‘Nature’ requires responsible party

Nature announced today that it is modifying its authorship policies for submission to its journals. The two major changes are that one senior author will be required to take “responsibility” for the paper, and that an explicit list of each coauthor’s role in the paper must be submitted. In a November 2007 editorial, the leadership at Nature suggested that a senior or corresponding author on every paper be required to sign a statement assuring the paper’s integrity. They made the case that: “Principal investigators traditionally bask in the glory of a well-received paper. We are proposing now that they willingly open themselves to sanctions that could be brought to bear should the paper turn out to have major problems.” In comments received, the scientific community disapproved of this move. Nature has thus instead taken a less drastic, but just as meaningful, step: They are requiring that one senior author name himself the steward of the paper. Duties include preserving paper’s original data, verifying that the figures, images and conclusions accurately reflect the data collected and conform to Nature journal guidelines, and making the materials, data and algorithms easily accessible. In addition, they are now making mandatory the long-encouraged task of detailing each author’s contributions to a given paper. Because there are no guidelines for authorship within the peer-review world, this new rule is meant to minimize the number of “honorary authorships”, or authorships given to someone for non-scientific reasons, such as prestige of the person’s name. Nature leaves the structure of such lists up to the authors, and so far it looks like they will not contest authors they deem unfit. The move simply makes scientists think twice about who they include on their papers. The change in terms comes in the wake of a recent rare occurence, the retraction of a Nature paper in which the authors disagree about the validity of the results. Despite the increased transparency these measures will create, should journals dictate the dealings of authors on a study? Does good old-fashioned trust simply not work anymore? Nature editors (2009). Authorship policies Nature, 458 (7242), 1078-1078 DOI:...

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Environment: Elbowed out by recession

In mid-February, George Will, resident Washington Post conservative and climate-skeptic, wrote an editorial denouncing “Dark Green Doomsayers.” The editorial was filled with anecdotal references of news articles from the 1970’s that declare widespread climate cooling and exclaim that the world will soon find itself in the next ice age. The piece outraged the environmental community and sparked a flurry of internet activity demanding that the Post retract the column for misinformation. (Last week, the Post ran an opinion piece by Chris Mooney, author of “The Republican War on Science,” which rebuts Will’s editorial and scolds him for faulty fact-checking.) Just last week they Gallup reported that for the first time in the 25-year history of the poll, Americans think that “economic growth should be given the priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.” Now, an early March Gallup poll showed that a record 41 percent of people polled think that the threat of global warming is exaggerated. The change of heart about the economy is not surprising.  We are in a recession, and the economy is the most tangible problem to most Americans.  But what about the surge in climate change skepticism?  Is it possible that when people put an issue on the back burner, they justify their decision by reassuring themselves that it wasn’t that important, after all? As Will himself puts it, do “real calamities take our minds off hypothetical...

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Wikipedia: A scientific and educational opportunity

Emilio Bruna of the University of Florida wanted to assign students in his graduate seminar on plant -animal interactions something different than a term paper.  So he devised a novel plan that would help them learn some crucial concepts while writing concisely: rewriting Wikipedia entries.  I caught up with Emilio and student Kristine Callis, who is the first author of their resulting Trends in Ecology and Evolution paper, to learn about their experience. What prompted the idea to edit Wikipedia entries in class? Emilio Bruna: I was looking for an alternative to the standard research review paper for class, so I went onto Wikipedia.  I noticed that although some of those entries are really good, the ones for the class I was teaching, which was plant-animal interactions, were really bad. And it’s not the authors’ fault – they wrote about what they were interested in and what they knew. But I thought it was an opportunity to do better. So at first I thought I’d give it to them as an assignment.  And then the idea came up to write a paper about the experience, and that’s the product you can read in TREE. What was the assignment? EB: Students were working in groups of 3 or 4. Each group tackled a different Wikipedia entry: frugivory, herbivory, pollination, granivory and seed dispersal. The groups had to critique the entry, rewrite it, and upload the changes. Some groups had an easier time than others, depending on the critiques of other authors. Kristine Callis: All of us were familiar with Wikipedia, but we’d been told in the past, since most of us are teaching assistants, that you can’t really use Wikipedia because you don’t know how good the content is. By doing this project we discovered instead that there weren’t a lot of things in the entries that were outright wrong, but there were a lot of things that were either misleading or left out. Or, in some cases, given too much treatment? KC: Definitely. We discovered that most entries seemed to have an anthropomorphic spin. The human aspect is important, of course, but in many cases it went too far. For example, the entry for the term “frugivore” spent a lot of time talking about humans who eat only fruit. EB: That was everyone’s favorite. The fruitarians were a real highlight for us. Were other authors resistant to your changes? KC: At first we didn’t know how the culture of Wikipedia worked.  One group just uploaded their changes directly, so another author just reverted their changes back to the old entry. What we didn’t realize is that there is a...

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A realistic map of scientific thought

Tracking citation data (i.e., which papers cite which other papers) has traditionally been the method for understanding the interconnectivity of different fields and subfields of research. But in the age when most researchers access their information online, the printed word can sometimes be years out of date. In a paper published this week in Public Library of Science ONE (PLoS ONE), Johan Bollen of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and his colleagues created a digital map of scientific thought by assessing internet information access from a host of universities, publishers and internet aggregators.  The data they compiled represented almost a billion online information requests. The map (click above) shows the different fields represented in a color gradient, with journals represented by dots clustered into subfields — most dots are not labeled, but they correspond to a colored field label.  Larger dots are relatively more influential journals.  Lines connecting the journals represent relationship strength: the shorter the line, the more closely related the material in the pair of journals. A few interesting results can be gleaned from this map.  First, as the authors point out, the map shows a relatively large representation of social science information, a trend not normally depicted in citation data. The map can also be a useful tool to see the relationships emerging between various scientific subfields (such as the seemingly unlikely relationship between organic chemistry and international studies) and thus help researchers explore interdisciplinary relationships. As the authors put it, “There can exist stark differences between what people claim they do and what they actually do.” In the case of citations, the authors make the distinction of the former as “a public and explicit expression of influence by scholarly authors,” whereas the latter represents the “private navigation behavior of scholarly users of web portals.”  The act of citing a seminal or classic paper out of habit or duty and neglecting to cite more controversial or volatile published work might skew the representation of actual information transfer within the sciences. This map, the authors say, “offers a first-ever glimpse of this scholarly terra incognita.” Read the open-access article here. Bollen, J., Van de Sompel, H., Hagberg, A., Bettencourt, L., Chute, R., Rodriguez, M., & Balakireva, L. (2009). Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science PLoS ONE, 4 (3) DOI:...

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Moving Forward with Ecological Informatics and Reproducibility

Over the last year it has become increasingly apparent to me that ecologists and environmental scientists must take a more active role in providing access to both data and the analytical techniques used to analyze those data.

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NSF requests responses to important survey

As you may know, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is conducting a survey of principal investigators. If you received the survey invitation, we encourage our members to participate.

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How to sneak into grad school

After 12 years of formal education (13 if you count kindergarten) and four years of college, one would think I would be sick of school. However, I saw only two options: get a real job and become a real adult or keep going to school.

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Will ESA’s News and Views Blog change the way that academics publish their ideas?

ESA’s News and Views Blog is something that is long overdue. Its mission to engage students is especially valuable. For academics in particular, however, the ESA Blog presents some intriguing and important implications and consequences for the process of publication. I would like to encourage some discussion of this.

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