What overused, vague, or otherwise unhelpful phrases would you like to ban from ecology papers?

Inspired by a discussion I saw elsewhere*: what overused, vague, or otherwise unhelpful phrases would you like to ban from ecology papers? Ok, maybe not ban. But phrases that you encounter far too often, that usually could be dropped or replaced to the betterment of the paper.

I’ve already talked about mine: starting a paper with a statement like “Many ecologists have long been interested in [topic]” or “[Topic] is of wide interest in ecology”. Your paper should be about ecology, not ecologists. Tell the reader why your topic is interesting, not that other ecologists think it’s interesting.

I can’t find the link now, but here’s another that I first saw pointed out by Andrew Gelman: references to the “small but growing body of evidence” for some claim. It’s obvious why we’d care about the amount/nature/quality/severity of the evidence for X. But why on earth should anyone care that the evidence is growing? Why is the first derivative of any interest? I think the answer is “it’s not”. It’s just an empty rhetorical device, encouraging the reader to make an unwarranted extrapolation regarding the eventual size that body of evidence will achieve in future. As illustrated by the fact that nobody ever refers to the “large but shrinking body of evidence” for any claim.**

Starting with the phrase “Ever since Darwin…” is another one, though that’s more common in talks than in papers. Here’s my old post on cliches in ecology talks.

Ok your turn: what overused, vague, or otherwise unhelpful phrases would like to ban from ecology papers?*** Looking forward to your comments, as always.

p.s. Note that I’ve used cliched, vague, and otherwise unhelpful phrases in many of my own papers. I follow templates in my own scientific writing, just like most everybody else, without always consciously realizing it. Which means that sometimes I follow bad templates. We are all sinners.

*Which I’m not linking to because people on Twitter sometimes don’t want their conversations linked to, because they think of them as private conversations that just happen to be public. I’m pretty sure that in this case the people in question wouldn’t mind a link from us, but I’m playing it safe.

**My goal in life–well, one of them–is to publish a paper including the phrase “This work subtracts from the large but shrinking body of evidence that…” 🙂

***Please don’t say “statistically significant”. I don’t want the thread to go down that road.

UPDATE: comments now closed.


57 thoughts on “What overused, vague, or otherwise unhelpful phrases would you like to ban from ecology papers?

      • If you want to discuss policing vocabulary, I think we should start right there – no troll. The term is derisive, unnecessary, and simply unprofessional in my opinion. But it sure is popular in today’s world. I do not think the science is the better for it. Quite the contrary.

      • Thank you for clarifying your earlier comment. I didn’t want to bother replying if you were just trying to get a rise out of me.

        We’ll have to agree to disagree on “zombie idea”. As I wrote in that linked post, I do think that there are times when entire research programs or even fields of science can get stuck, holding on to and teaching ideas they should’ve abandoned already. Usually at least in part because those ideas are intuitively appealing. And in part because scientists in general are reluctant to believe that any popular research program or entire subfield could ever be completely wrong. I don’t think it’s common for entire research programs or fields to get stuck on a wrong idea, but I think when it does happen it’s an important problem that needs solving. I think in such cases there can be a place for attention-grabbing rhetoric and other atypical ways of writing, that hopefully have the effect of shaking the audience awake to the problem. (which I should emphasize is a collective problem at the level of the whole research program or subfield, that exists without any malice or incompetence on the part of any individual scientist)

        But there are counterarguments to my view; I think your stance is perfectly reasonable.

        Is it just the specific phrase “zombie idea” that you object to? Or do you object to any rhetoric associated with criticism of a scientific idea or practice (e.g., Brian’s coinage “statistical machismo”, his reference to ANOVA as an “insidious evil”)? Or do you object to any rhetoric at all in scientific writing, including positive rhetoric? (e.g., referring to an idea as “revolutionary” or “paradigm-changing” in the paper proposing the idea).

        Can’t find it just now, but Stephen Heard has a good post on the history of the norm that scientific writing should be dry and unadorned. That norm developed for some good reasons, even if they aren’t decisive in my view (and Stephen’s).

      • Phrases like “zombie hypotheses” are unnecessary simply because any truly zombie hypothesis will eventually die of its own accord. They do not need to be shouted down, but rather to be replaced constructively by better ideas as process of natural selection. That this does not happen fast enough for you is your problem, not the science’s problem. No one is ordained with power to declare zombie-ism, but we are empowered with the ability to put forth better arguments, better rationalization and reasoning. In other words, be constructive, not destructive. Be positive, not negative, and finally, dare I say this, I find such terminology, in today’s world with the presumed need to call attention to ones self via almost uncountable social media platforms, simply a form of bullying.

        There are lots of terms that I do not care for, but those designed to be dismissive, negative, and deliberately and unnecessarily provocative are the only ones that really need to be banned – in my opinion.

      • @ Brent:

        Re: the term “zombie idea” being “popular in today’s world”, do you mean popular in scientific papers? In scientists’ other communications (blogs, textbooks, social media, conference presentations, face-to-face conversations…)? Or popular in non-scientific communication?

        I ask because I haven’t seen many uses of the phrase “zombie idea” by ecologists other than me, whether in paper or in other venues. Indeed, I encounter the phrase so rarely that I tend to notice it and write a post when I do encounter it (e.g.: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/zombie-ideas-in-ecology-textbooks-now-teach-the-controversy/). Have I failed to notice many instances of the phrase in ecology?

        It’s my outsider’s impression that the phrase gets used more often in economics and political science; that’s where I first encountered the phrase.

      • I think science occurs, again in today’s world, in more places than just refereed literature. Blogs being a big part of it now. Your purpose with this blog-site is to influence ecology, is it not? If so, then yes, it counts too. It is probably more influential than many journals. I am not convinced that is a good thing at all, but then I’m old and old-school.

        I spent years “unteaching” disturbance ecology and particularly the IDH – your pet zombie idea. But I did not do that by ridicule and derision and certainly not by simply declaring it a zombie, but by working out the math. And from that, extracting the one (maybe two) useful nugget(s) that comes from it. In that way IDH was actually useful as a teaching/unteaching example of how science can and should work. Now IDH is no longer in need of unteaching (maybe should have said reteaching), and instead, the role of disturbance (not a term I much care for either) has to have another vehicle, but that’s okay.

    • @Brent Danielson
      I’m with you on your thoughts on the coinage and the use of “zombie ideas”. But I’m not sure I agree that Jeremy’s interest in retiring those ideas can be equated with bullying. Many journals still rely on the authorities of the old folks, who are still clinging to those outdated ideas and in essence slowing down progress. So, a lot of people are equally irritated when they hit resistance. Irrational adherence to dogma is equally frustrating.

      “…we are empowered with the ability to put forth better arguments, better rationalization and reasoning. In other words, be constructive, not destructive. Be positive, not negative…”

      Well, I agree with all of these but I don’t suppose you think that’s the general experience with the peer-review process or that blogs are primarily negative.

      “They do not need to be shouted down, but rather to be replaced constructively by better ideas as process of natural selection”

      But natural selection has no speed and is rarely kind. So, why can’t blogspace be a selective force? At least blogs are a part of the world we live in now. Right or wrong, journals have been deciding (and still do) what’s a worthy research or who’s worthy of being read for ages. The peer-review process is faceless and they rarely accountable for their collective misdeeds. Seeking accountability through blogspace is healthy.

      • Tobi, I was going to let this go, but it has been eating at me all day. I disagree with much of your post. First, your comment about “old folks” is pure ageism, and also backwards. As an associate editor, I found it very hard to get the senior people to review. The vast majority of reviewing in my experience at Ecology was done by postdocs and assistant/associate professors simply because they would say yes, while the veteran experts would almost always say no (with a few notable exceptions). Regardless, old folks still count, even though it is fashionable to dismiss them.

        Without going too far into the weeds, the zombie idea has spawned some very negative, noninclusive seminars where the value of the seminar was viewed by the awesomeness and wittiness of the smack-down points being made. I could go on about this for quite awhile, but I will limit myself to saying that, of course, the parties guilty of “zombie-isms” are never there to defend themselves either. Whether a blog, or a seminar, I think such declarations of zombie status are out of line. They also intimidate others from becoming involved for fear of committing a zombie-ism. In my opinion, no single person, no matter how witting, hip, funny, chill, or whatever adjective you wish to apply, has the authority to pronounce anything a zombie. If that means science moves more slowly, so be it. Science is not a race, and thoughtful, careful evaluation by the community as a whole is a much better way to go.

        Finally, your comments about the facelessness and lack of accountability of peer review tell me that I have never reviewed a paper or grant from you. For 35 yrs, I’ve signed every single one. I hope you do too, since you, like me, seem to dislike anonymity and unaccountability, for lack for of a better term.

        And that is all from me. Already too far into the weeds, but you may be sure I feel strongly about this.

      • @Brent and Tobi:

        Thank you to both of you for taking the time to comment at such length. It’s clear that you both have strongly held opinions. It looks to me like both of you have made your views clear. The conversation is starting to repeat itself, and to shift in focus a bit towards personal point scoring and expression of personal frustration. I don’t have anything further to say on these issues myself that I haven’t said in the past, which is why I stepped aside. Putting on my moderator hat, I suggest that you both consider stepping aside as well (as you’ve already indicated you plan to do, Brent).

      • @Brent
        Thank you for using my reference to “old folks” as a teachable moment. I’m sure we both have some evidence to our positions and I agree, it may not be productive getting into the weeds. I certainly learn something from the exchange and I hope we’d have opportunities in the future for more healthy debates.

        Thank you for moderating.

  1. An extension to your comment about writing why something is important not that ecologists _think_ its important:

    “We show that X is larger/smaller/more-important than previously thought.”

  2. “This is the first study of …” Every study ever done in the history of science (including those in 5th grade science classes) is the first study in some way or another (e.g., first study done by a researcher with the first name of Chauncey on lizards in Fayette Co, KY). Just because it may be the first doesn’t make it important or even interesting. Just tell me about the interesting parts. Many studies are interesting and important precisely because they are not the first to investigate some idea.

    • Disagree here — there are times when “in order to” has a clarifying role in a sentence, e.g. “we wanted to do X [in order] to Y.” “To” has many meanings other than “for the purpose of,” and writing “in order to” can make it take a split-second less time to figure out which of those meanings is intended.

  3. Via Twitter:

  4. “interact across multiple spatial and temporal scales”

  5. “Bayesian framework”. I’m not sure what a Bayesian framework is. This seems like a trendy term for “MCMC fitting of multilevel models”

    • Also when “Bayesian framework” is used to avoid the use of the false “Bayesian model”?

    • I’m gonna defend “Bayesian framework”. Firstly, it’s shorter than “MCMC fitting of multilevel models” and, secondly (and more importantly), if covers instances when you are not using MCMC for Bayesian inference (importance sampling, rejection sampling etc.) or when you might not being using multilevel models (I often use Bayesian inference with GLMs). I can’t think of a much better way of succinctly phrasing “used Bayesian inference to analyse the model”.

  6. “as well as” as a synonym for “and”
    “some”, “most”, etc. instead of real numbers, you could write

  7. I’m going to go in the opposite direction…the argument against using “utilize” instead of “use” was never convincing to me. Our English language is a rich and wonderful one; why on earth should we make rules to avoid using synonyms for words like “use”, “and”, “affects” (ok, I’m actually with @MaydaNathan on “mediates”, that one IS annoying 🙂 ). I understand (and agree with) the idea of eliminating overly flowery language just for the sake of sounding erudite, but come on, can’t we use synonyms to make our writing a little more varied and interesting? Sometimes the synonyms make the sentence flow better or have subtly different connotations (maybe that’s true for “mediate”, maybe someone can convince me). Is it that one person’s flowery speech is another’s vernacular?

    • I like flowery language, but to me, ‘utilize’ (when used identically to ‘use’) sounds quite bureaucratic. But I agree that at times, it makes sense to use a less spartan word just to make a sentence sound better.

  8. Here’s an interesting suggestion:

  9. It’s interesting that the suggestions so far are a mix of grammar-related suggestions not specific to ecology, and the sorts of ecology-specific phrases I had in mind when I wrote the post. I wonder how much overlap there is between objecting to ecology-specific phrases like “landscape simplification”, “Ever since Darwin”, and “interact across multiple spatial and temporal scales”, and objecting to substituting “as well as” for “and”, or “utilize” for “use”. Do people who object to one tend to object to the other?

  10. Driver. Blanket term for not really being sure how variable x affects variable y, because variable x itself is really a bunch of variable; as in: “climate is a significant driver of the flowering time of this plant”. No shit Sherlock….

    • Yeah, words and phrases that hint at something more than mere correlation, but don’t go so far as to claim causation (at least not any well-worked-out causal story), are pretty common weasel words in ecology. They let the author hint at causation while also providing plausible deniability. I’m sure I must’ve used such a word or phrase at some point.

      Saying that some bit of empirical evidence “suggests” some inference is another common weasel word (and one I’m sure I must’ve used). Lets you nudge the reader towards drawing conclusions you wish you could draw but actually can’t. Saying the data “suggests” X often just means “the data is consistent with X, and also with many other possibilities that either haven’t occurred to me or that I’d prefer not to focus on just now.”

  11. Agree with this one (and am guilty of this one myself):

    See also: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/ecological-forecasting-why-im-a-hypocrite-and-you-may-be-one-too/

  12. I’m happy with all terms in ecology as long as they’re used precisely, which I guess is the root of many/most problems+controversies. “Multiple scales” and “resilience” are among the worst in my corner. They sound great but can be hard to define in a given context, so 80-90% of the time people throw them in cluelessly.
    “Lets get as much baloney out of our scientific sandwiches as possible”

  13. “Novel”. Too often used to describe the merely new, even when it is a minor variation on a theme. “Novel” should be reserved for things that are unusual and / or surprising.

    • Hmm. Depends what sort of framework you mean. For instance, I think it’s fine to call the Price equation a “framework” for evolution (or for anything else the Price equation applies to). And the Price equation often is useful, conceptually and empirically. But I’ve spent years trying and failing to write a good post on the problems with “conceptual frameworks” comprised solely of words and box-and-arrow diagrams. I don’t think they have a very good track record of advancing the field.

  14. Here’s another which is field-specific but really irks me: “Mutualistic” as applied to pollination, e.g. “animal pollination is a mutualistic interaction”. I see this stated All. The. Time. Often pollination is a mutualism but sometimes it’s not, e.g. 1/3 orchids provide no reward, lots of deceptive fly pollinated species, etc. etc. I might even be guilty of saying it myself in the past…..

  15. Pollinators to refer to every animal that visits a flower e.g. plant-pollinator networks. Unless it’s actually studied, whether an animal acts as a pollinator is never guaranteed based just on the fact it visits a plant.

  16. “Intensive agriculture” bugs me. Agricultural intensification is forgivable in that it describes a trajectory, rather than a destination. But I still think its use is often sloppy and unthinking. Do we mean intensity of inputs (if so, what kind), outputs (ditto), or both? Any bit of farmland can always be pushed up or down the intensification trajectory, so labelling a bit of land as “intensive agriculture” is a bit meaningless. Guilty, all the same

  17. Less common in ecology papers that other fields, but “next generation sequencing” is a relative term that will not age well given continued technological advancement. Just be specific about the platform you actually used.

  18. Somewhere at the intersection of ecosystem ecology and plant function, it has become common to say thing like: “These results will help Earth systems modelers build more realistic predictions of future changes in response to [insert global change factor].”

    This strikes me as disingenuous, because (1) most such results are probably not general enough to build into a global model, and (2) collectively, it feels like we’re giving Earth systems modelers a lot of work to do! and my feeling is that the bottleneck is in the number of people actively building and improving these models.

  19. I hear and read a lot of “on the landscape” which is mostly unnecessary because of course it’s on the landscape unless it’s in the ocean, which it never is in my field of terrestrial vegetation ecology. The other thing I see far too often is that researchers are both ‘broadly’ and ‘specifically’ interested in things. Of course they are, and the term fits what they are trying to convey, but I see those same two words repeated in far too many bios.

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