Category Archives: Perspectives

Some deep thinking.


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,, 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.


Reviewer sapien

By Ebb

The metapopulation structure of Reviewer sapien is complex. Founding taxonomic work elevated each of three subgroupings to subspecies level based exclusively on behavioural attributes despite some conjecture surrounding the absence of reliable morphological characters. More recently, phylogeny of these subspecies has been challenged on genetic grounds, though this is purely theoretical owing to a court ruling that R. sapien comes under human ethics rather than animal ethics legislation. There are strict rules around sampling human DNA, and even stricter rules dripping with political correctness associated with acts of stereotyping. In effect the species is considered more than half-human.

In the beginning, Dr Freud Fishenheimer recognised only R. sapien constructivist (sensu oldschoolii), R. s. agro, R. s. holierthannow and R. s. missinginaction (Fig. 1a). Reviewer. s. constructivist was defined as logical, thorough and oozing with old school class. This type is typically very strong with the English word and is a grammatical stickler, sometimes to the detriment of holding up a progressive scientific lens. They are apparently concerned with the quality of the manuscript at hand and only too willing to improve the document especially where upcoming authors are involved. They are frequently only too willing to sign their name to their review, and to accept when asked by the editor to revise a major revision or resubmission.

Reviewer s. agro in contrast, seems intent on destruction. Perhaps their best trait is rejecting the crappier manuscripts circumventing the slow death of a truly major revision process, thereby freeing up the editor and R. s constructivist to apply efforts elsewhere. In the pre-computer era, handling editors could afford to be ambivalent towards H. s. agro especially since two out of three reviewers were likely constructive. Bureau of Statistics estimates clearly show a pre-1990s abundance of constructive reviews, reviewers and their likelihood of being found at home with a Cognac in their own dwellings on census night. In the post carrier pigeon age, email enables rash and immediate response from the severely stung lead author or even the disgruntled authorship team. This loosely translates into editors receiving pleasantries such as, ‘If you are going to stand by Reviewer B despite them clearly being a prick with their consistently biased and unconstructive comments, than your journal can go to …’. Well, you get the idea.

Reviewer s. holierthannow speaks with complete authority, and cannot possibly be wrong. They published a well-cited paper in the 1800s and have some how outlived most vampires, or are committed to doing so in time. The smell of chardonnay wafts from their email. It is surprising given their very existence that the lower class should bother to attempt publication. In fact, the would-be author is left wondering why any further science is necessary, which makes uncomfortable sense momentarily when mum is sending newspaper clippings of the revelation that McDonalds is hiring graduates from the postgraduate science pool, again. The earth is a round pastry waiting to be flattened out and returned to its original wholesome goodness.

Reviewer s. missinginaction is disinterested, too busy or without opinion. The chirping of crickets is like dance music on repeat. Of all reviewer types they are always last to submit their paperwork to the editor. And if they read your abstract they did it quickly. Missing in action is the kiss of death when wedged between two agros. Phylogeny of reviewers

Figure 1 The progression in published phylogenies of Reviewer subspecies based on a) Fishenheimer 1973 b) Fishenheimer-Smith 2001 c) Fishenheimer-Smith & Fishenheimer 2004.

By the turn of the century, Fishenheimer’s daughter Associate Professor Fishenheimer-Smith had recognised a fifth and sixth subspecies (Fig. 1b). This work was to become globally recognised and ecology was to square-root transform forevermore. Homo sapien geneticistlabii and Homo sapien statisticblinkeri became almost instantly recognisable. The former had no problem deciphering a methods section comprising paragraphs that many of us thought were some form of product barcode and elaborate means of communicating beyond our solar system. Some of us still can’t get three sides out on the Rubik’s cube despite being reliably told that a cryptic species is not at all obvious in the field. Reviewer statisticblinkeri brought experimental design to the fore, although, according to H. s. oldschoolii this rigour may have come at the expense of remembering that fish have gills and fins. These subspecies have clearly advanced our science.

Of great interest was the fact that for the first time taxonomists believed there was a morphological basis for classifying these subspecies. The light skin colour attributed to the lab and office environments was apparently in sharp contrast to the bronzed Ozzie field technician and scientist mould. This was to prove highly contentious and distasteful, and ultimately would lead to the resurrection of the juxtapose and likely ancestral subspecies Homo sapien naturalhistoreye (Fig. 1c). Ironically this whole process would come to be bemoaned by geneticists and increasingly statistically literate ecologists alike. As someone with subpar mathematic ability and an epidermis existing only in shades of white or red, my field days were over and I was to enter exile.

Which of these subspecies are you? Maybe you have evolved and believe that you are the best of different bits and pieces recognisable or not even mentioned above. I must say that I have had some really insightful and constructive reviews at times from Australian fish ecologists. Even despite a few of these reviews not ending favourably on occasion, I could not always fault what was being said to me after the initial pain had subsided. I think these constructive reviews are challenging and are of real merit. This website is partly dedicated to the likes of you people.

Where as, let me just say, that if you happen to be H. s. agro, you should be shot. While this may seem offensive, my lovely side is now a distant memory hardened by your chargrilling in recent years. Good day to you all fish ecologists, reviewers and fellow approximators of truth. After all, the subspecies concept may just be missing the point, of what it is to be Homo sapien.


Further reading

Fishenheimer, F. (1973). Three distinct lineages of Reviewer species. Humantaxa 18, 23-29.

Fishenheimer-Smith, R. (2001). Trouble in paradise, the emergence of multiple breeds of fish ecologist. Journal of Fish and Fisheries Sociology 17, 102-137.

Fishenheimer-Smith, R. and Fishenheimer, F. (2004). By deduction, the natural-history-eyed researcher must have existed. Humantaxa 49, 344-357.

Kriegeskorte, N. (2014). What lesson do rising retraction rates hold for peer review? The Conversation

Lozano, G. A., Larivière, V. and Gingras, Y. (2012). The weakening relationship between the impact factor and papers’ citations in the digital age. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 63 (11), 2140.

Spicer, A. and Roulet, T (2014). Hate the peer-review process? Einstein did too. The Conversation


To list or to sit back and watch it all fade away.

To list or to sit back and watch it all fade away.


By Ebb

Recently, Adam Kerezsy asked an important question, the question of whether on balance it is a sensible idea to list a threatened species for conservation status? In providing a response, he drew on his experience, particularly with that of saving the Red-finned blue-eye. Adam both researches and acts in conserving that precious species. However, it is just one of Australia’s threatened fishes, and a case where the agent of threat is understood, even if all the specific ecological mechanisms associated with Gambusia holbrooki moving into the Edgbaston Spring Complex are not known inside-out. I would like to join in tackling Dr Kerezsy’s overarching question, by adding some thinking about threatened fishes more generally.

In his article, Dr Kerezsy makes four points directly relevant to his focal question. First, that a listed species is more difficult to work on because of restrictions placed on the researcher or environmental manager as a consequence of the conservation status awarded to that species. The ecology of a threatened species is then more difficult to study as a function of restrictions placed on the researcher, a bureaucratic vortex. In this case, the example of getting permission to conduct dietary analysis on a critically endangered fish was used to signify a potential hurdle.

I get where he is coming from with this, and it seems to me a lot more thought needs to go into developing transparent and rapid ways of weighing up the risks and opportunities of gaining information and protecting a population short and long-term. At a minimum this probably requires the cooperation of the threatened species researchers, local environmental managers and federal department policy makers. The agenda of such a working group should also encompass adaptive management interventions and not just research. Another committee; I can see Adam rolling his eyes as I write this. My point is that there are good reasons for listing a species, even though the system post-listing ain’t perfect.

Second, Adam declared that there is a tendency to nominate newly discovered species, which are rare, and that this is not necessarily good in that it may prevent effective study of these species. This may be partly true, but it ignores the potentially beneficial aspects of listing a species that reach beyond the researcher and into society. Listing certainly does not guarantee protection. However, many listed species face a cocktail of multiple threatening processes, ranging from land clearing, elevated sedimentation of streams, direct harvest of species, chemical pollution, competition with alien species, predation by alien species, spread of diseases and viruses (including those spread by alien species), river regulation, altered habitat structure and so forth. Society will not be changing its way any time soon for a non-listed species while the researcher chips away at her or his private crossword puzzle. My current view is that listing a species acknowledges a need for society to protect.


The public can nominate a species for conservation status in accordance with the EPBC Act. Yet the scientific knowledge to prepare a nomination typically requires the expertise of an ecologist, and with rare species there is rarely more than one or two experts at the coal face familiar with a particular species or population. The more challenging question then becomes for that ecologist, is it ethical not to nominate a species if it is likely in harm’s way? Joanna Public is unlikely to step up. The real kicker is that the ecologist may well wish to remain objective, impartial and without advocacy, and yet often the ecologist is the one in the best position to be aware of a nomination being even relevant. The ecologist may also just not have a conservation bent or see nomination as a priority amidst their other tasks and agendas (e.g. chasing a wage, publishing; see Steve Beatty’s recent perspective). At Edgbaston Springs, human development may not be occurring at a rate of knots. In the Pilbara, and South East Queensland, South Western Australia and in the Wet Tropics, human development is an incoming King Sound tide. Whose responsibility is it to nominate? I contend it is an honour and a privilege.

There is a largely unsettled argument going on behind the scenes with conserving threatened freshwater fishes in Australia. Should we be listing rare species before they get into trouble, or should we only be listing species that are clearly going backwards based on evidence? The pragmatic may side with the latter, yet they might more effectively side with the former. For giggles, recall that a federal listing is going to take a minimum of two years and possibly double that from preparing through to enlisting.

The third point Dr Kerezsy makes is an interesting one. That listing a species does not guarantee it receives adequate scientific or management resourcing. I must confess to having done no analysis to follow this up. I’m guessing if the Red-finned blue-eye was not a listed species it would be that much harder to fund the conservation of the little critter. I have heard Dr Kerezsy present on the plight of this blighter in the order of a dozen times at scientific forums, and each time the conservation status and peril of this species was hit home. An uglier version of the Red-finned blue-eye is the Murray hardyhead, a species that has suffered true pain in recent decades. If it were not listed you wouldn’t bother passing around the hat for fear of raucous laughter. Funded recovery plans for fish, even the better looking counterparts of Murray hardheads are not currently in vogue.

The feds are broke, and at least some of the states are too. Who funds threatened species work? Good question, it’s a pretty, small pool. Who funds ulgy, small-bodied, non-listed species research? Mmmm. If it were the Melbourne Cup, I wouldn’t put my house on getting funding for researching a sexy, sparkling cling goby drawn close to the starter’s rail. Still I’d back it over a Bony herring out in gate 21.

Dr Kerezsy’s final remark tha of interest to me, was: ‘so there’s not much point nominating an obscure species if there is every chance it might end up being a different species by the time the dust settles’. Way to poke a geneticist in the eye. To be sure nominating a species that is not yet recognized or identified clearly is a hard case to sell (believe me I’ve tried). But difficult and messy doesn’t necessarily negate importance. The precautionary principle locks horns with the limited resourcing argument here. And this is a difficult one, and illustrates the complexity and urgency of operating in the threatened species space where new species are being discovered. We need geneticists, taxonomists and fish ecologists, coming together. If any of these three pieces is missing the house of cards collapses. I repeat, ‘we need all three’.

The discovery of a new species in itself is an exciting prospect. However, when the discovery is a species with a highly localized range and one set in a conflicted landscape such as close to urban sprawl or where mining activity is planned or underway, it poses a dilemma. Even if some basic ecological information can be gleaned in a short period of time without adequate resources, and a scurry made for a public nomination for the species, there will be the lag before the species (potentially) has formal conservation status within a state or federal jurisdiction. A fast tracking mechanism is required here, with a built in reassessment process to delist when as Adam puts it, ‘the dust settles’.

I conclude that on balance within the current system it is a sensible idea to list a threatened species for conservation status. Still, we need better resourcing not only financially for researchers, but in terms of connecting agency threatened species people and threatened species researchers, using effective systems. We need state and federal agency staff with knowledge of freshwater fish and aquatic systems.

I’ll end this rant with speculation on where this could go. I think threatened species status is useful especially to focus attention on truly recovering or protecting a freshwater fish. I also think fish are one of the few freshwater taxa that people other than fish ecologists can relate to in some way. In this way listed fish can also serve as surrogates in the protection of freshwater ecosystems. But more and more, I think we need to move toward protecting freshwater ecosystems, and with that comes a special challenge associated with the high degree of connectivity of water, fauna and environmental impacts occurring within catchments.


Further Reading

Beatty, S. (2014). One game at a time, taking nothing for granted, and not thinking about finals: the relevance of clichés to short term research contracts.

Kerezsy, A. (2014) To List or not To List? A sensible question.

Nicholson, E. et al. (2014).”Towards consistency, rigour and compatibility of risk assessments for ecosystems and ecological communities.” Austral Ecology Early View

Wilson, K.A., Evans, M.C., Di Marco, M., Green, D.C., Boitani, L., Possingham, H.P., Chiozza, F., and Rondinini, C. (2011). Prioritizing conservation investments for mammal species globally. Philos T R Soc B 366, 2670–2680.

Editor’s note:

Ebb has asked me to handle correspondence as a guest editor. I have known him for several years now, and relish the opportunity to keep him in line (shoe is finally on the other foot). Ebb is pretty passionate when it comes to the underdog, and we all know that if you get him started, you are in for a long session. At least this one is short and sweet.

Both Adam and Ebb have offered their own unique perspectives, but this conversion is one-sided. They both re-iterate that ecologists, geneticists and managers need to be seated at the same table. I’d be interested in receiving both short and long responses to any or all points raised by Adam and Ebb. Alternatively, if you have a different perspective, I’d be very interested to hear from you. 

Please send contributions to [email protected].

Allswell – guest editor



One game at a time, taking nothing for granted, and not thinking about finals: the relevance of clichés to short term research contracts

By Steve Beatty


With spring around the corner, freshwater fish over this way thinking about swimming up a stream and making sweet love, the finals just around the corner, and the Dockers looking as promising as ever for their break through premiership (despite obvious Victorian umpire bias e.g. 25-10 frees at half time last weekend), things are looking up in the West. I was just thinking the other day how much I love my job and should really pinch myself more often on how good life really is. Everything that follows is therefore (blatantly) a whinge from a first-worlder.

The website creator (a mate, hereon referred to as “The Creator”) recently burst my whimsical bubble and asked me to discuss some of the personal and career issues of forging ahead as a freshwater ecologist on soft money and short term contracts. Now that might suggest that he had heard me once or twice rattle on at the odd conference about how keeping one’s head above water can be challenging, a bit scary (with a young family) if not exciting and thought it worthwhile that I contribute these thoughts to this website to provide a bit of ’you’ll-never-walk-alone’ comfort to its readers. Alternatively, The Creator may just think I can be a bit of a whinger and thought it amusing to provide me the platform to highlight this. Either way, a few humble thoughts on my experience on this topic follow.


Steve Beatty having just knocked a hundred.

This is not intended as a blame piece but more a conversation / ideas starter and I encourage feedback. It is written as a somewhat self-indulgent reflection of what it has meant to me, from both the negative and positive sides, to spend the first 8 years post-doc with no tenure and little sign of it being forthcoming. Based on my admittedly relatively limited network of fishy friends, this soft contract roundabout is clearly ubiquitous across research institutions and fields relating to ecology. Whilst I have no empirical evidence in terms of percentage of early-mid career colleagues on short term contracts, my guess would comfortably be the majority and therefore it is one that is not isolated, but at times feels isolating.

I am deliberately going to avoid (call me a coward) delving into the obvious political side of this issue particularly the government funding models that dictate university research strategies, suffice to say I do appreciate the tightness of tertiary funding and equally the fight by the union to tackle its often crippling effects of staff moral and student outcomes.

…..(insert here four month writing pause)….

I will now touch on the politics of this issue as the first budget of the new Federal Government has been handed down half way through writing this which will likely have serious, albeit somewhat unclear implications for university funding models (at least to me and also at this stage, apparently, several of the VC’s at the group of eight); particularly with regard to ‘research active’ positions such as myself (I could equally be referred to as ‘teaching inactive’). Moreover, I personally see as short-sighted vandalism of Australian science the cutting of CSIRO funding by $111 million over four years (500 jobs) and we will pay for this as a country over the long-term. Apparently, gas and mining research will be boosted and water research, biodiversity, and low emissions research wound back….say no more on priorities.

My introduction into the world of the freshwater fish scientific community was the Australian Society for Fish Biology and more specifically, its conferences. It is fair to say that many fish biologists and ecologists are a fairly eccentric bunch as evidenced by getting very, very excited about gobies, or willingly straddling a sawfish in crocodile infested waters. Whilst having only limited experience with other scientific societies, I have heard and it is my experience that this is one of the most nurturing and welcoming professional societies to new members in Australia; particularly to those rosy-cheeked students like many of us were. Most esteemed senior members of ASFB, who as a student or early career researcher are naturally looked up to based on their scientific papers, are very giving of their time to discuss research with students at the annual meetings; particularly if the student can afford to lube the chat with a bold red or a frothy ale.

It is firmly of my opinion, that it is this culture of the ASFB in welcoming often scientifically and sometimes emotionally fragile new members, that has played a considerable role in bolstering the stocks and quality (measured on a global scale) of Australian fish ecologists. The flip side of this nurturing culture would be one where senior members of the scientific community are not only unwilling to spare students a moment of their time, but publically or privately critique their work, not so much for its quality, but more driven by scientific ego. I would dearly love to say I haven’t born witness to this scenario that can ruin a young scientists self-esteem and passion to pursue a research career, but unfortunately that is not the case. Nonetheless, aside from this relatively rare situation, due to the overwhelming collegial attitude of its members I think that the stocks and quality of the populations of Australian fish ecologists are extremely strong, by and large resilient to ‘downward pressure’ (love that BS political term) on funding, and have a well-deserved strong international reputation batting well above average.

However, it is clear these populations are now severely threatened by unsustainable levels of F (funding mortality) and we are losing several ESUs. The levels of cutbacks of scientists across major state and commonwealth institutions is disastrous not only for the staff losing their jobs, but for the long-term health of our freshwater and marine ecosystems given that effective and balanced natural resource management decisions can only be made based on sound scientific data. The risk of losing such national scientific ‘capital’ that takes a generation or more to develop to such short-sighted, short term funding models is truly regrettable. A sub-lethal effect of funding droughts that I fear may increasingly occur is our primeval instinct of self-survival may serve to increase competitiveness and reduce collaborations; an outcome completely unhelpful to scientific progress and discovery. Investment in more not less funding to science (and not just medical research) should occur to ensure a sustainable, economically prosperous, smart, Australia.


The loss of these contractual and/or tenured positions will undoubtedly lead to more researchers either leaving the profession, or attempting to get by often on a part-salary funded by soft money. I often think of this as swinging through the trees grabbing onto the next funding opportunity branch until you reach a logging coup and fall on your bum. I, as I am sure many of you do, regularly run through the what-if scenarios and contingencies relating to income and I find myself doing this more and more now I have a couple of cling gobies at home. A certain website editor of unquestionably eccentric character would have undertaken this process recently given the recent and planned slashing of CSIRO positions. I find myself thinking about Govie positions a lot and have, in the past, had a couple of offers for research scientist positions that, from time to time, I regret not taking. At least out West this would mean largely walking away from non-management based research, but this could be rewarding in terms of directly influencing those decisions that are made relating to conserving (or otherwise) aquatic ecosystems.

I see the major challenge of being on soft research money (as with any short term contracts) is finding a balance. This principally involves balancing the endless search for salary support often by pursuing and accepting work (usually consultancies) that simply will not be publishable, with the constant need to ensure one’s research profile is continually enhanced by trying to publish broadly appealing papers in respected journals that will actually be cited (by someone else). On top of this, short of not having a life outside of research, the biggest challenge is not spending 70 hours a week at your job including being away from a young family; which is partially unavoidable as a field-based ecologist. There were several years that I and a well-known colleague of mine who sports a premature hip replacement, spent ~30% of our time in the field. Now as fun and romantic as that may seem (and as enjoyable as it is to be out in a river somewhere), that is time spent away from your family and also largely precludes searching and applying for the next funding ‘branch’. Then back at the office there are the technical reports to be written (I have >80 to my name, and not all 2-pagers), meetings with clients/funding agencies, volumous amounts of ‘amateur’ (or creative) accounting to be done (remembering that even relatively small projects will have stand-alone contractual arrangements that need to be adhered to), papers to be written, students to supervise, and gear to maintain and find the money to buy in the first place.

Steve with Marron Cropped Shrunk

Steve is also suspected of dabbling in the dark arts of crayfish work

The other challenge if you are in a relatively small group, is finding enough coin to be able to employ research assistants which dramatically improves your research outputs and can snowball your funding streams as you have more capacity to complete larger projects, and also more time to apply for grants or consultancies. Our group receives no funding for technicians from the University but have, on equally soft money, managed to employ two basically full time research assistants for the past three years. Six or so years ago this was simply not a possibility ergo the 30% of time in the field with the hip replacement bloke.

Now to mention a few positives. I believe that surviving most of my post-doctoral career on self-generated income has actually had some tangible benefits in terms of my skills, work ethic and motivation. It has certainly encouraged a resourcefulness and willingness borne out of necessity to learn new skills both practical (e.g. field techniques and managing finite budgets), theoretical (coming up with ecological ideas and hypotheses to test), and analytical (there is no statistician within 500 m from where I sit). It forces you to become skilled in writing funding applications as well as extending your scientific research to as broad an audience as possible. Our group does countless community based presentations on top of those to Government and industry. This scientific extension underpins everything our group stands for and something that tenured staff (arguably) may not be as motivated to undertake.

I guess when a senior tenured academic advises you to be ‘very thankful’ for a (previous) three year funding arrangement 30:70 (the 70 part I find) it is hard not to be a touch jaded and unappreciated. My top tips to those soft-money freshwater fishos out there: Make time to plan, keep plugging, keep trying, keep growing your skills, and keep promoting your work as widely as possible. Most of all, see life’s forest for the trees, try and find your balance, and remember you are not alone. There will always be plenty of shoulders at the next conference to cry on because, like the climate in south-western Australia, research funding is only getting drier.

Another good read on the topic is:



Editor’s note: Dr Steve Beatty is a perpetual Post doctoral Researcher at Murdoch University. He is the expert on the effects of groundwater-surface water interaction on freshwater fish life history and population processes in the south Western Australia region. His work on Tandanus bostocki is a substantial and impressive piece of fish research (see Beatty, et al. 2010. Ecology of Freshwater Fish 19, 595–608).

Red finned blue eye Adam Kerezsy (2)

To List or not To List? A sensible question

Writing and photography by Adam Kerezsy

I was checking on Ebbsy’s Lair the other day and was interested to read some of the newer postings – particularly the insights of Gerry Allen, Helen Larson and Paul Humphries. Quite apart from reinforcing my perception that a website like this is a good idea for a range of reasons, I found myself specifically relating the expertise of all three to my past and current work (which I think is a natural reaction to a forum-type site such as this). Even more specifically – and especially because of my recent work on endangered species – I interpreted their opinions through this lens.

For the last six years I’ve been working to recover populations of Red-finned blue-eye, a tiny fish found only in a tiny number of Great Artesian Basin springs in central western Queensland. I’ve taken the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach, and thrown most things in the general direction of the problem, including nuking Gambusia (= Gambo) with rotenone, relocating populations of the critters to ‘safe’ areas and building barriers around springs to prevent Gambo incursion. Most recently, I headed down a captive breeding route.

I’m sure most would agree that if saving a species is the idea, this scattergun approach is sensible, but what many may not realise is that once a species is listed as endangered (and this one is, both nationally and at state level), it actually becomes much harder to work on them, because what might be termed the ‘permission loading’ rises substantially. As an example, it took the best part of two years to get a referral approved from the feds to nuke the Gambos and move the blue-eye. Then – and still before the work started – I also had to get permission under the state legislation, not to mention plenty of ethics agreements into the bargain. In the interim, at least one naturally-occurring population of blue-eyes was invaded and overwhelmed by Gambos, but legally, there was bugger-all I could do about it.

It’s important to remember that none of these actions or referrals or permissions relate to research into the biology, ecology and natural history of the species: admittedly, at this point just keeping the species on the planet is a bigger priority. But Paul Humphries is spot-on: unless we know how our creatures tick, we may be jumping the gun modelling their habitats, requirements and future prospects. As an example, I have no conclusive idea what Red-finned blue-eye eat, and whether this may have something to do with Gambo success versus blue-eye extirpation. I’d certainly like to, but here’s the dilemma: I reckon I’ve got Buckley’s and none of getting permission under the EPBC Act to cut open some of the remaining fish. Once something is endangered – and the IUCN list this one as critically endangered – bureaucrats rightfully get a bit antsy about losing a few.

Gerry Allen’s interview gave me another perspective, because Gerry, along with other well-travelled fish people (Heiko Bleher is a suitably eccentric example), has actually done plenty of discovery. They’ve traipsed around tropical jungles and snorkelled in crystal-clear streams, and – significantly – they’ve kept finding new species. In many cases, these ‘new’ species are range-limited to a catchment or even a certain section of a catchment, which is almost certainly why they haven’t been ‘discovered’ before. I’ve noticed a tendency within the trade to jump a few steps forward at this point and draw a logical conclusion between rarity/range-limitation and the conferment of endangered status – in other words, if something is new and rare, it must/should be endangered. I’m not sure this is necessarily the case, particularly if researchers wish to undertake further study on the species in question. In fact, I’d suggest doing the research first, and only then nominating species for listing if rarity can be shored up with immediate threats. A common counter-argument is that endangered listing may be useful because funding is more likely to occur, but I think in many cases this is more perception than reality. If something’s big (like a rhino), or furry (like a bilby) or – even better – big and furry (like a tiger) then this argument probably has a bit of clout. But for the vast majority of Australia’s freshwater fish – small, scaly, unobtrusive – expecting largesse to materialise just because a particular species has a big ‘E’ next to its name is probably a bit unrealistic. Remember that the federal agency, although it ‘manages’ the listings, doesn’t have any cash to throw at recovery effort. In the case of the Red-finned blue-eye, there’s been bootloads of media stories and other publicity – including being included in a 100 Most Endangered worldwide awareness initiative by the IUCN – but money has still been hard to come by. And remember, this is the Australian fish species that is definitely the next to exit God’s waiting room unless active management of remaining populations is continued.


If only they would fight back (Illustration not provided by Adam Kerezsy)

Taxonomists like Helen Larson deserve all of our admiration, for without them, we (really) don’t know what we’re talking about. (There’s also the number of hours spent peering down a microscope at papillae, which only a very small percentage of Homo sapiens actually possess the patience for.) Helen and her peers (too many to list, but sadly, many less than previously) have – many times – revised and re-written the book on species, speciation and species boundaries, and now, with the assistance of what might be termed the ‘gene army’ (think names like Adams, Unmack and Hammer and you’re in the right territory), these revisions are set to both continue and increase. Although this is good overall, it makes things complicated (e.g. how any smelt species are we up to now?), and if it makes things complicated for people who are actually interested in fish, imagine what it’ll be like for the box-tickers in Canberra (and other places). Remember that going from a listing nomination to acceptance to anything approaching an adopted recovery plan is likely to take about 20 years, so there’s not much point nominating an obscure species if there is every chance it might end up being a different species by the time the dust settles. The up-coming ‘grunter fiesta’ in the Kimberley is a good example: no idea how many Syncomistes and other Terapontids we’ll eventually end up with, but probably a good idea no-ones pressed the ‘endangered’ button until the picture’s a little bit clearer. With regard to listing or not listing, the biggest consideration should be certainty, both of the species and its security.

So thanks to Paul, Gerry and Helen for giving me some inspiration, and galvanising me to throw a thousand words together that might be food for thought for someone else. Thanks also to Ebb for hosting the Lair. If there’s a moral to this story it could be something along the lines of: listing species as endangered is no different from building a house: measure twice, cut once, and if it doesn’t seem right it probably isn’t.


Editor’s note: Adam Kerezsy is on the cusp of becoming a regular fixture here at the Lair. He is living proof that you do not need to keep your thoughts bottled up inside. If you are interested in adding to Adam’s thoughts or opening up a bottle of your own, feel free to contribute a written piece or just send a short comment for the soon to be released Letters to the Editor section. I am also interested in feedback regarding what else you think would be useful on this website.


A call to fins: the need for more fundamental biological information of fishes

By Paul Humphries  


Recently, I co-supervised an Honours project by Casey Shaw, together with Keller Kopf at Charles Sturt University. Casey’s project investigated the reasons why small-bodied freshwater fishes tend to be over-represented in the IUCN’s red list: species at risk of extinction. Unlike marine fishes, and unlike many other vertebrate groups, if you are a freshwater fish, the smaller you are, the more likely you will suffer at the hands of inconsiderate human-induced change. What she found was very interesting, but that is for another time. What she didn’t find, however, was even more interesting, albeit disturbing, and has prompted the subject of this perspective article: the need for basic biological knowledge on freshwater fishes.

Casey found enough basic life history and habitat information for only 204 species from four river basins (although she started off wanting to include seven), which was about half of the total number of species present. In another example, in our recent chapter on reproduction and early life history of Australian freshwater fishes (King et al. 2013), we were only able to find 53 species for which the absolute basic life history knowledge (egg number, egg size and length at maturity) was available. This is only about 20% of the total Australian freshwater fish fauna! There were also only 20 species for which there are good, solid length-egg number relationships determined in the published literature. And if you think that the parlous state of our knowledge of the biology of Australian freshwater fishes is because of all the under-studied northern tropical species, you’d only be half right. There are many, many species in southern Australia for which we have little detailed biological information. Most well-studied species are those important for recreational fisheries. For something as basic as diet, there is a real gap in our knowledge of what fish eat, how much, when and where they get their food and how this translates into growth, reproduction and survival. And what is equally worrying, is that once one person has described the diet of a species in one location at one time in history, the rest of us assume that that is what they eat throughout their distribution and for all time! Or at least that is the implicit assumption, considering repeated dietary studies are as rare as (if you will excuse the pun), hen’s teeth.

trutt ovaries

Ripe Galaxias truttaceus (Photo courtesy of Paul Humphries)

But why should we care about this sort of basic biological information? Isn’t it all a bit dull? It certainly won’t get you far as a new researcher and many of your colleagues, especially the modellers amongst them, will look down their perfectly-formed noses at you with disdain (although it is your data that they will be asking for to populate their models, so there!). Well, we should care. A recent paper by Tewksbury et al. (2014) has highlighted the reasons why ‘natural history’ (“…the observation and description of the natural world, with the study of organisms and their linkages to the environment being central”, Tewksbury, 2014) is absolutely vital for all sorts of reasons: human health (about 75% of emerging diseases are associated with animals, and some of the biggest killers in human history, like malaria, have animal vectors); food security (e.g. the associations of crops with pollinators and pests, understanding what factors influence fisheries); conservation and management (how are we to conserve a species without knowing where it lives, what substrate it spawns on and what eats it?); and recreation (hunting and fishing are some of the most popular pastimes there are, and understanding what may happen if you introduce a new species or food item to an existing sport fishery can be the difference between success and abject failure).

murray cod for skeleton collection

Paul with an even riper Murray cod!

Unfortunately, as I have alluded, and as Tewksbury and colleagues point out, natural history is on the decline. And it is relatively rare for Honours or postgraduate students to do straight natural history type projects. But it is what we need! If I had a challenge that I would throw to all fishy types out there who care about such things: it is to work together to systematically document the basic biology of ALL species of freshwater fish in Australia. But that is a big task, and one that would take a long time to accomplish. Perhaps a more realistic approach would be to assemble a list of species, and knowing what we do about them (even if very little), to place them in categories based on life history (because I reckon that virtually all aspects of a fish’s like flow on from that; that and movement patterns), climatic zone and probably phylogeny (evolutionary relatedness). Then, select a few representatives from each group and focus on those and describe their biology. The aim would be to use those representative species as surrogates for others in the same group, until the others are studied too. Perhaps this has already been done to some extent, but I am not so sure. As the first lot are ticked off, we could expand the species that are studied in each group, which would add to our understanding of how truly representative the first lot are and how much variation there is among species of similar type. Of course, it would be great to include populations of a species from different locations, subject to different pressures and climates, because we know that different stocks may respond differently to environmental variables, such as temperature. But this is ideal, rather than absolutely vital in the first instance.

It is a big job, but I worry that in 20 years’ time, we will be in a worse situation than at present and will be ruing that we didn’t get stuck into it sooner. It will take commitment, tenacity, collaboration, and – of course – funds. But it will save money in the long run….not to mention the species that we love.


KING, A. J., HUMPHRIES, P. & MCCASKER, N. G. 2013. Reproduction and early life history. In: HUMPHRIES, P. & WALKER, K. F. (eds.) Ecology of Australian Freshwater Fishes. Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing.

SHAW, C. 2014. Extinction risk of small-bodied freshwater fishes: the role of functional traits Honours thesis, Charles Sturt University, Albury.

TEWKSBURY, J. J., ANDERSON, J. G., BAKKER, J. D., BILLO, T. J., DUNWIDDIE, P. W., GROOM, M. J., HAMPTON, S. E., HERMAN, S. G., LEVEY, D. J., MACHNICKI, N. J. & DEL RIO, C. M. 2014. Natural History’s Place in Science and Society. BioScience, biu032.


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Paul Humphries is an ecologist with a special interest in riverine fishes and their ecosystems. He recently co-edited the book Ecology of Australian Freshwater Fishes with Keith Walker. Paul also maintains a really informative blog at


Australian Society for Fish Biology’s Annual Conference – Darwin, 2014 – Wrapped-up

By David Morgan

Hats are off to the organising committee of this conference. The venue was great, the plenaries, cultural engagement and talks were amazing and the atmosphere and climate was wonderful. The social functions covered all formats, from the formalities of the parliament house, to the laidback mood of the deck chair theatre, before exploding on Territory Day with an inspiring fireworks display on the water, the beach and on the streets (some way too close for comfort)! The conference dinner was in a fantastic setting and was a chance for final catch ups. It was great to see the Australian Society for Limnology co-host the event, which no doubt brought many people together for opportunities to meet and converse. The first time around photo competition was also a nice touch, with so many beautiful pictures of fish, landscapes and people, and I’m sure that all of the finalists were proud to have their image on display – I hope that this becomes a tradition.

The awards were well deserved and congratulations to the many delegates who received them. While there are too many award winners to list here, for me it was special in that the ASFB renamed the international travel award for 2014 in Honour of one of my students Jon Murphy, who tragically passed away earlier in the year. So congratulations to Rohan Brooker for receiving the 2014 ‘Jonathon Murphy International Travel Award’, and to the runner-up Bridie Allen, I’m sure that you will both do Jon and his family proud. This was not the only time that I choked up at the conference, or after it (like now), which in itself says a great deal about what the society means to me and its many members.

Apart from these deserved winners, there were many notable talks. For anyone attending ASFB, I can highly recommend talks by Adam Kerezsy and Brendan Ebner which often are emotive. Their talks are legendary and I feel honoured to be close mates with these guys. 2014 was no exception; again they ‘held the bar high’. But I was also inspired by a number of other talks, including one that was impeccably-delivered by Aaron Davis, who effectively explained his companion paper on the adaptive radiation of the terapontids; a video of this talk would be a great tool to play while reading his exceptional manuscript. There were many talks that moved me in some way or another, and for the record, here’s my top 10 (in no apparent order): Kate Buckley, Danswell Starrs, Krystina Mossop, David Crook, Teagan Marzullo, James Donaldson, Grant Johnson, Lara Suiter, Cameron Fletcher and Aurelien Vivancos. With four con-current sessions, and the need for me to deliver a colleague’s talk in his absence [and thus practice, practice, practice the word potamodromous (POT-A-MOD-ROM-OUS) for that] and to present another presentation, I apologise to those members who also put their time and effort into delivering a great talk, for which I was unable to attend. I did hear a lot of very positive feedback about the talks that I unfortunately missed.

After not being able to attend an ASFB conference since the joint ASFB/IPFC Symposium in 2009 (which was in my home State and in Fremantle) it was great to see so many old friends. Strange conferences they are indeed, in fact it is more like a big family gathering. A bit isolated from the Eastern Staters, I am now kicking myself for missing the last few, however, people treated me like we had caught up only yesterday, and new friends appeared like they had known me for years, which is one of the main reasons that I warm to these conferences. It is a great opportunity for young up-n-comers to meet people that they may have idolised the work of, or been referencing, only to find out that they also like a late night kebab!

While the talks were of very high calibre, it was speaking in person with people, rather than listening to formal speeches that made the conference for me. Without the well-organised social functions, people often drift off to different pubs, hotels or to dinner in smaller groups and the chance of meeting new people diminishes. In Darwin we found a watering hole to think in….the Wisdom Bar….which Adam Kerezsy coined the “Dirty Bar”. Everywhere you turned there was someone from the conference to talk to. After losing my wallet in Perth on the morning of my flight, a mate kindly offered me his credit card to use. Looking through the expenditures, now that I am home in Perth, not only was the Dirty Bar the most frequented with a 100% daily attendance by yours truly, and perhaps a good proportion of the delegates, but the kebab shop across the road also reaped the rewards of the conference and caused a little spike of activity on Pete’s card, with successive purchases occurring later as the conference progressed. It was here that I forged new friendships and cemented old ones, with each friendship defining who, why and what makes us tick. While the talks are important, talking and listening, being supportive, patting people on the back, holding open doors between sessions, shouting a few drinks or giving up your seat on a bus to a pregnant person are the things that people remember most.


Speaking of friends, the Duck, which sat on my desk for a year between the Sydney 2008 and Fremantle 2009 conferences, and was refused access to the Bondi pubs that all had ‘private functions’ on that night, looks a little older and wiser, and is also sporting a number of new fish tags. So appropriately, the Duck, which first became a member in Darwin, was drop-punted from the stage by Alison King to a leading Matt Taylor who took mark of the year with a difficult low grab to the right.

From there…in Darwin, the Dirty Pubs and clubs laid out the red carpet for the Duck’s final night, and no Duck or delegate seemed to want the night to finish. The Duck, clearly a bit ‘under the feather’, made it through the night (kebab in wing), as did we all, only to soon end up back in Sydney.

We all, as future conference organisers, could do worse than to take a leaf out of the Territree…. See you in Sydney!




Dave Morgan is a proud West Aussie Fish Ecologist and long-term member of ASFB. Some of his scientific contributions can be gleaned from

Preconference drinks June2014CroppedFinalVersionBoxed

Getting more from conferences

Getting more from conferences

By Andrew Boulton

Most of us remember our first few conferences as a mixture of anticipation (going somewhere new, seeing some of the ‘big names’ give talks), terror and trepidation (the hours before we have to speak or the anxiety of going up to a ‘big name’ to ask a question) and pure relief (those fears were pretty unfounded after all). As we build up a network of friends, we look forward to conferences so that we can catch up with all the science-goss over some drinks, maybe sussing out some future collaborations. The fear of public speaking never goes away. However, as our confidence builds, it becomes more a case of healthy nerves rather than mind-numbing terror.

But do most of us use conferences fully? Especially early in our careers when there is such a need to forge professional links and to promote our work (and employability) in as positive a light as possible? Is there more we could get out of them? If so, what can we do to enhance the value of them?

I’ve tried to collate a few ‘tips for early-career players’. These tips are drawn from my own experiences and from comments and ideas from friends and colleagues. I hope they are of some help. Additions, comments and responses are warmly welcomed.


1. Always be ready for the question you know you will be asked. Yes, the one that goes: “What are you working on?” A mumbled and incoherent reply that is too superficial (e.g., ‘looking at fish dynamics in different habitats’) leaves a bad impression. Weigh up your questioner’s likely expertise and then present a clear statement of your work’s hypothesis and likely significance. You may want to have several versions of the same reply depending on the context of the question. A deft answer often leads to a fruitful conversation. And don’t forget to return the favour and find out what other people are doing.

2. Present either a talk or a poster, if possible. Passively attending conferences is very different from the adrenalin-charged active version where you have to present something. Somehow, the conference is much better if you are presenting something and actively getting involved in it. Conferences make great deadlines for completing work. They are also perfect places to showcase new findings. Avoid presenting work that you’ve already published or talks that you’ve given before. A good conference presentation is one where you can get handy feedback on your ideas before they’re committed in print. They often lead on to further ideas and collaborations.

3. Carefully plan which talks you’ll go to. Leave enough time to get between sessions and allow for mismatched timing. Don’t try to go to all the talks possible – you’ll quickly tire out and speakers are understandably offended when listeners nod off. Don’t only go to talks in your field; some of the best talks you’ll see will be those with perspectives or ideas that are new to you. If possible, attend all the talks in the session in which you are presenting as it is polite to support fellow speakers when you can. Attend the plenaries and award talks because these are usually very good.

4. Ask questions…sparingly. Few things are more awful than a talk that ends and there are no questions. Just silence. Crickets chirp. The speaker is dying out there, nervously laughing and making weak excuses. A good chair might pop up with a fabricated query but that is not the same as an audience question. Someone once said that ‘learning is a contact sport’ and I think that one of the best contacts you can make is to ask a good question of the speaker. However, don’t be someone who asks a question at EVERY talk. Save the very complex questions or your observation of some fatal flaw for a quiet word with the speaker later. Respect a speaker’s nerves and don’t hound them if the reply is substandard. As a speaker, you will be grateful for questions and it is worth preparing some answers for obvious ones. If you don’t know the answer, say so. Maybe organise to chat with the questioner later.

5. Carefully plan some of your free time to catch up with key people. All too often, we want to chat about our plans with a few key people. Sometimes, these people are in high demand and a fleeting encounter while rushing between sessions is inadequate for your needs. Even worse, you might never have the chance to catch up with them. One good tactic is to email the person before the conference and introduce yourself and the topic to discuss. Suggest a place and time to meet, possibly a morning or afternoon tea session rather than a meal-time (unless it is a big deal and you really want to talk a lot with this person). Remind the person if you see them beforehand. Don’t feel too upset if they are late or miss the appointment – sometimes this happens and it is not because the person feels you or your work is unimportant. Make sure YOU don’t miss the appointment.

6. Be ready to change your plans and miss some talks if a chance to chat with a key person arises. Sometimes, a serendipitous meeting with a key person arises and both of you may decide to miss a few talks so that you can discuss important issues. It is more likely that you’ll be able to catch up with information from the missed talks or their presenters later than recover the chance to chat with the key person. Be flexible and opportunistic.

7. Be available to help others. We all got to where we are by being helped and supported by others. Return the favour. Happily, most aquatic scientists are very willing to help each other, provide advice and share tips. Never be afraid to introduce yourself to a ‘big name’ – you will usually be pleasantly surprised by how nice they are. Respect and admire the courage it takes for someone to come up to you to talk, and always be willing to help them. Maybe you can introduce them to someone else who is working in the same field? This could be the start of a great collaboration.

8. Don’t always hang out with the same people in a group throughout the conference (see Fig. 1). One common but understandable mistake for people at their first few conferences is to seek security with the same group of friends or lab members. By all means retreat occasionally to gather courage or exchange goss. But bear in mind that being in a group may intimidate people who want to talk with you while hampering your own efforts to meet others. It is a delicate balance. I usually find it easier to go up and chat with someone new who is on their own or in a couple than to break into a group of three or more.

9. Consider organising a special session or mini-workshop. Conference organisers usually advertise for expressions of interest in special sessions or workshops to be held during the conference. Although getting these together takes extra work, it is a wonderful way to meet people who are doing similar work to you, often leads to a publication or future collaboration, and is usually good fun as well. Even if it only ends up being a handful of people in a room or perhaps 3-4 consecutive talks on a topic, these sorts of activities help raise your profile in a particular area.

10. Go to conference dinners and on field trips. Although these are additional expenses, they are worth the costs for the opportunities to meet others and share unique experiences. You usually remember these events better than any other part of the conference. Ensure you don’t organise a table where you always sit with lab members. Don’t only hang out with them throughout the field trip.

I’m sure there are other things but ten tips are enough. Main thing is to make sure that you don’t simply go there to give a talk or poster, listen to others, chat with the same old friends and come home. Treat a conference like a scavenger hunt and go out to gather extra stuff. Extend yourself and enjoy the contact sport of learning. Have a good conference!

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Editorial note: I have it on good authority that Andrew angles for the odd garfish. Professor Andrew Boulton is also the author of a kazillion papers and the recently released books: Freshwater Ecology: A scientific Introduction; and the second edition of Australian Freshwater Ecology: Processes and Management. He has a swag of achievements to his name but more importantly he is one of the most dependable, approachable and interesting researchers that you are likely to encounter. A wet fish can slap you in the face sometimes, so please realize that he’s a little shy in the early stages of face to face encounter. Don’t be afraid to wander over when you see him at a conference venue near you, and maybe in Darwin…

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Dynamic duos of Australian freshwater fish ecology

Thoughts by Ebb, January 2014

Some combinations are powerhouses of our field. After completing Honours in marine biology in Townsville and being especially interested in fish feeding ecology, I went flicking lures and drifted away from fish science before some year and a half later obtaining my first job in freshwater fish ecology in the Murray-Darling Basin. There, I drove a desk. I was on a steep learning curve having exclusively been interested in marine fish up until that point. I was familiar with research by marine fish duos such as Choat and Bellwood but knew nothing of the gurus in the freshwater fish world.

I was fortunate to meet a number of Basin big names in that first year, including John Harris, since he was a steering committee member on the project that I had been assigned to. My job involved plenty of literature review and I quickly became aware of papers authored by John Harris and papers authored by Peter Gehrke, as well as papers written in concert by Harris and Gehrke. They were the first dynamic duo that I was aware of in Australian freshwater fish ecology.

I then started reading about freshwater fishes beyond what it seemed was a country known as the Murray-Darling Basin. At the same time I was gravitating back toward an interest in fish feeding ecology. Trophic papers were popping up by Pusey and Kennard, and I realised the emergence of another dynamic duo was well underway.

A decade on, I heard a Kimberley centric presentation by a guy named David Morgan during an Australian Society for Fish Biology (ASFB) conference by the Glenelg seashore. Bailed him up outside whilst he polished off a durry, and went home and read up on a few of his papers. In recent time I’ve watched the emergence of the Morgan and Beatty duo. If you’re an East-coaster you may not be overly aware of their work. But in time you will be.

So these are the three dynamic duos that come to my mind in Australian freshwater fish ecology. There are no women in my examples, which is a shame. A shame because we have got to shed the boys club era. If I have overlooked such an example, I am ashamed. Perhaps it is inevitable that there are not any female dynamic duos that leap to my mind, given the low frequency of women relative to males that have been in our profession historically. I guess Angela Arthington might argue that she was part of a dynamic trio, and anyone that has read Pusey, Kennard and Arthington (2004) the book, might mount such a contention on the spot.

So what are the fundamentals that underpin these great double acts? From an outsider’s perspective it is interesting that Pusey was Kennard’s MSc and PhD supervisor, as was Morgan one of Beatty’s Honours and PhD supervisors. Postgraduate supervision can make or break the professional bond; such is the intensity of the postgraduate experience. Last year in a bar in downtown Okinawa, Pusey told me that Mark (Kennard) was his best mate and that Mark had already surpassed him as a researcher. Pusey and I were sharing a few deserved rums, so it is possible his quote was off the record.

Fast-forward. I rang Mark up the other day, late on a Friday afternoon, and asked him straight out, ‘What has been the secret to the success that is Pusey and Kennard?’ He answered immediately, ‘friendship’. I probed a little further and asked as to any skills they each had that complemented or conflicted, and he said, ‘Brad is a great ideas man – a big picture thinker. And perhaps I bring a quantitative element to the game.’ I was working back late that Friday, in what is a rarity for me these days. A message comes through on my email reading: ‘This is a message from the phone of Mark Kennard’. It says: ‘Oh yeh, and Brad and I both enjoy each others camp cooking.’ In the fisho world, maybe with the exception of the modellers, most of us tip the hat to that one.

Similarly, I know that Dr Morgan speaks highly of Dr Beatty, though this was extracted from the former, carefully in a Dr Phil moment. A touch of the 4.8% ethanol solution helps with him, I’ve found. When asked what makes them click, Dave Morgan spat out, ‘Similar principles in life, and honesty.’ He pauses and then adds, ‘We are both conservation minded, and also how we treat people.’ Clearly, Morgan and Beatty are mates.

I couldn’t help myself, my self-promoted status as fish science journalist had me reaching to see if it could be three from three. I knew Harris had not supervised Peter Gehrke for postgraduate studies, however, I was more than curious to find out if they were friends. They had come together as a powerhouse at New South Wales Fisheries, which culminated in the epic NSW Rivers Survey. I tried to contact Gehrke and got trapped in a holding pattern by one of those virtual secretaries. After several attempts and being kept on hold to the point that virtual secretary’s voice was sounding more familiar to me than my wife’s voice, I cut my losses and made a play for Dr Harris. No harm, Gehrke would have been hard to get a word out of anyway! Then bingo, hooked a Dr Harris first cast. ‘I can’t speak now I am driving, but you can call me back in fifteen,’ he says. Ever reliable JH, as I remember him from those early steering committee days. I give him 25 minutes to be sure and then shoot from the hip.

So what did Dr Harris unveil about their complementarity combination? First let me say, it’s not just what John says that pulls you in. It’s how he says it. Put simply he speaks with two parts calm and one part the underlying joy of a thirteen year old, off down the river with a brand new fishing rod (In fact he was just back from bagging some bream in the Manning). It went pretty much like this:

Me – You didn’t supervise Peter for postgraduate study did you?

JH – No. That’s right. In fact I gave him the job [at NSW Fisheries] and he had just come back from studies in British Columbia. I actually had never met the guy until he started working with us.

Me – Did your skills complement each other and what did you each bring to the table?

JH – We were lucky. Really fortunate and we had a big responsibility. Peter is a good guy, productive, energetic. We had a good team and Peter was imaginative combined with good analytical skills.

Me – Yeh, but what about you, what did you bring to the combination?

JH – I guess I had a background, and I was also enthusiastic. [he paused for a little]. I had a population dynamics background, and that was quiet new in Australia [in freshwater fish ecology] at that time. With the exception of Richard Tilzey’s work from Eucumbene no one else was pushing the population dynamics angle in the Australian freshwater fish arena back then. Peter is a good friend. We were really fortunate.

Bidding John farewell on the phone I felt a little like the hobbit parting ways with Gandalf. Spiritual stuff indeed, having again crossing paths with the soothing Dr Harris.

Where does that leave my thinking on the dynamic duos of our field? Well I’ve spent all this time reading papers and reports, and even trying to write the odd one myself. Yep, I’ve read a fair bit of freshwater fish literature to this point. I should also mention that I have a morbid fascination with methodological studies. Therein, I come across written discussions of better ways to sample fish communities, or analyse survey data or how it is more cost effective to plan for conservation of rivers this way or that way. In browsing all these thousands of ecology papers and reports, it hits me. I’ve never read about the topic of friendship in fish science journals.

Perhaps friendships are just a by-product of scientific endeavour. But maybe, just maybe, on occasion, friendships are actually the optimal scientific method − three out of three speaks to me. And for those of us who aren’t necessarily going to make it to the status of dynamic duo any time soon, surely many of us can be consoled by some really great friendships that have sprouted on the job. Either way, the terrestrial world has its stars: Superman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman. And by convention we have Aquaman. But the submerged world of Australian freshwater fish ecology is not without the occasional Batman and Robin.

Literature that inspires

Beatty, S. J., Morgan, D. L., & Lymbery, A. J. (2014). Implications of climate change for potamodromous fishes. Global Change Biology (Accepted)

Gehrke, P. C, & Harris, J. H. (2000). Large-scale patterns in species richness and composition of temperate riverine fish communities. Marine and Freshwater Research 51, 165–182.

Pusey, B. J. & Kennard, M. J. (1996). Species richness and geographic variation in assemblage structure of the freshwater fish fauna of the wet tropics region of northern Queensland. Marine and Freshwater Research, 47, 563–573.

Pusey, B. J., Kennard, M. J., & Arthington,A.H. (2004). ‘Freshwater Fishes of North-eastern Australia.’ (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne)