Ecology jobs site

Those of you on the faculty job market know that it’s stressful. The stakes are high and the odds are long, but one of the worst parts is the lack of feedback. You send in your application and then… nothing. Maybe a friend on the inside gives you an update. Maybe you find the list of interviewees posted on the departmental seminar page. Most likely… nothing.

Well, the internet was practically invented to promote the free flow of information (thanks, Al!), and this is no exception. Physicists were one of the first groups to share job info online, with the Theoretical Particle Physics Rumor Mill dating back to the mid-90s.

Ecology finally got on board in 2007-8, with a job news wiki. This evolved into a shared google spreadsheet in 2009-10 and 2010-11 to increase the ease of use. Unfortunately the spreadsheet was prone to unintentional (?) reformatting and suspected vandialism, so it moved to a discussion forum that required registration last year. That prevented vandalism but perhaps discouraged participation. In any case, the new site’s owner didn’t renew the lease on the forum and the lights went out.

I thought the ecology job site was out of business this year, but recently found out that it’s back in its google spreadsheet form HERE. It doesn’t seem as well-updated as in past years, and the discussions tab used to be surprisingly active for anonymous conversations facilitated by a spreadsheet. So get on there and share what you know. Just don’t make any reckless edits or spread any false info!

Note that in contrast to the physics rumor mill, the ecology one doesn’t name names. Probably for the better, but an interesting cultural difference nonetheless.

Why the peer-review process is so slow

Jeremy’s post this morning about personalized review requests from the NSF is a perfect lead into something I’ve wanted to discuss: why it takes so long for manuscripts to be reviewed. Here are some thoughts as an associate editor, that aren’t at all original but bear repeating.

The typical process: A manuscript is submitted (cross those fingers!) If it passes a brief technical check for formatting, the editor-in-chief assigns it to an associate editor (AE) to handle. The AE gives it a quick read to sort out clearly inappropriate manuscripts and identify a list of potential reviewers. AE invites reviewers until two or three have accepted their assignment. Reviewers read the manuscript and submit their reviews, which the AE uses to guide their decision.

Therefore there are three places to lay the blame for slow turnaround: the editorial office, the AE, and the reviewers. The editorial office is staffed by paid professionals. This isn’t usually a major source of delay. Sometimes the volunteer AE’s fall asleep on a paper, but that’s unusual and the editorial office should keep an eye on them.

That leaves reviewers to gum up the works, which they can do in at least four different ways:

1) Not agreeing to review. Personalized invitations do help, but they’re no panacea. It’s not uncommon to have to invite eight to ten people just to find two who agree.

2) Not agreeing OR disagreeing to review. Even worse than saying no is saying nothing. Or taking ten days and multiple invitations to say no. If the odds of any reviewer saying yes is 25%, those week-long delays add up fast.

3) Turning in the review late. Journals typically give reviewers two to four weeks to read the paper and submit their reviews. Very few succeed in meeting this goal.

4) Going AWOL. The worst situation is when a reviewer agrees to review, but then disappears from the face of the earth. Should the AE wait for a review that may never materialize? Should they try to find another reviewer? Should they act as a reviewer themselves and go with one other review? In any case, the time to decision just went up by at least two months.

Things often work smoothly, but sometimes it’s a comedy of errors. And that’s why it took four months for your manuscript to emerge from the peer-review system.

How to improve the process? As Jeremy alluded to, Mark McPeek and other editors wrote a great editorial calling for the application of the Golden Rule. In practical terms, here’s what we all could do:

1) Say YES when asked to review.

2) If you can’t do it in a reasonable amount of time, say no immediately. Don’t let that invitation sit in your inbox.

3) Suggest colleagues who might be good alternatives, preferably non-obvious ones like postdocs who might not have already been invited.

4) Don’t take the deadline as a suggested time to start reviewing.

5) Keep the editorial office informed. If you’re going to need an extra week, let the AE know, and try hard to stick to that new deadline.

My own personal suggestion is inspired by the announcer at Schiphol airport: “Passenger X traveling to Barcelona. You are delaying the flight. Immediate boarding at gate C14 or we will proceed to offload your luggage.” When all reviews except one are in, and that one is late, the tardy reviewer gets an automated email letting them know that they are delaying the review process. Chop chop! Unfortunately the review process is strictly voluntary, so we have no luggage to unload.

If any of you have further suggestions, leave them in the comments.

Chris’s Introduction

I’ve strategically let Meg and Brian introduce themselves first so I can be brief.  I’m a theoretical ecologist at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station.  How a theoretician ends up at a field station might be a good topic for a post later.  My wife Elena Litchman and I have been here for seven years now (does that ruin the surprise about how I ended up at KBS?), and are just getting back from sabbatical at the Danish Technical University.  Most of my work is on phytoplankton, from physiology to global ecology, centered on community ecology, but I’ve worked on terrestrial vegetation, plant-fungal mutualisms, and even Daphnia epidemiology (hi Meg).

Some topics I’ll try to hit this month: paper review process and publishing ethics, the practice of theory, trait-based approaches (hi Brian), and whatever else comes to mind.  Stimulating discussion would be great.

Aside from wanting to contribute to exploring this relatively new medium, I’ve got a selfish reason to try blogging.  I don’t enjoy writing.  It’s my least favorite part of the scientific process.  Formulating an idea in mathematical form?  Love it! Hacking out a better algorithm for analyzing a model?  Awesome!  Figuring out why a model behaves the way it does? Exciting!  But putting these things down on paper?  Painful.  Regular blogging should be a great way to force myself into the habit of producing text.  So, thanks to Jeremy for the opportunity and to you all for reading.