Friday, November 10, 2017

Your Departmental Seminar NEEDS YOU

Remember that time you, or your supervisor, invited that awesome scientist who gives great talks – and you promoted it widely with enthusiasm – and then the speaker came and only half the department showed up? Oh, right, that has happened multiple times, yes? What’s up with that?
Oh, wait, perhaps you also remember that time when someone else in the department invited that awesome scientist who gives great talks (at least that is what they wrote in the email) – and promoted it widely with enthusiasm – and then you didn’t go because you were busy, or because it was too far away, or because it just wasn’t that relevant to your work. Oh, right, that has happened multiple times, yes? What’s up with that?
Ehab Abouheif rocks our new gift to seminar speakers - check out #BioMcGillMug here.
Having now given more than 100 invited departmental seminars, having invited dozens of speakers for our departmental seminars, and having even been the chair of our departmental seminar committee for a number of years, I can attest that the above contrast is a universal problem facing departmental seminars. To combat this apathy, seminar organizers and committees try all sorts of inducements – they have wine and cheese receptions (many places), they have raffles for good wine (Oslo – when I visited some years ago anyway), some have a keg of beer afterward (UW Fisheries – in my day anyway), they take attendance, they give guilt trips, etc. Sometimes these devices work somewhat (and sometimes not) and some places have reasonably well developed cultures of seminar attendance (although many don’t). Regardless, I would guarantee that every department has had discussions and committees where low seminar attendance is bemoaned, dissected, and debated - and solutions are sought. Should it be earlier or later? Should we encourage/force people to invite famous speakers? Should we give more of a vote to grad students? Should we have receptions afterward? Should we change the venue? In short, seminars are never attended as regularly or as widely as they should be.
The main reason is that people don’t attend seminars is because they quite reasonably weigh the immediate perceived benefit of each seminar attendance against the immediate cost of that attendance. These benefits and costs are nearly always weighed on the basis of a person’s immediate research or teaching. “Will attending this seminar help me understand my science or give me new ideas?” Is weighed against “But I could use that hour to do this analysis, or write this paragraph, or talk to my student.” Or it is weighed against “I have to give a new lecture tomorrow” (or in an hour). Weighed in these ways, yes, it is true that the cost of seminar attendance will sometimes outweigh the benefit.
While I could make the usual point that long-term research and teaching benefits are gained by attending lectures not in your immediate area of research, that point has been made frequently and – seemingly – to relatively little effect. Instead, I am going to make an entirely different, although obviously complementary, point.
My main argument is that benefit-cost calculation based solely and teaching and research is NOT the only important factor to consider – and, in fact, neither might be the most important factor. Instead you should also view seminar attendance as a service – echoing the research-teaching-service triumvirate of university obligations.


Seminar attendance is a SERVICE because:

It reflects on the department to speakers and visitors, who will remember vividly if attendance was low. Remember that visiting seminar speakers are independent subsequent (dis)advocates of your department. Indeed, I am sure I have spoken to my colleagues in some context or other about every single seminar I have ever given.
It benefits the person who invited the speaker. That person will be embarrassed and disappointed if attendance is low, which will then reduce their inducements to invite more speakers and to attend the seminars of your invitees.
It sends an important signal to graduate students. I am sure nearly all professors would agree that their students benefit from attending a diversity of seminars and, yet, failure of a professor to attend seminars surely sends a signal to their students that attendance is not that important.
It sends an important signal to the administration that funds the seminar series. Every single seminar series struggles with funding to invite external speakers and, if a strong case can be made that your seminar series is well attended, then it is a much stronger case for funding.

So, put that seminar series in your calendar. Don’t ever schedule anything else for that slot. Assume you can’t use that hour for anything else. Just go. You will see cool research. You will get new ideas for research and teaching. The seminar speaker will appreciate it. The host will appreciate it – and reciprocate for your invitees. The grad students will see that seminar attendance is important and expected. Everyone benefits – and all you “lose” is an hour a week when you would otherwise have spent half of it just tweeting anyway.
If the seminar sucks, sneak out early and apologize later for that other obligation you had. If you are bored, discretely look at your facebook feed on your phone. If you are tired, take a nap. These imperfections are much less irksome than skipping the whole thing. Your seminar series needs you; and your department, your colleagues, your students, and you all need your department’s seminar series.

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Notes:
1. Some obviously good reasons to not attend seminars include not being in town, fixed family obligations (day care closing times, hockey practice starting times, etc.), medical problems (e.g., a broken leg), a conflicting class or lab, and the like.
2. This post is not intended as a dis of my department, where seminar attendance is kind of middle of the road, nor of particular people in my department (sometimes I miss too without a good reason).
3. Many places have many seminar series you could attend and I agree that it would perhaps not be optimal to attend them all. Pick a one or two to ALWAYS attend and attend the others more haphazardly if necessary.
4. This post is equally directed at profs, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Are You Experienced? (That's Research Experienced for Teachers, to be precise)

(NOTE: The following post was written by Andrew Doggett, a middle school science teacher in Texas.  Andrew was hired to assist with research in the summer of 2013, as part of a collaboration between Dan Bolnick, Andrew Hendry, and Katie Peichel. His salary came from the fantastic 'Research Experience for Teachers' (RET) program that NSF funds as supplements to new or existing grants. Since 2013, the Bolnick lab has hired 7 RETs to participate in research, usually in pairs, or paired with an undergraduate studying to become a K-12 STEM teacher. Most of these teachers have ended up as co-authors on one or more published articles. The following essay conveys the RET's perspective on this experience.  - Dan Bolnick, Nov 3, 2017)


A relative of mine once joked that "those who can't do - teach." I heard this statement in my youth, before I became a teacher, but I've recalled it often over the years. Of course it's a generalizing insult towards a challenging profession. Beyond that, I've always been amused that in this phrase, teaching doesn't count as "doing." As a middle school Science teacher I feel like all I do is “do” stuff every day – sometimes to the exclusion of thought, reflection, or down time! When I heard of the opportunity to work on Vancouver Island with UT Austin's Evolutionary Biology department it seemed like an amazing opportunity to expand my horizons. It also would clearly be a chance to "do" science, rather than teach it. I've always tried to make good personal or professional use of my job's greatest asset - summer off! - and this was a great mixture of the two.

We all have our strengths, weaknesses, and interests which contribute to our personality and job performance. As a middle school science teacher, participating in a field work environment for the summer of 2013 spoke to my interests, strengths, and some weaknesses all at once. This RET opportunity put me in the outdoors, often waist deep in a stream (my interest). I'd be required to provide labor and cooperation to a team (a strength). I'd also learn more about both laboratory and field scientific processes (a weakness, I felt). After applying and being asked to join off I went as soon as my school year was over!

The author, Andrew Doggett (right) and Dr. Yoel Stuart (left) collecting habitat data that would ultimately lead to Stuart et al 2017 Nature Ecology & Evolution, on which Andrew is a co-author.


It became apparent, after landing on Vancouver Island and being greeted by a researcher on crutches, that the summer would test me physically. I should probably note that the accident was pretty unusual. It would be disingenuous to say that UT had an injury reserve list and I got "called up for duty." However, the work of scrambling down embankments in our waders, laying out fish traps, and exploring gullies and overgrown creeks did require strength and stamina. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, fishing and hiking, so joining forces with scientists to wade in the verdant creek beds of Vancouver Island was a match made it heaven. The RET experience aligned perfectly with my idea of a good time, as crazy as it sounds! I was gratified, as the grueling day-to-day requirements of field science were revealed, that I'd chosen a field experience so physical and manual. Being adept at some of the things required in Northwest watersheds (waders, sure footing, and a patience with rain that was frequently tested) kept me confident as I learned new things every day

We drove to various sites around Vancouver Island laying traps for stickleback fish and meticulously logging the habitats of any trap which caught a fish. It was a fishing unlike I'd ever known, where the joy of a catch was preceded by arduous overland portage - and followed by a painstaking documentation! Under the baking sun or jammed into a thorny creek embankment, the collection and documentation of every fish was of the utmost importance, I came to realize. It was in this realm that I was able to grow most as a scientist. We're asked, as Science teachers, to promote STEM careers all the time to our students. It’s expected that we teach about scientific process as a basic undercurrent to every lab activity and historical discovery. Science teachers do a great job of promoting Science as a field of study - especially the understanding, creative, and bizarre Science teachers that most of us have a recollection (or stereotype!) of. Fun and encouraging as I may be as a teacher, however, I ached to develop a better sense of what I was promoting. It's so easy to get bogged down in the department mantras promoting the field (Science is Fun! STEM careers for all! Science saves lives! Jobs in engineering!) that we forget what precisely what we're talking about. My unspecified enthusiasm needed to be focused - and not having majored in a Science as an undergraduate felt like a weakness to me. My time in Vancouver remedied my vague understanding of scientific process - innumerable times I talked with my field leader about his experimental design and the analysis of our results. My time in Vancouver elucidated the importance of accuracy, and confirmed my enforcement of it with my students. Is that silt or sand? Partial overhanging foliage or fully overhanging? These were nuanced questions that potentially had vital importance to the study! It suddenly seemed reasonable to make my students differentiate between mass and weight! I am so grateful to this research experience for reminding me of the importance of specificity and accurate processes, as frustrating as it can be



What this experience also required was a good attitude and flexibility in challenging circumstances. I feel that all of these things played to my strengths as a person, irrespective of profession. Forced into a tent, pickup truck, or cabin with 4 strangers for a month!? It's a recipe to make everyone quite familiar, for better or worse.  I'm thankful for this trip though - I've maintained some very important and fulfilling relationships from that time together. I don't know that everyone can expect to be this lucky on a RET trip, but I'm grateful for my time in Vancouver for the friends I made on it. I had the opportunity to spend time with intelligent, hardworking, and funny people. Ultimately, I feel there was a great reciprocity in the RET experience. I contributed, certainly, with the skills and attitude I provided. I also felt that my trade was appreciated by my teammates on this trip, and I developed a strong appreciation for their day to day job.

Immersing myself in the job of scientist and seeing others’ interest in my profession helped instill direction and pride in my day to day job. I look back towards my time in Vancouver with appreciation for the friends I made and the strong reminder it provided me, as a science teacher, of the end result of a job well done… more scientists! More discerning and analytical minds! I developed a better bird’s eye view of the “science pipeline” that I am part of as a secondary science teacher. The myriad of responsibilities of my daily routine don’t allow me to weave tales of being in the field to my students, unfortunately. I’ve shown them pictures and told them stories occasionally, especially when the excitement of the experience was fresh. My field leader’s annual classroom visits are a great enduring connection as well. However, the most enduring aspect of my field work was not in curriculum changes or presentations (I cover very little biology), but in renewing my sense of purpose and exhibiting the necessity of enthusiastic, engaging Science education. 

The RET experience was enriched by interactions with Bolnick lab PhD students (Brian Lohman, left), postdocs (Yoel Stuart, middle), and other RETs (Tania Tasneem, right)

Monday, October 23, 2017

Biodiversity and contemporary evosystem services


Part 1

Bursting a thought-bubble


The Eco-Evo Evo-Eco blog site has had a number of interesting contributions (e.g. rapid evolution and big apple) about “evosystem services” – broadly defined as all the benefits to society from evolutionary processes (Faith et al 2010). Our bioGENESIS group introduced this term to set up a contrast with the conventional term “ecosystem services”. After all, why should we (we asked) refer only to benefits from healthy ecosystems, when we equally could be talking about the benefits from healthy evosystems?


That nice thought-bubble could be all there is to the story. But evosystem services critically adds something more. While every ecosystem service is also an evosystem service, “evosystem services” also captures the idea that the core product of evolution, biodiversity (the variety of life), itself is an evosystem service. As Faith et al (2010) argued, biodiversity has (typically global) “option value” – it provides a contribution to society in maintaining options – maintaining the potential for unanticipated future benefits. Thus, while global biodiversity is not an ecosystem service, it is perhaps the most fundamental evosystem service (for more discussion, see Faith 2017).


As an evosystem service, biodiversity and its option value therefore is a nice interplay of past, present and future. Past evolution creates a storehouse of “features”; presently we place some value on the benefit of having biodiversity’s maintenance of options, knowing that future generations then will continue to discover unanticipated benefits and uses.


The “past” does not have to be that long ago


Faith et al (2010; for discussion, see Faith et al 2017) also discussed evosystem services from rapid or contemporary evolution. Contemporary evosystem services then are all the benefits from rapid evolution. These benefits include option values from biodiversity. The evosystem services work of Bellon and colleagues (e.g. Bellon et al. 2015) illustrates this well. They describe the evosystem services in global food systems arising through “on-farm conservation”: management of crops to produce and maintain biodiversity and its option values, as a global public benefit.


The new home of bioGENESIS, Future Earth, focusses on human-earth system science and sustainability. We wondered initially how evolution and biodiversity conservation fit into conventional “earth system science” (for discussion, see e.g. Faith and Richards, 2012). It is clearer now that there is a good fit. Evolution is a key Earth System process, and one way to look at the human-earth system is that this system operates with a time-lag – evolution in the past has created biodiversity and, from humanity’s point of view, this is a rich heritage or “storehouse” that society now continues to harvest over time. Of course, humanity also is rapidly foreclosing its options through human-caused loss of biodiversity. How we deal with all that is central to sustainability.


This evolutionary perspective on human-earth systems is even more interesting because evolution can be rapid, it may well be directly or indirectly influenced by humans (Hendry et al. 2017), and it may or may not promote human well-being. Such contemporary evolution importantly not only may support ecosystem services, but also support global biodiversity option values, as illustrated by the work of Bellon and colleagues (and discussed in Faith et al 2017).


Biodiversity “option values” do not always get the attention they deserve (see below, and see my review in Faith, 2017). So, it is not surprising to see more discussion in the context of contemporary evosystem services. Rudman et al (2017a) provided useful perspectives, but provided a narrow definition of “contemporary evosystem services” as “the maintenance or increase of an ecosystem service resulting from evolution that occurs quickly enough to alter ecological processes”. As our bioGENESIS response paper in TREE (bioGENESIS members, Faith, Magallón, Hendry, and Donoghue, 2017) pointed out, this definition unfortunately implies that ecosystem services are the only benefits from contemporary evolution, overlooking the role for contemporary evolution in providing the “maintenance of options” contributed by biodiversity.


Wrapped up in that discussion (and in Rudman et al 2017b, which is a reply to our response) are two concerns about how our broad definition extends beyond ecosystem services to include biodiversity option values–


1. It could be claimed that our definition of “evosystem services” is so broad that it is intractable, and so a focus on ecosystem services, in the definition of contemporary evosystem services, makes it more measurable and operational.

2. It could be claimed that biodiversity option values can’t really be a contemporary evosystem service, because the benefits are in the future and not a product of contemporary evosystem


I’ll discuss these in turn.



1.  Reading Hendry labels

I can see why a more constrained definition of contemporary evosystem services might be tempting. Rudman et al’s blog contribution about their TREE paper (the “MS” below) presented more on their rationale. They found support in Andrew Hendry’s recollection that we:


 “intended specifically to make evosystem services synonymous with ecosystem services - to make clear the importance of studying evolutionary diversity even when interested in ecosystem services. [A Hendry 4/9/2017: Stated more correctly, ecosystem services ARE evosystem services.] Thus, the original intent of the term was exactly that which authors of the present MS criticize - that it is all inclusive and, as the authors argue, therefore unhelpful).”


As I noted above, synonymising evosystem services and ecosystem services might have been one useful way to increase appreciation of evolution, but our Faith et al 2010 paper promoted that idea that evosystem services critically adds something more:  


“‘Evosystem services’ provides us with a useful handle in reflecting values that are not very naturally accommodated by the concept of ecosystem services, including the capacity for future evolutionary change and the continued discovery of useful products in the vast biodiversity storehouse that has resulted from evolution in the past. In this sense, ‘evosystem services’ and ‘ecosystem services’ are complementary. Together, the two capture a wider variety of the values that we associate with ecosystems and biodiversity…..Because the pursuit of some ecosystem services can sometimes entail the loss of biodiversity, it is important to make sure that other uses arising from biodiversity also are measured. We think those other uses are extensive— they include not only known uses from known species, but also yet-to-be discovered uses from known and still unknown elements of biodiversity..”


I think the Andrew Hendry blog quote above therefore does not capture the whole story – in fact, in his early blog post here on evosystem services, Andrew noted that not only are ecosystem services a product of evolution but also that –

“evosystem services are so much more because they recognize that biodiversity has current or potential future values to humans that we don’t know about yet and can’t yet envision.”


So, all that supports the little diagram that appears in our TREE response (re-drawn below):




Rudman et al (2017a) had characterised our broad interpretation of evosystem services as “a concept too meta-scale to measure”. But the individual arrows in this figure are measurable. For example, the assessments of on-farm conservation sometimes measure the option values of contemporary evosystem services (blue dotted arrow). Similarly, the maintenance of options resulting from past evolution (blue dashed arrow) is measured using “phylogenetic diversity” (PD).


2. Definitions, and stories about definitions


In their reply to our response in TREE, Rudman et al. (2017b) defended their ecosystem service-focussed definition, arguing that our notion of biodiversity option value did not correspond to something produced by contemporary evolution. They properly referred to Faith 2017 as providing our definition of option value, but then quoted it this way:


“’option value refers not only to the unknown future benefits from known units of biodiversity, but also to the unknown benefits from unknown units.’ Using this definition, Faith et al. focus on the importance of maintaining genetic diversity to maintain ‘future options’ provided by living variation. …. we would not classify these option values as contemporary evosystem services because they are not the product of current rapid evolution”


Faith (2017) did not state that definition, which would on its own have given the impression that the benefits were in the future and so could not be a product of contemporary evolution. This can be cleared up by looking at the full paragraph in Faith (2017) from which Rudman et al’s quoted sentence was plucked:


“the best argument for what we call the option value of biodiversity is that we see many currently beneficial units, and maintaining a large number of units (biodiversity) for the future will help maintain a steady flow of such beneficial units (see also the “storehouse” analogy in Faith et al 2010).  In accord with this idea, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA; 2005a: 32) described option value as: “the value individuals place on keeping biodiversity for future generations”. Option value refers not only to the unknown future benefits from known units of biodiversity, but also to the unknown benefits from unknown units. Biodiversity option value therefore links "variation" and "value": providing a fundamental relational value of biodiversity reflecting our degree of concern about benefits for future generations.”


Thus, the sentence prior to the one quoted by Rudman et al points to a version of the actual definition. Individuals (or society) gives some value to that benefit biodiversity provides in maintaining options for the future. As Faith (2017), and our response to Rudman et al (2017a), made clear, the value/benefit is now (“the value individuals place on keeping biodiversity for future generations”) and, as illustrated in Bellon’s work, this benefit may be produced by contemporary evolution.


Part 2


The pre-history of a term


The discussions about evosystem services and biodiversity option value, arising from the Rudman et al papers and bioGENESIS responses, have been constructive. But this also recalls for me the widespread resistance (reviewed in Faith 2017) to the idea that biodiversity has its own direct benefit, maintenance of options, that goes beyond any benefits through support of ecosystem services. Indeed, Faith (2017) traces a popular re-writing of the history of “biodiversity” in which the ecosystem services movement supposedly forged links for the first time from “biodiversity” to human well-being (with biodiversity supposedly only having intrinsic value prior to that).


Faith (2017) also laments that this story-line sometimes is propped up by re-casting “biodiversity” as practically any aspect of ecology that supports ecosystem services. A special case of that problem concerns PD (see above), proposed as a measure of biodiversity and its option value at the regional/global scale (Faith 1992). But now many ecosystem services papers state that Faith (1992) defined PD as the phylogenetic diversity of a community.


An antidote to what I call “the histrionics of a term” (roughly, the over-the-top re-written history of the term after it was invented) is to not only carefully trace the actual history, but also to examine what I call the “pre-history” of a term (“roughly, the history of the term before it was invented”; see Faith 2017).


For the term “biodiversity”, this pre-history exploration is not yet complete. But early papers (well before the coining of the term “biodiversity” around 1985), using terms like “biotic diversity”, reveal rich discussions of anthropocentric values related to the value of variety in maintaining options for the future (see Faith, 2017).


Unmarked landmarks 


Uncovering a “pre-history” can be fun. I have relied on Web of Science and also some previous excellent reviews (including Mazur and Lee, 1993 and Farnham 2007). It appears that a suite of uncovered papers collectively can document an emerging idea well, but any one of the papers may not have been cited much. Indeed, some of the early significant papers are “unmarked landmarks” that raise mysteries.


I really liked a little 1974 paper in Science that reported on an important discussion meeting where participants called for “an Ethic of Biotic Diversity” in which “diversity is viewed as a value in itself and is tied in with the survival and fitness of the human race”. The paper warned that extinction “threatens to narrow down future choices for mankind” (see Faith 2017).


The pdf of that “news and comment” page in Science only had the signature “C.H.”:




Based on Web of Science I attributed the paper to C Haskins (Web of Science now reports it as having exactly one citation - mine). However, I later noticed that Mazur and Lee (1993) referred to the same paper, but with attribution to a different “C.H.”, “Constance Holden”. This seemed plausible; a little detective work revealed that Constance Holden may have been the staff journalist for the “News and Comment” section. Back in Web of Science, I found no less than 15 “News and Comment” papers by Constance Holden in 1974 – all signed “C.H.”


Each paper had a title beginning with a subject:  e.g., “Sex therapy -”, “Ethiopia -”, “Cliometrics -”, “Methadone -”.  Of all of these, the most cited was: “Sex therapy – making it as a science and an industry”. But nowhere could I find a Constance Holden paper on anything like “Biotic diversity – making it as a science and an industry”, which would have been a great read in 1974.


I think I will stick with the C. Haskins attribution

(and raise this challenge to the reader – can you nominate other papers as “unmarked landmarks” that deserve to go from (say) 0 citations to 1 or more?).


Meanwhile, I noted recently that Mazur and Lee also cited another relevant paper for my pre-history of biodiversity - Iltis (1972). H. H. Iltis, who died this past year, was professor emeritus of botany at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He was best known for his discoveries in the domestication of corn, but also wrote broadly about environmental matters. His 1972 paper called for society to “preserve sufficient diversity of species and of ecosystems” because “we will never reach a point where we shall know which organisms are going to be of value to man and which are not.” Again, we see an early paper that neatly captures the fundamental link between biodiversity and maintaining options for the future.*


*see also the Iltis (1967) Bioscience paper that is 50 years old this year. He argues “life's diversity is threatened with imminent destruction, that in 20 or 30 years it will be all but over for this exuberant biotic wealth”.


Iltis (1972) is another unmarked landmark paper -  Web of Science reports it has been cited only 6 times. In any case, while my pre-history task is not complete, we already can say that by 1972 (45 years ago), biotic diversity itself was promoted as a benefit to be valued by society, and the nature of this benefit to society was the maintenance of options.


I like the phrase “maintenance of options” as a reference to biodiversity’s contribution to people.. As our TREE paper (Faith et al, 2017) on contemporary evosystem services noted, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES 2017) recently recognised “maintenance of options” as a distinct category of “nature’s contributions to people” (NCP).   NCP is a useful shift from conventional ecosystem-services speak. While IPBES (2017) stated that its list of 18 NCP “are generally closely associated with the concept of ‘ecosystem services’”, the “maintenance of options” NCP is the important departure. I hope that IPBES assessments now will implement measures for both the blue-dotted and blue-dashed lines in our figure.


Some references

Bellon, M.R. et al. (2015) Assessing the effectiveness of projects supporting on-farm conservation of native crops: evidence from the high Andes of South America. World Development 70, 162–176

Faith, D.P. (1992) “Conservation evaluation and phylogenetic diversity,” Biol. Conserv.  61: 1–10.

Faith, D.P. (2017) A general model for biodiversity and its value. in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Biodiversity (Eds. J Garson, A Plutynski, S Sarkar)

Faith, D.P. et al. (2010) Evosystem Services: an evolutionary perspective on the links between biodiversity and human-well-being. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2, 66-74

Faith D P and Richards Z T (2012) Climate change impacts on the tree of life: changes in phylogenetic diversity illustrated for Acropora corals. Biology 1(3), 906-932

Faith D. P., Susana Magallón, Andrew P Hendry, and Michael J Donoghue (2017) Future Benefits from Contemporary Evosystem Services. Trends in Ecology and Evolution Volume 32, Issue 10, October 2017, Pages 717-719.

Farnham, T. J. (2007) Saving Nature's Legacy: Origins of the Idea of Biological Diversity, Yale University Press, 276 pages.


Hendry A.P. et al. (2017) Human influences on evolution, and the ecological and societal consequences. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 372:20160028

Iltis, Hugh H. (1967) To the Taxonomist and Ecologist Whose Fight Is the Preservation of Nature. BioScience17, 886-890.



Mazur, Allan and Jinling Lee (1993), Sounding the Global Alarm: Environmental Issues in the US National News. Social Studies of Science, 23, 681-720

Rudman, S.M., M. Kreitzman, K.M.A. Chan and D. Schluter (2017a).  Evosystem Services: Rapid Evolution and the Provision of Ecosystem Services. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.02.019.

Rudman, S.M., M. Kreitzman, K.M.A. Chan and D. Schluter (2017b). Contemporary evosystem services: A reply to Faith et al. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.07.006

Monday, October 9, 2017

The secret lives of manuscripts

Everyone who has written and published a scientific paper has pondered the mystery: you send in your final version, then there’s this long silence. Suddenly you get an urgent email with your page proofs, insisting that you go through them with a fine-toothed comb and get them back within two business days.  “Hurry up and wait“, I’ve heard multiple authors remark, rolling their eyes.  For most scientists (myself included), our publishers are a cryptic “black box”. We know something is happening to our paper, behind the scenes. But we’re not really sure what happens out there,  why it takes so long, or why there’s suddenly such a rush when the proofs appear. Okay, the black box metaphor is boring and overused. How about we think of it as the mysterious years after young salmon (our paper) venture out into the wide ocean, out of sight, before suddenly returning to their natal stream for spawning (proofreading). Um, that’s not exactly a great metaphor either, but I’ll swim with it. So here’s a blog on the unseen part of your manuscripts’ life history.
            Last week I got to venture under the publishing ocean surface, visiting the journal office of The American Naturalist at the University of Chicago Press (UCP). I’m gradually transitioning into the role of Editor-In-Chief of AmNat. I officially start January 1 2018, but am ramping up my activity by starting to share some Editor tasks with Judie Bronstein, the outgoing editor. I visited the Press for a day to learn more about how the journal works, meet the people who make it happen, and talk about ideas for the future.

I started my day in Chicago with a visit to a Hyde Park institution, Valois, where Obama was a regular. I got to sit at the Presidential table. Then, well fed, it was off to the University of Chicago Press.

            When I walked into the UCP board room, the first thing that struck me was how many people were there.  I had expected to be meeting with Trish Morse (the public face of the journal at scientific meetings), Owen Cook (who works closely with authors during revisions and preparing final version), and Valerie Bajorat (the Publisher, who I’d corresponded with), and maybe a couple of other people. But the room had a dozen people in it, and they quickly apologized on behalf of a few people who were out sick or traveling. I was genuinely surprised that so many people had come. Over the next few hours, they took turns explaining to me what each person did, answering my questions, and charting the unseen stages of a manuscript’s  life-cycle.  By the time I surfaced from this dive into the publishing underworld, I had a much greater appreciation for the value-added that a good journal office provides. And by extension, a greater appreciation for why publishing costs what it does, and why that is worthwhile.
To pass on what I’ve learned, let’s track a hypothetical AmNat manuscript from submission onwards.  Let’s start with the part that is at least mostly familiar to authors, though perhaps not in detail. The first parts below will be familiar to most authors, though maybe not in the level of detail, the number of steps. That’s what I want to convey though, that there are many, many steps:
1. The first thing a manuscript encounters as it leaves its natal stream (your computer) is the Editorial Manager website. This is a shockingly complicated (but flexible) commercial system that the journal subscribes to (which costs money). The AmNat Editors and Staff have personalized many aspects of the system over years, building in an informative but imposing set of visual flags, messaging systems, auto-alerts, reporting tools. There is of course a staff member (Rob Blixt) dedicated to keeping this system operational, and optimizing it to make submission as quick as possible for you, but as informative as possible for us.
Owen Cook (left) and Rob Blixt (right)

2. Once your manuscript is submitted, the Managing Editor (Trish Morse) or Owen Cook check to make sure the basic requirements have been met. Unlike some journals, we don’t require a specific format for review (again, to make submission as easy as possible for you; though be forewarned that reviewers often get agitated if they think your paper doesn’t match journal style). If the paper passes this check, it gets moved into a folder where the triumvirate of Editors can see it.

Image result for Trish Morse
Trish Morse, who many readers may have met at conferences.

3. One of the three editors will claim a paper (sometimes after a bit of haggling amongst ourselves), then read it over. We may opt to send it back to the authors with a clear justification for why it isn’t suitable. These can be several-page reviews by the Editor; we don’t want to make such a decision lightly or arbitrarily. If we think the paper has a chance, we will check the list of Associate Editors: who is suitable to handle this paper’s subject, setting aside people who are unavailable, or already handling a full load of papers. We then post on Editorial Manager a list of the AEs we think would be good, and hope they take it. If not, we revisit the list of names.
4. The Associate Editor then looks over the paper to decide whether it is worth reviewing. We don’t want to waste authors’ time if their paper doesn’t have a chance (poor fit for the journal, or too clearly flawed), nor waste reviewers’ time. If the paper seems worthwhile, then the AE proposes a list of names of reviewers (see https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/choosing-reviewers-recognition-not-recall-and-why-lists-like-diversifyeeb-are-useful/ for some comments on this process). This involves looking through the manuscript’s references, searching on scholarly databases or Google for people with appropriate expertise, checking for conflicts of interest, and perhaps tracking down contact information if the reviewer isn’t in the Editorial Manager database. The proposed list (often  ~6 names) goes back to Trish Morse at the journal office. She or Owen checks the list for conflict of interest and availability, since AEs don’t always have the time. invite reviewers and process the responses until we hit the targeted 2 reviewers. Often, they go back to the AE to get more names until we hit the two-reviewer target. Unlike some journals, which blast out all the email invitations at once (thereby often getting an excess of reviews, which uses everyone’s time), AmNat sends out invitations until we get exactly two reviewers. That takes just a little more time, but it is better citizenship, I believe, to not draw on too many peoples’ time.
5. AmNat gives reviewers 21 days to review.  They are busy people, after all, and volunteering. Some journals demand faster reviews, but we want to give them enough time to do a careful job. Rushed reviews can be sloppy (missing a mistake, or misunderstanding a point) and cursory and are more likely to be grumpy. That Editorial Manager website proves its worth again with review reminder reports with the flexibility to respond individually to reviewer.
6. Once both reviews are in, they are checked for completion and problems by Trish or Owen and then routed to the Associate Editor, who typically reads the paper a second time and writes a substantive review in their own right. One of the things that we pride ourselves about at AmNat is that the AEs really work to fix any flaws that the reviewers happened to miss. Many of our AEs also go to great lengths to identify diamonds-in-the-rough; manuscripts that are flawed but contain the ingredients for a great paper. Some will take a paper through multiple rounds of revision, providing detailed feedback on writing, graphics, and pitch until the paper meets our standards. My favorite example of this is detailed in Meghan Duffy’s blog post about how our (then) AE Yannis Michalakis helped her ms (previously rejected at Ecology) improve until it won the ESA’s Mercer Award (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/the-paper-that-ecology-rejected-that-later-won-the-mercer-award/) .
7. The AE sends the reviews and their own recommendation to the Editor, who typically reads the paper again, and adds their own insights as well in a decision letter. There are often Skype calls or email conversations at this stage to negotiate a mutually agreeable decision. Last week alone I ended up in three separate conversations with AEs who wanted some feedback on their recommendation. Once they submit a recommendation, my decision letter has to be written, then sent back to the Managing Editor (Trish) who checks it, formats it, and sends it. I usually give the paper another read-through before writing my decision. Speaking as an author, I can’t over-emphasize how valuable the feedback from AmNat’s Editors can be. Yannis Michalakis has (as Editor) greatly improved several of my papers with feedback that went above and beyond what the reviewers and Associate Editors provided (themselves giving very good feedback).
8. For each round of revision, the paper may or may not go out to reviewers (usually only  if the changes are substantial and the AE not able to evaluate themselves), but will be read by the AE and often the Editor, until it is clear that the paper is good enough to publish, or clear that the paper isn’t on a trajectory to reach that level.  Then a final decision is rendered, which brings up format issues for a smooth journey through Production,and the author makes any last changes and submits a “final” version to the office via Editorial Manager.

Let’s pause here. Everything up to this point is moderately familiar to scientists. But let’s put it in perspective. At the time the paper is submitted in its “final” form, it has been handled by Trish Morse or Owen Cook somewhere between 6 and a dozen times. There have been dozens of separate steps on Editorial Manager. The Editor has read the manuscript two or more times. The Associate Editor has read it two or more times. The two reviewers have each read it at least once, often twice. So it has been read through, on average, about nine times (assuming two rounds of review), and has involved six people. But so far, a large fraction of those people are volunteers (AEs, reviewers).  This is the point at which the manuscript leaves the natal stream and enters that unseen world.

9. Picking up where we left off: the submitted “final” version is checked over in detail by Owen Cook, to make sure all the parts are present and accounted for. Data is deposited, files are complete, appendices and supplements sorted out. Owen makes sure that figures conform to journal standards for size, font, resolution, and are converted into vectored EPS format for the highest quality online and in print. He’ll communicate with authors to fix any remaining problems, and clarify what is destined for print appendices versus online supplements.  Forms and agreements are gathered. When files, figures, and forms are complete in the journal office, the paper gets assigned to an issue (usually the next one headed to Production). Then the paper is sent from Editorial Manager to the UCP Production system. This process takes as long as it takes authors to bring the paper up to Production standards.

10. Once in Production, the Production Coordinator Jeannie Harrell checks it into the Production database, makes sure all the necessary metadata and elements have come through from the journal office. the paper has to be translated to a new file format (XML) for the next stages. To do this,  Jeannie sends it to a professional service. This way we can get LaTex and Microsoft Word and Open Office files into a single publication-ready version.  The service returns the paper within 48 hours, where it is checked for the necessary tagging and code by the Publishing Specialist and Production Editor Samanatha Tansino.
 
Jeannie Harrell

11. When she gets the file ok from Sam Tansino, Jeannie delivers the manuscript to the copy-editing team (“Editorial” led by Mary Nell Hoover).  The manuscript PDF now is printed on paper as the last word on the authors’ intentions, placed in a green folder, and brought downstairs. Editorial goes through the paper line by line, looking at grammar and phrasing. They convert your equations into XML-friendly format for the clearest presentation. They check that things are capitalized, or not. They check citations in the text and reference details at the end of the paper. They check that you are consistent in using symbols or abbreviations in the same way. In short, they go over the paper with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, with the Chicago Manual of Style close at hand on every copy-editor’s desk. Their goals are to ensure the writing is clear, readable, and conforms to journal style. As needed, they will change sentences, capitalization, punctuation (adding proof queries to the author about any changes in meaning). The editorial team also formats tables into journal style. They even check a lot of our numbers in tables, for instance making sure that sums add up. Just to get an AmNat manuscript ready for the quality control check can take an editor up to 36 working hours, depending on the size and complexity of a manuscript. Then the other team member -checks it, sending queries to the author as needed. Because our in-house copy editors are working on many papers (for many journals) at once, this can take roughly 20 days.

Mary Nell Hoover

12. When the copy editor is done, they hand the paper over to another team member for checking, When those changes are made and approved, the paper is sent to the typesetter, who has two days to return the proofs. These are not immediately sent to the author. Instead, the Editorial team checks the “pre-proofs,” especially the math, and either approves them or sends them back to the typesetter for corrections.  At this point the copy editor also makes sure all queries to the author are ready. This editing-typesetting-checking process is repeated until the copy editing team thinks the proofs are ready. All told, this step usually takes about 5 days more.

13. This is when the proofs get sent back to you, with a request that you return the proofs within two days with any last (minor) corrections.  Two days always seems rather demanding to authors, who are unaware of what’s been going on in the background, but as you have seen the paper has passed through many hands, many times.  And it’s not done. Problems with returning the proofs can be solved, but the deadline is to keep the issue as a whole on its monthly schedule.

14. When you return the pdf with corrections, it is received by the Production Controller, who sends it downstairs again to the copy editing team. They check your responses, which is at least the fourth time they are seeing your paper. Then the paper is sent back to the typesetter for re-typesetting; they have one day to return it.

15. When re-typesetting is done, office staff get a notification and download the zipped version. They print out a copy of the typeset pdf on paper, and send it back down to the copy editing team for one last check. All told, every single character in the math in every article has been checked against the author’s PDF at least three times. When they are satisfied the paper has no errors, it is returned and marked as finalized and ready to be posted online. At this point it goes back to the Publishing Specialist, who puts the HTML  version and the typeset pdf on the journal website. Now, your paper is posted as an Ahead Of Print (AOP) article. The digital version and its green folder are put in a pile to await a complete issue’s-worth of articles.

16. The articles then have to be sorted into an order by the Editor In Chief.  The articles must then be paginated, leaving room for advertisements, announcements, editorials, and the like, to form a complete issue. The whole issue is printed on the same kind of paper that forms the actual journal issue, for one last review by the copy editing team. Mary Nell makes corrections to the whole issue, sends it back to the typesetter if any corrections are needed. This cycle is repeated as many times as necessary to get a version that is approved by the UCP Editors.

17. A print-ready pdf is made by the type-setter for the whole issue, and sent to the printer. The printer returns a digital and a hard-copy version to be checked one last time, printed now on the same paper stock as a real issue.

18. After a last check-through, the issue is approved, sent to the printer, and published as an electronic edition and e-book, as well as printed and mailed to libraries and subscribers by the UCP Distribution Center.

19 Only after the paper is safely tucked into its issue does the Billing Manager take the page charge calculations from the Managing Editor to work out the invoices because the charges are tied to actual pages (unless an author requires a flat fee article processing charge)


Now, this team of people cannot operate without some other support. There are the electronic publishing experts, who solve the tough tagging and presentation issues. There’s the IT people who make sure the Editorial Manager database and website, and journal website, are operating smoothly. And fixing people’s desktop computers as needed. There’s the marketing staff who keep subscriptions coming in from institutions, and seek new institutions to work with. There’s human resources staff who pay everyone. There’s the janitorial staff, maintenance. Many of these people of course help with the whole University of Chicago Press, which handles a moderately large number of journals.  

So, why does this take so long?  Because careful publication takes time. The University of Chicago Press believes that scientific publications should be as accurate, readable, and professional as possible. As you’ve seen, that takes an incredible amount of behind-the scenes work to make sure that everything from the tables to figures to grammar to copyright permissions are perfect. Your paper passes through many people’s hands, with many iterations of corrections. The end result is a higher-quality product with fewer mistakes.  As an author, I’ve long been impressed with the detail and professionalism of the AmNat copy editing team, which finds many small details to query and correct, often far more than other journals pick up. Better still, let’s contrast this with PLoS One (not to name names), which makes authors do all their own copy editing, and doesn’t even do a round of proofs. Let’s face it, most of us just aren’t trained as copy editors. As a result, I’ve found PLoS One papers to be full of stylistic flaws, typos, and errors that a professional copy editor would catch.

Why does it cost a few thousand dollars per article (few authors shoulder that whole cost)? The income generated from our roughly 120 articles per year (and past papers) brings in the income that keeps these people employed to help your articles be as clean as they can be. The income also has to pay to use the Editorial Manager software, and contribute a bit to keeping the lights and water on in the UCP as a whole. Those page charges you pay are a very modest contribution towards supporting that behind the scenes staff, but by no means covers all the costs. The balance comes from institutional subscriptions, and individual subscriptions, and society memberships. Despite UCP’s reliance on subscription income, it gives away free journal access to institutions in over 100 developing countries, about 8,000 universities in total.

The end result is that AmNat produces a very high quality product, even though it is actually one of the cheapest journals to publish in or subscribe to.  A moderate number of authors pay nothing at all. That’s very important especially for early career researchers who may not have the financial resources to cover even regular page charges. Those who do pay regular page charges are covering a moderate fraction of the costs of producing their article. People who opt for open access pay various higher rates depending on the level of access. At the extreme, we offer the opportunity to cover the full costs of production for extreme levels of open copyright.

So when you balk at a bill for page charges, remember the hard work of the large team of people behind the scenes who are laboring to make your paper into a high-quality product. In the case of The American Naturalist, the journal is a not-for-profit (501c3) entity. The University of Chicago Press is a branch of the University of Chicago. Its primary task is not maximizing income for investors or an owner, but promoting academic pursuits. The building and offices are clean and well maintained, but not fancy.  I asked for directions to the room where you can roll around in big piles of cash, and the staff looked confused.


Occasionally on Twitter I read comments by people who basically want to shift to an all-BioRXiv publishing model. We self-publish, and “get rid of journals”. Cheaper. Faster. No annoying peer-review setting standards (just post-publication review).  Personally, I’m not on board with this.  I think the review process gives great value added, and that’s backed up by a totally unscientific poll I did on twitter: a vast majority agreed that reviews improve papers slightly (50%), or very substantially (40% of 88 votes).

So if ever someone advocates getting rid of journals, I have my canned response. GOOD journals can:
1)   help improve your paper through anonymous (and thus more frank) reviews

2)   improve your paper through Associate Editor and Editor comments that seek to bring out the best in your paper, or direct you to a journal where your paper will most readily reach its target audience

3)   help you produce a polished and professional final product that reads well, is easy to understand, and looks good. As a result it will be read more, and cited more.

4)   Distribute your paper to readers via their website, table of contents, subscriptions, and social media.

5)   Apply any excess income back to academic societies, which in turn support student research, travel, conferences, and the like, building a richer academic community.
These represent value-added to the scientific enterprise. That value added isn’t free, because it takes digital and personnel resources. So who pays? It either has to be the government (good luck asking Trump for that), the author, or the reader(s). Each has its flaws. Government payment is subject to political interference. Author-payment creates a barrier to entry for underfunded (especially junior) scientists, which hampers their career. Reader payment reduces readership access and citation (though remember we give away AmNat for free to thousands of institutions).

To conclude, repeat after me:

Journals provide value-added.

That value-added has a cost associated with it, which someone must pay.

Support your society journal (especially if not published by a big lucrative conglomerate).

Non-profit and open-access are not synonymous things.

The American Naturalist is awesome (though I am admittedly biased), both because of the great authors who submit interesting papers, the Editors and Associate Editors and Reviewers who work to improve those papers, and, let’s never forget, a large and hard-working editorial team that makes the high-quality final product.


A huge thanks to the staff of The American Naturalist at the University of Chicago Press, for the in-depth tour and education.