Tree identification

What are the leaves of the mango tree like? It’s enough to pick up one leaf and look at it to know. Even if you look at ten thousand leaves, you won’t see much more than you do looking at one. Essentially they are all the same. By looking at one leaf, you can know all mango leaves. If you look at the trunk of the mango tree, you only have to look at the trunk of one tree to know them all. All the other mango tree trunks are the same. Even if there were a hundred thousand of them, I would just have to look at one to really see them all. The Buddha taught to practise Dhamma in this way.

– Ajahn Chah
The Key to Liberation and the Path to Peace
p. 14


The aftermath of a war for talent

[Enron] epitomized the “talent mindset” approach to management… Demanding Enron employees prove that they were smarter than everyone else inadvertently contributed to a narcissistic culture, with an overrepresentation of employees who were both incredibly smug and driven by deep insecurity to keep showing off. It was a culture that encouraged short-term performance but discouraged long-term learning and growth.

The same point comes through in the postmortem documentary on Enron called, appropriately enough, The Smartest Guys in the Room. During the company’s ascendency, it was a brash and brilliant former McKinsey consultant named Jeff Skilling who was Enron’s CEO. Skilling developed a performance review system for Enron that consisted of grading employees annually and summarily firing the bottom 15 percent. In other words, no matter what your absolute level of performance, if you were weak, relative to others, you got fired. Inside Enron, this practice was known as “rank-and-yank”. Skilling considered it one of the most important strategies his company had. But ultimately, it may have contributed to a work environment that rewarded deception and discouraged integrity.

-Angela Lee Duckworth
p. 30

Is the current (conscious or subconscious) emphasis on “talent” in academia leading us down this path?

Rejections based on refusals to review

I was just browsing, and came across this piece in the Write Back section of Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment from 2015 (13:241). An excerpt:

…the shortage of available reviewers has started to push journal editors toward dangerous waters. For example, one possible response to this shortage is… if a large number of reviewers refuse to review a given manuscript beyond what is expected by chance, then that manuscript is of low quality and should not be reviewed.

Followed by an example:

Recently, an editor of a prestigious ecological journal declined to publish a manuscript because 15 potential reviewers in a row had refused to review it. The editor’s argument relied on the fact that for every 10 potential reviewers invited to review a manuscript submitted to this journal, seven typically decline; at the stated 7/10 or 0.7 refusal probability, the probability of consecutive refusal by 15 reviewers is 0.5% (where [0.7]15 = 0.005 or 0.5%). The editor then argued that this probability of refusal was much lower than would occur by chance, which the editor defined as any probability that was less than 5% (or, nine refusals in a row, where [0.7]9 = 0.04 or 4%).

No citation was given for the example, so it might have been a personal experience of the author. One problem in using such a heuristic to reject articles is: why 5%? Or why 0.5%, or any other number? And the author also later argues that refusal to review is dependent on so many factors not related to manuscript quality, and also, reviewer decline rates are temporally variable. Are you going to adjust the cut-off rate according to seasonal patterns in reviewer availability? Are you going to base this year’s cut-off on last year’s reviewer decline rates? Or last x years? Or on a rate projected for this year?

In all, a poor criteria to rely on, however tempting it may be. But interesting to read someone write about it.

The Future of Conservation

An electronic survey came in the email, and as I went through the questions, I found them very thought-provoking.

The infamous New vs. Traditional Conservation debate has been raging on for some time now, and as the survey designers write:

Recent debates about the future of conservation have been dominated by a few high-profile individuals, whose views seem to fit fairly neatly into polarised positions. In this survey, we are exploring the range of views that exist within the conservation movement globally, and how this varies by key demographic characteristics such as age, gender, geography and educational background.

Which really hooked me into answering it.

It’s indeed different to be reading the views of the authors of those back-and-forth pieces while trying to be as objective as possible, and actually having to answer questions that force you to think about where you stand.

The end of the survey even profiles a profile and neat data visualisations to show you where you stand (something that I’ve always wanted to know!).



How to interpret your results
Your position is weakly negative along the people & nature axis and weakly positive along the conservation & capitalism axis.

Your position on the two axes above reflects your survey answers. A move from left to right along the horizontal axis (people/nature) implies a shift from seeing conservation as a means of improving human welfare to conservation for nature’s own sake.

The vertical axis (conservation & capitalism) indicates a spectrum of willingness to embrace markets and capitalism as conservation tools: the higher up the graph your score is, the more pro-markets it is. This places you in the top left quadrant of the graph – a position suggesting your views on these particular dimensions of the debate are most closely related to those of ‘new conservationists’ as set out in the literature.

Your thinking most closely aligns with: New Conservation
Central to the ‘new conservation’ position is a shift towards framing conservation as being about protecting nature in order to improve human wellbeing (especially that of the poor), rather than for biodiversity’s own sake. ‘New conservationists’ believe that win-win situations in which people benefit from conservation can often be achieved by promoting economic growth and partnering with corporations.

Although new conservation advocates have been criticised for doing away with nature’s intrinsic value, key authors within the movement have responded by clarifying that their motive is not so much an ethical as a strategic or pragmatic one. In other words, they claim that conservation needs to emphasise nature’s instrumental value to people because this better promotes support for conservation compared to arguments based solely on species’ rights to exist.

The Buddha in the forest

The Buddha was born in the forest. Born in the forest, he studied Dhamma in the forest. He taught Dhamma in the forest, beginning with the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma. He entered Nibbana in the forest.

It’s important for those of us who live in the forest to understand the forest. Living in the forest doesn’t mean that our minds become wild, like those of forest animals. Our minds can become elevated and spiritually noble. This is what the Buddha said. Living in the city we live among distraction and disturbance. In the forest, there is quiet and tranquility. We can contemplate things clearly and develop wisdom. So we take this quiet and tranquility as our friend and helper. Such an environment is conducive to Dhamma practice, so we take it as our dwelling place; we take the mountains and caves for our refuge. Observing natural phenomena, wisdom comes about in such places. We learn from and understand trees and everything else, and it brings about a state of joy. The sounds of nature we hear don’t disturb us. We hear the birds calling, as they will, and it is actually a great enjoyment. We don’t react with any aversion and we aren’t thinking harmful thoughts. We aren’t speaking harshly or acting aggressively towards anyone or anything. Hearing the sounds of the forest gives delight to the mind; even as we are hearing sounds the mind is tranquil.

– Ajahn Chah
Everything Is Teaching Us
p. 69

My year in peer review 2016

It’s been another year of trying to be a useful member of the scientific community.

For the most part of this year, I handled less manuscripts than I did last year. Part of the reason could be that the editorial board of Biodiversity & Conservation underwent a little bit of restructuring. Dirk Schmeller used to be the only Managing Editor helping out Editor-in-Chief David Hawksworth, but now there are six “Senior Editors” including Dirk. All the Senior Editors will sift through received manuscripts according to their areas of expertise before rejecting them directly, handling them on their own or distributing them to the Associate Editors.

Or it could be just that there are periodic lulls in the submission volume. It certainly seems like it now, with increasing frequency of manuscripts coming my way and multiple requests for reviews from other journals.

So far I have completed the handling of four, two of which were rejected before and two after review, so there is no midwifery to crow about yet. It was particularly hard to find reviewers for one of them: on and off the record I approached at least 11 people, probably 13. I can’t remember exactly how many, but it included some contacts with the relevant expertise that I texted or emailed but were too busy (or humble!) to take it up. Finally and suddenly two kind souls agreed and I had three reviewers for the manuscript.

I also signed up for a webinar by the British Ecological Society (BES) on “Becoming an Associate Editor”, not because I was hungry for another role, but because I was curious about the experiences that would be shared by the panel of speakers, who are Associate Editors of BES journals: Luca Borger from Journal of Animal Ecology, Jane Catford of Journal of Ecology, and Stephanie, whose last name I didn’t catch but I am guessing is Januchowski-Hartley because she mentioned she recently wrote an Editor’s Choice and I searched for it, of Journal of Applied Ecology. I am, relatively speaking, a noob and there’s not much opportunity for training, so hearing from others would be as good as it gets.

It was comforting to hear that my 11+ reviewer declines is not that extreme: Jane said that (I think it was) just the week before that she had been turned down some 17 times before getting her second reviewer for a manuscript. Well, not really comforting, because it really tells us how much strain the peer review community is under to process the ever-increasing volumes of manuscripts submitted.

Another interesting takeaway was that manuscript submissions peak twice a year, once just before the northern hemisphere summer, and one just before the year-end festive season. This arises from authors in Europe and North America trying to clear their desk before going away for their holidays. It’s also the most difficult time for editors to get reviewers because the reviewers disappear for holidays too! Sure explains the uptick I’m experiencing now. So if you want your manuscript to be reviewed quicker, try to avoid submitting them during these times.

During the webinar, I asked the panel a question of my own through the chatbox: “One of the functions of peer review is also to provide feedback to authors. In cases of rejecting without going out to review, would you [provide] authors provide some in-depth comments beyond misfit with scope or novelty, etc.?”

I asked this question because I do so myself. If I am disposed to reject a manuscript without review, I provide my own comments from my reading of the manuscript. That way, the authors sort-of get at least one review, without which how else would they know what concrete steps can they take next to get it published elsewhere? Luca replied that he, too, tries to give some comments when he decides a manuscript can’t go out for review. It’s good to know.

It was my first webinar. I set an alarm to wake up at midnight for it, and it was worthwhile.

I still have two manuscripts on hand being processed, but the final decision will almost certainly be in 2017. An interesting thing happened with one of them. As usual, I searched for possible reviewers, found some, did some checks to make sure they didn’t co-author anything within 5 years (my personal guideline), edited the template invitation letter, and sent them out. One declined almost immediately with the following message:

“The last time I submitted something to you, it wasn’t even sent out for review, so I am not inclined to help you out.”

Oooh. That was harsh.

Some snooping around in the editorial system revealed that, indeed, two manuscripts submitted by this person in the past were rejected without review. We’ve all been on the receiving end of such editorial decisions, so I can sympathise, but there was obvious lack of grace on this persons’ part here.

It’s tough. The strain caused by multiple rounds of reviews in different journals is the key reason for rejections without review. If an editor finds that a manuscript probably wouldn’t survive peer reviewer comments, i.e., it would most probably get rejected, then there’s no reason to burden reviewers with it, is there? Like the one that I had problem finding reviewers for: when the reviews came back and I read the manuscript in detail, I kinda regretted sending it out for review and “wasting” the time of three reviewers–if I had examined its Tables in detail before sending it out, I would have realized the fatal flaws immediately. Although again, part of the service of peer-review is to provide feedback and in this sense all reviewer comments were delivered to authors with my own so there is no waste to speak of.

As an author myself, it’s been almost a full year of rejections as well, right until the last one month when finally two manuscripts came through with good news. (More on them next time.)

The idea was to take advantage of this Fellowship to write papers like a madman, and for the first few months it almost worked like that.

Then the rejections started coming in, and every rejection set you back at least a few weeks to deal with reformatting. If there were reviews, you had to deal with the comments the best you could before resubmitting. Every round of reformatting consumed precious pockets of your best productivity time-slots and knocks your next manuscript back.

It’s not just my own first-authored manuscripts, but also all those that I was co-author of. I’ve had to console/encourage a graduate student from the old lab who led two manuscripts with multiple rejections, with and without review.

I’ve been rejected twice by PLoS ONE without review! Whoever gets rejected by PLoS ONE without review??

That said, I’m now glad I’ve broken my two year drought of having no ISI-listed first-author papers. The ones just accepted won’t make it to a print issue until next year, so 2015 and 2016 are the drought.

But I’m optimistic for 2017. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; an accepted paper is worth ten that’s “in review”, but a manuscript in review is worth ten that’s “in prep”, and a draft in prep is worth ten that’s not. As long as there’s a draft, there’s hope; eventually it will get published somewhere.

So here’s to more drafts in prep!

A new journal-ranking metric

A new journal-metrics kid is on the block: CiteScore.

It looks easy to use, is free for anyone to access, and has some tweaks that make it different from the Impact Factor (IF) metric: (1) it uses three years to calculate, not two; (2) it includes all types of articles published in the denominator, which means that magazine portions of journals like Science and Nature get counted as potentially citable articles. It seems fair if the citations get accrued to the numerator, the article should be counted in the denominator too. Of course, these articles are not really meant to be cited in the first place, which therefore disadvantages journals with this type of content.

But the main thing is that it is easy to use to compare between journals, and covers more titles. The score seems more or less on the same scale as the IF, so it doesn’t cause any cognitive dissonance for most journals.

For example, I could search a few journal titles, let’s say the journals that I often consider for publishing the type of plant community ecology research I usually do. You can add them quickly to form a table.


Each journal is also classified under a subject category. So you could search for that subject category–sub-categories are also available, it seems–and you can browse through all the titles in that category.

The categorisation seems finer and more intuitive than Thomson-Reuter’s IF, which is clunky.

Also surprising is how high some journals now rank, e.g., Forest Ecology & Management above, and Landscape & Urban Planning below compared against other  conservation journals. Both titles are published by Elsevier which owns CiteScore. But then so is Biological Conservation, which is ranked lower (but still higher than Conservation Biology published by Wiley).


It would be nice, though, if there is some way to display information on all the categories a journal is listed in, because some journals are cross-listed across categories.

Writing better narrative reviews

Was alerted to a useful paper on how to peer-review a literature review, specifically the “traditional” or narrative type (as opposed to systematic reviews and meta-analyses).

In summary,

  1. Even a literature review should have a clearly defined objective and scope. The scope should not overlap substantially with that of an earlier review if that review is relatively recent and well done.
  2. Even a narrative literature review should have an approach that is somewhat replicable, e.g., search terms, databases, and criteria for inclusion should be clearly stated.
  3. The litmus test is whether it is a useful summary for someone looking to enter the field. As a result, some synthetic effort, critical evaluation, and tables/figures would be useful.

Although written as advice to peer-reviewers, it can just as easily be advice on how to write better literature reviews. Especially useful for postgraduates, since usually one chapter in the thesis would be a literature review of some sort.

“Plants have feelings too, you know…”

When Nature and Science both choose to review the same book, furthermore in the same week, there’s got to be something interesting about it.

According to the Science review, the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben “became a surprise best seller in Germany and is now being released in English.” Book reviewer Gabriel Popkin tries to be gentle:

“…his anthropomorphizing may irritate those seeking to understand trees on their own terms.”

And irritated was exactly what Richard Fortey at Nature felt:

“…I have problems with Wohlleben’s narrative approach. He describes trees as if they possessed consciousness. During times of drought they make “cries of thirst” or “might be screaming out a dire warning to their colleagues”. They experience “rising panic”. A seedling’s growth is portrayed as fratricide as it sees off its siblings… After a while, the urge to attribute motivation to the behaviour of trees becomes irksome.”

Popkin’s review also mentions an older (and very long) article in The New Yorker about a predecessor book from the 70’s, The Secret Life of Plants, which was chockful of quack experiments that

…has been discredited. But the book had made its mark on the culture. Americans began talking to their plants and playing Mozart for them, and no doubt many still do. This might seem harmless enough… But in the view of many plant scientists “The Secret Life of Plants” has done lasting damage to their field.

But there may be a positive side to anthropomorphizing plants yet. In an essay (published in Conservation Biology and covered by, Balding and Williams suggests that it may help to counter the tendency of people to ignore plants and build more awareness and support for plant conservation.


Journal article titles on Pokemon ecology and evolution

Pokemon Go is out in Singapore and is all the craze now. There can be two common reactions by biodiversity science workers to this. One is to ask: What’s that? After all, we’re too busy doing real work… The other is to roll our eyes, and wonder why so few people appreciate the real plants and animals around us.

Some call this passive-aggression. To be honest, I did go on a rant to the wife about how I would absolutely give a student zero if I caught him/her playing Pokemon Go on a field trip.

But the world of Pokemon should be really intriguing to us who search for patterns in the (real) natural world. It led me to think: what research hypotheses would I test using Pokemon Go? Which in turn leads me to fantasize: what would the titles of the papers look like?


1. Excessive use of lures homogenizes Pokemon beta diversity

2. Fourth-corner analysis reveals habitat preferences of Pokemon functional groups

3. A test of temporal niche-partitioning in nocturnal- vs. diurnal-spawning Pokemon

4. Invasive species, or urban commensals? Population control of Rattatas and Pidgeys does not increase Pokemon diversity nor abundance

(On evolution:)

5. A phylogenomic approach to estimating speciation rates in the Eevee clade

(Typical review bullshit:)

6. The role of Pokestops in sustainable harvesting: prospects and challenges

7. Ontogenetic shifts in life history strategies for Pokemon displaying multi-stage metamorphosis

(‘Cos you gotta have one for the taxonomists:)

8. Lectotypification of Nidoran

9. Dynamic occupancy modelling of the amphidromous Magicarp

There are only nine because I could only think of nine. After all, I don’t play the game, so I don’t know enough about their natural history. For those who do, why not grab your nearest/favourite journal article, and think about how you might change it to one on Pokemon! It might help others understand the kind of work we actually do.

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