Monthly Archives: August 2016

How many non-peer-reviewed publications should a scientist produce?

Peer-reviewed writing move science forwards; non-peer-reviewed writing moves science sideways.  

That’s my publication philosophy in one sentence.  In other words, when scientists write research papers and book chapters that are peer-reviewed, the underlying rationale is that we are adding to the sum total of human knowledge, providing insights into a topic, and moving a field forwards. When we write non-peer-reviewed articles we are generally writing about science for a broader audience, with little original content (though perhaps with some original ideas).  This moves concepts out of a narrow subject area and into the purview of wider society, which can be other scientists in different fields, or government agencies or policy makers, or the general public.

There can be exceptions to the rule, such as the IPBES pollinators and pollination report that I’ve been discussing this year. The report was widely peer-reviewed but is intended for a much broader audience than just scientists.  Conversely, non-peer-reviewed critiques and responses to published papers can clarify specific issues or challenge findings, which will certainly move science forward (or backwards into muddier waters, depending on how you view it).  However, in general, the principle stated above holds true.

This raises the (admittedly clunky) question I’ve posed in the title of this post: just how much non-peer-reviewed publication should a scientist who is an active researcher actually do?  How much time should they spend writing for that wider audience?

It’s a question that I’ve given some thought to over the 30 years1 that I’ve been writing and publishing articles and papers.  But a couple of posts on other blogs during the past week have crystalised these thoughts and inspired this post.  The first was Meghan Duffy’s piece on Formatting a CV for a faculty job application over at the Dynamic Ecology blog. There was some discussion about how to present different types of publications in the publication list, and notions of “sorting the wheat from the chaff” in that list, which seemed to refer to peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed publications.

One of the problems that I and others see is that the distinction is not so clear cut and it’s possible to publish non-peer-reviewed articles in peer-reviewed journals.  For example the “commentary” and “news and views” type pieces in NatureScience, Current Biology, and other journals are generally not peer reviewed.  But I’d certainly not consider these to be “chaff”.  To reiterate my comment on Meghan’s post, all scientific communication is important.  As I’ve discussed in a few places on my blog (see here for example) and plenty of others have also talked about, scientists must write across a range of published formats if they are going to communicate their ideas effectively to a wider audience than just the scientists who are specifically interested in their topic.

Peer-reviewed publication is seen as the gold standard of science communication and it is clearly important (though historically it’s a relatively recent invention and scientific publications were not peer reviewed for most of the history of science).  So why, you may be asking, would scientists want to write for that wider audience?  One reason is the “Impact Agenda” on which, in Britain at least, there’s been a huge focus from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Research Councils. Grant awarding bodies and university recruitment panels will want to see that scientists are actively promoting their work beyond academia. That can be done in different ways (including blogging!) but articles in “popular” magazines certainly count.  I should stress though that this wider, societal impact (as opposed to academic impact, e.g. measures such as the h-index) is not about publishing popular articles, or blogging, or tweeting. Those activities can be part of the strategy towards impact but are not in themselves impactful – the REF would describe this as “Reach”2.

The second recent blog post that relates to the question of peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed publications is Steve Heard’s piece at Scientistseessquirrel on why he thinks it’s still important to consider journal titles when deciding what to read.  He makes some important points about how the place of publication says a lot about the type of paper that one can expect to read based just on the title.  But the focus of Steve’s post is purely on peer-reviewed journals and (as I said above) it’s possible to publish non-peer-reviewed articles in those.  I think that it’s also worth noting that there are many opportunities for scientists to publish articles in non-peer-reviewed journals that have real value.  Deciding whether or not to do so, however, is a very personal decision.

Of the 96 publications on my publication list, 65 are peer-reviewed and 31 are not, which is a 68% rate of publishing peer-reviewed papers and book chapters.  Some of the peer-reviewed papers are fairly light weight and made no real (academic) impact following publication, and (conversely) some of the non-peer-reviewed articles have had much more influence. The non-peer-reviewed element includes those commentary-type pieces for Nature and Science that I mentioned, as well as book reviews, articles in specialist popular magazines such as New Scientist, Asklepios and The Plantsman, pieces for local and industry newsletters, and a couple of contributions to literary journal Dark Mountain that combine essay with poetry.  This is probably a more diverse mix than most scientists produce, but I’m proud of all of them and stand by them.

So back to my original question: is 68% a low rate of peer-reviewed publication?  Or reasonable?  I’m sure there are scientists out there with a 100% rate, who only ever publish peer-reviewed outputs.  Why is that?  Do they really attach no importance to non-peer-reviewed publications? I have no specific answer to the question in the title, but I’d be really interested in the comments of other scientists (and non-scientists) on this question.


I had to double check that, because it seems inconceivable, but yes, it’s 30 years this year. Gulp.

Impact is how society changes as a result of the research undertaken.  So, for ecologists, it could be how their research has been translated into active, on-the-ground changes (e.g. to management of nature reserves, or rare or exploited species), or how it’s been picked up by national and international policy documents and then influenced policies on specific issues (invasive species, pollinator conservation, etc.)

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Release today of the IPBES Summary for Policymakers of the Assessment Report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production

Inula at Ravensthorpe 20160710_145426Following on from the press release earlier this year announcing of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) assessment of pollinators, pollination and food production (which I reported on in February) it looks as though the full report may shortly be published.  A Summary for Policymakers has just been released by IPBES and can be downloaded by following this link.  I’ll put up a link to the full report once it becomes becomes available.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Hoverflies, IPBES, Pollination, Wasps

Why has a 102 year old ecologist been asked to vacate his university office?

David W. Goodall is an Australian ecologist with an outstandingly long career – he received his PhD 75 years ago!  Over that period he has produced some seminal works in the field of vegetation analysis, and acted as Editor-in-Chief of the 36 volume, highly influential Ecosystems of the World series.

Until recently David had been allocated office space at Edith Cowan University in Perth, and commuted into campus by bus and train at least four days a week.  As reported in the Australian media, however, David has now been asked to give up his office and only come on to campus, accompanied, for pre-arranged meetings.

The university claims that it made the decision in David’s own interest, but his own daughter (who surely knows him and his capabilities better than the university authorities) says it’s the “the worst thing …[they]… could possibly do, I don’t know if he would survive it”.

I really hope Edith Cowan University reconsiders this, it seems a very shabby way to treat a distinguished researcher with such a long working history, who is still active (his most recent paper is from 2014!) and contributing to the scholarly life of his department.

Please read the original story and, if you feel so inclined, tweet your reaction to @EdithCowanUni

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Identifying British ichneumonid wasps: an introductory guide from the NHM

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The ichneumonid wasps (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae) are a fantastically diverse group of insects that mostly share a similar parasitic life history: they lay their eggs in or on a host insect.  Around 24,000 species have been described, and estimates for their full diversity range between 60,000 and 100,000 species.

In Britain there are approximately 2,500 species, almost 10 times our bee diversity. Many species visit flowers, particularly umbellifers, and they can therefore be quite significant (though under-studied) pollinators of things like Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) and its relatives.

With so many species to deal with, identifying ichneumonids can be a daunting task. However the Natural History Museum (London) has produced a free beginner’s guide to identifying them – here’s a link to it.

Although it only covers 22 commonly encountered species (i.e. less than one hundredth of Britain’s species diversity) it’s nonetheless a useful introduction to a fascinating group. However you’ll not be able to identify the species pictured above – I photographed that in Tanzania a few years ago!

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Bees and pesticides – a major new study just published – UPDATED

Male B lap on Salvia cropped P1120309

An important new study about the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on wild bees has just been published in the journal Nature Communications – here’s the details and a link to the paper, which is open access:

Woodcock, B. A. et al. (2016) Impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England. Nat. Commun. 7:12459 doi: 10.1038/ncomms12459

As I’ve previously discussed on this blog (e.g. here and here) there are widespread concerns amongst environmentalists, and some scientists, about the impact that these relatively new pesticides are having on pollinators and other biodiversity.  The Woodcock et al. paper is a major contribution to this discussion as it uses a huge dataset to model the changes in populations of 62 wild bee species that are known to forage on oilseed rape (canola) over 18 years.  These changes can be related to the spatial extent of oilseed rape cultivation and the authors found that whilst bees “….foraging on oilseed rape benefit from the…[nectar and pollen provided by]….this crop….[they]….were on average three times more negatively affected by exposure to neonicotinoids than…” bees which didn’t forage on the crop.

The authors further conclude that “This study provides the first evidence for community level national scale impacts on the persistence of wild bee populations resulting from exposure to neonicotinoid treated oilseed rape crops.”

Neonicotinoid pesticides are, of course, not the whole story when it comes to understanding declines in pollinator diversity and abundance.  But these pesticides are the latest in a long history of changes to British agriculture that have had significant consequences for the biodiversity of our country (as we showed in our study of bee and wasp extinctions).

Reactions to the study have been, well, predictable.  A long feature on the BBC News website* quoted a representative from Bayer as saying:

“we believe….[the study’s]….findings would be more correctly headlined that intensive agriculture is causing some issues with pollinators…..  Whether this is due to the use of insecticides is not clear; a lack of nesting sites and pollen and nectar sources in these areas may also be critical factors.”

Which rather ignores the fact that this was a comparative study of bees that forage on oilseed rape versus those that don’t.

Likewise the National Farmer’s Union’s position was that:

“While this study claims to provide an important contribution to the evidence base underpinning the current EU moratorium on some uses of neonicotinoids, experts reviewing all the evidence have concluded that there are still major gaps in our knowledge and a limited evidence base to guide policymakers”

Which sounds to me like a statement designed to fudge the issue: the “experts reviewing all the evidence” would not have reviewed this particular study!  And which begs the question – how much evidence and how many studies would be enough for the NFU?

The study’s authors do not make any suggestions as to what the next step should be in this continuing saga but are quoted as saying that “simplistic solutions” such as banning these pesticides are not the answer because this will encourage use of pesticides that are even more damaging.  That may be the case but it’s clear that an independent root-and-branch reassessment of the use of pesticides (and herbicides) in UK agriculture is long overdue.

 

*As an aside, this BBC News piece wrongly states that bumblebees were not included in the study, which is not the case.

 

UPDATE:  After I published this post I noticed that Manu Saunders has also written about the bee study, plus a second study that I’d not seen linking neonicotinoid use to declining butterfly populations in California.  Here’s a link to Manu’s blog.

 

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The biodiversity of restored landfill sites: a new study of snails just published

Snails - 20160813_124310

The latest paper in a series* studying the biodiversity of restored landfill sites in comparison to nearby nature reserves has just been published.  This work comes from the linked PhD research of two of our former students, Dr Lutfor Rahman and Dr Sam Tarrant.

This new paper deals with the larger snails to be found on these novel grasslands and assesses the value of such sites for conserving the diversity of an ecologically important group of molluscs.  Snails play a vital role in nutrient turnover and are a major food source for higher trophic levels, such as some birds, small mammals, and beetles.

The take home message from the study:  restored landfill sites are as rich in species as nature reserves, but a higher proportion is of non-native, introduced species.

Here’s a link to the paper, with the abstract below; it’s paywalled but if you’d like a PDF, just ask:

Rahman, L. Md., Tarrant, S.,Ollerton, J. & McCollin, D. (2016) Effect of soil conditions and landscape factors on macro-snail communities in newly created grasslands of restored landfill sites in the UK.  Zoology and Ecology (in press)

 

Abstract

Though restored landfill sites provide habitat for a number of taxa, their potential for land snails remains unexplored. In this study, large-sized land snails (>5 mm) were surveyed using transect sampling at nine restored landfill sites and nine corresponding nature sites in the East Midlands region of the UK, during 2008. The effect of restoration was investigated by examining the composition, richness and diversity (Shannon index) of land snail species in relation to habitat and landscape structure. Thirteen macro-snail species were recorded in total, and rarefied species richness and diversity at restored landfill sites was not found to be statistically different from that of reference sites. One third of the snail species at restored landfill sites accounting for 30% of their total abundance were non-native species. Soil electrical conductivity was the strongest predictor of richness and diversity of land snails. Road density was found to be positively related to snail species diversity. Given the high percentage of introduced species at study sites, further research is needed to elucidate management implications of restored landfill sites and dynamics of native vs. non-native species.

 

*The other papers in this series are:

Rahman, L. Md., Tarrant, S., McCollin, D. & Ollerton, J. (2015) Vegetation cover and grasslands in the vicinity accelerate development of carabid beetle assemblages on restored landfill sites. Zoology and Ecology 25: 347-354

Tarrant, S., Ollerton, J., Rahman, L. Md., Griffin, J. & McCollin, D. (2013) Grassland restoration on landfill sites in the East Midlands, UK: an evaluation of floral resources and pollinating insects. Restoration Ecology 21: 560–568

Rahman, L. Md., Tarrant, S., McCollin, D. Ollerton, J. (2013) Plant community composition and attributes reveal conservation implications for newly created grassland on capped landfill sites. Journal for Nature Conservation 21: 198-205

Rahman, L. Md., Tarrant, S., McCollin, D. & Ollerton, J. (2012) Influence of habitat quality, landscape structure and food resources on breeding skylark (Alauda arvensis) territory distribution on restored landfill sites. Landscape and Urban Planning 105: 281–287

Rahman, L. Md., Tarrant, S., McCollin, D. and Ollerton, J. (2011) The conservation value of restored landfill sites in the East Midlands, UK for supporting bird communities. Biodiversity and Conservation 20: 1879-1893

Again, if you’d like PDFs of any of these, just ask.

 

 

 

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Identifying the “Wild Bees” in John Clare’s poem – UPDATED

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John Clare is one of the most celebrated English poets of rural landscapes and nature in the 19th century. To quote his biographer, Clare was “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature”.  Not only that, he was born and lived for much of his life in my adopted county, hence his epithet as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”.

One of his less well-known poems is called Wild Bees and is a stunning example of Clare’s ability to make detailed observations of the natural world and to translate those observations into poetry.  So good are those observations that, as I show below, it’s possible to identify Clare’s bees from the descriptions he gives.  First of all, here’s the full poem:

Wild Bees

These children of the sun which summer brings
As pastoral minstrels in her merry train
Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings
And glad the cotters’ quiet toils again.
The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole
In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies,
And never absent couzen, black as coal,
That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs,
With white and red bedight for holiday,
Right earlily a-morn do pipe and play
And with their legs stroke slumber from their eyes.
And aye so fond they of their singing seem
That in their holes abed at close of day
They still keep piping in their honey dreams,
And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe
Round the sweet smelling closen and rich woods
Where tawny white and red flush clover buds
Shine bonnily and bean fields blossom ripe,
Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food
To these sweet poets of the summer fields;
Me much delighting as I stroll along
The narrow path that hay laid meadow yields,
Catching the windings of their wandering song.
The black and yellow bumble first on wing
To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers,
Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring
Who stints his rambles with her frequent showers;
And one that may for wiser piper pass,
In livery dress half sables and half red,
Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass
And hoards her stores when April showers have fled;
And russet commoner who knows the face
Of every blossom that the meadow brings,
Starting the traveller to a quicker pace
By threatening round his head in many rings:
These sweeten summer in their happy glee
By giving for her honey melody.

 

Here are the bees that I think Clare is talking about:

The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole, In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies

This is the least obvious of the bees to identify, but my best guess, due to the “little hole” and “white nose“, is one of the small Yellow-Faced Bees (Hylaeus spp.) some of which (despite the name) have white faces.  UPDATE:  following discussion with Matt Smith in the comments (below) I’m going to change my mind and suggest that Clare is referring to male Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) – I think the “never absent couzen” part is the give-away.

And never absent couzen, black as coal, That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs

This has to be the female Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) which is all black except for its orange pollen brush on its rear legs, and which also nests in old walls.

The black and yellow bumble first on wing, To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers, Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring

I’m going to suggest that this is referring to the Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), the queens of which tend to emerge earlier than other, similar species, hence “first on wing“.  It also usually nests in rodent holes.

In livery dress half sables and half red, Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass

This can only be the Red-shanked Carder Bee (Bombus ruderarius) the only red and black bee in the UK that makes a mossy nest above ground.

And russet commoner who knows the face, Of every blossom that the meadow brings

Finally, this must be one of my favourite bumblebees, the all-brown, Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum), which is as common as the name suggests, and is renowned for foraging on a wider range of flowers than most others, and therefore “knows the face of every blossom“.

If you have any suggestions for alternative bee identifications, please comment below.

UPDATE:  it occurred to me after I posted this that all of the bees that Clare describes are still common in Northamptonshire with the exception of the Red-shanked Carder Bee (Bombus ruderarius) which has seen a huge decline throughout its range – see the BWARS account for this species.

 

 

 

 

 

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Just published: A horizon scan of future threats and opportunities for pollinators and pollination

A team of pollinator researchers from across the globe has just published an interesting new paper which looks at potential threats to pollinators and the pollination services that they provide, as well as opportunities for future conservation and agricultural gains.  The paper is open-access and free to download – here’s the reference and a link to the paper:

Brown, MJF et al. (2016) A horizon scan of future threats and opportunities for pollinators and pollination.  PeerJ

The paper has also gained some media coverage, e.g. on the BBC News website.

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Renovating a front garden for pollinators: because there has to be more to a scientist’s life than just…..science!

Over at the Standingoutinmyfield blog, the author has posted some “Photos from a hardwood floor“, and contrasted the satisfaction to be derived from a project such as (in this case) laying a new floor in her home (and great it looks too!) with the dissatisfaction that life as a scientist can bring.  Don’t get me wrong, I think I have the best job in the world, but I agree with her that there has to be more than science in the life of a scientist.

It’s probably not widely realised amongst non-academics, but failure and rejection are MUCH more common than success and acceptance in our professional lives.

Rejection rates for most journals are greater than 50%, and frequently as high as 80% to 90%; success rates for large grants are typically lower than 20%.  In the past seven months I’ve had one grant application and five papers rejected.  It can be very disheartening,  which is why I have to have more in my life than just science.

Of course there’s the teaching and admin that is a vital part of my job, but, like Standingoutinmyfield, other projects are important.  So Karin and I have spent part of the summer refurbishing an old summer house at the back of the garden (on-going) and renovating and planting our front garden (almost done).  As the latter project involves plants that are good nectar and pollen sources for pollinators, I thought I’d post some photographs:

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The original front wall – built in the late 1980s/early 1990s I think, and not at all in character with the late Victorian house.

The garden itself was paved and concreted over:

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Demolition in progress!  While I supervise…..:

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We salvaged what bricks we could, for other projects, and the rubble was taken to the local recycling centre to be used as hardcore.

It’s amazing where plants will grow:

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The site is almost cleared, ready for a local semi-retired bricklayer (with 56 years of experience!) to build us a new wall using similar bricks to those of the house:

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And here it is:

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The soil in the front garden was very poor, varying from solid clay to builder’s rubble, so needed a lot of peat-free compost and sharp sand to improve it.  But finally we were ready to plant it up:

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The garden is south facing so we had to choose plants that would do well in a hot, dry summer (not that we have many of those at the moment….).  It will take a year or two for them to get established and knit into a full display.  The plants are a mixture of pollen- and nectar-sources for pollinators plus things we just like – here’s the full list:

A small scrambling rose Rosa “Warm Welcome” – a beautiful, unusual colour, a very nice scent, and appropriate name for the front garden!

Lavender “Hidcote” – planted as a low hedge along the full length – even as we were putting in the plants, worker Buff-Tailed Bumblebees were visiting the flowers.

Plectranthus argentatus –  not hardy here but a lovely foliage plant, fast growing, and with flowers that bees like.  I’ll take cuttings in the autumn to keep it going.

Wisteria – this is quite a large plant that was a birthday present for Karin.  But I’ve lost the variety name so will have to try to track it down.

A fig – Ficus “Panache” – because we like figs.  The roots have been constrained in a sunken container to encourage the plant to produce more fruit and less growth.

A self-sown privet (probably Ligustrum vulgare) that was already in the front garden; we allow it to flower (rather than treating it as a hedge) as the bees love it and the black fruit can be eaten by birds.

Potentilla “Gibson’s Scarlet and “Jean Jabber” – deep red and vivid orange, respectively.

Achillea “Fanal” – also deep red and favoured by hoverflies.

Salvia nemorosa “Caradonna” – beautiful, intense purple.

Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) because we love the smell and hoverflies love the flowers.

Japanese Anemone x hybrida “Honorine Jobert” – pure white and late flowering.

A perennial sunflower Helianthus “Lemon Queen” – likewise a late flowering hit with the pollinators.

Lamb’s Ear – Stachys byzantina – particularly favoured by the Wool-carder bee Anthidium manicatum.

There will be more to come in the near future.  Meanwhile, here’s a before-and-after shot:

 

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