Why do Scientists Reinvent Wheels?

We may reinvent wheels by repeating research that has already been completed and published elsewhere. In one sense there is no great harm in this, and statisticians would call it replication of the first study, and the more replication the more we are convinced that the results of the study are robust. There is a problem when the repeated study reaches different results from the first study. If this occurs, there is a need to do another study to determine if there is a general pattern in the results, or if there are different habitats with different answers to the question being investigated. But after a series of studies is done, it is time to do something else since the original question has been answered and replicated. Such repeated studies are often the subject of M.Sc. or Ph.D. theses which have a limited 1-3-year time window to reach completion. The only general warning for these kinds of replicated studies is to read all the old literature on the subject. There is a failure too often on this and reviewers often notice missing references for a repeated study. Science is an ongoing process but that does not mean that all the important work has been carried out in the last 5 years.

There is a valid time and place to repeat a study when the habitat for example has been greatly fragmented or altered by human land use or when climate change has made a strong impact on the ecosystem under study. The problem in this case is to have an adequate background of data that allows you to interpret your current data. If there is a fundamental problem with ecological studies to date it is that we have an inadequate baseline for comparison for many ecosystems. We can conclude that a particular ecosystem is losing species (due to land use change or climate) only if we know what species comprised this ecosystem in past years and how much the species composition fluctuated over time. The time frame desirable for background data may be only 5 years for some species or communities but for many communities it may be 20-40 years or more. We are too often buried in the assumption that communities and ecosystems have been in equilibrium in the past so that any fluctuations now seen are unnatural. This time frame problem bedevils calls for conservation action when data are deficient.

The Living Planet Report of 2018 has been widely quoted as stating that global wildlife populations have decreased 60% in the last 4 decades. They base their analysis on the changes in 4000 vertebrate species. There are about 70,000 vertebrate species on Earth, so this statement is based on about 6% of the vertebrates. The purpose of the Living Planet Report is to educate us about conservation issues and encourage political action. No ecologist in his or her right mind would question this 60% quotation lest they be cast out of the profession, but it is a challenge to the graduate students of today to analyze this statistic to determine how reliable it is. We all ‘know’ that elephants and rhinos are declining but they are hardly a random sample. The problem in a nutshell is that we have reliable long-term data on perhaps 0.01% or less of all vertebrate species. By long term I suggest we set a minimal limit of 10 generations. As another sobering test of these kinds of statements I suggest picking your favorite animal and reading all you can on how to census the species and then locate how many studies of this species meet the criteria of a good census. The African elephant could be a good place to start, since everyone is convinced that it has declined drastically. The information in the Technical Supplement is a good starting point for a discussion about data accuracy in a conservation class.

My advice is that ecologists should not without careful thought repeat studies that have already been carried out many times on common species . Look for gaps in the current wisdom. Many of our species of concern are indeed declining and need action but we need knowledge of what kinds of management actions are helpful and possible. Many of our species have not been studied long enough to know if they are under threat or not. It is not helpful to ‘cry wolf’ if indeed there is no wolf there. We need precision and accuracy now more than ever.

World Wildlife Fund. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland. ISBN: 978-2-940529-90-2.

One thought on “Why do Scientists Reinvent Wheels?

  1. Michael Braysher

    Too true Charley. A key reason is the massive proliferation of publications. It reflects the publish or perish pressure – for tenure, promotion and or to up profile to secure grants. A recent cartoon summarised it for me. It showed two academics on a huge pile of journals. Below was a manager asking if they could give him advice based on their research. They replied, sorry mate, no time to help, we have several more papers to publish this year. Hence the focus on publications that require little research such as longer term ecological studies and little effort to broker the findings to practitioners. Not sure how to break the cycle.


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