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 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

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.

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.

Bridging the engagement gap

A relatively old paper, but makes for good and easy reading: Gibbons et al. (2008; Ecological Management & Restoration 9: 182). A figure lists the different motivations of researchers and policy-makers when it comes to collaborating on projects, lightly adapted below.

Researchers are motivated when the projects:

  1. generate information that they can publish
  2. generate resources for longer-term research, e.g., postgrad scholarships or newer funding
  3. have spin-offs for their teaching or training of graduate students
  4. raise their profile in the media
  5. have demonstrable impacts on public policy, e.g., they are formally acknowledged in a policy document
  6. seek objective knowledge rather than support for an existing position

On the other side, policy-makers are motivate by projects that:

  1. are relevant for a contemporary issue
  2. are acceptable to the current government
  3. identify practical solutions
  4. can be used to identify policy options
  5. is demonstrated to work
  6. does not attract controversy
  7. are effectively and succinctly communicable

It ties in with my own experience working on several government-funded projects.

If government agencies want to motivate researchers, they must allow (or even encourage) them to publish and present the work. This also means that the vetting process for publishing and publicising the work, while understandably necessary, cannot be overly onerous. Also, I have found it disappointing when agencies appear to have used our outputs or recommendations without giving credit or acknowledgement. Finally, yes, we are rather wary when it seems like the agency already has a desired outcome in mind, which usually portends conflict as results may just as easily turn out opposite from what is expected.

At the same time, it is clear that the research must address a particular applied problem of interest to policy-makers and/or management. We also often heard the desire for outcomes to be “immediately operational”. Complex solutions, or those that are not popular or politically palatable, usually end up being ignored. And from reading the article, I realize one reason why agencies often reacted negatively to our recommendations: they like to be presented with options going forward, and not be just told what to do, or worse, that they were wrong in something.

I guess we have to work harder, from both ends. Some more excerpts:

Hamel and Prahalad (1989) noted that many scientists appear to operate under a ‘strategy of hope’, that is, simply hoping that their work will engage management professionals but doing nothing to further that goal… Roux et al. (2006) noted that researchers can be guilty of providing a ‘solution’ with the expectation that it will be embraced and then ‘move on to another project bemoaning the fact that their work was not put into practice.’

How true.

Thoughts on botany from 1959

A bunch of choice quotes from the Gardens’ Bulletin volume 17 issue 2, published in 1959 on the 100th anniversary of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

The knowledge of the correct names of plants is essential for the ecologist… I believe that ecological studies in the widest sense provide the only sound basis for the preparation of rational plans of land utilisation.

Purseglove, p. 146
“History and functions of botanic gardens
with special reference to Singapore”

The critical name of a plant species is the alpha of botanical knowledge…

Van Steenis, p. 162
“Singapore and Flora Malesiana”

…for the taxonomic progress with living plants and all the impetus to botany, theoretical and applied, which will follow, we must look to the botanical institutes in tropical countries… Western science has led the way to a better appreciation of nature, but the tropical countries must now help their eager students to extend this knowledge in their own rich heritage for the benefit of mankind… On the tropical students now falls the responsibility for writing their biological floras… Theirs will be the responsibility of preserving the native vegetation and the beauty of the country by wayside and in natural park, and of collecting the living assemblage of economic, ornamental, and rare plants for research and recreation in botanic gardens… At present they may lean on outside support, but I look to the time when students from outside will learn in the tropical institutes.

Corner, p. 214
“The importance of tropical taxonomy to modern botany”

Plants with extra-floral nectaries

I have a special interest in Macaranga and Cecropia which leads to an interest in ant-plant relationships.

Many people know that many flowers have nectaries, i.e., glands that secrete sugary solutions, which attract pollinators. Not many people know, however, that many plant species also have such glands outside of the flower tube, such as on leaves or along newly developed twigs. Obviously these will have little use in pollination. (Sometimes these glands secrete oils instead; not sure if these are still called “nectaries”?)

Ants tend to be attracted to plants with extra-floral nectaries, therefore some plants appear to be always covered with ants. Such plants are called “myrmecophiles”. When the ants actually live and form colonies within the plant itself, the plant is called a “myrmecophyte”, or a true ant-plant. Contrary to common misuse of the term, not all Macaranga and Cecropia species are myrmecophytes; many Macaranga are actually myrmecophytes. A telling sign of myrmeco-phily and not -phytism is that the twigs are solid and not hollow.

And anyone with some painful field experience in the tropics will tell you that these ants bite. So this leads to the hypothesis that the ants defend the plants from herbivores, or perhaps even cut away climbers that may otherwise smother the young plant over time. It’s an attractive hypothesis because ant-plants tend to be fast-growing, light-demanding species, like Macaranga and Cecropia. So the benefits of getting rid of free-loaders of such a fast-growth, high-productivity strategy is high relative to the energetic costs of giving away some sweets.

If so, the plants with extra-floral nectaries should have higher fitness, e.g., higher growth rates and lower mortality.

An article just out by Muehleisen et al. (2016; Biotropica 48: 321) tried to test this, but found, after correcting for the phylogenetic conservatism of the extra-floral nectary trait, that there was no evidence for higher growth and survival rates.

Actually, I was more drawn to Figure S2 in the Supporting Information:


At Pasoh, which is nearby in Negri Sembilan, Peninsular Malaysia, the species-rich families with the highest proportion of species with extra-floral nectaries are, in decreasing order: Euphorbiaceae, Dipterocarpaceae, and Ebenaceae. The Pasoh data comes from Fiala & Linsenmair (1995; Biodiversity & Conservation 4: 165).

At the two Neotropical sites (Yasuni in Ecuador and the Barro-Colorado Island in Panama), the legumes (Fabaceae) have the highest proportion of species with extra-floral nectaries.

Legumes here in tropical Asia also tend to have extra-floral nectaries… But we’re not quite as species rich in legumes as in the Neotropics. Other notable families here with extra-floral nectaries are the Chrysobalanaceae and the Salicaceae.

Many Euphorbiaceae (which include the Macaranga but also MallotusClaoxylon, Croton, etc.) in tropical Asia also tend to be disturbance-adapted species, i.e., abundant in forest gaps and along edges. On the other hand, the Dipterocarpaceae are the flagship of climax species here… But actually even among the dipterocarps, there is a gradient from the faster-growing and more shade intolerant to the slower-growing and more shade tolerant. May be worth looking into whether it is the faster-growing, light-loving dips that tend to have extra-flora nectaries?

Which leads me to a point about the approach in the paper. To be honest, I only glanced through the methods and the graphs, but I suspect the fitness advantage of extra-flora nectaries will not be evident in a simple test using mean growth or mortality rates, because it is confounded by the trade-offs in specific plant strategies. The Pasoh, Yasuni, and BCI multi-hectare plots that were used in the analysis are more-or-less intact forests. In such communities, you can expect that coexisting plant species is, on the average, already occupying close to the optimal fitness conditions that its ecological strategy is suited for. Naturally, those that don’t need extra-flora nectaries where they are growing will be doing well without them, and vice-versa; otherwise, if there is a residual fitness advantage, you would have expected species with extra-floral necatries to displace those without, over time. It’s a basic paradox of species coexistence and dynamic community equilibrium at the ecological time scale.

A better approach, I think, would be to break it up into two hypotheses:

(1) Species with extra-floral nectaries tend to have more ants (or some other “defenders”) on them.

(2) Plants with more ants on them tend to grow faster and survival better, all else constant.

The first may sound a bit duh, and is probably already documented somewhere. I am guessing that the second is, too. The crux is all else constant: the basis of comparison must be the same. For example, you could take both categories of plant species out of their comfort zone, i.e., put plants without extra-flora nectaries in the places where plants with extra-flora nectaries occur, and vice-versa. Or you could exclude ants from plants with extra-flora nectaries (e.g., taping sticky traps around the base of the stem and trimming off any plants that might serve as bridges for ants) and add fake nectaries to plants without (e.g., sweets??).

Other improvements could be to further break down (2) into two steps that reflect the hypothesized link to better fitness, which in this case could be herbivore attack or climber infestation. I think boldly stating these mechanistic links is the way to go. Also, in ant exclusion/sugar addition experiments, one may need to account for the ontogenetic shift in growth/mortality rates over time/size classes, which are obscured by averaging growth rates. Pioneers tend to show a distinct peak in maximal growth rates at small-to-intermediate size classes, while climax species show a more flat growth-size relationship. Ants may be more necessary in the early stages of rapid growth, and not so much when the pioneer tree is already shading out the undergrowth below but slowing down in growth. Likewise, mortality is U-shaped with respect to age/size class: highest for the youngest, and then gradually increasing again to claim the old.

Australia: 5 months

The wife came over to spend the past five weeks with me in Brisbane.

We visited the Glass House Mountains up north:

20160317_102302 labelled

Members of the Glass House Mountains as seen from a look-out. Names and heights taken from the information panels at the look-out.

And we visited Lamington National Park down south, as urged by Alvin Lok.


Epiphyte-laden tree limb, seen from climbing up a ladder to a deck, along a tree-top walk near the Lamington National Park visitors’ centre and resort.

The in-laws came over for the fifth week, and we went to Tasmania. We started with Launceston (which I think is pronounced “lawn-sass-tehn”), the second-largest city in the state.


The Cataract Gorge at Launceston.

Then we went to Cradle Mountain National Park (which apparently in Chinese would be called 摇篮山). In fact, we went up to it twice, because it was drizzling rather badly the first time. A cold place, with delightful wombats lumbering around in the scrub.


Dove Lake up the Cradle Mountain, seen from the Glacier Rock, on the second visit when the weather was better.

Next we headed to Bicheno, a small seaside town.


Rocky shore at Bicheno at sunset. The red algae on the rocks is probably the same one that covers the rocks at the Bay-of-Fires up north, which we skipped.

We didn’t see any penguins making landing that night. But it was really more of a rest stop for visiting Freycinet National Park next. So Freycinet is pronounced “fray-sin-nay”. So I guess the genus Freycinetia should be pronounced “fray-sin-nay-sure”.


Wineglass Bay. Tip: this look-out is not a good spot for morning selfies without a flash. The sun is behind the peak, casting a shadow over this side of the slope. My guess is that in the afternoons, the sun will be glaring right into the camera lens.

Finally, Hobart, the state capital. Can’t get away without paying a visit to a nature spot too.


Evening view of Hobart from the peak of the towering Mount Wellington. Very very high up, but you can drive all the way; felt like I was driving into the sky, and the legs were turning to jelly on the accelerator. Very strong winds and very cold.

The wife has just gone back and I’m all alone again. 😦

Residents vs. municipal authorities vs. trees

Just up the road from where I currently stay, there are a few large Ficus elastica trees. I noticed them the first time I came down the street to view the house before renting it; For a couple of years Chow Khoon and I monitored bi-weekly the phenology of some Ficus elastica trees in Singapore, so I recognised them instantly.

The species is sometimes called the Indian rubber tree because the thick white latex was once experimented with as a source of natural rubber. It is also a popular horticultural import all over the world, perhaps because of the large, dark green leaves and long red stipules. It’s “Indian” because its native range includes India, and stretches east and southwards to Java, Indonesia. However, it’s not native to Singapore; in the wild, it may prefer more seasonal climates such as in Java, India, Indochina, etc. The wasp species that was known to pollinate the figs went extinct, leading EJH Corner to declare Ficus elastica one of the “living dead” species, but we discovered a healthy population of another wasp species happily pollinating the cultivated trees in Singapore, leading to ripe figs and successful escape of the species from cultivation. That’s another story, and not the point of this one.

It’s also certainly not native to Brisbane. In Brisbane, as far as I could see, the trees are less exuberant in displaying the strangling habit as they do in Singapore.

When I came back from Singapore to Brisbane last December, I saw that white boards with words had been put up around the trees near my home, slamming the Brisbane City Council (BCC).


From left to right:

These trees survived last year’s horrendous storm. But they can’t survive the BCC.

Why can’t these trees be maintained by the BCC when others can?

More superb community consultation by the BCC… not!

BCC playing the “safety card” again to take away our character!


From right to left:

In a matter of hours this December, these trees will be destroyed by the BCC.

These are significant landscape trees. Cooling and a safe home for wildlife. The removal of these trees will result in a hot embankment of mismanaged plants and weeds. Just look elsewhere to see.

No expense spared to save City Hall. Problem tree? “Just chop it down.”

Slipping in another sneaky decision at Christmas time. BCC the Bad Santa!

There is no emergency! Our rates have increased above the Brisbane average. Stop the destruction now and involve the community in the discussion! It’s only fair.

Brings to mind some of the recent conflicts over cutting down trees in Singapore to widen roads, etc. The Singaporean version is considerably more mild and passive-aggressive, of course.

Does it matter that this fig species non-native? And that, if the wasp species we found pollinating the cultivated population in Singapore (which is also present elsewhere as well) somehow gets introduced to Brisbane, this fig may run wild as some fig species have elsewhere around the world? Would people change their perceptions when they have such information?

My year in peer review

It’s been just over a year since I have been serving as an Associate Editor for Biodiversity & Conservation. It is a great opportunity that I am guessing very few people so junior in our career path would have had–Editor-in-Chief David Hawksworth remarked the same when I sent in my CV–and the opportunity came not because I’m a star scientist or anything close to that. More later.

Being involved in the editorial processes for the first time, as with being asked to review an article for the first time, is an eye-opener (an Achievement unlocked! kind of feeling). Aside from the professional duty and honour of being able to contribute to the peer review process that is so crucial in science, being a reviewer and then later an editor makes our own work better, because you get to see the assessment of the quality of scientific work from a different viewpoint–a sort of bird’s eye viewpoint.

So much so that the earlier a student/practitioner of science gets involved in each subsequent stage of the process, the better it is for his/her own development, I feel.

How many B.Sc’s graduate without ever being aware of the pivotal role of peer review in science? And because these graduates go on into jobs like in the public sector, it is no wonder that government agencies that fund and use science are unempathetic of the scientific process. So undergraduate science courses should start incorporating some kind of peer review into their curriculum, at least at the advanced undergraduate level, and teach that this is part of how science is made. For example, the late Navjot Sodhi made us peer-review each other’s individual behavioural ecology essay, with himself as a mock editor; Pete Todd did the same for his marine biology module, although it was group work. Both were 4th-year undergraduate courses. I think this is about second or third in terms of importance+lacking in our undergraduate curriculum, next to generating research questions and designing experiments.

At senior postgraduate level, students should start getting professionally involved as peer reviewers, especially since they would be among the most up-to-date in the literature in their chosen subfield. The gatekeepers to this step are their advisors and department faculty, many of whom are likely to be on editorial boards or would regularly receive review requests. The earlier these gatekeepers rope postgraduate students into the process, the better it is for developing/motivating them as science workers.

The trade-off with involving science workers as early and as broadly as possible in scientific peer review is the requisite for an approriate level of knowledge and experience/ability to critically assess a piece of work. That’s why we have gatekeepers.

An observation that Giam Xingli shared with me, and that I think is true, is that early career researchers like postgraduate students and post-docs tend to be far more critical and pedantic than old hands in the field. So that’s another trade-off to bear in mind.

There have been recent articles calling for the same thing about graduate students as reviewers and how to do your first peer review, so I’m not going to repeat all that. But a perspective of the interface with higher up in the editorial process is provided less often.

Here at CEED where I’m visiting as a post-doc until 2017, there are regular seminars organised by and for early career researchers, and in November there was one on peer review, just right after I was musing about a blog post to review my first ever year in an editorial role. I only had time to write about it now, during the year end holidays.

CEED is a lucky place for me to be in: for the seminar we had Michael Bode (Journal of Applied Ecology), Eddie Game (Conservation Letters), and Andrew Knight (Conservation Letters) to comment on best practices and observations of peer review from their positions on various journal editorial boards, and Liz Law sharing from an early career researcher’s point of view as a peer reviewer. Katrina Davies helped Liz to facilitate and organise it. Liz wrote a blog post before the discussion [and I believe Liz and Katrina would write up something from the seminar for CEED’s Decision Point newsletter soon enough]. My own notes from the seminar:

  1. New reviewers shouldn’t be afraid to ask for feedback from the handling editor that invited them. I would vouch that I would be happy to give such feedback–I once solicited a review from a close former colleague who should be considered an expert in that subject but he was wary of making mistakes because it was his first time so I walked him through it with our resources I’ve found before (see here and here), although I didn’t provide any comments specific to the manuscript.
  2. Too-long and too-short reviews are both problematic. It should be like Goldilock’s: just right, just enough. But while the panel suggested that reviewers shouldn’t go through the manuscript with a grammatical tooth comb and should leave copy-editing to the publishers or return it to the authors, I think they might be speaking from the position of very prestigious journals. Many mid- to lower-end journals do not have the luxury of doing so, and so the peer reviewer who can help out with improving communicability in detail is doing them a great service.
  3. The handling (or in some places called the associate) editor role is the most pivotal.
  4. Reviewers get better by doing more. I think this applies to anything else in life.
  5. “Every review is a job application.” I like this one. Peer reviews should be done conscientiously. I think that’s how I bagged the opportunity to serve for Biodivers & Conserv. I took every peer review assignment I got very seriously (maybe a bit too much–when you’re spending a whole day writing a review, which is usually the case for newbie reviewers, you tend to turn in too-long reviews), doing it in the spirit that I want it to help the authors in the same way I want reviewers to help me in my submitted manuscripts. I turned in two Biodivers & Conserv reviews for Wong Khoon Meng. I think the conscientiousness of my reviews was why Khoon Meng was so kind to ask David Hawksworth if he would consider letting me help out on the editorial board. I never verified this, though, but judging from what the panel were saying it is indeed one way that they look for new handling/associate editors. So if you want a higher chance of helping out in that most pivotal part of the process sooner, do your peer reviews well!
  6. Different people in the editorial process are concerned with different things:
    • The top guys, the chief editors, identify issues such as fit within the journal’s remit. That’s why the cover letter, the abstract, and things that can be assessed at a glance, like figures/tables, must communicate this fit. For the really competitive journals, the abstract and figures must therefore be “compelling”.
    • The handling editors “identify bullshit”, so-to-speak. Unless the chief editors happen to be also familiar with the topic that particular manuscript is addressing, this is why handling/associate editors are playing a pivotal role. But the handling editors also rely on the advice of the reviews they are trying to solicit.
    • The main role of the reviewers is two-fold: to advise the handling editors on whether the paper is technically sound, while at the same time providing details to the authors on how to improve the paper. This is the whole point of peer review: more a conversation that helps to improve the science, less to judge the publishable value of the work. While the reviewers can provide their opinion, usually discreetly to the editors, gatekeeping is the role of the editors.

So how have I done since September 2014?

As of today, I have handled six submissions. Apparently this is less than what their average associate editor handles in a year, but I have not much control over that. I only turned down one request to help out in a review article, but that was really out of my knowledge domain for me to assist meaningfully. On the other hand, I’ve seen a few other articles newly published that I would have liked to handle, but were given to other associate editors. Dang!

I recommended that two for rejection without sending to review; one was recommended for rejection after review. Two eventually were accepted. I recommended one for consideration after major revisions, but the higher-ups decided to phrase it as a reject with a possibility of resubmission.

I haven’t really asked David, or the Managing Editor Dirk Schmeller for permission to blog about this, so I hope the above is alright. I will definitely not give any details about those that I rejected. But the two that were accepted have already been published, and you can see a line saying “Communicated by [name of associate editor]” on the first page of the articles, so this is in the open domain. Unlike Nature/Science/PNAS, our humble Biodiversity & Conservation doesn’t have commentaries accompanying papers to help boost their accessibility. Having helped in their birthing process, I’m a proud midwife, so present them here briefly I will:

  • Marc-Oliver Adams & Konrad Fiedler. 2015. The value of targeted reforestations for local insect diversity: a case study from the Ecuadorian Andes. Biodiversity & Conservation 24:2709.

This assignment came after I wrapped up a project on the use of native plants in urban landscaping. One of the benefits of using native plant species versus non-native species that is emerging to be quite prominent thanks partly to the efforts to communicate it in accessible science by people like Douglas Tallamy is (1) how many insect herbivores are specialists, depending on native species with which they have coevolved for food and (2) most birds rely on insect protein, even if they are normally considered frugivores or nectarivore, etc., at least during the breeding season. Adams & Fiedler investigated if diversity and turnover of groups of insect herbivores still depended on the surrounding landscape/habitat mattered when you reforest with native plant species.

  • Chistos Mammides et al. 2015. The indirect effects of habitat disturbance on the bird communities in a tropical African forest. Biodiversity & Conservation 24:3083.

A lot of correlative work on human impacts on biodiversity assumes direct effects between the correlates/measures of human impacts and the response. However, if we think about it mechanistically, many of these human impacts work through their effects on intermediates. If we intervene/make decisions without considering if the causal pathways were indirect, we may be surprised when things don’t turn out the way we expected them too. Here Mammides et al. used Structural Equation Modeling to derive a more explicitly mechanistic process of how proxy measures of “human disturbance” affects bird abundance and richness through sensible intermediaries such as vegetation composition and structure.

What have been my key priorities when I tried to assess submissions? Obviously, Biodivers & Conserv while reputable is not Nature or Science. Therefore things such as “novelty” that frustrate many of us when we get rejection letters of our own from editors is definitely not a factor. In fact, journals like Biodivers & Conserv have an important role to play in the ecosystem of scientific publishing: to publish “good work” that otherwise might never see the light if only hypercompetitive journals exist.

So what is “good work”? I think good work is (1) scientifically rigorous  that (2) is written clearly so that other people can understand its results easily and replicate the work. So with the help of the reviews that come in, I concentrate on whether the Methods have provided sufficient details, the Results have reported everything that is necessary and appropriately for use by the larger community, whether the discussions and conclusions are overreaching relative to the shortcomings of the study. My recommended rejections are eventually because the paper has failed to achieve its written objectives, and need to be rewritten completely. But as long as it has some potential to reach publication without complete re-writing, I try my best to give it another chance, supplementing it with a detailed read-through and comments of my own that I hope will improve it further. However, I will not let one go through if I think it has substandard analyses or reporting; if necessary I will wear the authors down through repeated requests for revisions, even while I continue to believe in the manuscripts’ potential value.

Perhaps that’s foolish of me, because it consumes my time more than it would be to just recommend a rejection, e.g., for an author that doesn’t really seem to get it in the revisions. But we’re all authors ourselves, and we know how we want others to give us a chance for the work we’ve put effort into.

It’s been a great and humbling learning experience as promised by David, and I look forward to doing more. Meanwhile, it would be great if back in Singapore/NUS/our department we have a similar seminar to help acquaint more junior researchers with the publishing process, just as CEED did. I’m sure it would help with our group’s overall research output.

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