With the internet currently atwitter about a new paper in the upstart journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, I have a couple specific thoughts that I’d like to share that go beyond whatever character limit twitter is using nowadays. This paper is a list of must-read papers in the field of ecology. The idea is that there are a lot of scientists out there who aren’t familiar with the depth of the literature, and there are a ton of amazing papers (old and recent alike) that, as scholars, we should know. Gotcha. This makes sense.
I’m only aware of one piece of writing so far, that has a critique of this list. But it’s been less than 24 hours.
There are two aspects of this list that seem off. One is that it paints a very old portrait of what ecology is, and what ecology isn’t. There are entire dimensions of ecology that are not represented, and the emphasis on old school community ecology comes at the cost of population ecology, landscape ecology, ecosystem ecology, paleoecology, behavioral ecology, physiological ecology, and so on. It’s a very narrow view of what constitutes ecology, and not representative of the field today.
I want to focus on the second aspect of this list that seems off. The whole list has only two papers with women first authors, and those come in at #99 and #100. If you’re a working ecologist today, you must know and realize that there are far more spectacular must-read contributions that have come from women leaders in our field. (I asked folks on twitter for some suggestions, and the response has been overwhelming. The folk of 500 Women Scientists are assembling a document based on suggestions from the community, and your input is invited.)
How is it that such a biased list was created, and what can we learn from this?
Let’s listen to the authors of this paper — Drs. Franck Courchamp and Corey Bradshaw — who both wrote about their new paper on their own blogs. (By the way, I consider myself to be buddies with Franck, who I hold in high regard. I mostly know of Corey by reputation, I’ve just shared a beer with him at a conference once. Just to be clear, when I say I had a beer with him, I mean we had separate bottles. We didn’t actually share the same beer.) Here is Franck’s post and here is Corey’s post. Franck’s blog post briefly identified this bias as an important issue. Corey doesn’t bring up the near-exclusion of women in his blog post, though he remarked on twitter that he currently has a paper in review about the gender bias in his own study.
Here’s the passage by Franck where gender comes up, where he notes some of the surprising things they found while writing the paper:
This came up with a few surprises, such as the discrepancy between the articles that experts recommend to students and those they have actually read themselves, the fact that the average scientist reads ~40 papers per month (if you thought that maybe you were lazy, now you know for sure), or the huge gender bias in authors of said articles, but, damned, I don’t have any space left (nor any patience left) to discuss that. I really should learn to focus on the important stuff…
There’s a lot to digest there. There is a huge gender bias, and this is important stuff. But it’s hard to find the time to deal with it. I hear you.
When we get the science wrong, we fix the science after getting feedback from our peers. But when we handle people wrong, this often gets glossed over. This is a problem, of course, because science and people are inseparable. When we get the science wrong because we handle people wrong, shouldn’t we have to fix the science?
In this paper, the science and the people are most inextricable — it’s about what papers (which obviously were written by people) are important for people to read.
I am not in a position to “vouch” or not “vouch” for Corey, but yes, I know Franck as a good guy. I’ve visited his lab, I’ve worked with junior scientists who have trained with him. He has been an advocate for women in science, and in his own personal life, has walked the walk when it comes to doing things at a personal cost to support the scientific careers of women. I happen to be in a position here to know that Franck thinks highly of the science done by many women. Why are these facts relevant? I am not saying this to exculpate him. I am saying this because it demonstrates the simple fact that biases manifest themselves even among people with good intentions, whenever we take a break from being vigilant guardians against bias.
This problem here isn’t men with bad intentions — it’s just the latest installment of bias doing its thing because authors, editors, and reviewers weren’t on the watch against it. That’s the nature of implicit bias — it ruins things even when there is no intent of wrongdoing.
We aren’t going to fix what’s wrong in our discipline if we merely avoid bad intentions. We need to be the watchguards against bias. All of us. All the time.
Whenever we are not taking active measures against bias, then the bias will manifest itself.
Is it tiring, to always worry about gender bias? Yes. It’s presumably infinitely more tiring to be a woman who is on the sharp end of this bias.
In this paper, I think dealing with bias after the fact was not enough, and this approach would not be acceptable in the design of other experiments. This is simply a methodological error that should have been caught in peer review.
Of course, a list of must-read papers is highly subjective. However, if it’s supposed to represent the overall state of the field, then it would need to be drawn from a sample that is representative of its expert practitioners.
It makes sense to assemble a panel of experts who know the depth of the field to recommend these must-read papers. And there is sense in picking these experts from the editorial boards of what are recognized as good journals. Though it makes sense, you have to make sure that the process isn’t biased.
Why is the science off in this paper? The best concise answer I’ve seen is from Dr. Emilio Bruna:
Emilio is one to know, as he’s the senior author of two recent papers that document how the composition of editorial boards of journals in ecology suffer from tremendous biases. One paper shows how editorial boards are lacking in women, and this one in press shows how there is a huge bias towards North America and Europe in international journals.
If you’re looking for expertise, then it makes sense to hit up editorial boards, of course. However, if you’re looking for an unbiased population that is demographically representative of all ecologists who are experts, then editorial boards are clearly not the way to go.
Okay, that’s it from me about this paper. I don’t have the time for this today, and I owe many people many things by the end of the day, I wasn’t counting on spending 2 hours writing this piece. I chose to do it anyway, because it matters. Because we can’t let the important things wait for convenient moments.