An example of progressive peer-review in a scientific journal

Almost all scientific papers are peer-reviewed.  This means (typically) that between one and three researchers from the same field as the paper’s topic offer (sometimes constructive) criticism and a judgement as to whether or not the paper merits publication.  There is a strange ritual to it, whereby the authors submit, the reviewers critique, then the authors rebut or acquiesce to the reviewers’ demands, while the editor acts as ringmaster and makes the final decision.  The main problems are that (i) there is a lack of dialogue (you only get a very small number of opportunities to engage), and (ii) your manuscript is in the hands of a very small number of reviewers with their own particular foibles and hobby horses.

A solution to this is to have either (i) open pre-publication peer-review, or (ii) open post-publication peer-review.  This means that the paper is discussed by more people and in a medium which encourages dialogue, such as a blog comments section.  Even better, each element of the dialogue can feature as a subsection of the paper itself, making each section citable in its own right.  This encourages reviewers and commenters alike to produce high-quality criticisms and has been implemented in some journals. Here’s an example of the process in action in a particularly controversial climate paper at Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics:

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 13.44.05

This is certainly the way forward for open science.

One quick trick to increase visibility and citations of research papers

digitization-of-library-3068971_640Since I’m “young” (whatever that means) I sometimes get asked to advise on how to disseminate research outputs through new-fangled doohickies like “the social media” (like writing click-baity headlines). This came up in a School Management Group meeting today, in the context of trying to increase visibility and citation rates for papers published by our faculty. It was something that I was quite interested in, so I spent about an hour doing some quick literature searches and then implementing some of what I found. Here’s the gist:Read More »

Tweeting over the Great Firewall

Wow, six months without a post is the longest I have neglected the blog for a while! I’ve got a couple of posts to write now that the summer is over, but I thought I would start with something that was a bit of a challenge for me over the summer. I spent a couple of weeks in Beijing in August, including five days attending the International Congress on Ecology (INTECOL). Usually, I like to try to promote the work that is going on at conferences and contribute to the general online science community by live-tweeting. The only trouble is that in China Twitter is banned… I came up with two solutions:

Solution 1: VPN

I used a virtual private network to bypass the firewall. That worked pretty well, and while VyperVPN cost about $12 for a month it gave me regular access to the web for the duration of my stay in China. Not bad value. However, part of my reason for going to China in the first place was to exchange ideas with Chinese researchers, and that’s tough if they can’t see what you are tweeting.

Solution 2: Weibo

My second solution, then, was to take to Chinese social media to try to communicate. There is a fair amount of guidance on Twitter and conferences, but I couldn’t find anything on Weibo and conferences. Also, Weibo is very much Chinese (as opposed to global) and so there wasn’t much hope of me communicating in the local language. Still, I tried my best and punted most of my first day of tweets (in English, unfortunately, and one as an experiment in Chinese via Google Translate) out through Weibo as well.

Screen Shot 2017-09-05 at 00.23.23

The results were not that surprising…  I got a bit of interest on the Twitter feed (interestingly, many many bot accounts, which has never happened before), but very little on the Weibo feed. In fact, I got absolutely no interaction whatsoever. The Twitter feed was completely out of sync with the rest of the planet (or so it seemed), but at least a few people both saw and understood them!

So, what I learned here is that social media is tough to crack in China, even when trying to use local tools. It’s also tough to sign up for Weibo because the authentication uses Chinese mobile phone numbers… Aside from that, the hashtags are a little different (note the “#” at the beginning as well as the end of the hashtag above) and I really never got to grips with finding profiles of people who might be interested and trying to add them to “Weibos”. Has anybody else had any success? Are there academics using both Weibo and Twitter in their social media arsenal?

PS: If you are interested, here’s a quick run down of the conference via my tweets and another from another attendee.

Update on Community Collaborative Impact

A few months ago I wrote a short blog post about “Community Collaborative Science” as a model for impactful teaching and research in UK universities. As I mentioned back then, this kind of “service learning” is a core part of the curriculum in many US universities, but has not taken off in quite the same way in the UK. I was discussing the idea with my partner and we ended up putting together a pitch for a NESTA seed grant. The grant would have been used to build the system and pilot a few projects through an online collaborative workspace. Here’s the pitch:

Unfortunately, the pitch wasn’t successful, but there seem to be other people thinking along similar lines. If you are interested in this kind of topic then please do drop me a line and we can discuss this in more detail.

Who are “Adjacent Government”?

Having just given a talk on science communication and the merits of public engagement to a group of undergraduate students, I was delighted to receive a phone call out of the blue from someone asking me to write about my research for “Adjacent Government Main Document”. The gentleman who called (and who spoke with a delightfully posh English accent) assured me that it was read by 145,000 key decision makers, politicians, and research councils, with a >30% read rate on their email and 28,000 views of each email in the previous issue. I was informed that Miguel Cañete, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action, had specifically requested a piece to go opposite his editorial on climate, to highlight “climate change impacts nature’s mimicry system research”. That sounds a bit strange, I thought, but fine – the EU had just published a short piece on my work (which they fund) and so I figured this was some sort of follow-up. I was asked if I could provide 1,000 words by 10th January 2017 for inclusion in a later issue. I said “yes” – I can eat 1,000 words for breakfast! Then I was informed that this was wonderful and that all that was left was to negotiate the fee. There was discussion of fees in the £1000s, and possible discounts. A bargain!Read More »

Can you recognise individual dragonflies from their faces?

bug-189906_1920Dragonflies are beautiful, alien-looking animals. They have bits that move and bend in ways that you wouldn’t expect, enormous eyes, and intricately patterned wings. I have written about the hydraulic gill system of dragonfly larvae, which powers both their jet propulsion and their “mask” that grabs prey. Meanwhile, dragonfly adults have basket-like legs to ensnare prey, as well as flexible abdomens which they use to form mating “hearts”. I’ve been interested in why dragonflies look the way they do, and that that means for their evolution, for a number of years.

I was intrigued, therefore, to read a paper that described how a pair of scientists had been able to tell dragonflies apart just by looking at the markings on their bodies. I do not remember how I first came across it, but the work is described in this German paper published in 2009 in the journal Entomo Helvetica by Schneider and Wildermuth*. The paper described a population of the southern hawker (Aeshna cyanea) in which a substantial number of animals could be identified from their facial markings. The paper is not creative commons so I can’t share the document, but you can see for yourself if you download the manuscript from the public link above and look at Figure 2 (it’s worth it – the pictures are stunning!). The title of the paper translates as “Dragonflies as individuals: the example of Aeshna cyanea“. So why might these markings occur?

There are lots of reasons why it might be advantageous for animals to be able to identify individuals. You might be trying to identify mates of high quality to increase your chances of reproduction. Many social animals (including humans, but also ants, meerkats, and molerats) distinguish relatives from non-relatives or friend from foe using sight or smell. Many theories of how cooperation evolved rely on animals having repeated interactions with one another, and remembering who has scratched whose back so that the favour can be repaid in the future. However, none of this applies to dragonflies. Dragonflies rarely have any structure to their mating (it’s usually first-come-first-served, and a mad scramble if many males are involved), they are not social (while they live in groups they do not necessarily act together), and they do not cooperate (apart from mobbing of predators such as hawks, but that’s probably not true cooperation).

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A spandrel Photo by Maria Schnitzmeier, CC-BY-SA, http://bit.ly/2czvygt

More likely what we are seeing is not the evolution of a trait, but the by-product of another trait. In a provocative article written in 1979, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin wrote about this idea**: that some things we observe in nature are not the product of evolution directly, but occur as a result of some adaptation. Gould and Lewontin gave the example of “spandrels” from Rennaisance architecture. Spandrels (like the example on the right, from the Basilica de San Marco in Venice) were the accidental byproduct of the way that arches were designed – a small curved area was left in the corner of the arch, and this was often filled with artistic renderings. However, the spandrel itself was never the focus of the design.

In the case of dragonfly faces, the same is likely true. Dark patches on insects are usually caused by a substance called “melanin” (which is the same pigment that produces darker skin in humans). Melanin is involved when insects fight off infections or heal injuries. It is most likely that the patterns on the faces of the dragonflies are due to some kind of damage, perhaps during emergence from the water, or perhaps as a result of conflict between territorial individuals. What is most interesting, though, is that Schneider and Wildermuth seem to have found a population in Switzerland that has an unusually high number of animals with such markings. When I went to Flickr to look through other photographs of this species, I found very very few examples. Below is a gallery of some of the creative commons photos, and there are many more if you go to Flickr yourself and search for “aeshna cyanea”.

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That’s not to say there are no other examples. See here and here for examples of the markings in other photographs (but note that many of the most striking examples are taken by the same photographer).

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Photo by Zak Mitchell.

The researchers who published the original paper offered an interesting addition to the literature on understanding individual insects. Usually, we do this by marking the animals (with dragonflies you can write on their wings, for instance, as you can see on the right) or more recently by attaching radio transmitters. There are some species that use natural markings to identify individual animals, including work on whales, dolphins, and killer whales. The technique is also used for some amphibians where the underside of the animals is often mottled in unique ways. However, given the fact that the markings are not always present, that we don’t know how long they last, and that the method requires some very specific (and challenging!) photography, it is unlikely that this particular method will be used widely in insect ecology. Instead, the study highlights an interesting example of unexplained variation in dragonflies, which deserves more study in its own right.

References

*Schneider, B. and Wildermuth, H. (2009) Libellen als Individuen – zum Beispiel Aeshna cyanea (Odonata: Aeshnidae), Entomo Helvetica, 2: 185-199.

*Gould, S.J. and Lewontin, R.C. (1979) The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proc. Roy. Soc. London B, 205: 581–598

Community Collaborative Science (CoCoSci) as an alternative model for scientific collaboration?

G.Mannaerts, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://bit.ly/2dT3gK4
G.Mannaerts, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://bit.ly/2dT3gK4

I went to a fascinating talk by a colleague at Leeds, Dr Mark Davis, a few weeks ago. Mark works on Alternative Finance (“altfin”), which involves a shift in economic thinking away from traditional big banks (with low interest and risky investments) towards peer-to-peer and community-based lending. You can read more about Mark’s ideas in his recent Conversation article: “How alternative finance can offer a better banking future“. Mark had a lot of fascinating insights which (to a lay person like me) resonated strongly. The notion that banks are inherently risky and create the circumstances for economic collapse, and the idea that all of our money that we give to banks ends up going far away into large, complex economic systems, rather than helping closer to home. Mark also made the point that there is a parallel between the “Big Society” notion promoted by the UK Conservative Government under David Cameron, and the Alternative Finance concept that he promotes. Under the Big Society, it is assumed that everybody has a little bit of spare time here and there and that we can volunteer that time to solve social problems. This means lower investment from the government because we are (in theory) capable of taking over from public services. Some people are skeptical… Altfin, on the other hand, takes the same approach to capital: almost everybody has a small amount of capital sitting around that is doing nothing productive, and if we pool our spare capital then we can do good things with it. This got me wondering whether the same thing was true for research…

Read More »

To bee or not to bee – why some insects pretend to be dangerous

I just had my first article published at the Conversation – an excellent online collaboration between journalists and academics. As part of their publishing model, anybody can share any articles. So here’s mine!

To bee or not to bee – why some insects pretend to be dangerous

Christopher Hassall, University of Leeds

In the summer of 2011, panic gripped a small community in Gatineau, Quebec. Hundreds of small, striped insects were buzzing around a children’s playground. The playground was evacuated and entomologists were called in to establish whether or not the animals were dangerous. The answer was no, but it is easy to see why local residents were concerned. The animals that had taken up residence in the playground were hoverflies, a family of harmless fly species that have built up quite an arsenal of tricks to convince would-be predators that they are dangerous.

The panic that a swarm of hoverflies can generate belies the fact that they are immensely beneficial insects. Many of their larvae (the baby hoverflies that look like maggots) crawl around on plants feeding on the aphids that would otherwise eat our flowers and crops. Meanwhile the adults –- the stripy, flying insects that instil such terror –- spend their days pollinating flowers as they feed on nectar and pollen. But flying around in the open leaves hoverflies vulnerable to predators, a problem they have solved by evolving to resemble the stinging, pollinating insects such as bees and wasps with which they share the flowers.

Yet the story is not quite so simple. For every hoverfly that presents an exquisite example of mimicry (like the wonderful Spilomyia longicornis pictured above) there are several that really do not seem to be trying at all. Given that mimicry can obviously benefit hoverflies, why don’t they all evolve such excellent abilities?

Researchers found a potential solution to this Darwinian puzzle in 2012, when they looked into the characteristics of mimicking and non-mimicking hoverflies. You might expect that birds would prefer to eat larger species of hoverfly, since those hoverflies represent a bigger, more rewarding meal. Those larger species would therefore have more to gain from mimicry because they are under greater pressure from predators. Sure enough, it turns out that the colour patterns of the largest hoverflies (which are effectively flying buffets for birds) bear a close resemblance to the yellow, black, and white stripes of wasps and bees. The smallest species (which are barely worth chasing) do not show such similarity.

However, hoverflies have more than just wasp-like costumes. Some species also have considerable acting talents. It has been known for decades that certain hoverflies will pretend to sting when attacked, or hold their dark front legs in front of their heads to make it appear as though their antennae are long like those of wasps.

A recent extensive field survey showed that the species that behaved like wasps and bees were comparatively rare (just like the species that look like wasps and bees). This behavioural mimicry also tended to occur only in those species that already showed a strong visual resemblance to wasps and bees. In other words, those species that had the costumes also had the acting skills.

Insect sound bites

One of the most fascinating aspects of hoverfly mimicry has recently been dissected in great detail. As well as looking like wasps and bees, and acting like wasps and bees, some species also sound like wasps and bees. As part of our most recent project, my colleagues and I caught 172 insects from 13 species of hoverflies and nine species of wasps and bees, and brought them into a soundproofed recording studio. There, they recorded the sounds the insects made during regular flight and when the animal was attacked (simulated using a sharp poke with a pair of tweezers).

When they ran a statistical analysis on these sounds, the researchers found that some species of hoverfly make sounds when they are attacked that are indistinguishable from the high-pitched alarm buzz of bumble bees. The high-pitched buzz that bumble bees make seems to be produced by the bee unhooking its wings from the muscles that drive them, resulting in a completely different sound. This is a bit like what happens when you take your car out of gear and rev the engine – a lot of noise and you don’t go anywhere. It seems that hoverflies are capable of the same behaviour.

A board covered in ‘pastry prey’ used for experiments on wild bird predation.

But just because statistical analysis can’t tell the difference, that doesn’t mean natural predators can’t. To test for the benefits of this sound imitation in the wild, researchers presented pastry models of insects to wild birds with the different sounds. Pastry has approximately the same nutritional content as the insects that the birds forage on naturally, being part fat and part carbohydrate. The pastry can also be painstakingly painted to resemble insects as well, as in the photo to the right. To the surprise of the researchers, the birds only avoided the bee sounds. This was despite the fact that the hoverflies sounded identical to the computer-based analysis.

So we are left with a situation where an animal brain outperforms human researchers and their technical wizardry, which is not altogether surprising. Birds have evolved alongside a host of potential prey, developing the ability to find safe prey while avoiding animals that sting. While the hoverflies have a complex and fascinating suite of acting skills to dissuade would-be predators, they are still part of an evolutionary “arms race” where predators either keep up or starve.

The best part of this particular story is that it is possible to watch it unfold in your back garden. Next time you see or hear an animal that makes you reach instinctively for the rolled up newspaper, take a minute to check that it isn’t one of nature’s great actors.

The Conversation

Christopher Hassall, Lecturer in Animal Biology, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.