New paper: Navigating conflicting landscape aspirations. Application of a photo-based Q-method in Transylvania (Central Romania)

Andra Ioana Milcu, Kate Sherren, Jan Hanspach, David Abson, Joern Fischer. Land Use Policy (full paper available here or here)

How do locals look at their landscape and what do they want from it? These are two questions we’ve been trying to answer since the start of our research project, and the answers are “differently” and “many things” respectively. These questions are interesting to ask in the context of any cultural landscape, but all the more of those subject to increased and confusing pressures from external drivers. In Southern Transylvania, the global and European socio-economic contexts translate in demanding and often contradicting challenges for the Saxons landscapes. On the one hand, as globalization turns into reality for this region as well, traditional subsistence agriculture loses its economic profitability and agricultural intensification becomes a strong model for development. On the other hand, a growing awareness of the threats and continuous alterations cultural landscapes are facing drives European policy makers to elaborate conservation policies which seek to preserve the valuable ecological subsystems.

Our aim was to understand the various ways in which locals think and feel about the cultural landscape of Southern Transylvania and its future role. In order to do so, we employed the Q methodology, a research method that explores people’s subjectivity by identifying shared ways of thinking about a certain topic by how they sort a set of stimuli related to it. 129 participants from 30 villages were asked to sort 33 landscape photos in a forced normal distribution according to what they would like to see more of in their village or village surroundings. By focusing on the respondent and his own system of reference without using imposed a priori meanings, the Q method becomes friendlier to the subjects, which might explain some of the positive feedback we received from locals.

We would like to acknowledgephoto credits to the following colleagues, contacts and web-sites, who agreed to the photos being used for the purpose ofthis: Silvina Armat, Ana Saftiuc, Sebastian Dan (,, Cristi Darie, Alin Todea,Mariana Cut¸,, Andrei Ostroveanu,, Viorel Iras¸ cu,, and Jacqueline Loos.

Characteristic arrangement of photos for one of the factors

Our findings revealed five ways (viewpoints) in which locals perceived their landscape.

Landscapes for prosperity and economic development (F1)

People sharing this opinion thought that landscapes should be put at the service of development and seemed most determined to adopt any means or technologies in order to achieve modernization and economic growth. Pictures suggesting wild, nature-dominated landscapes, or traditional agricultural practices were rated poorly. These people were willing to accept a trade-off between prosperity, and cultural and natural heritage, that might come with development. F1 included many state officials and individuals in management positions who often administrate or control relatively large areas of land.

Landscapes for traditions and balance (F2)

People sharing this opinion prioritized spiritual values and saw landscapes as a way to maintain their cultural identity and traditions.Their preferences suggested pastoral landscapes in which people interact with the landscape in somewhat idyllic ways. They were seeking this balanced relationship between human intervention and nature while projecting on the landscape their own expectations. Ironically, they idealized traditional agriculture, although many of them practiced agriculture mostly as a hobby, not as a source of income. Paradoxically, they had a strong need for sense of place, although F2 included the largest proportion of foreigners. As these individuals made a conscious choice to escape modernization, their lifestyle became dependent on the conservation of the landscapes and maintaining the cultural identity.

Landscapes for people (F3)

People sharing this opinion feel that landscapes should fulfill basic human needs and provide leisure activities. In contrast with F2, for F3 agriculture was a way of survival and they looked at landscapes with fear but at the same time gratitude being dependent on it for food, water and heat. They also preferred traditional rural landscapes but without being able to identify those precise elements of cultural identity or heritage. Very specific to this factor was the concern for community cohesion and seeing landscapes as a space for celebration and community. They had the highest proportion of relatively poor subsistence farmers and day laborers.

Landscapes for farming (F4)

People sharing this opinion think that landscapes are meant for farming and cultivating land.

But while F1 individuals wanted to explore all development opportunities offered by nature, F4 individuals generally viewed agriculture as their only option for achieving development and well being. This group was the least impressed by the beauty of nature and felt little connection to recreation activities in nature. However, they expressed appreciation for open landscapes and had an aesthetic preference for well-maintained settings that mirror stewardship qualities, and seemed to prefer a mix of new and old farming practices. This group was dominated by medium-large farmers, directly shaping and being dependent on the landscape.

Landscapes for nature (F5)

This is the group of recreation consumers that appreciate a natural landscape for its visual qualities. Preferred settings suggested high appreciation for greenery-dominated landscapes and denoted the least degree of anthropic intervention  in the landscape. F5 displayed less active engagement in the landscape than F2, less dependence on the landscape than F3 and F4, and considerably less power than F1. This group included retired country-dwellers but also commuters and weekend inhabitants.

Fig. 5

Conceptual space diagram illustrating the positioning of factors and associated viewpoints (regarding the landscape) relative to the level of desired modernization and the change agency level of individuals within a given factor relative to the landscape

In keeping with this diversity of opinions and interests, we believe Southern Transylvania would gain from avoiding ecological and economical simplification, as well as the homogenization of landscapes and cultures. Policies that nurture diverse opportunities for development, by providing equal chances for economically viable farming, such as operational markets for niche products stemming from traditionally managed areas, as well as non-agricultural livelihoods such as culture-based tourism) are key for the region. Economic diversity, with its various income opportunities, is dependent on a diverse and rich landscape. Landscape heterogeneity would also mitigate conflicts of identities and values over the landscape, which are recently arising among locals with different visions and values systems.

To read our paper on landscape preferences in Southern Transylvania go here. To read other papers that have been published within the Romania project go here.


Filed under Research updates, Romania project

Paper recommendation: Rejecting Editorial Rejections Revisited: Are Editors of Ecological Journals Good Oracles?


Reommendation of: Farji-Brener A, Kitzberger T.: Rejecting Editorial Rejections Revisited: Are Editors of Ecological Journals Good Oracles? Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 2014 Jul; 95(3):238-242.

This paper looks at a topic we have been pondering for a while now (e.g. here, here or here): do editorial rejections contribute to the publication of good science or are they just arbitrary decisions that are a nuisance for authors? From our experience editorial rejections seem to be increasingly common. Sometimes (and at best) these come as friendly letters by editors who actually read the manuscript, but mostly they are just the set phrases from a rejection template. Sometimes (and in the worst case), editorial rejections are justified using arguments that contradict the actual publication practice of the very same journal (e.g. “We don’t publish papers on single species” when a similar study on the same species was published not long ago).


Our limited and anecdotal experience with editorial rejections have now been verified by this study of Farji-Brener and Kitzberger. They surveyed the fate of papers with editorial rejections and found that two thirds of the rejected papers where published at a journal of similar quality afterwards. This means that in more than half of the cases the (subject) editor’s decision to reject because of insufficient quality very likely was not justified. It also means that the role of the editors as gatekeepers in most cases does not improve the quality of the publication process, but rather makes it arbitrary and unhelpfully painful for authors.

We hope that this paper is read by many editors and scientists – for the former to challenge their practices and for the latter as a reminder that an editorial rejection will not always constitute a meaningful “expert” judgement of the quality of a given submission.

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Filed under recommended in F1000

Why not to analyse food and biodiversity in the same way as carbon

By Joern Fischer

As we know, global maps are the definite go when it comes to getting published where it matters, getting attention of policy makers, and getting attention of the media. Making global maps has also become much easier in the last couple of decades, and so now we have global maps of just about everything. Of the things that interest me, this includes, for example carbon sequestration, biodiversity loss, land cover, land clearing, food production, yield gaps.

My point today is very simple: we can map all of these things globally, but for some it’s meaningful and for others far less so.

Let’s say we create a global map of carbon sequestration, which tells us about the spatial distribution of opportunities for better climate regulation. This seems to make sense, in that the carbon thus sequestered automatically benefits everyone in the world — basically, no matter where it happens.

But more common maps these days are about resolving food-conservation dilemmas, e.g. by highlighting yield gaps or opportunities to share or spare land, and so on. For everything related to food production, things are different than with carbon. The food generated in one place does not automatically benefit the whole world! So, unlike for carbon, the “produce first, distribution will look after itself” principle, is fundamentally flawed when it comes to food.

For biodiversity it’s also a bit tricky, because it’s not as easily commensurable globally as carbon is. The carbon sequestered in South America, for example, does much the same thing for climate regulation as that sequestered in Northern Europe. But how does a culturally valued bird in an indigenous community of Northern Australia (for example) rank relative to a yet undiscovered epiphyte in the Amazon basin?

So we have at least two things to keep in mind when mapping things: (1) Do the benefits of the things mapped distribute themselves automatically? And (2) how commensurable are they across the globe? Where the answer is shaky on both of these things, we may need to be a bit more careful about getting too excited about global maps.

Visualising global patterns is nice, but it would be good if we didn’t lose touch with smaller scales quite as much. Many real-world problems about conservation and about food security, for example, play out at regional or landscape scales. Global analyses are nice for an overview, but actual problems can rarely be solved very well on the basis of global analyses.

[Incidentally, even if the desired effect of something is the same worldwide (as for carbon sequestration, say), the extent of undesired side-effects may differ from place to place... and again, those side-effects would not be apparent by just looking at the global pattern...]


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, ecosystem services, ERC project, food security, Today's question

Some key areas of “group think” among scientists

By Joern Fischer

Researchers operate within networks, and people within those networks tend to share certain worldviews. None of us are free of this — different researchers see the world through different analytical lenses, which one might also call “paradigms”. My sense is that we’d get a lot further in terms of insight if relatively less research energy was put into developing sophistication within paradigms, instead focusing on the differences between paradigms and ways to learn from multiple paradigms. One might also call this “epistemological pluralism“, or less technically, it would be nice if scientists were a little more open-minded.

This phenomenon of “group think” amongst different sets of research groups is something I have found fascinating for a long time, and I think it exists in various topic areas. I list some of those areas here where “group think” appears quite strong, and potentially this causes some problems. These topic areas are in no particular order — so I’m not claiming that all are equally “guilty” of group think, nor that the ones near the top are somehow more guilty than those near the bottom.

Resilience thinking. Researchers working on resilience tend to have a specific toolbox of concepts that they like to apply to all problems. For example, they might see thresholds in all kinds of phenomena, or adaptive cycles. These are, of course, useful concepts, but there are instances where the threshold concept is perhaps neither the most useful, nor the most important concept for a particular kind of problem — the same is true for the adaptive cycle.

Ecosystem services. In an effort to more effectively “sell” the value of nature, ecosystem services researchers have often conveniently ignored the dis-benefits provided by nature. The rhetoric, for example, is that ecosystem services are especially important for the poor. But in some poor communities, people complain about disservices, such as wild animals raiding crops or threatening human life.

Though shalt incentivise. Many ecologists like to say that better incentives (typically meaning financial payments) are needed for farmers or other actors to conserve nature. This idea of “incentivising” people, however, tends to embody quite a narrow construct of people as Homo economicus, caring above all about financial and material gains. This is often not the case — other governance mechanisms exist, related to things like the flow of information, or even articulation of shared values; but such “softer” approaches are often ignored.

We must be evidence-based. There is a strong rhetoric in some parts of the conservation community that our actions must be evidence-based. While this is fine in principle — the alternative is that everything we do ought to be haphazard — it is a very empirical (not conceptual) view of the world, which sheds light on phenomena for which evidence is readily gathered while glossing over other areas. That is, certain epistemological biases are very likely embodied in writing that emphasises the need to strengthen the “evidence base” .

Food demand will double, and we must meet it. This is one of my favourite ones. It is virtually unquestioned among ecologists that demand for agricultural products will double, and that we must meet this demand. The question as to why we must, or who is going to benefit from this, is typically left for others to answer. After all, there’s nothing to be argued about: we must double it! At face value, this is no more or less obvious than saying “we must stop eating meat”, or “we must no longer drive cars”. It’s essentially an assumption that, given a desired outcome, a certain action is required. The desired outcome here is that all demand must always be met. That’s something on can assume or take as a starting point for analyses, but it is no a self-evident truth.

We must solve problems by “going local”. If only things were local! We could all happily live re-united with nature ever after. This worldview has some serious limitations in that it ignores connections via large distances — tele-connections — which are built into the Earth System (e.g. the carbon cycle), and into many of our modern economic and social systems. So … local will only be a part of the solution.

I’m sure there are many other examples. But the interesting point is that, within each of these communities, the main focus typically remains fully unquestioned. Such group-think, in turn, means we miss out on a lot of opportunities for learning.



Filed under Uncategorized

Life as a reject (without review)

By Joern Fischer

This blog has a bit of a history of commenting on “academic life”, rather than just on the content of sustainability research (e.g. here). In line with that history, and following a series of rejected papers, I thought I’d share my latest thoughts on rejections with the rest of the world.

Before I do this, I might just highlight some of the less amusing recent experiences I’ve had with the peer review process – all of these with so-called reputable international journals:

  • One paper was rejected without review because it did not fit the scope of a journal – but that same journal had published a paper with virtually the exact same scope in the previous year (same threatened species as a focus, arguably less interesting study area, no more or better data).
  • One paper I co-authored was attacked in a response article. We had never been asked to look at the response article before it was published. Once it was published, we asked to write a response. We were then told our response could not be published, because, in fact, our original paper had not actually been within the scope of the journal. It was rejected without review.
  • One paper was rejected without review for not being global enough. The same journal later that year published a paper that addressed only a single village within the same study area we had focused on (we had worked in 30 villages, mapped out implications to an area encompassing over 300 villages, and of course also embedded all this in a global discourse).
  • One paper was rejected by a conservation journal without review because it did not contain specific recommendations for a protected area or similar. The same journal regularly publishes papers that also do not do this.
  • Two papers were rejected without review for addressing a similar topic to another paper recently accepted. One then encouraged us to submit a response letter to the original paper instead. The content was not considered in these decisions (i.e. whether ours was better or different than the other paper previously accepted), just the topic area being the same.

Most colleagues I talk to still say that peer review is the best we have. I guess so. But can we call the editor-as-gate-keeper model peer review? The above experiences show that the judgment of single handling editors (or editors in chief) is far from consistent. It upholds the standard of individual subjectivity, more than the standard of good science.

It appears that with too much pressure on journal pages, subjectivity is increasing. Journals typically say they “reject things that are unlikely to make it through our very rigorous peer review process”. Well, those papers are probably amongst those rejected without review. But then, I would argue, there are many other papers that might well make it through peer review, but never get the chance. It used to be journals like Nature and Science that were subjective and took what was “cool”, as opposed to focusing exclusively on what was good. Now, that phenomenon is probably down journals with an impact factor of about 3, with great amounts of inconsistency within editorial boards as to what qualifies as “cool enough” to let through in the first place.

There are two ways of being an editor: the editor-as-gate-keeper model versus the editor-as-wise-arbitrator model. In the latter, the editor seeks advice by trusted experts, and weighs their arguments. In the former case (now much more common), the editor seeks reasons to reject, and primarily trusts her (or more commonly, his) instincts to know what is good science.

The vast amount of science I see is “reasonable”, and this is why PLoS One (for example) accepts two thirds of papers. Most papers submitted to good journals are alright. But far more get rejected, increasingly because editors seem to believe in one kind of “right science” (= theirs).

Yes, pressure on pages is real, and so I don’t have a simple solution for this either. But one thing is for sure: the current system is broken, wastes people’s time, sucks motivation out of graduate students, and is highly subjective. Perhaps Peerage of Science is one of the more promising options for the future?


Filed under Trends in conservation and sustainability science

Article recommendation — Land-use change: incorporating the frequency, sequence, time span, and magnitude of changes into ecological research

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper:

Land-use change: incorporating the frequency, sequence, time span, and magnitude of changes into ecological research by Watson SJ, Luck GW, Spooner PG, Watson DM. Front Ecol Environ 2014 May; 12(4):241-9, DOI: 10.1890/130097

 Land use change is a key topic in biodiversity conservation. However, many ecologists treat land use change as a uni-directional, or one-off event. For example, they might distinguish between intact versus degraded vegetation, or they might consider an ongoing process of degradation (sometimes considering sudden changes or thresholds). Few ecologists have thought about the fact that land use may in fact change multiple times over relatively short time periods, thus creating a fluctuating mosaic of land covers.

This new paper provides a very nice way of thinking about the complexities caused by multiple land use changes happening one after the other. It deals with the frequency of land use change, the time span for which a given land cover exists in a particular location, and also how much of a contrast there is between the new land use and some prior or reference state.

In this context, the authors also raise a range of scale considerations (regarding temporal scale, spatial scale, and the resolution of underlying land cover maps or models), as well as thinking about how different ecological characteristics of target species would be affected by different temporal aspects of land cover change.

I think this is an excellent paper that landscape ecologists and conservation biologists should read because it provides a lot of food for new thoughts on how to think about landscape dynamics.


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, recommended in F1000

Why the discourse on sustainable intensification needs to change

By Joern Fischer

Just a couple of days ago, we highlighted a new paper we published in Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment on the topic of “sustainable intensification”. By coincidence, two new papers on sustainable intensification landed on my desk today. One, a paper by Charles Godfray and Tara Garnett in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, and two, a report by the RISE Foundation called “The sustainable intensification of European Agriculture“. I guess it is fair to say that it is papers such as these two that motivated us in the first place to critically re-appraise sustainable intensification. For those who haven’t read our Frontiers paper: in a nutshell, we argue that intensification without addressing the issue of who benefits from it, and who is involved in the process, cannot legitimately claim to be “sustainable”. The latest two papers I flagged above are emblematic of an analytical frame that is satisfied to deal with production first, and sort the rest later. Adopting such an approach, while arguing that food systems are “complex”, makes no sense — in complex systems, you can’t meaningfully optimise one component in isolation of the others, but you need to deal with various components and their interactions from the outset. (That’s what our figure in the Frontiers paper, reproduced again below, is all about.)

Contrasting ways to conceptualize the role of intensification for food security. (a) Conventional view of several variables influencing food security, implying that variables are independent and additive (additional variables may be considered important by some authors). (b) Alternative view, highlighting interactions and conditionality, with increased production only increasing food security if it passes through distributive and procedural filters. According to this view, intensification can only be said to be sustainable if it successfully passes through filters of procedural and distributive justice.

Contrasting ways to conceptualize the role of intensification for food security. (a) Conventional view of several variables influencing food security, implying that variables are independent and additive (additional variables may be considered important by some authors). (b) Alternative view, highlighting interactions and conditionality, with increased production only increasing food security if it passes through distributive and procedural filters. According to this view, intensification can only be said to be sustainable if it successfully passes through filters of procedural and distributive justice.

In their new paper, Godfray and Garnett argue: “In this paper, we review one aspect of this food sustainability challenge: the goal of producing more food. … We argue strongly that SI and indeed any supply side policy should be developed within the broad context of food system policy including issues of diet, waste and governance. Such an approach is needed to address food security but is also important to allay concerns that SI is a part of a purely ‘productionist’ agenda“.

Looking at the report by the RISE Foundation highlights why this concern might in fact be justified. It argues that “… this report confines itself to issues of agricultural production. The reasons are that sustainable intensification refers to production not consumption, and the expertise and interest of the organisations and researchers involved concerns agriculture …“. Yet, this report, too, talks about intensification being “sustainable”.

Personally, I am very tired of a rhetoric that is holistic and interested in “sustainability”, but that ultimately devotes the vast majority of text to the question of how to increase production. Increasing food production, especially at an aggregate level, is not meaningful for sustainability (i.e. inter- and intragenerational justice), nor for food security (unless the question of who benefits is addressed, simply producing more won’t automatically feed people). Yet Godfray and Garnett argue, for example: “The goal of SI is to achieve higher yields at the aggregate level with fewer negative impacts on the environment“.

As we highlighted in our response to Garnett et al. in Science, we agree that a holistic strategy is needed to address food security; and indeed, a holistic response is needed to achieve sustainability. But once the need for holism is recognised, holistic analyses must follow — issues of equity and governance cannot be afterthoughts to be somehow tackled once enough is being produced. After all, enough is being produced to feed everyone, right now, but nearly one billion people are malnourished.

We can produce more, sure. But it turns out that, per capita, we have in fact produced more and more for many years, but yet, the number of malnourished people has remained constant (as shown by Barrett in Science). Why would we believe that producing more in the future will somehow be more successful in addressing food security — unless we deal with equity and governance issues from the outset, as the primary problem? That, after all, is where we have failed most seriously in the past, not on the production side.

More deeply, the dominant discourse on “sustainable” intensification is centred around supply-demand type thinking, primarily hoping for price mechanisms to improve food security (more food => lower price => more food security). Indeed, prices are part of the story, but recent work on food sovereignty has impressively argued that there are very different analytical frames one can take, which lead to very different answers (see Chappell’s review paper here) — the kind of thinking dominating the existing discourse is just one analytical frame, and arguably one that puts far too much faith into markets sorting out distribution issues further down the line (see our paper highlighting three different discourses on food: production, security, sovereignty).

The notion of sustainable intensification is on the verge of being meaningless, unless some level of “sustainability” thinking is actually put back into this discourse. Focusing on production on its own, with all other issues as an afterthought, is not going to solve problems in complex food systems. If intensification is a small part of the solution — as so many authors are eager to emphasise — then we need to do better at paying more than lip service to all the other issues that are quite possibly more important for both food security and sustainability.


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, ERC project, food security