Times have changed: dealing with dodgy science in the internet age

Dodgy science, dodgy scientists and dodgy humans are not a new thing. And dodgy scientific papers have been published since the dawn of scientific publishing. In 1667 an article on ‘snakestones’, a pseudoscience medical cure with absolutely no basis in truth, appeared in one of the first issues of the oldest known scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (now Phil Trans A, one of the most prestigious modern scientific journals).

Since then, disreputable papers have made regular appearances in reputable journals. And there are different scales of disreputable. The paper claiming that octopi originated from outer space was clearly far-fetched, while the scholars who recently argued there was a ‘moral panic’ over free-ranging cats simply highlighted how interdisciplinary research is often challenged by opposing methodological approaches (note: I agree with most ecologists that free-ranging cats are not good for wild animals, including insects). Continue reading

Don’t, don’t…believe the hype!

We are suckers for hype. The recent media sequel of the mythical Insect Armageddon and the coverage of the latest WWF report on wildlife declines are a reminder of this.

Global declines in insect populations are a huge concern. Insects contribute to myriad ecosystem services through a multitude of ecological processes and functions. If we lose insects, we WILL suffer. But the two studies media have hyped on this issue are not actually evidence that this happening. They are concerning; they are a wake-up call; they are worrying. But, in and of themselves, they are not evidence of apocalyptic declines in the number of all 1+ million species of insect on Earth.

Similarly, the recent WWF report does not show any evidence that humans have ‘wiped out’ 60% of all animals on Earth in the last 30/40 years, as many media outlets are claiming. The truth: the report considered around 4000 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians…i.e. vertebrates. There are at least ~400,000 more species of vertebrate on Earth (depending who you talk to), probably more. And huge caveat!… Invertebrates are the most abundant and diverse group of animals, so any claim about ‘all animals’ that doesn’t include invertebrates is automatically dubious. Continue reading

How do you review a conceptual paper?

Scientific disciplines grow from new concepts, ideas, theories and expert opinions, not just data. But conceptual papers are the hardest kind of scientific paper to publish.

Too many researchers…seem to think that any non-empirical paper is simply an essay and devoid of deeper scholarship. Nothing could be further from the truth. More than once I have received comments from reviewers claiming a paper is nothing more than an essay, implying essays are little more than opinions. But aren’t all papers “opinions” in one form or another?

~ Rudy Hirschheim (2008)

By definition, a conceptual paper doesn’t present original data…but it must present an original concept. It synthesises knowledge from previous work on a particular topic, and presents it in a new context to provide a springboard for new research that will fill knowledge gaps.

Conceptual papers shouldn’t follow the status quo; they need to show how moving beyond the current norm will enhance knowledge. Continue reading

Ecosystem Services vs. Conservation: a storm in a teacup

Every so often, another opinion piece claims that ecosystem services approaches hinder nature conservation. A couple of recent examples: a Monbiot column rehashing his views against the natural capital approach (which is an economic tool for applying the ecosystem services concept), and this opinion piece in Biological Conservation by Bekessy et al. arguing that ecosystem services is not a useful communication strategy for conservation advocacy.

Two key arguments recur in these opinions, both based on conflated issues:

  • practical applications of the ecosystem services concept (e.g. economic valuation) are conflated with the concept itself
  • ecosystem services are equated with instrumental values, which are conflated with economic values, and portrayed in opposition to intrinsic values (stay with me here)

Continue reading

The unpublished results taboo

Late last year, I retweeted a university press release about some topical research on bees that hadn’t yet been published or, apparently, peer reviewed (I can’t find the paper online anywhere, so it looks like it is still yet to be published).

To be fair, the release stated upfront that the research was ‘preliminary findings’ and the source mentioned at the end was an upcoming conference presentation, not a journal article. But should it have been the subject of a press release in the first place? Continue reading

The benefits of pre-submission peer review

I’ve noticed that acknowledgements sections in papers published before the 2000s usually thank people who read and commented on the paper before it was published. Yet recently-published papers are more likely to thank funding bodies or data collectors than peer reviewers. Why is this?

park 1931
Park (1931) Ecology 12:188-207
Solomon 1949
Solomon (1949) Journal of Animal Ecology 18:1-35
Lloyd 1987
Lloyd (1987) Functional Ecology 1: 83-89

Continue reading

Co-authorship in science communication

Authorship is a really important issue when publishing academic work, particularly when multiple authors are involved. It’s about giving appropriate credit for intellectual property, but also about authors taking responsibility for their work. Leaving off an author’s name who did contribute to the research is just as bad as including an author who didn’t contribute anything at all. Most institutions and academic journals have standards and guidelines to help authors understand these issues.

But how does a scientist navigate the co-authorship issue when translating their work beyond their discipline?

Say you have co-authored an academic paper that’s just been published in a journal, and now you want to translate those findings into a popular science article for a public audience. Who should initiate the scicomm piece? Do all authors on the paper have to be involved? Continue reading