New paper: Leverage points for improving gender equality and human well-being in a smallholder farming context

By Aisa Manlosa

How can factors that create and entrench gender inequality change? Approaches range from targeting visible gender gaps, changing formal institutions, and focusing on deeply entrenched social norms. In a recently published paper, we unpack gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia and emphasize the importance of interactions between domains of changes (Fig. 1). We highlight the utility of a leverage points perspective for systems-oriented gender research.

leverage points and gender

Conceptual framework of leverage points for improving gender equality and household well-being

In the agricultural development sector where gender has been found to influence access and control of resources, participation in livelihood activities, and benefits from livelihoods, researchers who apply the gender transformative approach have called for greater focus on the factors that underlie gender inequality including formal and informal structures such as gender norms, and power relations. Gender equality is a highly pertinent issue in southwest Ethiopia. In many areas, social practices continue to be patriarchal. However, policy reforms by the government aimed at empowering women are facilitating changes. To analyze the changes that have been occurring, we applied the concept of leverage points, which are places to intervene to change a system. Dave Abson and other colleagues at Leuphana identified four realms of leverage namely paramaters, feedbacks, design, and intent. The parallel between Abson et al.’s four realms of leverage and common areas of focus in gender research including visible gender gaps (reflecting parameters), formal and informal institutions (reflecting design), and attitudes (reflecting intent) is striking. At the onset, this parallel suggested that applying leverage points as an analytical lens, can generate important sights that could contribute to ongoing conversations around facilitating and supporting gender transformative change.

Our analysis drew on qualitative data from key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and semi-structured interviews with women and men. We examined gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia, factors driving the changes, associated household well-being outcomes, and importantly, the interplay of different types of leverage points leading to the range of changes (some clear, many tentative, nevertheless in existence). The findings section in the linked article details the range of changes identified by local residents. For example, in terms of visible gaps, the majority reported an improvement in women’s participation in public activities such as trainings and meetings. In terms of community norms which we considered as an informal institution, decision-making practices at the household level had begun to change. In terms of attitudes, we found evidence that there is an emergent positive perception concerning women’s capacities. This is significant in a context where women were traditionally viewed as lacking capacities men have. The findings section contains quotes that best convey local residents’ views. But perhaps the most important take-away message from the study stems from the overwhelming importance attributed by local residents to the government’s actions to promote gender equality. This suggested that while community norms and attitudes are deeply entrenched and therefore important areas to focus on, formal institutions in the form of policies, priorities, and programs by the government play a similarly important role. In the context of southwest Ethiopia, the changes in formal institutions related to gender are beginning to open and expand the horizon for what is possible and legitimate in communities. Therefore the interplay between different leverage points (e. g. formal and informal institutions) cannot be discounted and should be considered in facilitating processes for gender transformative change.

 

The Anthropocene and how suddenly, we don’t care

by Joern Fischer

A set of recent discussions inspired me to write this very simple post. I’m basically just highlighting an observation: that some trends of the Anthropocene, we try to fight, and others we accept as a given. What’s fascinating is that this can switch quite suddenly — something we wanted to fight yesterday, we accept as a given today — and it seems like the choice of things we fight versus take as given is quite “random”, or at least not grounded in anything particularly useful or intelligent.

great-acceleration

Source: Future Earth

So, first of all — let’s be clear what I mean by the Anthropocene here. To be precise, I mean the “great acceleration” aspect of the Anthropocene. As shown above, for example, this is characterised by well known exponential increases in a wide range of social, economic, and environmental phenomena.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist (nor a system scientist) to guess that probably, when a bunch of stuff increases all at the same time, something is going on. And probably, these different trends are not independent but related. Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to then realise that to address this stuff, you probably need to deal with the WHOLE, rather than with just a few trends in isolation.

And: it seems obvious you can’t just randomly accept some of these exponential growth curves while trying to fight the others. Or at least, that seems obvious to me… and this is where the observation begins.

Some trends, many sustainability scientists routinely argue against. Examples of this are climate change and biodiversity loss. We haven’t given up yet on these ones, and we argue that we must halt climate change! We must stop biodiversity loss!

But others, we take as given. My two favourite ones are urbanisation and food production. Large numbers of sustainability scholars accept urbanisation as an unchangeable and value-neutral phenomenon; and similarly, large numbers of scholars argue that “we must double food production” because demand “will” double.

The choice of accepting these as given while desperately fighting some of the others seems quite arbitrary to me, and frankly, illogical. What if urban lifestyles are part of the package of increasing un-sustainability (e.g. because they contributed to disconnectedness from the natural world and longer food chains)? What if increasing demand for food is a symptom of un-sustainability (e.g. because it is driven by increasingly unhealthy diets related to industrial food systems)?

My suggestion is that we either fall in love with exponential growth, and then we do it for everything. Then we can argue, and some people do, that it’s all not so bad, and we will innovate our way around planetary boundaries. Or alternatively, you can sign the ecomodernist manifesto, and argue vehemently that we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Or … well, or we have to address the great acceleration as a whole, not just a couple of the hockey sticks, but all of them.

Perhaps ever increasing urbanisation is not actually what the world needs. Perhaps doubling food production is not what the world actually needs.

Perhaps we need to keep the big picture in mind more routinely — and that is, that these trends are parts of a package of unsustainable, exponential growth. When you have a system of interlinked, reinforcing feedbacks, you can’t just choose a couple of variables and address those. It’s got to be the whole package.

 

Transgenic golden rice: friend or foe?

By Annika Kettenburg

How come scientists disagree quite fundamentally at times? In our new paper, we investigated the academic controversy over transgenic Golden Rice. Itself a microcosm of the broader debate surrounding genetically modified crops, it shows some unique particularities: Here, rice plants were modified to synthesize beta-carotene and thus act as an edible cure against Vitamin A deficiency – a humanitarian project developed in university halls, to be handed out for free to smallholders. It is anticipated to become available in the Philippines and Bangladesh in two to three years from now.

rice

At first sight, the scientific position on Golden Rice seems to almost exclusively consist of utmost approval. In 2016, 131 Nobel laureates signed a petition to accelerate the introduction of Golden Rice – calling to end the “crime to humanity” committed by the GMO opposition. Though critics are outweighed in numbers, they voice various concerns. Most often, they point to an overshadowing of malnutrition’s root causes, namely the social determinants of access to food, and the inadequacy of Golden Rice in addressing these.

Corresponding to this bifurcation, our cluster analysis identified two major branches in the Golden Rice literature. Interestingly, the branches and their clusters correlated with the disciplines authors adhered to and the scope of topics they addressed. Put simply, the branch optimistic up to euphoric about Golden Rice was mostly comprised of plant scientists, and the topics our indicator analysis marked as constitutive centered on deregulation. The more critical branch consisted mostly of social scientists writing on a variety of topics relevant to sustainability.

What now is the cause for this divergence? In our paper, we argue it is mainly the authors’ starting point – the perception of the problem (also discussed in this blog here, here and here). In simplified terms, if the problem of vitamin A deficiency is a result of mainly eating rice that lacks beta-carotenes, then the solution is to enhance the rice. In contrast, if one sees the problem in a lack of access to diverse, nutritious food, then one has to pursue biophysical, economic, political and social changes altogether. This means bio-fortification of crops results to be only one out of many strategies – a short-term fix until social and political structures change.

But even if scientists were to overcome disciplinary divides and arrive at a shared conclusion on Golden Rice – is it for us to decide what people should plant and eat? Why has nobody involved affected communities in their research? When reviewing the literature I was bewildered by the paternalistic undertone of some articles: either local people were completely left out or treated as passive victims. (Would we like to have Asian scientists donating to us a GM wheat variety against high blood pressure?)

A lot of the questions I came across were ultimately ethical in nature: what type of agriculture to pursue, whose needs to prioritize, which risks to take – can the concept of sustainability provide guidance here? We argue that for this to happen it is necessary to explicitly recognize which criteria constitute sustainability in a particular context (as we tried in our paper, see Table 1) and to ultimately seek genuine dialogue across disciplines and actor groups.

The full paper is available here.

Theft or inspiration? – How good ideas spread

By Joern Fischer (apart from the bits I stole from Ioan Fazey)

Academic work, ultimately, is all about good ideas. But how do you know an idea is truly yours? In this post, I reflect on some of “my” best ideas, wondering where they came from – and posing a few different hypotheses. Perhaps there’s no such thing as an original idea…

So let’s take a few examples first, as a little reflection that serves to show that some of “my own” ideas probably have not been mine at all. I’ll then get into a few hypotheses as to what might be happening.

But first some ideas. A nice hierarchical survey design of nested triangles was used by me and my co-authors in a 2004 paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology (Fig. 1). This idea came up in a meeting with my co-author and statistical advisor at the time. Later, I learned that a very similar design had been used by Josh Dorrough, who had previously worked with the same statistician. So perhaps it had been his idea? Interestingly, a broadly similar design is also used in the large “safe project” in Indonesia (see linked Fig. 1). So perhaps there is an altogether different source of this “idea”, which neither Josh nor I knew about?

Another example is the notion of slow, substantial but difficult-to-implement change, versus rapid but easier-to-implement change. This notion was captured in Fig. 1 in a 2012 paper I published with a bunch of co-authors. But a very similar notion had been communicated by Donella Meadows a decade earlier, in her paper on leverage points.

Or take our literature review on cultural ecosystem services, published in 2013. This paper came a very short time after a paper by Terry Daniel and others on the same topic; and a very short time before a paper led by Mónica Hernández-Morcillo. I could list many more examples from my own publications, or I can extend this notion to colleagues of mine – noting for example, that Ioan Fazey was working on evidence-based conservation in the early 2000s, quite separately from work by Andrew Pullin who later set up a whole centre around this notion. And so on.

Such examples are common, and if you write a lot, invariably, sooner or later someone will come to you and wonder – more or less politely – whether you stole her or his idea. Or you might see your own idea in somebody else’s work, and wonder whether they stole it from you. (If you’re fast, you’ll experience others accusing you, if you’re slow, you’ll experience feeling they stole your ideas…)

So what’s going on here, and what do we do with it? I want to lay out four different hypotheses for what is happening, and why this is happening.

Hypothesis 1: People like me consciously steal other people’s ideas. Perhaps I liked something that someone else is doing, and I think … hmmm …. perhaps I can get a paper out of something like this, too? And then I use that idea, and bingo, track record is improved and nobody noticed. Hooray.

Hypothesis 2: People like me sub-consciously steal people’s ideas! Perhaps I liked something that someone did. I then forget about it … and then later on, it comes back into my conscious mind, and I turn it into some kind of product. Possible? Yes, this is quite possible. We hear a lot of things, all the time, and I at least can’t remember all the different places in which I hear different things. These ideas all go into some giant sub-conscious storage space, and then later get drawn on, but re-combined in new ways and without explicit reference to where they had originally come from – because there is no conscious process of tracing their origin.

Hypothesis 3: Sometimes, things are simply “ripe” for a certain idea, and different people realize this at the same time. So for example, Carl Folke was writing on “environmental services” in the mid 1990s, just before Bob Costanza published his famous paper on ecosystem services, and before Gretchen Daily published her book on ecosystem services. Earlier examples of such parallel processes abound, for example Wallace’s work on evolution being at a similar time to Darwin’s.

Hypothesis 4: The universe is all just energy, everything is connected to everything else, and good ideas float about in the ether – we just need to open ourselves to them and let them flow through us. What?! Admittedly, this hypothesis is mildly less grounded in conventional physical evidence, but there are a number of spiritual thinkers who would probably support this idea. When you have a good idea – one that feels truly original – where does it come from? Where do brilliant ideas of artists, musicians or scientists come from? What, really, is a “moment of inspiration”, what is it we are accessing then? Perhaps knowledge is there, always, and when we are in a state of flow, we can access the right knowledge to make progress at the time?

I won’t be arguing for or against any of these four hypotheses. In the scientific circuit in general, I actually think it’s a combination of all four of these going on. What’s more interesting is the question, what do we do about this?

What becomes highly evident is that ideas rarely originate in one individual. Our system of giving credit to individuals (or sets of authors) is flawed. “Breakthroughs” of any kind happen on the shoulders of many who have been there (or very close) before – funnily enough, google scholar acknowledges this when it says “stand on the shoulder of giants”. We’re all standing on each other’s shoulders, all the time, whether in physical space, or metaphysical space. No idea is truly yours, or mine, or anyone’s. And yet, we operate together in a world, and some of us have decided to operate together in ways that try to make the world a better place. It makes sense then that we should work together, rather than get hung up about who contributed what, precisely.

And yet, we live in a world of institutional incentives, and it’s probably only expert thieves (or highly inspired people? Hm…) who can afford to “not care” about who did what. The challenge thus appears to be to try to be explicit about which idea comes from where; but also to recognize that ultimately, we’re in this together – as all of humanity, that is!

So: credit where credit is due … but preferably in full recognition that we have no idea where that actually is.

(I wonder where the idea for this blog post came from. Parts for sure I stole from Ioan Fazey, and he even paid for my coffee. Pathetic, really.)

A new classification of human-environment connections

By Joern Fischer

We’ve all heard of ecosystem services, and work on “relational values” to conceptualise human-environment connections is increasing. Do we really need yet another way to classify connectedness to nature?

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 07.33.58

 

In an era where leading scholars are calling for us to reconnect with the biosphere, where the loss of experiential connection to nature is seen as a possible cause for biodiversity decline (e.g. here and here), where the health benefits of engaging with nature are increasingly obvious, where capitalism is blamed for having alienated us from ourselves and the world at large … perhaps we do need a more holistic way of thinking about human-environment connections.

Chris Ives just published a new paper on this, related to our work on leverage points (stay tuned for an upcoming conference call!). In the paper, we distinguish between different kinds of connectedness — philosophical, emotional, cognitive, experiential and material (see above). Arguably, these different dimensions have not all been captured in previous conceptualisations of human-nature connectedness. Many provisioning ecosystem services, for example, are “material” in nature. But what about philosophical differences in connectedness — e.g. whether we view humanity through a Western cultural lens, or from the perspective of (as a random example) Australian indigenous people? This will fundamentally change how we view ourselves in relation to nature, which role we ascribe to nature, and as a result, how we engage with nature.

In this new paper, we try to lay out an alternative way of thinking about human-nature connectedness. We do not provide simple solutions for how to save the world based on this framework (sorry to disappoint you … I could claim we initially had this in the supplementary material but it was lost during peer review?). However, we pose a hypothesis, which may be worth examining in the future. The hypothesis is that not all types of connectedness are created equal in terms of their potential influence on sustainability — deeply “internal” connections such as our worldviews and philosophies might fundamentally shape other dimensions of nature connectedness, for example influencing how we interact with nature in material terms. In other words, dimensions of our inner worlds are likely to fundamentally influence what happens in our outer worlds — providing a strong leverage point for deep change.

Stay tuned for more work on inner worlds, and for an upcoming conference call on leverage points for sustainability at Leuphana (February 2019)!

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The gardenification of nature revisited

By Joern Fischer

In 1998, Daniel Janzen published a paper on the gardenification of nature. In that paper, he argued for the gentle and careful use of wild nature, rather than its strict protection from humans.

I liked the metaphor of the paper when it came out, and I recently thought of it again in the context of a second garden metaphor currently circulating: that of seeds of a good Anthropocene. What if we were to combine these two gardening metaphors?

Seeds of a good Anthropocene suggest that we have choices in the projects we create. We can initiate projects that contribute to the beauty of life on Earth – to social equity, prosperity, joy, and biodiversity – or we can initiate projects that are destructive. Those projects that contribute to the beauty of life are, essentially, seeds of a good Anthropocene.

Once we have planted such seeds, these seeds can put roots into the ground, thus becoming firmly established. And as the seeds spread, they create a garden of human endeavours. This garden can be beautiful, if we grow and look after the right seeds. Wild elements can persist in pockets of this garden, cherished for their intrinsic value as well as for the benefits they might provide. – What if we keep growing the wrong seeds? Then we risk creating a post-industrial wasteland.

Arguably, a good Anthropocene’s garden of human endeavours could harmoniously coexist with a wildland garden of biodiversity. What unites these two metaphors is a focus on an underlying ethos of gentle care and interaction. It seems futile to try to disengage from the endless connections among living beings. As Janzen stated: “A wildland garden with gentle trodding from caring gardeners just might achieve the partnership [between people and nature]. A wilderness faces certain annihilation as a battlefield.”

What do we value?

By Joern Fischer

In 2012, I led a paper on “Human behavior and sustainability”. Alongside that paper, I wrote a blog post encouraging people to reflect on what it is what we truly value. This was summarized in an open letter, which you can find here.

I thought it’s a nice time to reflect on where my own thinking on this topic is at. With a few years of distance between that initial paper and the open letter and now, some things I see much the same way – and others I see a bit differently.

In the open letter, I implied that many of us probably don’t truly value “ever more stuff” as their deepest life philosophy, but yet we are not actively pursuing what it is that we actually are interested in having more of in our lives. Much of humanity acts as a passive victim of the institutions it created in the past. We’ve locked ourselves into certain trajectories – starting with our mindsets, which are too uncomfortable to question, and our institutions, which are rigid and complex, and it’s hard to know where to even start to fundamentally change anything.

Despite its imperfections, I still think the central tenet of the letter from 2012 is right: we need to start having a conversation about what we truly want. And I think it’s still fundamentally correct that if the answer is “gluttony, even if it’s unjust”, then all is well in the sense that we’re moving in precisely that direction. But … for most of humanity, I don’t think “gluttony, even if it’s unjust” is the philosophy by which they would really like to live. People thrive on good social relations, on balanced time budgets, on a healthy environment, and on “enough” material wellbeing rather than ever more stuff.

Still, this is contentious. In the following, I want to highlight three ways in which my own thinking has slightly moved on since that original paper.

First, there appears to be a clash between two paradigms: the paradigm that we can’t change values, and therefore should work within existing value sets – versus the paradigm that changing values might be hard, but since this is the root cause of our problems, we’d better get started on engaging with this difficult topic. This clash was nicely exemplified in a discussion between Manfredo et al. and Ives and Fischer in a recent issue of Conservation Biology. We argued that value change within instants may not be likely, but social change including fundamental changes in value orientations has been common in human history – and to discount this possibility (when it looks like it’s a necessity) and the possibility of fostering such change seems … well … not so useful. Another nice idea related to societal change and value change is that of a “ripple effect”, which implies that changes in the world can permeate up and down scales – from individual to society, or from society to individual. Things (including values) can change, and do change, and we all play a role in it.

A second area in which I think we can poke around in more is that of deep leverage points – places in a system where small interventions can lead to major changes. Truly deep leverage points relate to shifting to new paradigms and on that basis, re-define system goals. This is very much in line with the idea of reflecting on what we truly value – if the goals of our global system of “gluttony for those who can afford it” are not actually in line with what we want, we’d better change them. This is not straightforward, but would be very influential as a leverage point for social change.

And finally, some colleagues and I have been thinking a bit about how to bring change in our inner and outer worlds into alignment. Sustainability science has firmly focused on our external worlds, but has largely discounted the hidden lived experiences within individuals. Arguably, those are the origin of external phenomena, and it’s only through inner change that stable changes for the better will emerge in the outer world. For now, I’ll just point you to an Abstract of a paper that Rebecca Freeth presented at Resilience 2017 – a full paper on this topic is in preparation.

 

Conservation impossible in ‘silent’ developing countries

Note by Joern: Today a guest post by Badrul Azhar. I look forward to your comments!

Authored by Badrul Azhar

I am thankful that Joern has been kind enough to let me post this sensitive article on his blog. There are few other good platforms to air my opinion among fellow conservation scientists.

Next generation of conservation padawans

The next generation of Malaysian conservation scientists (photo by Badrul Azhar)

Working as a conservation scientist in a developing country requires a high level of perseverance and endurance, to face the litany of domestic and global challenges–especially if you’re a local resident, from a less fortunate socio-economic background, exposed to red-tape culture, with little resources, and are a non-native speaker of English. Most counterparts from developed countries may not understand, nor encounter these problems. If they did, I suspect that no-one would ever produce significant or valid works in conservation science.

I feel a need to share my insights about what is happening today in mainstream conservation science, and what is routinely experienced by fellow scientists in other developing countries. Apparently, we’re fortunate to reside and work in some of the remaining countries still rich with tropical biodiversity. For sure, we’re just 15 or 20 minutes drive to the nearest tropical rainforest, and we can study various organisms and taxa, from viruses to tigers. Yet, in reality, we’re crippled by many shortcomings. These prevent us excelling to the levels we watch our counterparts in the developed world achieve.

Allow me to explain. A few weeks ago I saw an advertisement from a professor in a developed country looking for a PhD candidate to study oil palm biodiversity in Southeast Asia. So I advised a former postgraduate student (MSc by research) to email the professor to apply for the specific PhD research. Unfortunately, I learned from my student that the PhD opportunity is only available to those from that specific developed country. This former student has published several research articles on oil palm biodiversity in impact factor journals, and it would have been a great opportunity for him to be trained abroad, particularly in the developed world. Sadly, all too often this is not possible.

I was immensely lucky. I was given the rare opportunity to further my study abroad twice through government scholarship (not because I’m an outstanding student–I was merely in the right place at the right time). My first opportunity was my MSc in the UK and the other my PhD in Australia. Similar scholarships are now enormously competitive and incredibly rare. Many such scholarships have been withdrawn during this period of economic slowdown that is impacting conservation science. You stand a better chance to win a scholarship if you are pursuing a postgraduate degree in critical field areas such as medicine, engineering and biotechnology.

For many years, I’ve reflected that assistance, such as financial support, mentoring systems, and basic facilities made available either from abroad or domestically to local conservation scientists, have been evaporating. I have also noticed that foreign scientists, who conduct their research in my country, are well funded by agencies from their wealthy origin. Interestingly, some research projects, spearheaded by foreign scientists in my country, are even funded by local companies, generously contributing tens of millions of dollars to ensure great impacts and produce high-quality findings. On the other hand, local scientists are only awarded a tiny fraction of what their counterparts from the developed world have received (if they have been successful in their grant application from government agencies). To my knowledge, on average, my colleagues receive less than USD$15,000 per research project, to finance their work for two years (this may not apply to other developing countries). These days, that small amount of grant money is unlikely to ensure that colleagues in the developing world can advance conservation science and natural resource management, or even to get their research outcomes published in leading journals such as Nature and Science. Fieldwork in remote areas is very costly (you have to pay to access some pristine forests), and researchers are poorly equipped (both in the office and field) to conduct research in the developing world. Attending important conferences, domestically or internationally, is considered a luxury only few can afford. Like many of my colleagues, I would rather spend every cent of the small grant money I accrue to support the students collecting data in the field.

Sincerely, I do not resent those who have secured huge research grant money from my country. However, if the benefits have gone mostly to foreign scientists, rather than to local people, there is an ethical question that needs to be answered by both grant receivers and givers. Local scientists, as well as students, are being sidelined directly or indirectly from studying important conservation topics in their own country, in favour of outsiders. In the long run, conservation science will be less attractive, with no good prospects, for local people (already, many seem comfortable to be identified as naturalists instead of scientists), and conservation degrees in local universities will fail to attract the best brains or even sustainable student numbers.

There is a moral responsibility among conservation scientists from the developed world to partner with scientists in developing countries, and to be seriously involved in capacity building of their counterparts who are at the forefront of the biodiversity crisis. I welcome foreign scientists researching in my country, as long there is a win-win situation for local counterparts (e.g. publications, genuine networking and capacity building).

It’s remarkable that on the cusp of 2018 these statements even need to be made. It’s worth reflecting if conservation science is dominated by elite groups that share similar cultural and socio-economic values. If this is so, the advancement of conservation science is being skewed more to the developed world (judging from the number of research articles published) while it seems to be ‘quiet’ from a significant number of developing countries. Could this be a contributing reason for why conservation science has failed on the ground (beyond the realm of journal publication), particularly in developing countries? Similarly, it’s also worth contemplating why there are so many published articles delivering the same rigid bad news in tropical conservation science these days, while little progress or success has been made in reality. Is this status quo going to remain forever?

A landscape approach to sustainability

By Joern Fischer

A few days ago, I was part of an online panel discussion organised by the Global Landscapes Forum.  We discussed questions about what a landscape approach is, and how it might be implemented — and we touched on many interesting topics and identified challenges for the future. The webinar was recorded and is available on youtube; or you can watch it directly here.

A PhD nightmare: how a ‘safe’ paper turned into a ‘horror’ paper

By Ine Dorresteijn

Recently the last paper from my PhD has been accepted for publication. The paper describes the impact of current and potential future land-use intensification on bird species richness in Transylvania, Romania. Although the paper is maybe not groundbreaking, I always thought that it is still a relevant contribution to the scientific literature, based on our large field efforts, its statistical soundness and because it was well written. A solid paper. But instead, getting the paper published has been a tough ride. While we thought bats were difficult to publish (see our previous blog post on a rejection journey five years ago), we have now seen that birds can be even harder to get into journals. Ironically, this paper was considered the ‘safe paper’ of my PhD work. I was one of those lucky students that was part of a well-planned research project including great supervision. The bird work of my PhD was carefully planned and designed, was based on pilot studies and was set in a region rich in (protected) bird species. Very soon, however, my ‘safe’ paper turned into my ‘horror’ paper, with high levels of frustration, a shattered confidence, and – in the end – lots of sarcasm and laughter.

Here goes the story how my ‘safe’ paper was turned into my ‘horror’ paper.

Journal 1: Submitted Dec 2013, rejected with review Feb 2014: Lacking novelty and generality, and lacking clarity and focus of the analysis.

Journal 2: Submitted Feb 2014, rejected with review Mar 2014: Too broad discussion and lacking strong conclusions/management recommendations.

After these first two rejections, we made major changes to the manuscript. We narrowed down the manuscript considerably by deleting a part on species traits, and worked on the clarity of our methods section.

Journal 3: Submitted May 2014, rejected without review: Not general enough in concept, scope and approach.

Journal 4: Submitted May 2014, rejected with review Sep 2014: Lacking novelty.

Journal 5: Submitted Oct 2014, rejected with review Dec 2014: Lacking novelty, and lacking clarity in the methodology and results. As one reviewer put it: having a more complicated and complex design than other studies should not stand for novelty in scientific research.

By the time the paper was rejected 5 times I was pretty desperate and frustrated to hear over and over that the study lacked novelty. I figured that we couldn’t change that much on the novelty of our study’s outcome. However, another frequent critique was around the clarity of the methods and results, something I thought we could improve. Therefore, to give the paper a new and fresh boost, we received help from a new co-author. We re-analysed the entire paper focusing solely on species richness (taking out a part on bird communities), rewrote the entire paper for clarity and to put into a broader context, and even put in some pretty pictures to illustrate traditional farming landscapes. Now with our paper in a new jacket I was convinced we would be luckier in the review process.

Journal 6: Submitted Jun 2015, rejected with review Aug 2015: Methodology limited the study’s conclusion and its capacity to go beyond a regional example. For example, it was critiqued that the model averaging approach used poses limitations and regression coefficients should be used instead.

Journal 7: Submitted Aug 2015, rejected with review Sep 2015: Flawed study design which was deemed uncorrectable without significant reanalysis. Although reviewer 1 had significant problems with our study design, reviewer 2 seemed to be less unhappy: The study is well introduced (I particularly liked the introduction of traditional farming landscapes), the study design is appropriate, the analyses generally robust (although please see comment below), and the results clear, and the discussion well considered.

Journal 8: Submitted Nov 2015, rejected with review Dec 2015: Methodology – given our objectives and sampling design we used the wrong analytical unit.

Journal 9: Submitted Jan 2016, rejected with review Feb 2016: Lack of novelty, trivial findings and not taking into account the rarity of species (something we had excluded from the manuscript due to other reviewer comments).

Journal 10: Submitted Feb 2016, rejected with review June 2016: Goal of the work not addressed.

Journal 11: Submitted Sep 2016, Minor revisions Jan 2017, Submitted revised manuscript Jul 2017 (after maternity leave), Accepted Jul 2017. Hurrah, the reviewers liked the paper a lot!!

Having had 10 rejections on this paper, mostly after review, means that approximately 25 (!) reviewers were involved in getting this paper published. Importantly, of those reviewers probably half of them could have been satisfied with major revisions. Like in the example under journal 7, usually one of the reviewers did not dislike our paper that much, but I guess one more negative review is enough for a rejection. Even more interesting, we published two similar papers on butterflies and plants from the same region, based on the same study design and using similar analysis. While this paper on birds got continuous critique that our methodology was not clear, flawed, or limited, these other two papers on plants and butterflies received positive constructive reviews without much complaints about its novelty and/or study design. I am still not sure why this paper had such a hard time, is it just birds or something else, but I am happy it is finally out there! Enjoy the reading and you can always contact me for further clarifications on its methods or novelty J.