On What to Read in the Ecological Literature

Postgraduate students in ecology face a wall of literature that they must come to grips with in their career. Time is limited and unlike the French naturalist Comte de Buffon who produced 36 volumes of Histoire Naturelle from 1749 to 1788, most of us do not have the luxury of several assistants reading the current literature to us during all waking hours (even during meals). So, there are three options available now if you wish to become a scientist. First, you can decide that there was nothing serious written before a specified date like 2008, and then concentrate on the recent literature only. Alternatively, you can decide that all the current wisdom in ecology is summarized in a few books and read them. This option has the danger that your choice of books to read may give you a distorted orientation to ecological science. Thirdly, you may decide that your thesis supervisor is a concentrated source of ecological wisdom and simply do what he or she says. This is certainly the most parsimonious way to proceed but the risk here is that you may find later when looking for a job that your supervisor was considered a fringe player rather than the central cutting edge of future ecological science.

Whatever your decision you will still face a large pile of scientific papers. So, the skill you need to sharpen is how to cull the literature. If you wish to study cone production in Pinus banksiana, you can search for all the literature with this Latin name in the search terms of the Web of Science or a similar source program. Given all that, you can now (I am told) get AI to write your thesis automatically. This is of course nonsense since any specific set of ecological literature will have many contradictory papers, some papers that are outright incorrect because of statistics or experimental design, and others that are speculation rather than data rich. So, you will have to read a great deal to fix on a specific problem within this specified field that you can address with your thesis work. The key question is as always What Next? New ideas, new insights, new speculation are the keys at this point.

Perhaps the most important insight here is that there are many thousands of unanswered questions in science, and ecology may be particularly difficult in having many critical issues that have simply been dropped because they are too difficult. But what was too difficult 10 years ago may be easy to measure now, so advances in understanding are possible. But here you must pick a problem that is solvable, and there are many problems floating around in the ecological literature that are impossible to solve, and others that if solved will be of little use for the critical issues that are now visible. There is no simple guidance here for new scientists. We can see in textbooks and reviews the problems of the past clearly stated and investigated, but the problems of the past that AI or your library can highlight may not be the problems that are most important for the future of our science. Bravery here is desirable but dangerous.

There are other issues that I think worth noting for young ecologists. Read widely. There are many good ecological journals, and do not assume that all you need to read are British ones, or American ones, or Science and Nature. With all due respects, there is much nonsense published in Science and Nature, not to mention lesser renowned journals. Do not assume that only English papers present ecological wisdom. Read sceptically and ask what is the evidence for any conclusion and how good it is. However, a word of caution to postgraduate students is in order here: be careful not to apply these rules to your thesis supervisor’s research. Some things in science are sacred.

Andrew (2020), Fox (2021) and Fox et al (2023) discuss some of the reasons ecological journals do not reach perfection, and their analyses may help relieve your anxiety if your recent paper has been rejected by your favourite journal.

Andrew, N. R. (2020). Design flaws and poor language: Two key reasons why manuscripts get rejected from austral ecology across all countries between 2017 and 2020. Austral Ecology, 45, 505–509.doi: 10.1111/aec.12908.

Fox, C. W. (2021). Which peer reviewers voluntarily reveal their identity to authors? Insights into the consequences of open-identities peer review. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 288(1961), 20211399. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2021.1399.

Fox, C.W., Meyer, J. & Aime, E. (2023) Double‐blind peer review affects reviewer ratings and editor decisions at an ecology journal. Functional Ecology, 37, 1144-1157.doi. 10.1111/1365-2435.14259.

2 thoughts on “On What to Read in the Ecological Literature

  1. Michael Baumann

    Three thoughts, but a caveat first.

    “In our times, we would only publish when we felt we had something to say. Today, if you don’t have anything to say, you do that in at least two or three papers.” Dennis Chitty said that (1). That was in 1996, when Chitty was 84 years old, and I was 31. I have lived by his standards ever since.

    I never had much to say, and even fewer things that hadn’t been said before. (I remember one time I discovered something interesting about probabilities, and it turned to be Bayes’s theorem (2). About 250 years too late.) Consequently, I never believed that reckless publishing would move society forward.

    And yes, as was pointed out to me frequently: “Publication is the currency of our success.” (3)

    1: During my grammar school years and undergraduate studies, I wish my teachers had taken the time to expose me to the original books rather than some child’s play version of them. Euklid, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, come to mind.
    2: During my Ph.D. years, I rated every book and paper I read. It turned out that about 90% of the books I read were worth my time and 90% of the papers were not. So, I focused on books and classic papers (4). But even here I wish I had had better guidance (5).
    3: There is normal science and there are scientific revolutions (6). During periods of normal science, scientists work within a framework of beliefs and accumulate facts that strengthen the framework. Who is challenging the frameworks today?

    And of course, there is the story of the newly hired professor at U.B.C. who only reads the abstracts, because reading doesn’t get you tenure or grants, writing does.

    (1) D. Chitty (1996), pers. comm.
    (2) T. Bayes (1763), An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances.
    (3) L.M. Ward (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006), pers. comm.
    (4) F. Courchamp and C.J.A. Bradshaw (2018), 100 articles every ecologist should read. Nature Ecology and Evolution 2: 395 – 401. This publication lists only six papers that were published after 2000.
    (5) It was years after I completed my Ph.D. in 1998 that I discovered: E.g. T.C. Chamberlin (1890), The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses; A. Szent-Györgyi (1960), Introduction to a Submolecular Biology; J.R. Platt (1964). Strong Inference.
    (6) T.S. Kuhn (1970), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Second edition.

    1. Charles Krebs Post author

      Michael – I think your short history will benefit many new students who rarely get a glimpse of what is behind a scientific career like yours, and so I think your points could be a skeleton of a good graduate discussion session. Thanks.


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