Science as a team contact sport

By Rob Rolls

Science is the process of producing knowledge. It is about using and building on what is currently known to learn a little more. A key question is: how does each of us play a part in its production?

In an era of reducing support and interest in science, there is a growing emphasis on how frequently scientists, as individuals, produce knowledge. As all ecologists understand, when a population increases, but resources stay the same or go down, competition increases. Competition leads to mortality or reduced growth of individuals. Metrics like H-index’s and the numbers of papers and citations are all measures of how well an individual is fairing against the rest of the pack. Finding funds is slightly less important because you can still generate science without any more money than you need to keep connected to the world. If you can conceive and think about an idea, work on it, write your ideas down and publish them, then you’re doing well and the bar is set to have all your metrics improve next year.

Scientific papers are the currency used to measure the performance of a scientist in producing new knowledge. The model described above assumes that all the cool ideas in a paper are generated and refined solely by those who are listed as authors. This isn’t entirely accurate-not every paper starts its publication life as a perfect masterpiece. First, reviewers of manuscripts for scientific journals freely share their ideas to help improve the scope, focus the direction, clarify the content to make the final paper more appealing, stronger and just overall, better. One may justifiably assume that the more an individual publishes their science, the more that they reciprocate and review the work of others. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Editors have a tough job finding people who are willing to spare their weekends or evenings in helping review and contribute to papers.

Second, with this greater emphasis on claiming credit for producing science, those acting as reviewers may contribute more to a paper than those listed as an author. Where to draw the line on authorship is a tough call in ecology. Does someone who you chatted with about an idea over the water-cooler seven years ago deserve some credit on a piece of work today? Do you list a member of a project team who had a read of the manuscript to cross the “i’s” and dot the “t’s” make the cut? What happens when a reviewer shares an idea that forces the major re-shaping of a paper into a better form that you or your listed co-authors didn’t think of?

Rather than consider reviewers as a gate-keeper for your work seeing daylight, view them as a member of the science team irrespective of their species. Acknowledge the contribution of reviewers to your work, and reciprocate by being part of the editorial system. There are different schools of thought with regards to knowing the identities of journal reviewers. On the one hand, not knowing the reviewers identity is handy because you may be more inclined to face the actual criticisms of a manuscript rather than the creditability of the person sharing them. For the reviewer, there can be a nice feeling when you see a paper published that you had some involvement in, and knowing that the authors don’t know who you are. On the other, there is often a level of respect with knowing who reviewed your paper, and this comes with a reviewer having the guts to identify who they are. Either way, just thank your reviewers and acknowledge their contribution in a way that you feel comfortable with. Being part of the team in this way will help you have a place in the long-run.


Authors note. These ideas were shaped with two good friends, Cath Leigh and Simone Langhans, during 2014, and refined by trial and rejection from a handful of journals.

Further reading:

Bourne, P.E. & Korngreen, A. (2006) Ten simple rules for reviewers. PLoS Computational Biology, 2, e110.

Fischer, J., Ritchie, E.G. & Hanspach, J. (2012) Academia’s obsession with quantity. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 27, 473-474.

Rolls, R.J., Leigh, C. & Langhans, S.D. (In press) Improving science through improved acknowledgment of reviewers. Conservation Biology

Statzner, B. & Resh, V.H. (2010) Negative changes in the scientific publication process in ecology: potential causes and consequences. Freshwater Biology, 55, 2639-2653.

Tedesco, P.A. (2011) The race to publish in the age of ever-increasing productivity. Natures Sciences Societes, 19, 432-435.

Tscharntke, T., Hochberg, M.E., Rand, T.A., Resh, V.H. & Krauss, J. (2007) Author sequence and credit for contributions in multiauthored publications. PLoS Biology, 5, e18.

Wardle, D.A. (2012) On plummeting manuscript acceptance rates by the main ecological journals and the progress of ecology. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution, 5, 13-15.