Posted by: dustinjohnmarshall | July 20, 2011

Bridging ideological divides in ecology – why can’t we be friends?

I am an Associate Professor at the University of Queensland and a deputy Editor-in-Chief at Oikos. I’m interested in the evolutionary ecology of marine invertebrates, with a bunch of different themes within that field. One of my main jobs in the Oikos team is to be the editor of the Forum section of Oikos. The Forum section is a place for mini-reviews, speculative pieces (with testable hypotheses/predictions at the end), and has long been one of the great and unique things about Oikos. Some of the best cited and most interesting papers in Oikos have been Forum pieces, and it is a daunting task to take over the stewardship of a section with such a great history. My plan over the coming months is to further increase the usefulness and impact of the Forum section, and I will provide more details in a later post, but for now, I’d like to make a suggestion to all those potential Forum contributors. Specifically, I will discuss academic differences of opinion and one way to resolve them as a guide to contributions.

A few months ago, I was talking with a very influential ecologist who is the proponent of a specific school of thought with regards to a hot topic in ecology (I can’t give details as I have not sought permission from the person in question). Over the years, the ecologist had battled it out with another group with a very different school of thought. Such battles are familiar to everyone in ecology, and indeed science more broadly. These debates are usually accompanied by the usual signs including tit-for-tat exchanges in the top journals and comments and counter-comments from each side. We can all think of famous examples of petty nitpicking from polarized camps that can go on for years – if not decades. What was unusual about the exchange in question was that the ecologist had contacted the opposite ‘side’ and asked if they would co-author a paper that described the issues on which the two camps agreed upon, disagreed upon, and what experiments could be done so as to test the two camps’ competing hypotheses. They published the paper and it is an excellent summation of the field and its knowledge gaps. This approach struck me as an extremely productive avenue of synthesis. More broadly, ecology and evolution should utilize these collaborative summaries or ‘balanced summations’ as they are called in the debate literature whenever there are strong differences of opinion over the importance of an ecological process or pattern.

There are a number of reasons why I think that a work coauthored by two groups with conflicting views is the best way to move forward in ecology and evolution. First, both sides are usually the best-informed parties on the issues at hand, and therefore readers will benefit greatly from reading an authoritative view that has been written, read and agreed upon by those most expert in the topic. Contrast the benefit of this approach relative to the traditional way where each side tries to discredit the other, leaving less informed readers with a bewildering array of points and counter-points and therefore little understanding of the field as a whole (think about how little informative policy is discussed during highly partisan political debates). Second, by providing testable hypotheses or predictions, the general focus can be increased such that the issue can be resolved much more quickly than if both sides simply insist that they are right. Rather than disagreeing on absolutely everything, most debates should centre on the specific elements of the competing theories where the two camps agree so as to promote more effective synthesis and identification of research gaps. This approach saves us from a cloud of doubt shrouding the entire paradigm.

The benefits of a coauthored, balanced summation are not restricted to the wider community but also apply to the authors. By writing a paper with one’s fiercest critic, a writer would be forced to seriously appraise all of the strengths but also all of the weaknesses of their favourite theory. All too often in defending a theory or idea, scientists can slip into dogma regarding the scope, perfection, or elegance of that idea. Most ideas are imperfect, most theories have exceptions. In writing with your own best critic, you may discover that elements of your theory are less robust than you assumed. These insights are less likely to arrive if you simply bellow the merits of your idea from inside the fort. Collaborating with your intellectual antagonist also promotes writing in a more balanced manner since she/he will be seeing it shortly – prior to publication and able to edit it. The history of science is littered with absolutist views. Ecology is no different – it seems strange to us now to think that people seriously argued that competition was all that mattered whilst others insisted that only predation was important. By working with your antagonist, you’re probably more likely to agree upon a world view that is a compromise between two potentially extreme views. I suspect that the compromise is likely to be a more accurate reflection of the real world, and therefore more durable. Marketing your specific field is the final benefit of collaborative, balanced summations. By broadening the appeal of your paper to those in other camps, you at least double your audience and therefore greatly increase your potential to influence the way ecologists in general view your favourite topic. You can collectively discuss how to most effectively progress, and this is clearly better than being viewed as a group of scientists narrowly focused on a topic that most others likely neither know nor appreciate. An added bonus may be that others join actually your specific community and make novel contributions having been provided with a balanced view and list of future directions. Isn’t this ultimately what we seek?

Coauthoring a paper with one’s intellectual opponent isn’t easily done. Reaching out across an ideological or ecological divide is fraught with hazards – your intended co-author may be too suspicious, or too disdainful to engage in a joint venture. The differences of opinion might be too great for any possible compromise or consensus (though I suspect that this is rare – usually, after all the bluster dies down, more unites two ideological camps than does divide them). Or alternatively, there may be too much acrimony for two people to communicate the way they should when coauthoring a paper. In my opinion, despite these difficulties too few attempts are made.

Here at Oikos, we are trying to encourage more papers that are co-authored by two opposing camps. Increasingly, if we receive a paper that is a retort or salvo between two sides, we will ask the authors to consider a coauthored paper. It is worth remembering that we are essentially obliged to send the paper for review by the opposing camp anyway so why not first try to create a coauthored paper? I am hoping that we don’t have to suggest this approach too many times, however, I do intend this post to serve as an open invitation to anyone who is currently engaged in an intellectual disagreement about an ecological topic – why not contact the researcher/s you’re disagreeing with to see if they are interested in writing an Oikos Forum piece with you? Before you do so however, we have a few suggestions.

(1)  Ensure that the topic is sufficiently broad such that a reasonable proportion of ecologists would be interested in the debate.

(2) Write to Oikos with a proposal. The volume of submissions that Oikos processes is now substantial, and the rejection rate is increasing. We will be able to provide immediate feedback on whether the scope of the topic is sufficient.

(3) Ensure that your intent is as genuine as possible. If you are writing a paper simply to try to ‘bind’ your antagonist to your point of view, then the paper is unlikely to achieve its goals.

We currently have no rules for the format of a balanced summation Forum article, as it is brand new.  As a starting point, I suggest that one approach could be to introduce the topic, introduce the points of agreement, points of disagreement (including evidence for both), and most importantly, the way in which the predictions of the competing theories can be tested.

So think hard about what you (dis)agree upon, and want for your specific field of ecology. We do this because we love it and value it. So, contact your enemies, bring them close, and who knows, it might just be one of the best papers you will ever write.



  1. PS: thanks to Chris Lortie for suggesting the term ‘balanced summation’ and helping me navigate wordpress.

  2. Welcome to the blog, Dustin!

    I’m pretty sure you’re referring to one of two candidate disputes. The sort of joint article you suggest is indeed rare (as well as intriguing), which greatly narrows down the number of disputes to which you could be referring. It’s worth noting that, in one of the two cases I have in mind, the disputants didn’t put forth a “compromise” or “hybrid” view; some disputes aren’t usefully resolved in such a Solomon-like way. Instead, they laid out points of agreement and disagreement. The former of course tend to get lost in tit-for-tat disputes, as you rightly point out. It’s also worth noting that, if I recall correctly, the disputants in one of the cases I have in mind didn’t agree on how to test between their opposing views (since their differences were ultimately conceptual, not empirical). They agreed on what sort of data ecologists ought to be collecting more of, even though they “agreed to disagree” about how to interpret that data. Which I think is fine. Many debates can of course be moved forward by decisive experiments testing alternative hypotheses–but some debates can’t be moved forward in this way, only in other ways. As long as the sort of joint article you suggest includes some way to move the science forward, I think it’s very useful.

  3. Thank you for encouraging this kind of paper. Some debates have gotten so irritating that I no longer attend conference talks on certain topics. I’m too fed up and too many of the speakers latch on to surface aspects of the debate, resolving nothing.

    • So what current debates do you think would benefit from this sort of paper? There is always the possibility for us to solicit these sorts of joint articles, rather than just hoping they get written.

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