Do your figures tell your story?

When I review papers, I often read the introduction and methods, and then skip to the figures to see what I take away from them before reading the results. This can also be done the opposite way: read the results and imagine what they would look like in figure-form, then go look at the figures. I find this really useful when reviewing for making me get out of the passive reading of a manuscript and for encouraging me to think critically about the results. Sometimes, there’s a great match. Sometimes there isn’t and I realize I misunderstood something (which sometimes is just me messing up, but sometimes suggests something that is unclear in the paper). And sometimes I can’t figure out the reason for the discrepancy, which ends up being something I bring up in my review.

I was originally thinking about this as a tip for reviewing – as I said, it helps me think more deeply and critically about a paper. But, over time, I’ve realized it relates to a bigger issue: the accessibility of a paper. If you have a figure that clearly summarizes your results, your paper will be much more accessible to everyone from specialists in your area (the people who review your manuscript!) to non-specialists (including people who serve on search committees and award committees) and perhaps even to the general public.

As an instructor, I am always looking for interesting examples to use in class. Sometimes, there’s a figure that beautifully shows the results and that is accessible. I just read this paper and saw this figure and immediately thought that I need – need! – to add it to my lecture on food webs:

(Direct link to figure)

But, much more often, I see an interesting paper on a topic I teach about, but there’s no accessible figure that summarizes the results.

In 2001, Charles Krebs had a piece in the ESA Bulletin entitled “Why are my brilliant research findings not utilized in ecology textbooks?” In it, he suggests the following exercise:

Read a paper in Ecological Monographs (for example) that is not directly in your field of expertise, and try to extract a 1-2 sentence summary of findings reported in this paper, along with one figure to illustrate key results. You will find you cannot do this for most papers because the authors have not provided a succinct abstract or summary diagram to illustrate their findings. Now go back and look at your key papers and see if you have done the same thing.

I suspect that most people would not be able to do this for most of my papers, which suggests this is something I need to work on! And that’s even with having received this advice as a grad student. Back then, someone who read a draft of a manuscript I was working on said something along the lines of: “This could end up being a textbook example. Make the figure one that could go in a textbook.” As a graduate student, that was something I hadn’t considered, but it was good advice and made me think really hard about how the figure should look. Even if your work doesn’t end up in a textbook (and, as far as I know, mine hasn’t), it never hurts to have a clear, accessible figure!

So why is it so hard to find papers that do a good job of meeting Krebs’ target? In some cases, it might be unavoidable that there isn’t one key figure that tells the paper’s story – some results are more nuanced. But, even in those cases where there isn’t one key, broadly accessible figure in the paper, it should be possible to create a graphic that tells your story clearly. As one example, my postdoc Nina Wale recently had a paper come out based on her thesis work, and worked with the Penn State press office to create this visual synthesis of her work:


Making a synthetic figure like this takes time, but it also leads to more people reading your work. One journal found that adding visual abstracts to tweets led to 2.7 times more people clicking the link to read the paper. I find them useful for teaching, too – for example, I use this graphical abstract in my class:

as a way of setting up the experiment before showing them some data from it.

(Source: Goodrich et al. 2014)

So, I think I need to set myself a new goal for manuscripts: when making the figures for them, I should think harder about whether one of the figures can synthesize my story. And, if there isn’t one figure that I can point to, I should consider making a synthetic figure that can be used as a visual abstract. Krebs noted:

Graphical summaries or flow diagrams are particularly economical ways of communicating research findings, yet very few papers use them to encapsulate the discussion and synthesis of results.

This is a great excuse to use some of my #readinghour time this semester to read Edward Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence (which I’ve been wanting to read, but haven’t gotten to yet)!

Do you think your papers would meet Krebs’ target? When preparing a manuscript, do you think about making your figures textbook-ready? Have you used visual abstracts or created a graphical summary? I’d love to hear from readers about their experiences and tips!

Writing with a point of view vs writing to discover a point of view

I have been working on writing one book and helping to revise another one recently. For a while I found it really hard going because I expected it to work like writing a paper (or blog post) is for me now. But gradually I came to realize that I needed to write in a different way and that in fact there were other situations when I wrote that way. I have gotten very used to writing with or from a point of view, where as for the book I was needing to go back to the way I wrote my very first papers – writing to find my point of view.

Every piece of non-fiction writing has a point of view. By which I don’t mean the perspective from which the story is told (e.g. 1st person vs 3rd person), which is the meaning of point-of-view in fiction writing. In non-fiction writing I am using point of view as synonymous with slant, angle, spin, argument, claim, thesis, hypothesis, interpretation. It is impossible (and deadly boring and misleading) to write as if you are just laying out a set of facts with no personal take or view point on those facts. Indeed the main point of most good non-fiction writing (journalism possibly aside but even there I doubt it) is to convince others of your point of view by marshaling your arguments with evidence and good writing. This is true whether it is a biography, a history, an essay, an editorial, a term paper for class, or, yes, a scientific paper.  In a scientific paper the slant is usually of the form “X is true and important”, but of course figuring out X is really critical. You need a cohesive narrative to organize your facts and to decide which facts to emphasize, include but downplay or just throw away. And your reader needs to walk away feeling like they know what you were trying to say. Nothing is more frustrating than spending valuable time reading something and walking away and thinking the author didn’t have a coherent point  And that is where my ah-ha moment came in. I had gotten very used to sitting down to the blank page to start writing when I already knew what my point of view was. It was pretty easy. Words flowed – it was more just a matter of finding time to write. But now suddenly I was staring at a blank page without knowing what my point of view was. I could force myself to fill a page, but I knew the words weren’t coming together into good writing. And I would get frustrated and unsure of what to do next.

Eventually I realized there are two very different kinds of writing. Writing where you already know your point of view, and writing to discover your point of view. The first happens when you’ve done a lot of advance homework to figure out the point of view and the writing flows but you don’t learn anything new from writing. The second is slow, awkward, and involves massive amounts of rewriting, but also can be very illuminating. Once I recognized this distinction I came to realize that I had done the latter, writing to find a point of view, in other cases besides writing a book including:

  • Writing review papers
  • Writing most grants
  • Writing many of my first papers

I think I had forgotten that I sometimes write to discover my point of view because the papers I did that on were so far in the past that I had forgotten how I wrote them. And the grants and review papers were always done on such a deadline that I eventually just had to bludgeon my way through whether they worked out not and were a fog in my mind anyway. But it shouldn’t have been a shock. As a PhD adviser much of what I help students do is to help them figure out how to find a point of view and they (like me as a student) rarely manage to figure it out before they start writing.

I want to be clear that writing to find a point of view is an ugly, two steps forward, one step backward, throw-away half of what you write, very inefficient process. So you should avoid it whenever possible. Always do the homework to figure out your point of view before you start writing if you can. For writing papers this usually looks for me like presenting my results several times to several different groups and having lots of conversations about it, trying out different points of view, seeing what gets other people excited and engaged and what I can defend. And also just explicitly talking about what my main point is and asking people for their opinion. This is because literally talk is cheap (timewise) in comparison to writing,

But there are times when you cannot get your point of view first. For me these are usually the most novel, creative types of writing. Where I’m really trying to do something novel but also de novo where I haven’t spent the last year doing experiments and analyses to baby-step my way towards the point of view.

So what do you do if you have to start writing without a point of view? You start writing until you find your point of view. Then you rip everything up, throw half of it out, reorganize everything and tweak everything that remains all steering towards a point of view. Writing to the end without discovering your point of view is not an option. Discovering your point of view and not rewriting everything to line up with that point of view is not an option (unless you want your reader to be really mad at you).

Writing without a point of view is not efficient. It is a lot of work. My best guess is it takes 2-3x longer to finish when you start writing without a point of view as to start writing something with a point of view. So by all means if you can get your point of view before you write, do it. But if you absolutely cannot get your point of view any other way, sit down, force yourself to write garbage. And your point of view will emerge. Then you can rewrite your garbage. I’m sure it is theoretically possible to write all the way to the end and not find your point of view, but I don’t think it is very common. Indeed, to the contrary, I have found that I have had some of my most creative, interesting and worthwhile ideas emerge while writing to find a point of view. The chapters in my book have been a slog (until I revised my expectations), but I am happy with how they are turning out. And some of my very best research ideas emerged from writing grants that never got funded but that I wouldn’t have ever thought of if I hadn’t slogged through the writing without a point of view stage because of a grant deadline.

To give a concrete example, I spent a good chunk of November and December writing a chapter on macroevolution to go in my macroecology book. Now I have always been an evolution-friendly ecologist and I didn’t expect it to be hard. And indeed I was easily able to launch into a summary of Darwin and the modern synthesis, connect these points to a Price-like equation that captures key aspects of evolution, cite a number of cool papers that take macroecology-style summaries of evolution that present histograms of the frequency of heritability or selection strength and such across many studies, etc. But the whole time I was writing I knew that my writing was pedestrian, boring, read like a listicle and felt disconnected from macroecology. Then I realized that my point of view was that most of microevolutionary processes identified during the modern synthesis disappeared in macroevolution and in particular that selection happened so fast that a macroecologist or macroevolutionist could get away with assuming it was instantaneous, but that Drawin’s ideas of descent with modification and fit to environment were very relevant to macroevolution. Now I expect somebody (probably Jeremy) will disagree with that point of view. But it was a point of view that did all the things a point of view should do. It:

  • Told me which things were important so I could focus on them, discard some irrelevant stuff (even though they are generically considered “important”) and generally shorten and tighten my writing.
  • Providing a coherent narrative so the reader felt like they started in one place and got moved to a new place by investing time in reading what I wrote (even if the place they got to was vehemently disagreeing with me and vowing to prove I was wrong)
  • Completely organized my focus (i.e. let me write with a point of view) for the second half of the chapter related to phylogenies and the fossil record. This was an area I knew less about, but my reading was quite directed and I came up to speed quite quickly and was able to write quite quickly.
  • In the end I think I had not just a review of material but a novel point that made it worth the effort even for people who knew much of the material

The net result was that I had 20 or so coherent pages that I was happy with (at a first draft stage). Now I have written 20 pages in 24 hours under the gun before* (albeit not great writing) and certainly have cranked out 20-30 pages of good writing in a week (of 30 hours of writing) when I knew where I was going. This chapter took more like 90-120 hours. But I got there. And I got there faster than waiting and thinking and reading until a point of view emerged before I started writing. I had been trying that on my book for a couple of years and I can tell you it wasn’t going real fast. I think synthesizing lots of material in your head is very hard to do. Devoting the time to writing, even if you throw most of it away, is actually a great way to get the creative juices flowing and make them happen somewhat on a schedule.

And now that I recognize writing without a point of a view as a legitimate but slow form of writing, I am much happier. I know what’s going on. I know it generates forward progress. And I know it ends up well even if it is a twisty road. So I just get on with it instead of waiting (often months) until my perfect point of view emerges. But I also know that I have to go back and do the rewriting once I’ve found my point of view.

What do you think? Have you experienced these as two distinct styles of writing. Under what types of circumstances do you write with a point of view vs. write without a point of view?

* You could argue that writing to a deadline is a 3rd major style of writing. In my experience the point of view usually emerges on the last page or so. But the writing leading up to it is completely disconnected. So really, if it is something you care about, you should allow enough time to go back and rewrite the whole thing to have a coherent point of view. Conversely, you could argue that writing without a point of view is basically creating an artificial deadline to force you to plow ahead writing even if it is not good writing until the point of view emerges.

Increasing the conservation value of commercial stands

Can plantation forests offer conservation value to some species? Guadalupe Peralta comments on recent article Plant, herbivore and parasitoid community composition in native Nothofagaceae forests vs. exotic pine plantations. ‘Conservation value of exotic plantation forests’ is a controversial idea. The term conservation value of plantation forests does not refer to the need to preserve plantation forests from […]

Friday links: history of the Fields Medal, optimizing grad student recruitment weekends, Frodo vs. your PhD, and more

Hard as it may be to believe given how viral Mark Vellend’s guest post went on Monday, other people did write other stuff on the intertubes this week. 🙂 Read on to learn about student evaluations of teaching vs. student learning, the recent ASN meeting in Asilomar, how your choice of PhD program affects your prospects of a faculty position (in some fields), and more.

From Jeremy:

I’m a bit late to this, but here are Jeremy Yoder’s notes from the recent ASN meeting in Asilomar. It continues to kill me that I can’t go to this meeting (it’s always the first week of classes here in Calgary). Interesting tidbit I learned from new Am Nat EiC Dan Bolnick’s talk: ecology replaced genetics as a topic in Am Nat papers in the 1950s-60s, and genetics hasn’t bounced back in Am Nat even as genomics has taken off. Jeremy remarks that the rarity of genomic datasets in Am Nat actually means Am Nat is on the leading edge rather than stuck in the past. The novelty of genomic data as data is going to wear off soon, and it’s just going to become another tool for asking good questions–which is what it is already in Am Nat papers. I agree with this. I’m now in my third year of service on the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Awards committee, and one thing I’ve been struck by is the high proportion of applicants who use genomics as a tool to answer great questions; the genomic data are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

The history of the Fields Medal. Very interesting. Gets you thinking about the broader question of what awards are for, and what should they be for.

Statistician Stephen Senn pushes back against the recent Deaton & Cartwright paper critiquing randomized controlled experiments as an approach in the social sciences. See also the comments, where Andrew Gelman argues that Senn is pushing back against the less important bits of Deaton & Cartwright’s paper.

What makes for a good grad student recruitment weekend? When you figure it out, tell me, because I have no clue. We don’t have a recruitment weekend here at Calgary. And back when I was looking at grad schools in the US, I never went to a recruitment weekend; prospective supervisors brought me out for one-on-one visits. For many years I naively thought that’s how it was everywhere, for everybody. I only learned a few years ago that my experience wasn’t typical.

Nine out of 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board, a federally-mandated board, resigned this week. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to meet with them or convene any meetings last year. By law, the Advisory Board is supposed to meet twice/year. Many other Interior Dept. advisory boards are unable to work because the department has yet to approve their updated charters, as legally required. (ht @dandrezner)

A new, high-powered meta-analysis of studies of student evaluations of teaching in multisection courses with different instructors in different sections finds no correlation between student evaluations of teaching and student learning. Previous meta-analyses finding moderate correlations were driven by small-sample studies and publication bias.

Quantifying where graduate sociology programs hire their faculty from. tl;dr: if you don’t have a PhD from a top-ranked sociology program, you’re not getting hired by a top-ranked sociology program. I know economics is the same, though I don’t have a link to the data. There are actually some good reasons for this (which aren’t mutually exclusive with bad reasons, of course); see this old post and comment thread. If you collected the same data for ecology and evolution in North America I’m pretty sure you’d find it’s also hierarchical but much less so (it’d be interesting to check, but also a lot of work). That’s in part because EEB hiring committees typically have lots of information about the applicants. The applicants typically are postdocs with more extensive track records of research and teaching experience than applicants for social science faculty positions usually have. The EEB faculty job market in N. America also is less hierarchical than the social science faculty job market because EEB PhD programs typically don’t involve that much coursework. So knowing which university someone got their EEB PhD from doesn’t tell you much about their training.

Forget about trying to change the minds of anti-vax parents. Just legally oblige them to vaccinate their kids if they want to send them to public schools. It turns out that very few parents are so strongly anti-vax that they’re willing to homeschool their children to avoid having to vaccinate them.

Here is the American Economics Association’s draft code of conduct for its members and an associated interim report. The background to this is that economics, a quite male-dominated field, is currently having a field-wide conversation about diversity, equity, and professional conduct. The conversation was kicked off in large part by a Harvard undergrad’s research quantifying the prevalence of sexism (and worse) on a popular anonymous economics forum. (ht @noahpinion)

Mostly just for my own and my Calgary colleagues’ reference: some discussion of the current state of play in post-secondary education policy in Alberta. And some discussion of the Canadian House of Commons Finance Committee’s recent report as it relates to science funding and post-secondary education. Argues that MPs aren’t convinced by the Naylor Report.

Your own learning ought to accelerate over time. Interesting, inspiring, cogent. (ht @noahpinion)

And finally, how doing a PhD is just like Lord of the Rings. Hopefully minus the Tom Bombadil bit. (ht @dandrezner) 🙂

Independent projects in large enrollment labs?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from John DeLong of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the first in a planned series of three. Thanks for taking the time John!


A fresh take on canned labs

Introductory science classes often have high enrollment, and so their associated labs must accommodate high student throughput. Not surprisingly, all of the introductory science labs I have taken and taught in my academic career have used canned labs. Students conduct activities or experiments with known outcomes, and by going through the activity and conducting an analysis, students ‘discover’ something we want them to know. As an instructor for the 200-level Ecology and Evolution class at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln for the last five years, I have tried to make sure our canned labs work reliably and generate the expected outcomes. Although there are two partially inquiry-based labs, the lab is still mostly canned. Most of the labs work, and the course has followed this format for many years.

About a year ago, however, we had a reliable lab go bad. Given our schedule, we needed the students to complete their assignments and move on. But asking students to do this had a profound effect on me. I felt as though I were completely lying to the students about how science works. Science does not follow the mantra of try something, fail, do something else. It follows a try something, fail, trouble shoot, try again mantra (at least up to a point). I felt that in addition to failing to teach the expected content, we gave students a false picture of how to do science and made the whole exercise rather pointless.

Bee enter bonnet

At this point, I had the crushing realization that maybe I have been teaching labs all wrong. Lecture is where we teach and learn content. Lab should be where we teach and learn process. We were mixing the two and failing to provide students with an authentic view of the scientific process. I began talking this problem up to anyone who would listen and planning a totally independent-projects based alternative lab. I got support from everyone I talked with – students, colleagues, and importantly, my department chair – and so this semester I am rolling out an independent-projects based lab for the Ecology and Evolution class. No canned labs. No recipes. For 108 students. With some students working in pairs, I am guessing we will have about 75 student-led, inquiry-based projects going at once. I am actually slightly worried about pulling this off, but everyone around me is so positive, I am tempted to think it will work.

Since I am bound to learn some hard lessons about trying to support so many independent projects at one time for mostly sophomore students who have always been told what to do in lab, I thought I would summarize the experience in a three-part blog. This first entry is being written in the first week of lab, before I’ve learned any hard lessons. The second entry will be during our spring break, and I will post one more at the end of the semester. I will try to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, and what I failed to anticipate.

What exactly are we doing?

The lab is broken into three sections: 1) sampling and statistics (3 weeks), 2) mini-projects (3 weeks), and 3) independent projects (8 weeks). Each activity will require the students to decide what to sample, what questions to ask, and how to do it. Even for learning how to do descriptive statistics, the students will go outside, wander around, pick a population of plants (it’s winter, so it’ll be stems, seeds, etc.) and figure out how to sample it. We have some stats we want them to learn how to run, but they will do it using the data they choose to collect. In the mini and independent projects, they will formulate a hypothesis and test it. The mini-project will be just that – mini and not too concerned with biological concepts. The independent project will focus on something biologically interesting but doable. The bar for ‘interesting’ is that they use some content from lecture to motivate their hypothesis. They have 8 weeks, so they have time to try something, fail, trouble shoot, and try again. They will present their projects to their sections and write a scientific paper.

Grading this thing

Grades are forefront in students’ minds, so we do need to grade in a way that doesn’t cause undue stress. I think getting this right is key to getting student buy-in for the new lab approach. In this lab, the grades will reflect student willingness to engage in the scientific process. A portion of the grade will come from achieving benchmarks. For example, when the TA says a student has proposed an interesting hypothesis, they have earned the ‘hypothesis’ points and, regardless of how the rest of the project goes, they won’t lose them. I hope this frees the students to focus on the process and not worry about their grades so much. Finally, students will not be expected to write a well-thought out scientific paper on their first attempt. Instead, they will revise their papers based on TA feedback, and the thoroughness of their revision will determine the grade on the paper.

The end result

Will this approach be better than what we did before? I think so. I plan to conduct some exit interviews to document student perceptions. If all goes well, at the end of this, students will come out the other side with an authentic scientific experience, a more positive view of science, and a good foundation for whatever comes next.

Ecological diversity metrics can teach us how to feed the world well

For the latest post in our Functional traits in agroecology series, Stephen Wood (The Nature Conservancy, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies) highlights the importance of considering social and human, as well as ecological traits in agricultural systems. The full article, Nutritional functional trait diversity of crops in south-eastern Senegal is a part of a […]

How diverse are Dynamic Ecology commenters?

This came up in a recent comment thread, and I decided it was interesting enough to post on. What’s the demographic profile of our commenters? How diverse are they, compared to our readership? And do the demographics of people who comment about our posts on Twitter differ from the demographics of the people who comment here? If so, is there any sign that that’s because some groups of people (students? women? people who disagree with our posts?) are more comfortable commenting on Twitter than in our comment threads?

Attention conservation notice: navel-gazing post, probably of greatest interest to other bloggers.

Last month, I went back through the most recent 200 non-trackback comments by someone other than Meghan, Brian, or me, and compiled the following data: commenter gender (m/f; evaluated by name, and photo if available; a gender binary is not ideal but the best I can do), employment (grad student, postdoc, prof, other; ID’d by googling), country (ID’d by geolocating IP addresses), and total number of comments ever made (all time, not just within the most recent 200 comments). Then, because those 200 comments didn’t cover any posts by Meghan, or any posts on gender and equity issues, I also went back and compiled the same data for all the commenters on Meghan’s 10 most recent posts, and for 5 recent-ish posts on gender and equity issues. Two of those 5 were by Meghan and were among her 10 recent posts; 2 were by me and 1 was by guest poster Gina Baucom. Finally, earlier this month, I went through our Twitter notifications and did some searches (to look for subtweets), and compiled data on the gender and employment of the most recent 51 people to discuss our posts on Twitter. I didn’t count anyone who merely rephrased the post title or main conclusion along with tweeting a link to the post, but I did count all other comments even if they were quite brief (brief for tweets, I mean). Those 51 people’s tweets about our posts were made from Dec. 8, 2017 – Jan. 9, 2018, so overlapped a lot in time with the most recent 200 comment data.

For reference, here’s a demographic profile of our regular readers, from a reader survey we did last year that got almost 400 responses:

  • 32% grad students, 26% postdocs, 26% faculty, 16% other.
  • 58% men, 42% women, <1% non-binary or not disclosed.
  • 50% from the US, 10% Canada, 7% UK, rest from elsewhere. That matches where our pageviews come from, so our survey respondents were geographically representative of all readers.

Demographics of the commenters who made 200 recent comments:

  • 54 commenters
  • 67% of those 54 were men, 26% women, remainder unknown gender
  • 17% grad students, 13% postdocs, 37% profs (the majority of them senior profs), 19% other or unknown. Aside: from context, I suspect several of the unknowns are grad students.
  • 44% US, 15% Canada, 9% UK, remainder from elsewhere
  • Most of these 54 commenters have only ever commented once. The 7 all-time most active commenters among these 54 are all men, 6/7 are profs, and 2/7 have their own blogs.

Demographics of the commenters on 10 recent posts by Meghan:

  • 47 commenters, most of whom commented on only 1 of the 10 posts
  • 57% men, 32% women, 11% unknown
  • 11% grad students, 13% postdocs, 42% profs, the remainder other or unidentified
  • 60% US, 15% Canada, remainder from elsewhere

Demographics of the commenters on 5 recent posts on gender and equity issues:

  • 60 commenters
  • 45% women, 42% men, remainder unknown
  • 12% grad students, 8% postdocs, 23% profs, remainder unidentified or other
  • 72% US, 8% Australia, 7% Canada, remainder from elsewhere

Demographics of people who’ve recently discussed our posts on Twitter:

  • 51 people or organizations
  • 61% men, 35% women, 4% organizations
  • 9% grad students, 27% postdocs, 45% profs, 14% other or unknown employment, 4% organizations

Summary and comments:

  • The overall picture is that the demography of our commenters skews a bit more male than our readership (which itself skews a bit male), and substantially more senior than our readership.
  • Commenter demography changes when there’s a strong correlation between interest in the post topic and some dimension of commenter demography. Posts on gender and equity issues draw a more gender-balanced and US-skewed mix of commenters compared to posts on other topics (not mostly women, though, contrary to some speculation in the comment thread linked to at the beginning of this post). As another (anecdotal) example, it looks like our recent series of guest posts on doing ecology in developing countries had an unusually high proportion of commenters from developing countries.
  • That posts on gender and equity issues draw a very US-skewed commentariat is the  only surprise in this dataset for me. Curious to hear thoughts on this, especially from non-US readers, and from folks who participate in or follow online discussions of gender and equity issues in other venues.
  • The identity of the post author doesn’t affect the demographic mix of our commenters. It’s post topic that matters, not who wrote the post. This lines up with our anecdotal experience and survey data. Meghan, Brian, and I all have had the experience of being complimented for a post someone else wrote; some readers don’t notice who writes which post. And from survey data, we know that very few of our readers have favorite post authors, as opposed to favorite topics.
  • Most commenters only ever comment once or twice. If you weighted commenters by the number of comments they leave, you’d increase the skew towards male profs a bit, because our most active repeat commenters are mostly male profs. But this additional skew wouldn’t be huge, because no one commenter makes more than a few percent of all our comments.
  • Twitter commenters are not more diverse on the dimensions considered than people who comment here, contrary to a (plausible!) hypothesis proposed by some commenters in that old comment thread linked to at the start of the post. Indeed, if anything it looks like Twitter commenters might skew even a bit more senior than commenters here. I didn’t quantify geographic diversity of our Twitter commenters, but offhand it looked roughly similar to that of our commenters here.
  • I didn’t quantify this, but just anecdotally the vast majority of Twitter comments about our posts were positive–expressing agreement with the post, and/or adding additional thoughts. The majority of the small number of people disagreeing with our posts on Twitter were male profs. This is a very small sample of disagreement, obviously, so I wouldn’t make much of it. But for what little it’s worth, I don’t see any hint that Twitter commenters are more likely than our commenters to disagree with our posts (which as an aside is slightly contrary to what I’d have expected). And I don’t see any hint that Twitter commenters who disagree with our posts differ demographically from all Twitter commenters on our posts, or from our commenters here.
  • I have no idea about the demography of people who share and/or discuss our posts on Facebook.
  • The demographics of people who retweet and/or like us on Twitter, without commenting, might well differ from those of our Twitter commenters. Or not; I don’t know.
  • The data on our Twitter commenters didn’t cover a time period in which we posted about gender and equity issues. I suspect that if it had, we’d have found less male skew, or maybe even gender balance or a skew towards women.
  • The sample sizes here are modest, so keep that in mind. But I don’t see any reason to think that these samples are massively unrepresentative.
  • We love our commenters, they’re fantastic, we enjoy their comments and learn a lot from them. We wish we had even more and more diverse commenters, but I’m not sure there’s much we can do to encourage that beyond what we already do (moderating comments, treating commenters respectfully, blocking the IP address of anyone who makes really inappropriate comments, etc.). There’s no evidence that we’d increase the diversity of our commenters by switching all discussion of our posts to Twitter (and no one’s suggested we should). Further, we know from reader surveys, and from anecdotal evidence, that people’s reasons for not commenting are mostly beyond our control. Many readers don’t feel they have anything to add. Many have a policy never to write anything on the internet. Some find it a pain to type on their phones. Some prefer Twitter to blog comment threads, for various reasons. Etc. Probably the only thing we could do to attract a different mix of commenters is post on a different mix of topics. But we’re not perfect, and so we welcome suggestions on how we can encourage a large and diverse commentariat.
  • The demographic mix of our blog commenters, and the very similar demographic mix of people who comment on our posts on Twitter, might well not match the demographic mix of people with whom any particular Twitter user exchanges tweets most often. “People who comment on Dynamic Ecology posts on Twitter” probably comprise a non-random subset of all Twitter users, and of all Twitter users with whom any given Twitter user exchanges tweets regularly.
  • I don’t know if these results generalize to other blogs.
  • Let me conclude by thanking the many folks who participated in the excellent comment thread linked to at the start of this post for raising some important and interesting questions and inspiring me to compile some data addressing them.


Bet on bats to find white-nose syndrome

Michelle Verant discusses new research around the early detection and management of white-nose syndrome. The full article, Determinants of Pseudogymnoascus destructans within bat hibernacula: implications for surveillance and management of white-nose syndrome is available in Journal of Applied Ecology. Fungal diseases are on the rise and threatening human health and biodiversity on a global scale. […]

The unbearable hypocrisy of being an ecologist*

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend.

Over the holiday break, my family logged about 2000 km in our gasoline-powered car, loaded with people, luggage, gifts, and ski equipment.  We do something like that four times per year, visiting family east and west.  “Love miles” people call them, and we feel guilty about the carbon emissions, but it’s far less starting from where we live now in Sherbrooke, Québec, than it would be with air travel from where we used to live in Vancouver, BC. And our second car is 100% electric, in a province with “clean” electricity.  So, in terms of our ecological footprint, it’s bad, but it could be worse.

A couple times per year, I use air travel to go to professional meetings of one sort or another.  For 2-3 others I drive or take buses or trains.  I’m pretty sure the flights alone put me well above my yearly fair share of contributions to atmospheric pollution, but I turn down a decent number of invitations, in part because of consumption guilt, and I travel less than many fellow ecologists.  It’s bad, but it could be worse.

Over the past 20 years, my wife and I have travelled by plane to Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Bolivia, Tanzania, and Malaysia, among other places, with the primary purpose of experiencing the world’s unique ecosystems, flora, and fauna (birds especially).  But for the most part, we try to keep things local, with frequent trips to natural areas nearby.  It’s bad, but it could be worse.

What does any of this have to do with ecological science?

For as long as ecology has been a science, it has been entangled with environmentalism.  Being an academic ecologist does not logically commit one to being an environmentalist, but I’d bet that the vast majority of DE readers have a stronger-than-average environmental conscience.  Without any need for speculation, we can also all see that the conferences we fly to these days often have a major focus on environmental change: all the ecological and evolutionary consequences of human activities, in particular carbon emissions (via climate change) and land-use change.  We step off of carbon-belching planes and proceed to spend several days bemoaning extinctions driven ultimately by carbon emissions.  We sip B.C. wine at dinner, sharing our outrage at the loss of yet more natural habitat to vineyards in the Okanagan Valley.  Of course other scientists (and people of many stripes) fly to meetings and drink wine with friends, but ecologists are in the special position of being directly concerned with downstream consequences of these activities for the natural world.

In this article in The Guardian, I thought Madeleine Somerville captured the gist of what I’m getting at perfectly with the phrase “the unbearable hypocrisy of being an environmentalist” (mostly I’m just re-channelling her article here).  In a recent review of Chris Thomas’ book (Inheritors of the Earth), David Biello captured the essence of many ecologists’ travels: “…a truly strange world in which people fly all over to see rare of declining animals and plants, emitting the greenhouse gases that make those animals and plants extinct”.  Ring a bell?  I struggle with inconsistencies in my thoughts and actions almost daily.

It is entirely possible for an individual to choose to reduce personal air travel to zero, to live in a small communal apartment, to use only public transit, to forego food with a steep environmental cost, and so on.  But hardly anyone is willing to incur the full costs in terms of relationships (e.g., visiting family at the other end of the country), having a job that is fulfilling and satisfying (the reason you’re at this end of the country), or simply doing the things we enjoy most in life (e.g., traveling).  I certainly am not.  Some students seem to come close, but my sense is that adherence to the code of conduct wains as people attain the financial means to start making exceptions.  Thus the hypocrisy, which does indeed feel unbearable sometimes.

So what to do?  I certainly don’t have any good answers to that question.  My main reason for wanting to write about this, apart from a bit of self-therapy, was to hear how others face down their hypocrisy.  Do you feel it?  Personally, I deal with the unbearable hypocrisy by:

  • Owning the hypocrisy, rather than denying it. It’s bad and yes it could be worse.  But how could it be better?  I try to continue to ask that question.
  • Trying to be less judgemental (than I used to be) of people who have made different life decisions, especially when they involve contradictions between actions and stated values. “Judge not.  Before you judge yourself” (Bob Marley).
  • In some cases, replacing professional air travel with online meetings. I’m not quite yet willing to ground myself completely, but maybe one day.
  • Limit second-guessing. If I’ve committed to something I’m unsure about, I try to think more about not doing it again in the future than whether I should have done it the first time.
  • Exercise my democratic right to vote in ways that seem most likely to promote collective environmental responsibility. A great deal of consumption seems to be driven by a general unwillingness of people to forgo what everyone else seems to be enjoying so much (cue Facebook photos of your friend swimming with turtles in a tropical reef), so I wonder sometimes if “top-down” (dis)incentives are the only way to really advance these things.

Anyone else feeling conflicted?

*Title phrase modified from here.


Abandoned pastures regenerate to low diversity forests without intervention

To start the week, Associate Editor, Cate Macinnis-Ng comments on the recently published article, Abandoned pastures cannot spontaneously recover the attributes of old-growth savannas by Cava et al. Savanna ecosystems of the seasonally dry tropics cover almost 20% of the earth’s land area. Maintenance of biodiversity in savannas relies on the right amounts of grazing […]