The backlog

By Ebb



Sometimes, it is an incomplete dataset. Perhaps the missing data on that hard to get species, which is apparently all that is holding me back from publishing. In other cases the report to the funding body was written so long ago that chopping it into manuscripts seems to have become a memory or is too time consuming when stacked against what I am currently supposed to be doing. And compared with venturing into an unchartered river or flirting with the latest ecological curiosity, it is near on never happening. A less palatable permutation, is wrestling with the notion that this is interesting to me yet insubstantial enough to interest others (lets tag them reviewers) and that is probably fair enough. Nor will it meet the standards of an editor, let alone survive the entire draining process of the all-encompassing peer review juggernaut. Then there is the important stuff, i.e. being more than just a fish ecologist. Time with family, friends, and apparently what is described as a life. Additionally, there is the unavoidable possibility behind the failure to publish some of this backlog, the truth behind me being at times just plain lazy.

Publishing papers seems to be one of the central tasks of the modern fish ecologist (not sure I am feeling all that modern of late). Euphoric occasionally, down right shackling much of the time – yep this is how the publication process has been for me thus far. It’s all pretty clear and funny that while reviewing someone else’s manuscript, it all seems pretty straightforward, and at times it is even inspiring to sneak a peek at what is coming up around the bend. But getting one of my own across the line, well that’s a quicksand I’ve felt too the neckline, sometimes.

Through discussions with colleagues, I am aware that several of us firmly believe that a publication will arise from each of our current ecological activities. Maybe even to make a meaningful contribution to the field or even kick off a whole new novel research direction. I would love to hear more about the backlog of others, especially from those who are set differently to me. Perhaps, I’d glean some strategy, or at least confirm the Shakespearean tragedy. Your story might also help me to assist others, such as students that I encounter, if I were armed with your knowledge of an alternate approach and perhaps backed by a fundamentally different personality.

A backlog of manuscripts feels like an anchor. The backlog of papers suspended in draft in time evermore. A boss of mine once told me, that to have a list of possible papers was worse than a waste of time. It would only bring me, as it had certainly brought him, a sense of failure. At this stage of the game I will surrender to the fact that he was mostly right.

I wonder what the anchor looks like for different researchers, and specifically for Australian freshwater fish ecologists, and those researchers (e.g. geneticists, ecologists more generally) with overlap and influence in this field? This may seem like a morbid line of enquiry, given the less than cheery entrance to my spiel. However, it is to some extent fascinating if you can indulge this nutter a little while. How about I disclose the basic essay roadmap and you can decide if it is for you to hop away from this snowballing rant? Or you might be pretty resilient, daring to push on a little farther.

Beware of poorly crafted road maps

There are four steps ahead. One, to define the anchor, with no less clarity than the water flowing down a Cape Tribulation stream. Two, to construct a conceptual handle on the diversity of anchors that likely exists in Australian freshwater fish ecology. Three, speculate on the temporal aspects of the career anchor in relation to a cross section of fictitious players. And four, to conjure up a vision of the mirage of literature, that is potentially out there yet unborn. Confucius says, ‘If not crystal clear til this point, chase the pot of gold only if you have great stamina or patience and preferably both’.

Anchor defined

According to Lair-ipedia an anchor is the individual researcher manuscript backlog. It is derived from the Greek ‘angst’ and the Australian ‘chore’. Not entirely happy with this rather loose and fancy academic definition, I did the customary Qantas Flight Manager routine, ‘Cabin crew disarm doors and crosscheck.’ Specifically, I wondered if the dreamy list of possible papers counts as a solid definition of an anchor? Surely not, else we conclude that any fleeting thoughts crossing the scientific mind, such as cravings for a better-looking field assistant, or something other than salami sandwiches as the third meal of the day several days into a field trip, should qualify. At the other end of the spectrum, what about a rejected paper previously submitted to a journal but for which the author lost the strength to tidy and resubmit elsewhere? Yes, I think this is likely a qualifier. And I’ll settle for a pre-draft, with figures in place, all sections written and maybe just a missing paragraph or two and references needing updating and a tidy. An individual’s collection of these drafts is the anchor. Not a clean definition, but a richer sense of what the practitioner can glean immediately from the Lair-ipedia definition.


Anchor diversity

If I was to pick up where Batman and Robin left off in a previous episode (see Dynamic Duos of Australian Freshwater Fish Ecology, Ebb January 2014, Themorayslair.org), this is the part where I should contact a selection of fish ecologists and maybe a geneticist or two and get there opinions on where they feel their professional backlog of unpublished papers sits. But it is Friday night, my children have the television cornered, a couple of scotches may or may not be trickling my way, and I have made the executive decision to render this a data free monologue. Surely this will not cause any grief down at the Lair. Either way, the editor is overly trusting. Furthermore, the geneticists will be out partying and the fish ecologists won’t answer if they realise it is a north Queensland number.

So I am going to take a guess (not sure why this contribution would end up on a website and not in a journal, perhaps it is because I used the word guess instead of terms like assumption, presumption or expert opinion). I’ll start with what is most familiar to me, my backlog. Well there is a paper from an honours thesis, all core chapters of a PhD (sorry Phil), the best piece of Macquarie perch research that we did when I first moved to Canberra when tranquillity found the working lives of Jek and Lintos, and the final experiment of a flows project involving a heap of collaborators that I owe big time. Menindee fish survey, ouch. That will do to illustrate my point.

Now for completeness sake it is worth momentarily considering the possibility that I am the odd one out in our field. Well, that was short lived. Based on a pattern that includes average looks, average IQ, and an average sense of humour, I’m going to stand firm that my backlog is nothing but average. Thereby securely assuming (without the need to guess), that most of you are in my neighbourhood in the middle room, at the middle section of hotel bell-curve.

Left of bell-curve centre should sit the efficient and the unproductive. Both well established stereotypes. The former are exceptional publishers, quick out of the blocks of their careers and likely shrouded in good work habits right from the beginning. Most of us either envy or despise this subtype. Though I guess these emotions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. At this stage according to Lair-ipedia, there is not consensus on whether Australian fish scientists are allowed to have feelings at all, since apparently the emotional are devoid of objectivity. By way of example, Leanne Faulk’s might well be one of these efficient publishers, and yet I have always found her to be likeable and engaging. Strangely from a theoretical perspective, the unproductive stereotype, does not draft manuscripts as a general rule. Perhaps they will talk about their plans to publish manuscripts or perhaps they keep these aspirations bottled up inside. Maybe some are content with providing other functions. Technically skilled, policy making, well organised, the glue in a team, to name but a few of these functions. A truly novel idea: maybe journal papers aren’t everything (excuse me while I sip that scotch).

Right of bell-curve central, sits the inefficient publisher. Typically these researchers hoard lots of drafts and almost-papers, but in reality publish infrequently relative to their extensive almost-collection. Some of them may publish more than the rest of us and also excel in creating still many more drafts to boot. Again, Lair-ipedia falls a little short in defining the inefficient publisher. But they differ from the unproductive in having clear intent and capability to reach draft stage. Dare I speculate, insomnia may knock on the door of such researchers more nights than it be welcome. Certainly if I can pose myself as an expert for a moment, the no snooze is to lose, and my condolences to others of this ilk.

Career anchor evolution

At the beginning of a fish ecology career, the backlog is small and maybe non-existent. For me at least, starting as a technician and then a research assistant, it was a long time before I even got involved in preparing a journal manuscript. Then there was a long while I was pretty pigheaded and chipped away at too much science in my own head. I’ve since started to publish and am starting to contribute some papers to Australian freshwater fish ecology.

In these more recent years, I’ve shadowed a few up and comers, and watched them publish. Some of them now have their own backlog, and it’s interesting to watch the different styles of prioritisation unfold. I’m guessing (there I go again), that for those that last in this line of work for a number of decades, the anchor can get to a point of steadying a naval freight carrier in 40 knot winds. I’d be interested to hear from those with this level of experience, and how they make peace with what will be produced on the publication front in one lifetime. Perhaps more intriguing would be the snippets of what might have been had certain drafts made it across the white line. Would the course of our science be any different if something was in print that maybe most of us don’t currently know about? Or in some cases maybe we do know about, however since it never made it to print, it doesn’t get a mention subsequently in our in text introductions nor discussions. Such are the rules of engagement in journal publication. Anyways you must be tired it has been a long journey.

Literature mirage

So picture yourself in a Kerezsy-like desert setting, thirsty for water and thirsting for knowledge. Dragging your feet, somehow lugging your library in a swag, full to the brim with rich texts from our continental offerings in this field of study. Books penned by Lake, by Cadwallader and Backhouse, by McDowall and by Allen, Midgley and Allen (not sure Pusey, Kennard and Arthington’s tome can be physically carried; as in we’ll just whip up 700 pages shall we….). The shiny new Humphries and Walker, recently purchased with anticipation. And so many journal publications sparkling like gems. Books and papers: such solid, tangible things. Look up from your journey. Wipe your brow. Blink once and look again. What would the oasis look like if we published all of those draft journal papers?

At first with this topic I could only selfishly see what I have not done. Thinking about the papers that could have been, should have been, in my own sphere of output. The haunting ghosts remind me of co-authors many of which are friends. But what I find fascinating, albeit akin to the shifting base of a rainbow, is when I clear my mind and set adrift from my miniscule, personal anchor.

What would we all see if we were rid of those anchors? Not in the way of ignoring the backlog, rather in the way that so much research has been done that will never reach publication, and this leaves a virtual collective of what could have been. Truly I am not thinking in a negative way. Just imagine what would be known within the research community if all this stuff had been documented, to become accessible, and shared. The point being, that our publications do influence the thinking of other researchers (and sometimes beyond) and to some extent provide future limitations on the scope of introductions and discussions in the formally published dialogue. Publications, to some extent, shape both our separate and collective views of the field.

My brain is alive with the visions conjured up from my first hand experiences combined with your collective publications. Spoils from the toils from so many of you out there, some friends, some colleagues some likely even competitors. Some I have met, others I may never know. Also, the works of those since past (steady on), and others now retired from this field.

I get that we are only human, and we will never get it all in print. And I recall that science is only an approximation closing in on the truth. Still, for a moment it is interesting to ponder, what we would collectively be seeing if we got it all into print. If it weren’t for all of that ‘angst and chore’.


Bibliographia pergatorium

Ebner, B. C and Bellwood, D. (undated) Feeding ecology of the rockskipper, Istiblennius meleagris.

Ebner et al. (undated) Changing fish assemblage composition in six of the Menindee Lakes.

Ebner and Suter, P. (undated) Digestion of Daphnia carinata is temperature dependent in Australian smelt.

Ebner and Suter, P. (undated) Seasonal changes in the abundance of a lake population of Australian smelt.

Ebner and Suter, P. (undated) Dietary shifts in an Australian smelt population.

Ebner and Suter, P. (undated) A numerical estimate of the Daphnia carinata consumed by a fish population in one year.

Ebner, B. C., Lintermans, M., and Robinson, W. (undated) Habitat use of a population of the threatened Macquarie perch.

Ebner et al. (undated) Experimental releases of environmental flows in an upland river.

This article was loaded to the Lair on the 24th of December 2014 having been editorized by Allswell.