It’s been argued that in ecology, like politics, everything is local.
You can’t really understand ecological relationships in nature, unless you’re familiar with the organisms in their natural environment. Or maybe not. That’s probably not a constructive argument. My disposition is that good ecological questions are generated from being familiar with the life that organisms out of doors. But that’s not the only way to do ecology.
When hunting big (metaphorical) fish, we’re looking for patterns and mechanisms at the global scale (in oceans and forests and savannahs, and beyond the globe, like in simulations and mesocosms). If you have a principle or idea that works in one location but doesn’t generalize, then you’re not advancing theory. That’s only a piece of a more complex working model. For example, just because Phosphorus predicts litter decomposition in the rainforest where I work, that doesn’t mean it works worldwide. But what I know about P and litter and this one forest can be an important piece of information to build a more informative global model.
It’s still possible to make a huge splash in ecology by working locally. If you have a great idea and a well-designed experiment, it’s possible to change the world by just going to the intertidal zone, and removing some animals and watching what happens afterwards. If you track nutrients in one ecosystem, or follow one invasive species, plow and fertilize some fields in a certain way, or study the predatory behavior of one animal, this could cause an intellectual cascade throughout the discipline. Work done at one site can have a massive impact.
Local work may trigger intellectual cascades, but those cascades really start to flow from related metaanalyses, reviews, and syntheses. Connell’s removal experiments are as famous as you can get in ecology, but this work was impactful because of his related reviews. He wasn’t saying that it happened just with his animals, but that it it happens all over the place and the broader literature was brought to bear to support this point.
Most of the highly-cited papers in ecology are not reports of individual field projects, but are syntheses that use other investigations as building blocks. On a smaller scale, I’ve experienced this myself. I’ve been studying the biology of nest movements in ants for quite a while. A few years ago, I wrote a review on the topic, and it’s not becoming citation classic overnight, but it’s definitely getting more attention than most of the papers that I needed to write the review. It’s a well-known phenomenon that syntheses and reviews get more attention — and prestige — than the work that forms the building blocks. We should be aware of what this means for the scientists who are making those building blocks.
Ecology has a huge Rashomon effect in the rhetoric and publication practices of field-based data and natural history.
Everybody loves natural history. Everybody thinks that we should value natural history more (well, almost everybody), and find a way to value descriptive field biology more in our academic rewards system. I would bet there are more ecologists who hate puppies than ecologists who think that natural history is valued adequately.
Though nearly all of us agree that natural history need to be valued more, if you look at the way we publish and cite and hire and tenure and promote and award scientists, well, we pretty much aren’t valuing it.
We want it to be valued because we all benefit from it. But we all are reluctant to do and publish much of it because we aren’t getting credit for it.
(Speaking of which, shout out for Taxonomist Appreciation Day on 19 March! Do you know how you’re going to celebrate the taxonomists in your life?)
It’s not constructive to pick on any particular people in this situation, but I wanted to share my short little peek into the sausage factory that makes big influential synthesis papers. I looked up three influential (at least to me) synthetic papers from recent years, in fields that I know well (enough). From each, I looked at two things: First, I looked at the citations of papers that provided the data for the synthesis. Second, I looked up the publication list of the authors of the synthesis papers. Here’s what I found:
- The papers that contained the data for the syntheses were typically in less prestigious journals than the journals that publishes the syntheses.
- When I was familiar with the authors of the cited papers, a decent fraction were in non-R1 institutions.
- The authors of the syntheses were publishing in more prestigious journals than the papers they cited for data.
- The papers most often published by the authors of the synthesis papers didn’t seem like they would contain original field data that future researchers would be of useful to future synthesis papers.
Those above points are me generalizing, I realize, but I think it might be a fair generalization. I just picked out a few papers and I don’t know if this would hold for across the entire field and for everybody. Feel free to give it a try yourself, and if your experience is different (or not), please leave a note in the comments.
From these facts, here are two inferences:
- The people who are writing synthesis papers are often a different set of people than those who are writing the most useful original data papers.
- The original data papers aren’t garnering as much academic reward for authors as synthesis papers.
I don’t intend for this to be a new insight. But I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s a power differential between the people that are applying aggregations of local data to global questions, and the people who primarily are generating local data.
If we are calling for more natural history to be able to answer big ecological questions, are we saying that everybody needs to do more natural history, or we want other people do do more natural history?
If someone is choosing to do research that is locally focused in scale, that’s an individual choice. And when people tackle big synthetic projects, that’s also a choice. Calling this a “caste” system is a bit of hyperbole. (But hey, it’s got you reading this far, and you might have to admit that people from non-prestigious institutions have harder time breaking into collaborative projects that have a big prestigious result at the end.) But I doubt you’d want to disagree with the idea that there are people who design their careers to do mostly descriptive ecological work in non-prestigious journals, and there are others who aim to publish in mostly prestigious journals that often rely on the academic contributions of the former group. (And of course, many of us, myself included in my opinion, fit into neither group.) But when we advocate for “more natural history,” cognizance of these functional roles in our academic community matters.
Some of the most vocal advocates for natural history are people that publish descriptive ecology and original field data. But some other visible advocates for natural history and an increase in the availability of field data aren’t generating these data themselves.
If someone is saying the world needs more data about organisms in nature, but they’re not adding these data at the rate that they’re consuming these data, then there’s no reason to think that this group is advocating for the interests of the people who are publishing the descriptive work. Based on my little qualitative literature survey, I’m realizing that this descriptive work is being done by the an inadequately valued subset of our community.
Let’s say some people work their butt off to address a question of non-global interest, which gets published in a decent but non-prestigious journal and is read by specialists and not anybody else. And then the data end up being more valuable as part of a huge global synthesis — and the people who worked their butt off generating those data get (almost) no credit for it. That’s great for the folks who wrote the synthesis but the person who generated those data probably will think they deserve more credit than is possible in our outdated system.
Depending on the context, bemoaning the lack of natural history data can really easily sound like a complaint that the scientific underclass isn’t doing its job generating data to support the synthesis papers coming from prestigious laboratories. While I’ll be the first to say, “we need to value natural history more,” I won’t be saying “we need more natural history” without committing to actually valuing natural history for what it’s worth to the community. To do otherwise just exacerbates the problem.
Mandatory public data archival is well established in some journals, and the practice is steadily growing. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t do anything to increase the incentive to publish a paper that has data that would be important for synthetic work. It doesn’t help us build a more substantial foundation of natural history that big-scale ecology requires. A lot of the journals that contain studies useful for syntheses have not yet hopped on the mandatory data archival train, and at the moment there are more disincentives than incentives for those publishing in non-prestigious venues.
I like celebrating natural history with colleagues who share this as a priority. But I’m getting weary hearing about the need for natural history while our academic environment chronically devalues the fundamental work in describing the biology of the organisms in nature.
When it comes to the importance of descriptive work and natural history in ecology, a lot of this talk is All Hat, No Cattle. Yes, we need it. Instead of just saying it’s important, how as a community are we actually going to truly value it? The top-down leadership on this issue has mostly focused on increasing the visibility of natural history without rewarding the people who do the work. The grassroots support for natural history (such as the Ecological Society of America’s Natural History section) needs to grow into a more mainstream movement that has a clear agenda that can move things to the next level. Until these things happen, big synthetic ecology will not be able to fulfill its potential, for want of the contributions of talented scientists focused on local and descriptive ecology.
We can start by not using “descriptive” as a negative epithet. How’s that sound?