What figure format do you prefer for doing peer review?

Springer Nature recently switched to a system where, as a reviewer, I seem to be getting all of the image files as separate documents. I’m wondering how many people like this option when reviewing papers versus finding it annoying.

In my opinion, manuscripts should be formatted to be easy to review. Then when they have at least made it to the revision stage, copy editors can request the authors re-format the manuscript.

This post was inspired by a post by Meghan Duffy, who asked where in a manuscript do you prefer figures? But that post assumed that they would be in the same file, to begin with.

Universities pay for peer-review

We often argue that peer-review is unfair to us, academics, who are asked to review papers for free and then have to pay to publish (or publish behind paywalls) in the same journals that exploit our labor. But perhaps the unspoken victims are our employers – universities.

Universities are donating our time to for-profit journals

Every time we review a paper, we are taking some time out of our work week to not refine a lecture, organize a seminar, write a grant, etc. Now, of course, some of this peer-review time, for some of us, is displaced to our free time, at a cost to our mental health – but for those of us who do this, we probably do that with the rest of our work too. We only have a finite amount of time – so I think time dedicated to peer-review actually displaces other work rather than free time, for many. So why haven’t universities who are losing productivity and money to fund obscene profit margins at academic publishing houses fought back?

Universities donate infrastructure to for-profit journals

We often use a lot of university resources to conduct peer review: library subscriptions to look up references, email addresses and associated costs, computers, and a whole suite of other costs.

Universities also pay for publishing: While there are examples of academics paying for publishing out of their own salary, there are a lot of instances where universities cover publishing charges for prestigious journals. Even if they don’t pay directly, they pay indirectly to publish, as any money from a grant or academics pocket could be allocated differently. Universities also pay for library subscriptions so we can read the papers we publish.

Maybe peer-review is a tool universities have to fight back

What if a university created an approved list of publishers that they have agreements with to do peer-review for. For these publishers, academics are allowed to review manuscripts using university resources, including computers, email addresses, library subscriptions, and work hours. For any journal, not affiliated with the approved list, academics are allowed to review papers for them, but not using university resources. Universities could then use this power to negotiate better deals with journals that protect their employee’s time and productivity in a way that overall benefits the university. If enough universities followed suit I think some of the more publishing houses would struggle to get reviewers, and might start thinking about improving their practices.

If a university were to institute this policy, would academics follow it? The policy would be almost impossible to enforce. But I don’t know, I’d welcome an excuse to cut down on peer-review for journals who exploit me, and I think others would too. I think self-enforcement would be pretty easy, especially if review only counted as service, for promotions and tenure decisions, from the approved list.

For those of us who work at private universities, it is shocking how the universities are not looking out for their own best interest here [at least in my opinion]. For those of us working for public universities, it is a bit murkier, as to who pays us. I still think the above policy is at least an interesting point for discussion, even if the majority of academics (at least ecologists) don’t entirely agree that peer-review is broken.

How to respond to generic emails requesting to work with you

Fresh out of Ph.D., during the first week of my first post-doc, I noticed a strange email in my inbox. It was a request from an international student who wanted to do a Ph.D. in my lab. Trouble is, I’m a mathematical ecologist and the student had a background in chemistry. The email was generic and did not demonstrate they even knew who I was nor what I worked on. As years went by I started to get more and more of these emails. My first instinct was to ignore them. Why should I put any effort into replying, when they didn’t put any effort into looking me up. I felt about as much obligation to reply as to the requests from predatory journals asking me to submit a paper to their special issue.

But then I had a thought, what if these students have no idea how one is supposed to reach out to a potential advisor? What if I replied to one with some advice? What would happen?

So I did just that. I sent them the following reply


Dear _____,

Thanks for reaching out. For me personally, this email is too generic to consider the sender as a future student [but please feel free to try again after reading below]. I’ve realized that many students from around the world may have not received much advice on how to contact future supervisors, so I’d like to give you some advice, in case you would like to incorporate it into future emails to others (and potentially me).

The biggest issue with the email, was that it doesn’t demonstrate the writer knows what topics I work on. For me to respond to an email requesting supervision, it has to be clear that we share common research interests.

Demonstrating that you share research interests with a specific person takes time. You have to reflect on the supervisor’s research and your own interests, and write one or two convincing sentences that excite the supervisor about the work you could do together. It might take several hours, even days, to craft such an email for each supervisor. Each supervisor should be getting a different email, because no supervisor has exactly the same interests. Because of this, I’d recommend sending only a few emails. Focus on 10 or fewer potential supervisors that really fit your specific research interest. Explain what specifically drew you to them as a supervisor. Explain what you want to work on with them. You should have read one of their papers, or at a minimum, read a description of their research from their webpage. Generic emails will get very few responses. I hope you might take this advice and improve the next time you send an email request for supervision – because I really do want you to succeed.

Here is an example of what I sent to my prospective Ph.D. advisor 10 years ago. I only emailed 6 professors, because I really wanted to spend a lot of time tailoring my email to their interests and convincing them I wanted to work on the things they worked on.

“My name is Matthew Holden and I am a senior majoring in Applied Mathematics at UC Davis. I am interested in working in your lab during graduate studies because of my broad interests in theoretical ecology.

Your website especially stood out because you state that you encourage independent research and teamwork. Currently, I am collaborating with six other students modelling plant population dynamics in fragmented landscapes. We defined our own research question, and although it was the toughest part of the project it was the most rewarding.

During this project, I first came across your early work on the population dynamics of plants with a dormant life stage – and further reading some of your newer papers in epidemiology, predator prey dynamics and evolution, I really like the diversity of the problems in your lab.

Specifically, I am interested in doing research in spatial ecology and understanding how populations spread. I think your work on integral projection models will be especially relevant to the spread models I want to study (integro-difference equations). I am in the beginning phase of drafting an NSF graduate research fellowship application on how to best choose the locations of pest control when a pest species spreads according to such equations, and think you’d be an ideal supervisor for the project.

I was wondering if you will have any openings for new graduate students in your lab this coming year? Any comments or feedback would be greatly appreciated.”

Note the parts about teamwork and independent research are specifically on this professor’s website where he talks about qualities he looks for in graduate students. I didn’t put this sentence in any of my emails to other professors (in fact all the sentences except for the first one are very different for each prospective advisor). For most professors, I wrote shorter emails that focussed on how their work related to mine. For example, sentences like the bolded one in the email above. Feel free to use the above email as a guide for any future emails you write. A general template might be to start with 1-2 sentences explaining who you are and what your background is, followed by 1-2 sentences explaining why your research interests align with the person you are contacting, and finally 1-2 sentences explaining what research topic you’d like to work on with the potential supervisor.

If it turns out you are in fact interested in some of the topics I am working on, please feel free to try again with a more specific email. If your background is in a completely unrelated topic, that’s ok! But, be sure to explain why you want to switch topics, and how you might possess transferable skills that will make transitioning into this new field possible.




You might be thinking, … what? That looks like you took a lot of time writing that reply. How could you possibly have the time to write something like that to every generic request. Turns out it is really easy in outlook or Gmail to semi-automate these replies.

If you use outlook:

  1. draft a generic reply like above
  2. save it as an alternative signature
  3. whenever you get a generic email, click reply, click insert signature, click on the one you saved.
  4. click send

If you use Gmail: see here

The process takes maybe 5 seconds max to reply, once you’ve set this all up.

So what is the benefit? Well, after sending that first reply, I received this back from the student

“Thank you so much. It’s really helpful for me. Actually, I was very confused about how to do it but you solved my problem by advising me. It means a lot to me. Thank You,”

I think many students, especially from countries with cultures completely different from our own, genuinely don’t know how to get in touch with potential supervisors. If you have a few seconds a day, replying to these types of emails might do quite a bit of good. Ever since I started doing this, nearly 50% of people who received this canned reply have written back letting me know how much they appreciated the advice. I wonder if everyone started using this strategy, maybe we’d all stop getting so many emails?


More advice on how to contact a supervisor can be found in the links below




Creating a more inclusive academic conference

Organizing a conference is a massive amount of work – work that is largely done unpaid, or on in-kind time, by overworked academics. We do this work out of love for science, people, and our loyalty to our favorite organizations. It is very difficult for a conference organizing committee to think of every issue that can come up in a conference. This is why I think it is a good idea for societies that run conferences to develop and follow check-lists to make organizing a safe, equitable, and affordable conference as easy as possible for conference organizers who volunteer their time.

In the following, I provide some advice on some often overlooked things to include in such a checklist based on my recent experience organizing my first conference, and additionally 10 years of experience attending and volunteering for national and international conferences in mathematics, ecology, and conservation.

Improved and more prestigious poster sessions

Posters are often perceived as less valuable or prestigious than talks, but this is simply an artifact of how conferences poorly structure their poster sessions. If a poster session is attended by the whole conference, then presenters have the opportunity to receive personal one-on-one feedback by even more researchers than would attend their talk.

To achieve an excellent poster session you must motivate a group of tired people who have been sitting in talks all day to go. The solution at many Australian conferences is to provide a few free drinks in exchange for attendees engaging with posters. These sessions are much better attended than poster sessions at conferences with only a cash bar or no drinks available. How it works: the conference gives tokens to all poster presenters. Then the presenter gives out one of their tokens to each person who asks them a question during the session (until the presenter runs out of tokens). The whole process feels like a game which you are encouraged to play rather than work! Attendees then exchange n tokens for a drink at the bar. Later in the evening, attendees have to ask questions at less popular posters to get a free drink (since the popular posters have all ran out of tokens by then). This encourages more feedback to less popular posters, those likely presented by first-time conference-goers who could benefit the most from the networking and feedback. Note it is easy to cap the number of drinks at the event to reduce costs — simply reduce the number of available tokens. Even if you don’t want to serve alcohol at your conference, it is easy to adapt this method by using appetizers instead of drinks. Another option, for a catered conference, is to make it impossible to get coffee and/or lunch without walking through the posters. You can even make the queue for food wind through all of the posters. The key is making accessing posters an automatic part of the conference that folks have to work hard to skip.

Other efforts to make the poster session more desirable might include introducing an overall top poster award, in addition to student awards. This might motivate more senior people to take part in the poster session. Rather than being relegated to the “less important” poster session, they are now eligible to receive an award for the best presentation at the entire conference (for which talks are ineligible).

You could even have “key-note” posters from famous academics dispersed near students and ECRs presenting on similar topics.

Maximizing talk audience size

Feedback for presenters and exposure to new ideas is maximized when talks have large audiences. However, if most people want to speak, the only way to achieve this is to minimize the number of parallel sessions – meaning shorter presentations packed into fewer sessions. Plenary talk time can also be reduced. I’ve been to great conferences with 25 min plenary talks and 8 minute oral contributed talks, for example. I really enjoyed giving a speed talk (4 minutes) at my last conference, where I delivered a succinct message. This led to many more people approaching me afterwards than at any other conference because they were curious to know more.

Some people might be reluctant to give short talks, but I view talks as an invitation to a conversation. I learn much more from an active conversation with speakers in person than from listening to their talks. These conversations also allow us to build our networks better. I think shorter talks encourage this type of interaction. Therefore, I actually don’t think there is a big disadvantage to shorter talks, and the upside is huge.

Financial Accessibility

Scholarships for students and those from developing countries should be one of the highest priorities for conference organizers trying to create an inclusive event. Conference organizers can also take advantage of people’s generosity. Waving conference registration, in exchange for volunteering, is a great way to keep the cost of the conference lower for those with fewer means – especially when the conference is happening in a country with a less developed economy.

Conferences are more inviting to a diverse set of attendees when there are a variety of sponsored accommodation options. This means conferences should be sponsoring hostels/motels, in addition to luxury hotels. For example, the 2018 Society for Mathematical Biology Annual Meeting had hostel options for as low as 20$/night in Sydney Australia (one of the most expensive cities in the world). It was due to Professor Mary Myerscough and colleagues’ dedication to an inclusive conference. Conferences can also host room-sharing message boards, and recommend areas in the city that might be good for finding AirBnB’s and other lower-cost accommodation.

Networking between those of different financial means is encouraged when the ticket price of the conference dinner is kept as low as possible or waived in some cases. Holding a banquet is quite expensive, so no one is expecting the conference dinner to be priced like take-out, but in the past two years or so I’ve noticed a trend – conference dinner prices are increasing at a rate drastically outpacing inflation. I’m starting to even see 100+ US$ conference dinners and that is simply outrageous because it excludes many of us (particularly students) who can’t afford it. Reducing the price of a banquet is possible. We’ve held them for as low as 30 US$/person (in Brisbane, a rather expensive city). Key tips for keeping the costs low are 1) reducing the number of alcoholic drinks included in the ticket price, 2) providing less expensive entertainment (your own playlist from a phone hooked up to a speaker suffices to get people dancing), 3) going for less extravagant food, and 4) looking into less expensive venues. Often less expensive banquets will attract more participants and increase diversity.

Cost should also be considered when deciding whether your conference is catered or not. How affordable and accessible are local restaurants and nearby grocery stores? If catering is going to be many times more expensive, consider not catering, or consider getting catering sponsored. A menu featuring most of its calories from grains, legumes, and bread is often less expensive than menus featuring high-cost meats. Folks who want to eat more expensive food can always purchase it outside of the conference.

Getting the most out of expenses

Ask yourself is it necessary to have a conference app? A pdf program or spreadsheet is easy to download on your phone and search on a laptop. If you can get the app developed and hosted for cheap, go for it. Apps can be really valuable (especially for conferences exceeding 1,000 people). However, conference apps can be expensive. Here is a minimum list of features that, in my opinion, are must-haves as part of an app if you are going to be paying serious money for it

The app should

  1. Allow a way to easily search attendees
  2. Have abstracts and titles linked to sessions/speakers that can be expanded when clicked on
  3. Allow a way to easily search for presentations with certain specified keywords in their abstract/titles
  4. Allow a way to easily create a personalized schedule of talks/events (ones that might be bookmarked from step 3)
  5. Allow attendees to send meeting requests in the app [meeting requests should not cap the number of invitees]. For example, someone might want to invite everyone in sessions Topic A and Topic B to dinner meeting on combining ideas from A & B to create some great research. If the app limits the number of participants in such meetings, it prevents the facilitation of these types of events.


In general, for every conference expense, we should ask who benefits from it and is it worth the increased cost to those who have little means. For many expenses, the answer will be yes, but for others, it will be no. For example, a famous speaker might be of immense value to a conference, and if they request a speaking fee, paying it might be warranted in specific cases, but in most cases, it won’t be worth the added cost to the conference.

I applaud any conference that offsets the environmental impact of their meeting. The cost of an offset is rather low compared to other conference expenses, but there are ways to reduce the burden of the offset on those with less money. The best option is for the offset to wrapped into the cost of registration and not voluntary. But registration fees can be made significantly lower for students and developing nation attendees. It is unusual to charge students more than 50% of the non-student rate (Joint Mathematics Meetings 30%, SIAM 30%, ESAustralia 48%, ESAmerica 50%, ICCB 50%), and developing nation rates are typically even lower (Joint Mathematics Meetings 14%, ESAmerica 30%, ICCB 50%). I’d aim to be on the low end of these percentages.

More on Equity and Inclusion

Sessions need to be moderated by session chairs or moderators. This allows the conference to ensure a more equitable question and answer period. A short information packet provided to moderators volunteering their time is especially helpful. It can include types of generic questions the moderator can ask a speaker if they aren’t getting any questions from the audience. Asking a question by the chair if no one from the audience does this, is considered a courtesy for any conference session. An information packet with moderator ‘best practices’ can include advice on making sure underrepresented minorities, and early career researchers are getting a chance to ask questions. It can even include advice on how to handle overly aggressive question askers.

It should go without saying that your conference, especially, invited plenary and symposia speakers, should be diverse. For advice on achieving diversity targets, you can see my previous blog on the topic here.

The choice of a conference host city is quite difficult. Some things to consider are

  1. How easy is it to get a VISA to attend the conference from all countries (especially countries with low income or lower middle income)? Canada and the USA (among many other countries) are notorious for preventing international presenters from attending. Consider hosting international conferences in alternative countries.
  2. Many countries are hostile to the LGBTQ community, women, and people from certain countries/ethnicities/religions. Avoid conference venues where the safety of conference-goers from disenfranchised groups are compromised. This does present an issue, because often countries that don’t agree with our inclusive values, are also the countries most underrepresented at academic conferences. So one must be conscious of this. As a hypothetical example, there are laws in Texas, USA, that say it is illegal to engage in same-sex relationships. If I read this on the internet, I may assume I am not welcomed or safe at a Texas conference and choose not to attend. But in fact, these laws are never enforced because US federal law has deemed the Texas laws unconstitutional. Many countries around the world are similar to Texas. There might be unenforced laws on the books that are unacceptable, but these countries may be reasonably safe and inclusive in practice. So if you do choose a location that is like Texas, it’s important that you provide information to conference-goers about any potential safety issues or misconceptions.


I focussed on organizing a conference. See some excellent advice on attending a conference here

Summer Conference Advice

Maximize the benefit of conference travel

Maximize the benefit of Conference travel!

One of the best things you can do while travelling to a conference has nothing to do with the conference itself — visiting another University.

These days, with most airlines operating via a hub-and-spoke model, we rarely get direct flights to conferences. This is especially true if we live in small college towns or if most of the conferences we attend are overseas.

So why not visit a research group on your way to or from the conference?


  • Often the meetings you have visiting a University are far deeper and more meaningful than at a conference
  • You get to visit laboratories/field sites and see their experimental setups in person.
  • You get to see the same project through different lenses, meeting lab techs, undergrads, PhD students, postdocs and Professors
  • You get to give a seminar to a usually quite large audience compared to a conference with multiple parallel sessions


  • Adding a few days to your trip takes time, and can be especially difficult for those with families
  • Landings and take-offs are the most carbon-intensive part of a flight, so if reasonable non-stop flights exist, there can be a substantial environmental cost by adding a stop-over
  • Additional financial costs, on top of what you incur from attending the conference, are, proportionally, fairly minimal and often easy to fund (see logistics below)


Last year I wrote a piece documenting that only 4% of conferences were using sustainable practices*. As a result, I’m always concerned about the environmental footprint of my travel.

But part of minimizing the impact of my travel is maximizing the professional benefit when I do choose to take long flights.


This week I just finished a wonderful visit to Hong Kong University, meeting with their Forensic Conservation Lab, hosted by the awesome Dr Caroline Dingle. It was a truly eye-opening experience to see all of the interesting genetic work they are doing to understand and combat illegal wildlife trade. It has been perhaps the most intellectually fulfilling trip I’ve ever been on, and to think it only happened because I chose to stop over from a workshop in China on my way back home to Australia. I think the cross-pollination between mathematics and forensics will lead to fruitful work that will hopefully reduce illegal wildlife trade and give us new ecological insights. The benefit will, therefore, hopefully, outway the costs.


When looking for flights to the conference, take note of cheap and logistically comfortable stop-over cities. Then check which labs are based in those cities. Contact the lab you’d like to visit and ask if you can give a seminar the week before or after the conference. Usually, the flight is no more expensive than alternatives. The only additional expense is accommodation. But there are several avenues to fund this even if you don’t have grant money for it. Options include (1) if you tell a University that you want to visit them, and also let them know that the flight will be covered, they may cover accommodation or (2) they may volunteer to let you stay with someone in the department or (3) you can often ask your department or university if they’d cover a small accommodation expense. They’ll often do it because flights are the big expense for a short trip, and invited seminars can increase the exposure of their department’s research.

While many of us have focussed a lot on the hypocrisy of being an academic ecologist, I think we need to talk more about getting the most out of our activities that cause the greatest environmental damage. We need to maximise the environmental (and/or) societal benefit we attain per unit of environmental damage we do. So let’s not forget the benefits part.

So there you have it, some non-traditional advice on getting the most out of conferencing, in addition to all the great more conventional advice out there.

* although many conferences in Ecology and Conservation, especially ESA, were sustainable

Risk of death by sharks vs. walking

In a comment on my previous post about shark attacks, I said that perhaps we should walk to the beach to lower our risk of death due to traffic fatalities. I’m glad Kevin Lawrence, correctly pointed out that in order to make that claim, I’d have to look at pedestrian fatality statistics.

Well, good thing I did. It turns out walking is way more dangerous than driving (per mile, but not per minute).

There are roughly 42 billion walking trips in the USA per year*. And on average those trips tend to be roughly about one mile*.  There are 5,376 pedestrian fatalities per year (compared to about 38,000 auto-accident fatalities in general, which likely includes the pedestrian figure). These figures leed to about 0.000000128 deaths per mile walked. This means that walking 0.08 miles has roughly the same fatality risk as one beach visit due to a shark attack. So your house would have to be less than 65 meters away from the beach for the walking trip (round trip) to be less dangerous than the beach visit.

In many cases, 65 meters is longer than the distance between the beach and our parked cars! The walk from your car to the beach might be more dangerous than dying from a shark attack***.

*based on this source http://www.pedbikeinfo.org/data/factsheet_crash.cfm

**based on the last table here http://www.pedbikeinfo.org/data/factsheet_crash.cfm

*** There are of course a lot of caveats here, as parking spots close to the beach might be in dedicated parking lots, and not involve crossing busy intersections. But even so, this number is quite stunning.

Promoting your papers more effectively

My most recent opinion article on the potential for human burials to save threatened species has received more media coverage than I am used to*. In this post I will talk about what I did to get the word out and how it differed from what I did in the past.

  1. I contacted my university’s communication & marketing department when the paper made it to the minor revision stage. I included a short 3 paragraph story about the article. They did a wonderful job modifying it into a press release and even included a video interview of me talking about the paper in a local cemetery. They uploaded the press release in a closed database prior to publication. Basically, journalists agree not to publish their stories before the paper actually comes out in exchange to see press releases ahead of time. For previous papers, I contacted the communications team well after the paper made it online. They sometimes turned it into a press release, but by then the article looked old. In addition, the marketing department had a lot of time to work with, which enabled them to shoot the creative cemetery video.
  2. I cold-emailed science journalists individually before the paper came out. This led to a piece in the Pacific Standard. While not all journalists responded positively, even the ones who declined often provided me with more direct contact information, so I could reach them more quickly in the future. Some of the journalists wished that they received my email earlier, citing that 36 hours prior to the paper’s release was more last minute than they usually like (especially given USA/Australia time-zone issues).
  3. I baked a cake that depicts the paper topic (from a box mix). This reached a whole different audience, even making it onto the baking section of Reddit. Several news stories included the cake in their pieces. My article got published the same day as our department morning tea, so I thought this might be a fun way to introduce the paper to my colleagues. I had no idea that this would add to the media coverage. 


The big moral of the story is to contact people well in advance of the article being published. There are many science stories competing for attention. See Meghan Duffy’s post on pitching a science opinion piece to different audiences, and the ensuing comments. While journalists want good stories, you need to make it easy for them, otherwise they will simply choose to write about something else. If the story seems old that is an added barrier. All of this publicity-chasing took a lot of work, but in the end I think it was worth it. I have received so many emails from everyday people thanking me for writing about the topic,. I am very happy I got the word out about Conservation Burials. It is a topic very dear to my heart.

*Coverage included: New Scientist, IFLscience, Australian Newspapers, radio, and podcasts

Online conferencing should be more convenient

If you’ve tried to watch (or organize) an online conference these days, you’ve probably gone through the pleasure of downloading fancy software [or going through a complex online membership/login process] just to get a seat in the audience. The software or website likely included all sorts of special features to make the talks feel more like you were watching them in person. You could press a button to raise your hand. You could ask questions using your microphone. Perhaps, you could even interact with other listeners.

Today I ask, “Is all of that worth it?”. Why not just stream the conference live on youtube (or similar website), with no login required, no required software to download, and no new tools we have to learn? Online conferencing needs to leverage its most powerful feature … convenience. In theory, I could decide to attend seconds before the conference. The only major obstacle to putting together an online conference via something like youtube is that speakers are in different locations, needing to stream their talks sequentially.

I have perhaps successfully joined 50% of the online conferences I wanted to watch. The most common reason I skipped was that I tried to download the conference software (or register in the online system) at the last minute and gave up at the first sign of required troubleshooting. Many of us are trying to watch the conference on work computers that have restrictions on the types of software we can download. Some people don’t, realistically, have the patience to download software we aren’t going to use on a regular basis.

Are there convenient, free, online conferencing options, requiring no login, keep the talks all in the public domain, and feature a live stream with minimal features? Could conferences stream from a website without any login or downloads required? I don’t see online conferencing taking off until watching the conference is literally as easy as clicking a link. Does this exist and many conferences are simply choosing not to use it? Or does the right tool simply not exist yet? Discuss in the comments.

Online conferencing will never replace everything we like about in-person meetings, so we need to stop pretending it will. Instead, if online conferences were more convenient, we would actually attend in droves. Only then can they be an integral part of reducing the environmental footprint of academic conferences. I think twitter conferences might be the most promising type of online conferencing, which avoids many of the pitfalls I talk about above. And I’m happy to be joining one in 2018.

What do you think about online conferencing?

Practice what you preach, and preach what you practice

A few weeks ago we published a correspondence paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution pointing out how few academic conferences engage in sustainable practices. This week we put it all in perspective in the University of Queensland’s “Small Change Blog“. An excerpt from our blog post is below

We have all been urged to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions for decades, as a way of avoiding runaway climate change.

One way to do this is to reduce the amount we fly. Air travel is a major source of carbon emissions. Roundtrip flights from Sydney to London total 35,000 kilometers. This trip emits more carbon than the average Australian motorist emits from two and a half years’ worth of driving …

See more here for the full blog post.

Is Theoretical Biology Dying?

While glancing through journal metrics recently for some of the most well known mathematical biology journals (with a bias towards ecology), I noticed something a bit disturbing. It appears that theoretical papers are declining in citations. Basically, the number of citations per article has been decreasing over the past 4-years in nearly every well respected theoretical biology journal I could think of. Some of the declines may not be statistically significant, but as a whole, the trend seems pretty clear (see the middle time-series plot in each of the graphs below – labeled “cites per doc” – from scimago).

SCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country Rank

The above journals range in how “theoretical” they are. Some might argue that the first three aren’t really theory journals at all, but I left them up there anyway since they are theory friendly journals.

I have three alternative hypotheses for the downward trend in per article citation

  1. Scientists have started to avoid reading/citing pure theory in biology
  2. The best and most influential theoreticians now team up with empiricists to publish high impact science papers, this means some of the best ideas, that would have gone to theory journals in the past, are now components of papers in Science, Nature, & other more general biology journals. In other words, data is being used to test some of the most promising ideas and the leftover ideas that couldn’t be tested against data go to the theory journals.
  3. Citations per article might be declining in biology in general, and hence the decline in theoretical biology is expected. This might be explained by something like the mean length of reference lists declining (possibly due to journal page limits or increased motivations to publish short zippy letter style papers)

Or perhaps it’s a combination of all three of these. Looking at some top ecology and general biology journals (below) it seems like hypothesis three might be the most likely. Cell, TREE, and Ecology Letters all seem to be declining. So it isn’t that the top journals are eating up all the citations of lower ranked journals. One might think that with an increasing number of articles published each year, that perhaps the top papers benefit the most from this (given how citations tend to be distributed), but this doesn’t seem to be the case, as far as I can tell.


SCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country RankSCImago Journal & Country Rank

I’m not so sure how general journals (outside of biology) stack up on this list, so maybe it is that biology journals are being cited less. I’m not so sure what to make of this. What do you think might be the cause of the perhaps general downward trend of cites/article? Or maybe it isn’t a trend at all, and this is all happening just by chance? I haven’t done any statistics to back anything I said up so it would be interesting to get a hold of some raw data (which scimago, doesn’t seem to share online) and analyse these hypotheses a bit more rigorously. Feel free to discuss in the comments.


Jeremy Fox has written quite a bit about theory and its value (and perceived value) in ecology, see the following:

Should theory published in general ecology journals have to be realistic? especially see Brian McGill’s comment, which might be considered an alternative hypothesis to the ones above. He basically argues that simple, general models might be for the most part fully explored, and hence the majority of what is left in theory journals these days is complex models, which aren’t so general. Complex models for specific situations should probably involve some data. If I were to continue Brian’s logic, if theory journals are now publishing more data-free complex model papers, they might be deservedly uncited.

Ecologists think general ecology journals only want realistic theory and they don’t like that