Promoting Ecology on the Web!

For the past three years, the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America has hosted a wonderful entitled “Ecology on the Web”. Under the curation of Jeff Hollister, EoW started out and grew to provide a number of links to fantastic ecological projects on the web.

If you’re reading this, you know that using the internet as a medium to facilitate communication between scientists is a passion of mine. So I was delighted when Jeff asked me to take over the feature.

So for the next issue of the Bulletin, I’m hoping to take Ecology on the Web and run with it a little bit, In addition to featuring the web presence and products of great ecological projects, I’d also like to feature notable places where Ecologists are using the medium of the web to communicate, converse, argue, and generally share their science. To that end, I’d like to also feature two blogs, and two exemplary blog posts or other form of online writing per issue.

So, please, feel free to submit now or for future issues. Simple provide me with a link and a brief (150 words or less) annotation about the link.

If you have found something on the web that is particularly compelling, interesting, or worthy of mention, I’d love to hear about that, too!

Lastly, if any of you have any great suggestions for interesting things that could be done with the feature, please leave them in the comments below. I’d love some feedback!

“Privatizing” the Reviewer Commons?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgLet’s face it. The current journal system is slowly breaking down – in Ecology if not in other disciplines as well. The number of submissions is going up exponentially. At the same time, journals are finding it harder and harder to find reviewers. Statistics such as editors contacting 10 reviewers to find 3 are not uncommon. People don’t respond, they take a long time to review, or just take a long time and THEN don’t respond leading to a need for still more reviewers to be found (this has held up 2 of my pubs for 3+ extra months). The consequences are inevitable. I’ve heard (and experienced) more and more stories of people submitting to journals for which their work is perfectly suited, only to have them rejected without review for trivial, if any, reason. (I know the plural of anecdote is not data – see refs in the article below for a more rigorous discussion).

Even if an article is reviewed, once rejected, it begins the revision cycle afresh at a new journal, starting the entire reviewer finding-and-binding process over again, yielding considerable redundancy of effort. This is slowing the pace of science, and the pace of our careers – a huge cost for young scientists.

How do we solve the tragedy of the reviewing commons?

Jeremy Fox and Owen Petchy lay out an intriguing suggestion (or see here for free pdf) and couple it with a petition. If you’re convinced by their article, go sign it now.

In essence, they want to “privatize” the reviewer commons. They propose the creation of a public online Pubcred bank. To submit a paper, one pays three credits. For every review, they receive one credit. This maintains a minimum 3:1 submit:review ratio which we should all be maintaining. Along with this, they propose that reviews are passed from journal to journal if a paper is rejected. They authors cannot hide from comments, hoping to roll the dice and get past critical reviewers. This lessens the workload for everyone and boosts science.

There are of course a million details to be worked out – what about new authors (they propose an allowable overdraft), multi-authored papers (split the cost), bad reviews (no credits for you!), etc.? Fox and Petchy lay out a delightfully thoughtful and detailed response to all of these (although I’m sure more will crop up – nothing is perfect).

I think a Pubcred system is absolutely essential to the forward progress of modern science, and I whole-heartedly support this proposal (and signed the petition). At the same time, I think there is a second problem worth thinking about that is related to the proliferation of articles.

Namely, the review and re-review cycle. We all start by submitting to the highest impact journal that we think will take our articles. This can lead to a cycle of review and re-review that takes time and energy from reviewers, and can be gamed by authors who do not revise before resubmitting (who among us has not seen this happen?).

For this reason, at a minimum, the sharing of rejection reviews from journal-to-journal and authors being forced to respond is *ESSENTIAL* to the Pubcred system working. On the other hand, Pubcreds are going to require a large co-ordinating effort between journals – many of whom are published by different organizations. If we are going to go to this trouble already, one wonders if a system where authors submit articles to a common reviewing pool, and journals select articles after review and revision (asking for any additional revisions as needed) as proposed by Stefano Allesina might be even more efficient.

Then again, let’s come back to the real world. Such a system would require a sea-change in the world of academic publishing, and I don’t think we’re there yet. The Pubcred bank will require its own journal compliance hurdles in the first place, and a need for multiple publishers to agree and co-ordinate their actions. No small feat. Given its technical simplicity and huge benefits to journals, this task will hopefully be minor. Implementing Pubcreds gets us a good part of the way there, and begins to tackle what is rapidly becoming a large problem lurking in the background. It won’t solve everything (or maybe it will!), but it should certainly staunch the current tide of problems.

So please, read the article, and if you agree, go sign the petition already!

Update: For more thoughtful discussion see this post at Jabberwocky Ecology and a thoughtful response by Fox and Petchey.

Fox, J., & Petchey, O. (2010). Pubcreds: Fixing the Peer Review Process by “Privatizing” the Reviewer Commons Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 91 (3), 325-333 DOI: 10.1890/0012-9623-91.3.325

Stefano Allesina (2009). Accelerating the pace of discovery by changing the peer review algorithm arXiv.org arXiv: 0911.0344v1

New Ideas in Ecology and Reviewing

ResearchBlogging.orgRecently on ecolog-l, there has been a thread going around about journal publishing – open access v. pay-for access, impact factor, elitism, reviewing, etc. The central question seems to be, is the publication system somehow broken? Do we need to fix it? Is the model of journals such as PLoS Biology or The Open Ecology Journal not enough?

I think the answer is that in the realm of experimental or solid theoretical work, yes, the open access model of science publishing is alive and well (although I often wished that more of the journals out there, such as Research Letters in Ecology, got more attention – but the question of why to submit in a new journal, and what makes a journal high on ones priority list is a whole different ball of wax).

What seems to not have as clear a home in the world of Open Access science is short novel opinion pieces. True, PLoS One and others may have some room for forum, review, and opinion articles. But it is not their mission. Indeed, even in the world of non-open access, the primary publishing point for these sorts of articles is the Trends series, such as Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Articles there are often high-impact and intriguing. But, not open access and can be long-in-the-publishing-cycle (which is not as ideal for ideas types of papers).

Now, one might say, if you want a short, rapidly published, open access opinion piece – well, that’s called a Blog. But this does not have the cachet of a formally published journal (even an online-only one).

So, I’ve been intrigued to see the emergence of Ideas in Ecology and Evolution. It’s mission is to be quick (5 days from acceptance to publication), idea focused, very open to peer-reviewed commentary, and open access. Their entire publishing model is laidout by Lonnie Aarssen, the journal’s editor, in this opening editorial. Some seems like relatively standard stuff. For example, the criteria for publication are:


(i) The paper must present a genuinely novel idea or commentary.
(ii) The new idea /commentary must be well-argued and plausible.
(iii) The paper must demonstrate the potential for the new idea /commentary to impact significantly on the subject area or broader discipline.
(iv) The paper must clearly differentiate the idea or commentary from any previously published similar ideas or commentaries.
(v) A new idea must be accompanied by a proposal for testing the idea, even if it is completely impractical with current technology. Testability may be addressed directly, e.g. through empiricism, or in terms of the consilience of inductions.

But then it gets interesting. What is perhaps most intriguing (and most controversial) is how the journal attempts to speed up the initial review process and ensure that all ideas are given a fair shot, rather than try to maintain ‘prestige’ of a journal. It begins with the premise that the current review system is somewhat broken, and that referees have little incentive to be speedy in their reviews or easily embrace new ideas that are counter to dogma. So, it proposes to whopping changes to the system. 1) Referees are paid for their job (current $150). 2) No blind reviewing. Reviewers are fully credited when a paper is published. Not only that, but 3) “If the paper is accepted for publication, each referee is entitled to publish his/her views on the paper as a response article – peer reviewed by both the editors and the author.” Although, reviewers are also allowed to merely click through a standard form and submit no written comments if they wish, in order to speed up the process.

In their own words “Ideas in Ecology and Evolution represents a completely transparent peer-review publication model that rejects elitism, guards against sources of publication bias, and serves to break down traditional barriers to the release of creativity…

Lofty stuff. Assuming that this bias against new ideas is real. I have to admit, I’m skeptical. Reviewers are rigorous and sometimes slow. And yet, I am highly skeptical of the idea of buying objectivity. When I review, I always strive for editorial objectivity, money or no. I like the idea of publishing commentaries and reviews along with papers – I’ve long wished that more journals would allow access to general reviewer comments. But my skeptical side really has to wonder if paying reviewers might make them actually less objective and more likely to accept a paper. I’m just not sure if I would feel comfortable being paid good money, reading something, and then giving it a thumbs down.

Also intriguing, authors pay a $400 submission fee up front (which goes towards reviewers) and $300 afterwards if accepted. The up front fee is indeed novel, and I admit, I can see many an author blanche at the idea of paying $400 for a possible rejection. It also ups the ante on the question of whether introducing money into the reviewing system will actually change objectivity.

This far, not much has been published there – one paper on parasites in behavior research and a response by one of the reviewers. Will there be more? Is this The Way? Or, is there an even more streamlined semi-peer reviewed meta-blog more the way to go for this sort of thing (something to think about, folk)? And how ethically sound is the journals reviewing policy? I am indeed curious.

Aarssen, L. (2008). Ideas in Ecology and Evolution – A new open-access model dedicated to the rapid release of creativity in peer-review publication Ideas in Ecology and Evolution, 1, 1-9 DOI: 10.4033/iee.2008.1.1.e