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.




Paper recommendation: The undisciplinary journey

By Joern Fischer

The following paper just came out:

L. J. Haider, L.J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., Meacham, M., Merrie, A., Ospina, D., Schill, C., Sinare, H. (2017). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science. PDF available here.

This paper should be particularly interesting to early-career researchers working in interdisciplinary environments, or themselves being “interdisciplinarians”. It should also be of interest to more established scientists who train more junior researchers in such areas, especially in sustainability science.

In a nutshell, the paper is built on the premise that a new generation of sustainability scholars is emerging. These scholars often are interdisciplinary in their orientation from the outset. This makes them different from many of the currently “senior” (i.e. older) sustainability scientists, the vast majority of whom were trained in a specific discipline, and then started to reach out to other disciplines.

But what if you start off without ever having had a strong affinity for a single traditional discipline? This is increasingly common for young sustainability scholars, and it leaves them with certain typical challenges — which are what this paper is about. For example, how do you balance depth and breadth? How can you make sure you are taken seriously by your peers, or by more senior scientists? How can you navigate institutional environments that are largely based on disciplines?

To navigate a journey of being “undisciplinary”, the paper provides a compass — a simple conceptual model that can be used to think about how to develop into a good sustainability scientist. A “good” scientist, in this sense, needs two key attributes: agility to move between different ways of thinking, and a good methodological foundation.

Agility to move between different ways of thinking is needed because sustainability is such a broad challenge — to solve problems related to forest degradation, for example, you might have to understand issues of governance, social justice, and ecology. Each of these, in turn, will have a different epistemological foundation; what counts as valid knowledge for an ecologist comes about in a different way from the knowledge deemed valid by a political scientist.

A good methodological foundation is needed because, although sustainability science is an extremely broad field, this can’t be an excuse to not base one’s insights on solid methods. This can be challenging, because the range of potentially relevant methods is vast — but to be a “good” sustainability scientist, it pays to have some clearly identifiable methodological strengths, or at least a solid methodological foundation.

The link to the paper is given above. As I said, I think it’s a nice reflection, as well as really good food for thought for scholars who either are, or are working with, the “next generation” of sustainability scientists. Well worth a read!

Three things that went wrong today (#FONA2017)

By Joern Fischer

The thing about blogging is that you can say things that otherwise may or may not be heard. And so I use my privilege as a blogger to make three observations of what I think went wrong at the FONA Forum that I attended today: (1) much emphasis on the concrete, but too little appreciation of the foundational; (2) six men, and zero women in a final panel discussion; and (3) no black Africans in the discussion on sustainability in Africa.

Why are these three issues problematic? Let’s start with something positive.

The best speaker today, to my mind, was Hartmut Rosa – a sociologist who challenged our contemporary growth-oriented thinking. He painted a picture of humanity addicted to constant “more”, in all spheres of life – more science, more wealth, more access to the world, to new experiences and new places. Constant striving for “more” instead of finding satisfaction in our interactions with others and our immediately available environment, according to Hartmut Rosa, leads to stress as well as to unsustainability. He argued for a change in our relationships, towards greater reciprocity with other beings and places.

His talk was very well received, it seemed. But his talk aside, the vast majority of speakers focused on things like concrete measures, indicators of success, a manual for how to fly Spaceship Earth, recommendations to policy, and steps that need to be taken.

Concrete steps are great – but who, in this era, is taking responsibility for getting humanity to halt and reflect? Scientists are no longer interested in this, it seems – they are much too busy coming up with tangible recommendations and concrete measures. Apparently just shifting discourses – arguably one of the most important things we must do, as a foundation for concrete measures to be effective – is not something many people are interested in. Or, in leverage points language, the vast majority of people speak of shallow leverage points, considering it a waste of time to reflect. – Funny in this context: Hartmut Rosa’s talk seemed really popular, suggesting that people want to be challenged to reflect more deeply. But at the same time, the same people applaud and reinforce structures that only reward tangible outcomes that can be measured.

My last two concerns about today are simple and painful: no women in the final panel discussion, and no black Africans in the Africa session. The latter had about 50 people in it. Admittedly, the session was in German, but come on. Surely, with a bit of effort one could have come up with mechanisms and ways to include people who can contribute their authentically African perspective. How can we meaningfully listen to people speaking of cooperation “at eye level”, or of “partnerships” in this context? The comment regarding no women in the panel discussion evidently points in a similar direction.

This post will be published and tweeted – perhaps someone else who attended the conference will respond, and correct my perspective if it needs correcting. I would appreciate feedback, especially by people who were also here. Thanks!

It’s not like there were no good moments today, or good people, or great insights. There were many. But the three issues singled out here are such that, in 2017 Germany, they make me concerned.

Telling a different story about the world

By Joern Fischer

I’m on my way to Berlin, to the FONA Forum 2017. The Forum is organized by Germany’s Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF), and brings together policy makers, scientists and business representatives. A central question is what to make of, and do with, the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its associated Sustainable Development Goals.

As always when attending such a forum – and even more so when given the opportunity to speak – the question arises how to make a useful contribution. This same question that I ask myself in preparation for this forum, a farmer recently asked me in a public talk; and a class of students asked me after I told them about my research on food security and biodiversity: how is any of this going to make a difference?

It’s the million dollar question of sustainability science, and indeed, the million dollar question for anyone working to make the world a better place. How do we actually do this?

For the time being, the answer I most commonly give is that I believe we need to tell a different story about the world. The dominant story we’re hearing, and that keeps being reinforced in public fora, is overly simplistic, and misses a whole bunch of important issues that ultimately, we need to face head on.

At the FONA forum, I’ll talk about land as a scarce resource, which is related to Sustainable Development Goal 15 (“Life on Land”), but potentially clashes with other goals, such as Goal 2 (“Zero Hunger”). And like in much of the rest of sustainability science, the dominant story on land is simple, often too simple. It’s a story that tells you that you can have your cake, and eat it too. It’s a story of meeting endless demand, including for the foods that make us unhealthy, because supposedly we “have to”. It’s a story of sustainable intensification, of green growth, of trickle down effects that will eventually reach the poor. It’s a story that does not rock the boat, that is palatable to status quo thinking, and to living within existing paradigms. It’s a story of shallow leverage points, of not challenging let alone shaking up the dominant paradigms that we have built our world around.

It’s this dominant story that I’ll seek to challenge, because frankly – if people with the privilege and freedom to study the world in whichever way they want to don’t challenge this story, who will? Building on our work critiquing sustainable intensification, reviewing social-ecological systems thinking, and most recently seeking synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation, I will try to tell a different story. A different story is less comfortable, but optimistic at the same time. This different story is one that speaks of the possibility of having enough for all, of including justice within and between generations, of beginning to recognize complexity in the form of drivers, dominant actors, and feedbacks.

I’m excited to take this story to a sizeable forum and take part in discussions of how to deal with the Sustainable Development Goals. Working within the boundaries of what current policies can do is all very well – but to me, a timely contribution will be to rock the boat a bit more than that – to tell a different story and thus hopefully contribute to ultimately shifting entire discourses, away from the very mindsets that have got our planet into trouble in the first place.

Sparing, sharing, sparing, sharing …

The Food Climate Research Network just posted a new online discussion on land sparing and land sharing. This discussion, in turn, was triggered by Elena Bennett’s comment on land sparing/sharing in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

I am reproducing my own response here — please take a look at the full discussion, too, where you will find other, contrasting perspectives also. And of course, consider if you would like to submit a response on the discussion website yourself.

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When I first came across this online debate, I thought “Oh no, another discussion on land sparing – do we really need this?” And my intention was to ignore it. It’s only after several colleagues encouraged me to contribute that I changed my mind. I think there is a whole range of reasons why it is indeed time to “move on”. The framework on land sparing versus land sharing has perhaps given us some useful insights – most importantly it has put back in focus the fundamental importance of strictly protected areas for biodiversity conservation, especially for rare or range-restricted species. But as I argue below, beyond this message I think the framework has reached its potential.

So, what about protected areas? In theory, we have known the importance of protected areas for many decades. But, let’s give some credit to advocates of land sparing – perhaps the vital importance of protected areas had occasionally got lost in the 1990s, when the focus increasingly shifted to biodiversity conservation in farmland. Especially in frontier landscapes – where land clearing is rampant – the message that we must ensure there are sufficient protected areas needs to be heard. I think this is an important point that we can take from the sparing versus sharing framework.

What about beyond this message? Beyond this, I argue that the sparing versus sharing framework leads us astray for at least three reasons.

First, the land sparing framework focuses on food production, not food security. However, food production and malnourishment are weakly linked. “Meeting rising demand” (which is often mentioned hand in hand with a focus on land sparing – though not by the more reflected advocates) therefore is not a meaningful goal. Especially when global commodity crops are involved, it often feeds the wants of the wealthy (including those of us already overweight), not the needs of the poor.

Second, the land sparing framework depends on a link between intensification and protected area establishment. Such links rarely exist, although admittedly they can, and perhaps should, be actively fostered.

And third, the land sparing framework represents a simplification of reality into two dimensions – production and biodiversity. This over-simplifies real-world complexity to a point that is analytically elegant, but of doubtful practical value.

From my perspective, much would be gained by employing a social-ecological systems perspective, and by moving beyond a dichotomous framing of black versus white. We don’t need sharing or sparing. We quite evidently need both. The question is how much of which will work best in which context – and this is a question that cannot be answered by simple analytical models, but only by contextualized, interdisciplinary studies that take into account the complex social-ecological realities in different settings.

Mainstreamism and self-fulfilling prophecies

By Joern Fischer

It’s good to be policy-relevant, and it’s good to get published in prestigious journals. But I’m concerned that the collective desire to attain these goals is taming science to a distinctly unhelpful middle ground that everyone can agree on. It’s like in politics, where major parties end up so similar you can’t really tell the difference anymore – in an effort to appeal to the largest number of people, almost by definition, distinctive elements and innovative ideas are filtered out.

This is annoying when it happens in politics, but it’s unacceptable when it happens in science. Science ought to be about expanding our understanding of the universe, not channeling it into the centre of status quo worldviews. And yet, I find there is more and more evidence that this is precisely what is happening.

Two things today inspired me to write this slightly impassioned rant. First, one of our papers got rejected due to its less-than-mainstream methods. The argument was in fact not that our methods were bad, but rather that they were unusual and may be difficult to accept by the readership of the journal. Second, a colleague pointed me to a paper that says we can’t really change values because they change slowly, and so there’s no point in trying. In combination, I feel these events are symptomatic of a new kind of “anti-sustainability” sustainability science – implying that we need innovation, but preferably without actually changing the world or the way we look at it.

In modern science then, it seems you must not rock the boat. You must not work towards paradigm shifts, or try to look at problems too broadly. Instead, you should look for clever, incremental improvements within existing ways of thinking. In sustainability science, you must look at societal problems, but only advocate for minor changes – no matter how deep the root causes are of the problems you are looking at.

Sustainable intensification, REDD+ payments, and the right kind of messaging to an audience with unalterable values – this is now the dominant way advocated to achieve sustainability improvements.

Those who point out that radical changes are not possible successfully get their stuff published – but to me, they lack creativity (and frankly, guts) to do what needs to be done. With everybody heading for the front of the mainstream, there will be no real innovation, and no major change. Or put more bluntly: we’d have the same values as decades ago, including slavery, racial discrimination and women not taking part in politics.

Think again: Of course things can change, if we want them to, including big things, and including human values. And from a sustainability perspective all of this can happen in relevant, short periods of time, too.

Trying to work for deep changes may not always work in the short term. But the growing zeal to not even try to think boldly strikes me as much more certain to lock us into a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever greater un-sustainability.

Topics on the rise in conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Research on any given topic tends to come and go. Searching the scopus database, I had a bit of a look at some terms I am interested in. Some of these are gaining in popularity, and some are on their way out. I’ve summarised these trends in the graphs below. Keep in mind that “constant” interest probably means a tripling in the number of mentions since 2000, simply because the number of journal articles has increased a lot. I found the patterns interesting, and so thought I’d share them here.

My overall interpretation is that ecosystem services and social-ecological systems are starting to reach saturation point. In contrast, sustainable intensification and food sovereignty are shooting up. Landscape ecology and habitat fragmentation used to attract more attention than they do now.

Not earth-shattering, but kind of interesting…


Post-peak terms:

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Not so obvious terms (in terms of trend):

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And “hot topics” still on the rise, or recently starting to gain popularity:

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Conservation and governance

By Joern Fischer

Conservation science emerged primarily out of the biological sciences. In the last decade, there has been a lot of engagement with economics, especially in the context of ecosystem services and land use optimisation. Here, I argue that the next key challenge for conservation scientists is to engage more deeply with academic work on governance — especially considering multi-level governance.


Conventionally, scientists have often seen their job as providing “facts”, which then ought to be implemented by policy-makers. Such an approach can be criticised for being overly technocratic — that is, an expert (the scientist) finds the fix to a problem, and then it’s up to the benevolent dictator (the policy-maker) to implement this fix. But what if there is no benevolent dictator? What if there are a bunch of contested interests operating all at once, if the science does not have a single “true” answer, and if multiple ecological scales and administrative levels interact?

In a recent paper, we argued that conventional notions of evidence for conservation practice could be more useful if they were embedded in the context of a multi-scaled ecological vision; while explicitly acknowledging the realities of multi-level governance. How might this work?

First, a set of multi-scaled ecological principles can help to generate a vision of what a sustainably managed landscape, region, or continent would look like. Such multi-scaled visions have been discussed, for example, in forestry (see Lindenmayer and Franklin’s seminal book). Such visions enable a clear articulation of different kinds of goals at different scales, as well as shedding light on likely cross-scale interactions. Bits of “evidence” (including expert understanding) can then help to refine an ecological vision, and to assess how well a current state of implementation matches with the envisioned situation.

Second, evidence can’t be put into practice without a good understanding of multi-level governance, and the constraints and opportunities arising from it. Questions conservation scientists can ask (together with governance experts) include: which level of governance should be responsible for a particular conservation intervention? Does this interfere with decisions made at other levels? Is there sufficient democratic legitimacy for successful implementation? Which government and non-government actors have stakes in a potential conservation intervention?

Considering multi-level governance is not a magic bullet for conservation. But it will help to get away from overly technocratic, potentially simplistic understandings of how science interacts with policy decisions.

Our full paper is available in Conservation Letters. All papers in Conservation Letters are now open access.

Revival of landscape-scale research?

By Joern Fischer

It’s easy to by cynical about the state of the world, and the state of academia. A recent commentary in Nature suggested that “current trajectories threaten science with drowning in the noise of its own productivity”. Leading journals are full of technocratic formulas for how to fix the world; while the deeper questions underpinning our sustainability crisis remain unaddressed. But every now and then, there’s a glimmer of hope.

I’ve recently been hopeful about a possible revival of landscape-scale research. To me, conservation science went a bit like this: general principles were being established in the 1960; reserves were advocated in the 1970s; reserve planning was perfected in the 80s and 90s; the “matrix” outside protected areas attracted attention in the 1990s, along with a rise in landscape ecology; ecosystem services arose as a new field of enquiry in the 2000s; and protected areas re-gained attention via the concept of land sparing in the last few years, with areas outside protected areas losing in popularity.

But just recently, it appears there is also a revival of the “landscape” bubbling under the surface, along with genuinely better integration across disciplines. This latent revival of the landscape as a focal area of interdisciplinary research efforts is despite prestigious journals favouring larger scales. If you read only the highest impact journals, you may miss out altogether on the landscape scale. But if you read work one or two notches below in terms of supposed “prestige” of the journals, landscape research is alive, and perhaps even on the rise.

I was encouraged to see, for example, Reed’s latest paper in Global Change Biology; or Wu’s paper on landscape sustainability science. Similarly, the PECS network encourages investigation of social-ecological systems in actual physical locations – often landscapes, as shown in a recent review of literature on scenario planning.

There are several (different) communities of people who are passionate about getting out into the field; working in real landscapes; and investigating issues in depth from multiple perspectives. Perhaps part of the problem is that those communities do not (yet?) speak the same language – without having done a citation or network analysis, my guess is that work on the “landscape approach” (sensu Sayer or Reed) is largely separate from work on “landscape sustainability science” (sensu Wu) and “social-ecological systems” (sensu PECS). In addition, there are many “conventional” ecologists and social scientists who continue to focus on landscapes even when the incentives are skewed towards scaling up – but they may not read any of the interdisciplinary work listed above. These communities of people thus look different at first glance, but they probably share key interests and aversions: including the interest to actually “get out there” rather than just model things from a distance; and healthy skepticism regarding simplistic fixes for complex problems.

There’s nothing magic as such about the landscape as a focal scale – but as a space for integration across disciplines and between researchers and stakeholders, it is uniquely relevant. My hope is that over the next few years, we’ll see a major revival of landscape-scale research – and who knows, maybe even the high-impact journals will realize that bigger is not always better.

Paper recommendation: integrated landscape approaches for the future

I would like to recommend the following paper:

Reed J,  Van Vianen J,  Deakin EL,  Barlow J,  Sunderland T. 2016. Integrated landscape approaches to managing social and environmental issues in the tropics: learning from the past to guide the futureGlob Chang Biol. 2016 Mar 17, DOI: 10.3410/f.726225411.793517151

Focusing on the tropics, this paper makes a strong case for further efforts on ‘landscape approaches’ to biodiversity conservation. Landscape approaches are defined as approaches that seek, at the same time, to tackle biodiversity conservation, food security, poverty alleviation and climate change. The paper urges researchers, policy makers and practitioners alike to continue their efforts on focusing on landscapes as units for the integration of multiple interests — with the goal of maximizing synergies, while minimizing and being aware of inevitable trade-offs.

Through its holistic, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary focus, this paper is a welcome contrast to the dominant discourse in leading journals, which tends to be technocratic in nature {1}.


The intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation: a review, Glamann J, Hanspach J, Abson DJ, Collier N, Fischer J. Reg Environ Change. 2015 Oct 06;