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.


Australia: 10 months

Time flies.

I just passed my 10-month mark two days ago.

I think I can tell that we’re starting to move on from late winter now towards early spring. Although Brisbane winters are mild, I had to learn how to cope. Nonetheless, give me winter over an Australian summer any time, especially in a house without air-conditioning (nor with a heater for that matter).

When I first arrived, I was sort of counting down to my next trip back to Singapore (which has been rather frequent, I must say). Six months in, however, I felt more-or-less adapted. Now, I enjoy every day I spend here.

There’s plenty of time to ruminate and reflect here, and the mindset change happened when I decided that I can’t spend all my life counting down to the next life stage.

When I was in primary school, I couldn’t wait to be taking the nine subjects in secondary school, including the cool stuff like history and geography, instead of the boring old four.

When I was in secondary school, I couldn’t wait to be sitting in junior college lectures, as a refreshing change from the usual classes in classrooms.

When serving National Service, everyone counts down to the last day.

For the first couple of my undergraduate years, I was counting down the semesters to graduating. In fact, I mentally divided them into half-semesters so that they would seem to pass by more quickly. I wanted to get out of school to start working.

In grad school, who doesn’t count down to the day when you hand in your thesis?

And I was counting down to the wedding mostly because I had forcibly stuffed my anxiety of organising such huge events into a corner of my mind, and keeping anxiety stuffed is mentally draining.

Imagine it going on: counting down to the day your child gets born; counting down to them growing out of their terrible twos and threes and angsty teens, to them graduating and getting a job; counting down to retiring… So I’ve told myself: this counting down has to stop.

If nothing fatally unfortunate happens, I can expect to live to 70 at minimum. The Economist recently ran an article saying that many of us would probably live to 120. Nonetheless, it’s a finite number of years. I’m already 33; to wish away the days of my life, just so I can escape the things I don’t like about today, would be foolish.

Whenever I’m in Brisbane, I have ample time and leisure to reflect about life… Something that in recent years I haven’t been able to do properly.

What is important to me? What are my priorities? What do I want to be when I am lying on my deathbed?

This overseas fellowship was supposed to get me to network with other researchers, come up with new ideas, learn new skills, etc. I’m actually surprised that in 10 months I really managed to do some of all of that.

But I think far more consequentially is that I have learnt to truly live on my own (e.g., cook real meals), and also had the space and time to contemplate, not just about science but also other things. I’ve regularized my life: meditation practice, work patterns, etc. These are not the things that my fellowship programme cared about, but I know they will be the things that really matter.

I had been reluctant to leave my secondary school and junior college. I found my National Service to be a fulfilling time, when I was serving others instead of serving myself (as a student). Towards the later half of my undergraduate life, I was no longer counting down; if I did, I wouldn’t have signed up for postgraduate studies.

These days, I am no longer so jubilant before my short trips back that I find it hard to concentrate at work, and also don’t feel quite so reluctant to leave Singapore because there’s the upside of getting back to quiet times in Brisbane.

When some folks heard I was going to Australia for two years, they made the jokes about not wanting to come back. I pooh-poohed them.

I still look forward to going back to Singapore, come October 2017. Just that I also know that I would miss this phase of life when it’s over, as I did with the others.

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.

Singapore’s MFA on the environment

I was browsing the Ministry for Foreign Affairs website because my flight home from Edinburgh is on Turkish Airlines and transits through Istanbul. Given the coup attempt just less than 48 hours ago, I was wondering if I should (spend an obscene amount of money to) change my flight.

I chanced across a page “Sustainable Development and Climate Change” and professional curiosity caused a momentary digression.

The opening line for the page was:

As a land-scarce and highly-urbanised city-state, Singapore is aware that economic development should not come at the expense of harming the environment or reducing the quality of one’s living conditions.

Gotta hold ’em to it.

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”

The State of the World’s Plants

The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens just released the first-ever State of the World’s Plants (SOTWP). This has been making rounds in various news sites, e.g., The Guardian, the Scientific American, etc., after Kew put out its press release. In another opinion piece in the Guardian, Michael McCarthy writes that the report has made “Kew, at a stroke, a global voice for plants.”

I have a bit of beef, however, with Mongabay’s article on it.

First, the article’s title: “How many plant species are there in the world? Scientists now have an answer”.

This conveys a factually wrong message. Scientists have long had an answer. When I was a graduate student, I read Govaerts (2001; Taxon 50: 1085) and Paton et al. (2008; Taxon 57: 602); just last year, there was Pimm and Joppa (2015; Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 100: 170). If anything, a “working list” of plant species, enshrined as Target 1 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), has often been commented as the best-achieved among all the GSPC targets, having evolved from the International Plant Names Index to the Kew World Checklist to The Plant List today. It was just a matter of narrowing the range of some 250,000-500,000 by extrapolating the degree of synonymy (i.e., redundant names). From what I’ve read, SOTWP simply updated the number using the same methodology of Paton et al. (2008) to arrive at a point estimate of 391,000, which is really still a “working number” of species just as The Plant List is a working list.

In fact, nowhere in the Kew press release did they trumpet this point estimate as a first-ever estimate. Nor did any of the other news sites I cited above. They all simply stated that this is the first report on the state of the plants, which is quite different from being the first to report something. The title of the Mongabay article is an example of the Chinese saying: drawing a snake and adding legs on it.

More lines from the first few paragraphs that could misrepresent what the report has managed to achieve (emphasis mine):

For the first time ever, scientists have assessed the state of all vascular plants in the world…

The report provides — for the first time — baseline information on all vascular plants…

Reading and taking it at face value, you would have thought that the SOTWP team managed to assess the conservation status and provided baseline information of every single plant species in the world, which would be an impossible feat at this point in time. Only 5% of the world’s plant species have been assessed, and again this is a very well-known problem. The “one-in-five” estimate of the proportion of plant species threatened with extinction reported in the SOTWP is simply citing work done by Brummit et al. (PLoS ONE 10: e0135152) creating a Sampled Red List Index for plants, which as the name suggests randomly chooses 7,000 species for conservation assessment to estimate the degree of endangerment in the global plant species pool.

The word all is not just superfluous, but has also innocuously added another meaning, whether or not the writer intended to. Just delete it and it would be much better.

The nuance might be a bit subtle, and admittedly this is not all that damaging a matter, but it is instructive for science communication. It shows perhaps that there is a unconscious tendency to add an unnecessary, inaccurate spin when we are trying to make our science sound more exciting or more urgently requiring the reader’s attention. Mongabay is a respected website for news on tropical conservation, so they need to be extra careful about this to maintain their standing.

Back to the SOTWP, two things caught my attention: something called “Important Plant Areas”, and a claim that some 5,000 plant species are known to be invasive.

I’ve heard of Important Bird Areas by BirdLife International, but not Important Plant Areas (apparently, by Plantlife International), so this is something new. Checking out the interactive map and the database, however, while much of the Indo-Malayan region is shaded, none of the countries (e.g, Indonesia, Malaysia, much less Singapore) have sites listed in the database.

As for the number of “invasive” plant species, it seems to be simply a compilation of various weed/invasive plant databases, all of which have struggled with the problems of defining what “invasive” is, and the level of evidence required for species to be listed.

I can’t help but feel a little disappointed, but oh well, it’s the first report, which tells us that very much more needs to be done.

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