By Dave Abson
First let me state that I really like Trends in Ecology and Evolution, it is an excellent journal publishing many interesting articles (see, for example, academia`s obsession with quantity, (Fischer et al. 2013) †*). Indeed, I would be very happy to have an article in such an esteemed organ. So the following should not be seen as a critique on TREE. It just happens to be the case that there are always copies of TREE on the table around which we have our weekly team meeting. Therefore, TREE is the only journal that I read—while giving my complete and undivided attention to important team meeting stuff, obviously—cover to cover. So it is in TREE that the issues of “silly questions” and made “up figures” is most obvious to me, although I see the same issues in many other journals as well.
What do I mean by silly questions? Well here are a few examples of article titles from recent(ish) issues of TREE: Are we willing to build a better future? Do simple models lead to generality in ecology? Does research help to safeguard protected areas? Can evolutionary design of social networks make it easier to be ‘green’? Peerage of Science: will it work? Do we need a global strategy for microbial conservation?
The answers to these questions (in case you are not sure) are: yes, no, yes, no, no, yes. Only joking, in fact the reason why I think these are “silly” questions is because in every case above the answer can be (more or less) summarised as “Well we are not sure, we think that maybe, sometimes the answer is yes/no, it depends on the particular circumstances”. It is not that such “silly question” papers can’t have interesting insights on important issues; it is just that they are framed so broadly and deal with such complex, multi-faceted and context dependent problems that it is simply not possible to provide “correct” or perhaps even meaningful answers to such questions.
So why ask the question in the first place? I think the answer has something to do with that second great obsession of Academia (alongside quantity), namely that of novelty. There seems to be an increasing mania for academics to always ask the new, big, globally relevant question, even when there is no answer to such a question. It seems to me these big unanswerable questions are published at the expense of smaller more focused and contextualized questions for which meaningful answers can be given.
I think “made up figures” are part of the same cultural malaise (see figure 1 for example**). The rush to be the first to discuss the new big topic means that the publications are often not based on detailed empirical evidence. Who has time to waste collecting and analysing actual evidence for some proposed relationship between x and y, when someone else can provide a figure showing “the conceptualisation relations between x and y” and beat you to publication by a couple of years? Don’t get me wrong I think such conceptualised figures can have a useful heuristic purpose, but too often they seem to be used as a substitute for actual data and often the fact that they are simply made up lines on a graph are skated over in the publications.
Increasingly academia seems to value the “big”, “broad”, “new” and “cutting edge” while marginalizing the small, focused, incremental and well-tested accumulation of knowledge that was previously seen as the cornerstone of the scientific endeavour. I am not convinced that is a particularly good thing.
† You many also wish to read and cite the six other excellent publications that Professor Fischer has in this highly respected journal.
* Full disclosure: a) I am a sometime employee of Professor Fischer; b) Professor Fischer is considerably larger than I am; this means that c) I am more or less contractually obliged to only say nice things about Professor Fischer, his work and his behaviour towards his employees; and d) I am not at all physically intimidated when Professor Fischer “politely asks me in a calm and reasoned manner” if I would consider writing an (unpaid) blog entry for him… see point c for contextual clarification of point d.
** Warning this figure is not based on empirical evidence, real relationships may differ.