On Christmas Holiday Wishes

We are all supposed to make some wishes over the Holiday Season, no matter what our age or occupation. So, this blog is in that holiday spirit with the constraint that I will write about ecology, rather than the whole world, to keep it short and specific. So, here are my 12 wishes for improving the science of ecology in 2020:

  1. When you start your thesis or study, write down in 50 words or less what is the problem, what are the possible solutions to this problem, and what can we do about it.
  2. Take this statement and convert it to a 7 second sound bite that points out clearly for the person on the street or the head of the Research Council why this is an important use of the foundation’s or taxpayers’ money.
  3. Read the literature that is available on your topic of study even if it was published in the last century.
  4. When writing your report, thesis, or paper on your research, prepare an abstract or summary that follows the old rules of stating clearly WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW. Spend much time on this step, since many of your readers will only be able to read this far. 
  5. Make tables and graphs that are clear and to the point. Define the points or histograms on a graph.
  6. Define all three- and four-letter acronyms. Not everyone will know what RSE or SECR means.
  7. Remember the cardinal rule of data presentation that if your data are an estimate of some value, you should provide the confidence limits or credible intervals of your data.
  8. Above all be truthful and modest in your conclusions. If your evidence points in one direction but is weak, say so. If the support of your evidence is strong, say so. But do not say that this is the first time anyone has ever suggested your conclusions.
  9. In the discussion of your results, give some space to suggesting what limits apply to your conclusions. Do your statements apply only to brown trout, or to all trout, or to all freshwater fish? Are your conclusions limited to one biogeographic zone, or one plant community, or to one small national park?  
  10. The key point at the end of your report should be what next? You or others will take up your challenges, and since you have worked hard and thought much about the ecological problems you have faced, you should be the best person to suggest some future directions for research.
  11. Once your have completed your report or paper, go back and read again all the literature that is available on your topic of study and review it critically.
  12. Finish your report or paper, keeping in mind the old adage, the perfect is the enemy of the good. It is quite impossible in science to be perfect. Better good than perfect.

And as you dive into any kind of biological research, it is useful to read about some of the controversies that you may run into as you write your papers or reports, particularly in the statistical treatment of biological data (Hardwicke and Ioannidis 2019, Ioannidis 2019). The statistical controversy over p-values has been a hot issue for several years and you will likely run into it sooner or later (Ioannidis 2019a, Siontis and Ioannidis 2018). The important point you should remember is that ecologists are scientists and our view of the value of our research work is the antithesis of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.”
(Act 5, Scene 5)

This is because our scientific work is valuable for conserving life on Earth, and so it must be carried out to a high and improving standard. It will be there as a contribution to knowledge and available for a long time. It may be useful now, or in one year, or perhaps in 10 or 100 years as an important contribution to solving ecological problems. So, we should strive for the best.

Hardwicke, T.E. and Ioannidis, J.P.A. (2019). Petitions in scientific argumentation: Dissecting the request to retire statistical significance. European Journal of Clinical Investigation 49, e13162.  doi: 10.1111/eci.13162.

Ioannidis, J.P.A. (2019). Options for publishing research without any P-values. European Heart Journal 40, 2555-2556. doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehz556.

Ioannidis, J.P.A. (2019a Ioannidis). What have we (not) learnt from millions of scientific papers with P values? American Statistician 73, 20-25. doi: 10.1080/00031305.2018.1447512.

Siontis, K.C. and Ioannidis, J.P.A. (2018). Replication, duplication, and waste in a quarter million systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes 11, e005212. doi: 10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.118.005212.

Leave a Reply