made me doubt that many other people appreciate these papers any more. Or alternatively that we have lost the ability to review these papers as a distinct category from a research paper needing different levels of rigor but also in return expecting higher levels of interest. Very often in the past year or two I have seen reviewers treat these papers as research papers and be unable to take them for suggestive idea pieces rather than conclusively nailed down research results. If authors give only opinion with no data reviewers say “its just an idea” and demand data. And if the authors give some data that is suggestive or case-study in nature but necessarily limited given the scope of the idea, the reviewers rip it apart as insufficiently proving the claims (ignoring that nobody claimed it was a decisive research result).*
I worry that this inability to even review an opinion paper as an opinion paper is not only a bad sign for publishing opinion papers but a sign of a broader trend to more and more literal and narrow mindedness as scientists and an unwillingness to see value in or engage with big ideas.
What do you think? Do you lament the passing of the Janzen-style papers? or is science better off without such vagueness? Have you observed the trend of reviewers being unable to engage with an opinion piece as opinion piece rather than a narrower research paper? If so, is that a good or a bad comment on the trendline of ecology as a field? Or is it more a comment on how sloppy and perfunctory reviewers have become?
*For some reason I find reviewers at TREE still engage with opinion pieces, but nowhere else. TREE is of course a journal founded on opinion and review pieces so reviewers are primed when they are asked to review for TREE, but there have historically been active opinion sections in many other journals and reviewers are able to easily check whether a paper is an opinion piece or research paper.