Editor's Choice and Editorial January

Submitted by editor on 12 January 2016.

This month, Dries has asked me to write the blog post for Oikos and elaborate on the editorial  we wrote for the January issue of Oikos. But first, the editor’s choice of papers for this month.

Mokany et al. argue that there is insufficient integration in models between ecosystem function and biodiversity composition. The authors argue that there too few models incorporate the interaction between biological patterns (composition) and process (function). Building on arguments made by Loreau (2010), the authors suggest that ecologists have been coming at the same natural systems but with very different perspectives, depending on whether their interest lies in function of composition. While the creation of models that successfully integrate pattern and process is formidable, the authors provide some excellent suggestions on how the field may be progress.

Pedro Peres-Neto has written a very thoughtful Forum article on the role of technology in changing peer review in ecology (though his discussions are relevant to many scientific fields). The author notes that increasingly, given the number and breadth of publication venues, the question is often ‘where’ a paper gets published rather than ‘if’. I think this article is a robust attempt to address an issue that is only going to grow in importance over the next few years. Reading the scientific literature, even fairly narrowly, is increasingly akin to drinking from a fire hydrant, the volume of research generated every week makes it impossible to consume even a portion of it effectively. I strongly recommend that all ecologists consider Pedro’s paper and engage in the discussion of how publication in ecology will work (or not) in the future.

 

Pedro’s paper and discussions of publication brings me to the recent Oikos editorial regarding the Forum section. I have received some positive responses about it but also some cries of dismay. It’s worth clarifying what we meant here, lest folk think that we are seeking to bias the Forum away from certain approaches. Several theoreticians have contacted me to express concern that our ‘show don’t tell’ suggestion precluded theory. That’s not the case, theory is essential to advancing ecology and the formalisation of conceptual models via theory has done much to determine which ideas are sound and which have problems. Likewise meta-analyses can consolidate a field and may serve to crystalize an insight that would otherwise have been impossible. The biggest issue that we were trying to address in writing the editorial is intent and authenticity. Our hope was that authors ask themselves “Should I write this Forum piece?”, rather than “Can I get this Forum piece published?”.

 

The other theme we tried to pursue in the editorial was perspective. It’s easy to lose perspective of whether an approach is ready for an exposition in a Forum article. I have no idea what number of papers constitutes an adequate number before a Forum paper synthesising the approach or idea is warranted, but I am fairly certain that it’s more than we’d like as authors. In my own research, I’ve noticed that some review articles have less impact than particularly illustrative empirical studies. Daniel Kahneman in his excellent book “Thinking, fast and slow” would probably attribute this to our unfortunate habit of inferring the general from the specific rather than the specific from the general. In other words, we are more influenced by examples than by general concepts, even if they’re very well supported. While Kahneman (and others) show that this susceptibility can lead to some strange behaviour (I strongly recommend all grad students and their advisors read Kahneman’s book – its discussions of availability bias and inference are relevant to all scientists), it also reinforces our proposal that the most effective way of disseminating an idea can often by through empiricism.

 

Finally, I’d like to make it clear that some of the suggestions that we made in the editorial are suggestions that we, as authors, have occasionally ignored in our careers. As with advising of graduate students, it is hypocritical to censure others for errors we ourselves have made. Nevertheless, again as with advising graduate students, it is better to be a hypocrite who seeks to help others avoid and overcome the advisor’s failings. The alternative is to avoid hypocrisy but limit advisees to be only as good as we have been.

We hope that the editorial will stimulate healthy discussion and that ecologists continue to send their excellent work to Oikos.

Dustin Marshall

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