Bold opinion pieces, RIP?

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.

24 thoughts on “Bold opinion pieces, RIP?

  1. As a theory person, I think we are given more freedom to write lots of hand-wavy ideas in the name of “plausible hypotheses.” That said, I can definitely see a much “broader trend to more and more literal and narrow mindedness as scientists and an unwillingness to see value in or engage with big ideas.” Some of this is clearly the hyper-specialization needed to engage at the frontiers of most fields, but I think as well the current culture makes one timid. We praise expertise far more than we praise iconoclasts or people with many ideas (most of which are incorrect). It is dangerous to have wrong ideas, or to waste too much time on speculation, if you want a career.

    Personally I find myself far more attracted to the broader category, but I also realize that many of my criticisms, or novel ideas for supplanting current perspectives, are at best hard to substantiate and at worst completely missing the point. It is difficult to get the kind of broad perspective needed to comprehend a field before one can really see where more work should be done. On the other hand, I think younger or less-experienced people are far more likely to avoid the biases and prejudices of the contemporary experts in an area.

    One way to help this problem is to shift fields often, but this is dangerous for many reasons, and also not something the current system seems to encourage too much (as far as I can tell at least). Anyway, sorry for the ranty-ness of this, but I can definitely empathize with this trend toward narrowness, even beyond the state of particular kinds of papers. I see much less big-picture thinking within academia than I had anticipated, and I’m still trying to come to terms with this.

  2. I’m obviously unqualified to comment on changes since the 70ies, but from my experience in this decade, I can’t say that we had more trouble publishing opinion pieces than primary research. Also, I remember many instances of reviewer comments along the lines that statement X would be too speculative for a research paper, but in an opinion paper, they will let it fly, so my impression is that most reviewers do understand the difference between an opinion piece and a research paper.

    A pattern that does seem to emerge in my experience (note: extremely small sample size) is that critical and/or more philosophic or conceptual pieces seem to encounter more resistance than positive, forward-looking (we should do that) pieces that ride on the general zeitgeist. But I guess that’s hardly surprising, and I doubt if that was so different in the “good old times”.

  3. Interesting Brian.

    I wonder if the trend you identify is of a piece with the widespread perception that general ecology journals no longer want to publish any “unrealistic” theory papers that aren’t tightly linked to data: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/ecologists-think-general-ecology-journals-only-want-realistic-theory-and-they-dont-like-that/. That perception may or may not be correct, and if it is it might be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s out there.

    Also, surprised that Oikos is developing that new section, given that they already have/had a “Forum” section, and given that their EiC Dries Bonte is on record complaining about the quality of many opinion/perspectives-type papers: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/how-not-to-influence-the-direction-of-your-field/. In light of Dries’ argument, I wonder: how much of the lack of bold opinion pieces in our journals these days is because reviewers don’t read them in the right spirit, and how much is because few authors write such papers any more? Instead preferring to write opinion/perspectives pieces that are just boring advertisements for their own approach or worldview, rather than bold hypotheses.

  4. Hey Brian, Your three examples are notable also because they are well-written and laced with confidence (e.g., “Our ideas are difficult to refute”.). There’s more than one reason they are still read in grad seminars.
    As a not completely disinterested party, I encourage societies to give their EIC’s (a huge service to the society, even if compensated) the ability to solicit just the kinds of articles you suggest. Call them “Editor’s Choice”, with a brief pre-amble by the EIC. Have them as an occasional feature. Honestly, we all have examples of how journals and their gatekeepers have become conservative, even stodgy. This would be a breath of fresh air.
    One variation on that theme would be to select someone on a yearly basis to write short speculative pieces, in the vein of the old OIKOS model.
    Let’s make journals fun again!

  5. We publish true Opinion pieces in Insect Conservation & Diversity, so not all is lost 🙂 I also used to publish in the Oikos Forum section but judging by their citation rate they sank like lead balloons rather than raising new sub-fields, although I still think my Consumers & plant fitness; competition or coevolution? should have done better than it did 🙂

  6. The disappearance of those kind of ideas is understandable. We have access to more “data” than in the past. So, it is fair to expect some quantitative or qualitative groundwork for any bold idea. Additionally, people now collaborate extensively across disciplines and across the globe. So, it’s easy to quickly shut down a highly speculative opinion that may hide its flaws in geography. It’s a sign of the time and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. At the same time, access to more “data” also means that it is easy to use bad data to falsify a solid idea (and vice versa). The bad data just needs to immediately follow the idea, which is more likely these days. Then the idea is dead on arrival. Welcome to quantitative ecology.

  7. We need some present-day examples to compare to the old examples from the post. So: what are the best opinion/speculation papers in ecology from the last, say, 10 or 20 years?

    • Jim brown, et al, 2004 , ECOLOGY …on the metabolic theory of ecology; or maybe it is too empirical/ or too solid in its theory. Its grand vision of metabolic scaling’s usefulness in ecology certainly qualifies: and it has been cited ~ 3000 times in Web-of-Science with its cit rate going up!

    • There are several key opinion pieces in the trait literature. And many in TREE. A good eg is a piece on beta diversity by Socolar etc Al 2016?

  8. Our guidelines for the Commentary section of Biotropica encourage authors to write in a more ‘opinionated’ tone than a typical article or review paper, so long as they lay out a roadmap for moving forward. We’ve had a few that might be along the lines of what you want – not hand-waving, really, but laying out broad-stroke ideas and hypotheses. Maybe this one is what you mean?

    Blurred lines between competition and parasitism: Tara E. Stewart and Stefan A. Schnitzer. 2017
    https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/btp.12444

    Personally, I really like these submissions, but they are tough to write and are demanding from the editorial side (as the authors will likely attest…)

  9. It’s true that there were some key idea pieces during the 1960s that are still cited, posing a question that’s still seen as interesting. But I wonder if we went back through the whole corpus of (say) Am Nat for the 1960s, how many others there were that didn’t give rise to any continuing interest?

    It’s worth considering also that the 1960s were pretty much when modern ecology was crystallized. Questions that seemed hot at the time found their way into first editions of Krebs (1972) and Ricklefs (1973) textbooks, and that helped them to be seen as questions of continuing importance.

    • Hi Mark; I agree with both your points.
      In 2009 Larry Slobodkin wrote a short autobiography, available in EVOLUTIONARY ECOLOGY RESEARCH and well worth a read. In it he gives a view of ecology in the old days, and how 1960HHS emerged. he also lists several [ many?] other opinion/theory type papers by himself, which did not have lasting impact. There is also a scientific history ofFred Smith, written by Bob Paine, which does similar coverage. It is here [http://www.esa.org/history/obits/Smith_FE.pdf].

      Fred Smith was my undergrad advisor[ 1968], and never pushed his ecological ideas; he did push his statistical methods classes!

      I think it has always been hard to write papers/books that redirect a field. maybe it is harder today?

  10. Perhaps one reason such papers are less common today is that there are so many other forums to express ideas.

    There weren’t very many conferences in the 1960s and 1970s. Conference abstracts don’t get nearly the scrutiny that papers get, and conferences also provide a forum for discussion and feedback.

    Also, more recently, bloggers might be killing the published opinion piece? 🙂

    Another possible reason: especially in the last decade or so, there data is everywhere. So to write an opinion piece and go to a publisher with no data or analysis is, well, I guess you’d have to defend that.

  11. The problem with reviewers having a hard time reviewing ideas, as ideas, is very real. I believe a similar phenomenon was a major contributor to the failure of the NSF pre-proposal strategy.

    • I agree with Hal about the NSF Preproposal process. While there were a number of issues that led to the failure of this process, the nitpicking of preproposals on methodological grounds, rather than inviting proposals with exciting ideas and letting the full proposals sort out the methods, was surely one of them.

  12. Awesome discussion! What if it’s just a shift of venue? It looks like a large share of the bold opinion pieces moved to the blogosphere. Instead of submitting those pieces to traditional journals and facing misunderstanding from reviewers, many scientists now prefer to express “out of the box” ideas on blogs. Just think about several articles written here and on many other blogs (including mine).

  13. Good post. Completely agree, I’ve found this frustrating as an author, eg my old post on some reasons why I think reviewers & editors struggle with conceptual papers https://ecologyisnotadirtyword.com/2018/06/21/how-do-you-review-a-conceptual-paper/, and a follow-up on why I ended up posting one recently as a preprint: https://ecologyisnotadirtyword.com/2019/03/09/why-i-posted-my-first-preprint/

    I think good conceptual/opinion style pieces are a vital part of scientific discussion; they definitely have value. But, perhaps because of the way education has changed over recent decades, scientists are rarely trained to understand and identify conceptual frameworks – this skill is mostly taught in humanities degrees. I like Marco’s comment that perhaps the blogosphere is becoming the place for ideas; I use my blog for this myself sometimes, especially for ideas I don’t have time to develop into a paper. But, I think for this to become a ‘real thing’ in science, it needs the broader community consensus to accept blogs as citable literature – and we’ve still got a long way to go before that happens!

    • “But, perhaps because of the way education has changed over recent decades, scientists are rarely trained to understand and identify conceptual frameworks – this skill is mostly taught in humanities degrees.”

      +1 to this. I’m sure that one reason I’m reasonably good (I think!) at writing well-argued opinion pieces, and writing good introduction sections to my papers, is having several philosophy classes in college, plus English 101 which also emphasized close reading and making an argument.

      Re: the blogosphere eventually developing into a venue where the scientific community as a whole (as opposed to a very small subset of that community) writes and engages with opinion pieces: the mid-oughts called, they want their vision for the future of the blogosphere back. 🙂 😦 In seriousness, back when I started blogging that was my hope for the future of the ecology blogosphere too. But now, almost 10 years later, it’s clear that “ecology blogosphere” is never going to be a thing. Blogging is too much of a niche activity (and commenting on blogs is dying too fast) for blogging to play a systemic role in science communication writ large. There are and will continue to be good individual blogs, that matter as much as any one person’s individual writings ever can. But there’s never going to be a sufficient critical mass of science community bogs for science community blogs to collectively play a really important role in the science communication ecosystem, analogous to the roles played by, say, journal articles or books.

    • Regarding the final idea in your comment, maybe the scientific community is expanding the spectrum of acceptable literature. I’ve been seeing a growth in the number of non-official sources cited in regular papers published in journals. For instance, websites, databases and even blogs. My guess is that blog posts, or something newer than that, will become a regular part of the conventional corpus of academic knowledge. Blogs, vlogs, and podcasts have become a central part of the academic life, especially for younger generations. We, the old folks, usually notice a big cultural change only after it already happened.

  14. Pingback: Times have changed: dealing with dodgy science in the internet age – Ecology is not a dirty word

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