Posted by: aycotack | April 16, 2012

Why shoot yourself in the foot?


A while back I polled readers to ask what new features they’d like to see on the Oikos blog. One popular choice was guest posts by authors of recent and forthcoming Oikos papers. Ask and ye shall receive: here’s the first one! It’s by Ayco Tack and colleagues, the authors of the lead article in our April issue (Tack et al. 2012 Oikos 121:481). Their article presents an important critique of the burgeoning field of community genetics. Based on reanalyses of published experiments, Tack et al. show that the importance of intraspecific genetic variation for community ecology has been systematically overestimated. This article caught my eye not just because it is novel and important, but because the authors include their own previous work in their critique. It’s not often you see authors criticizing themselves! I was curious to learn more about why anyone would do this, and I thought our readers would be curious as well. So I invited Ayco and his colleagues to write a guest post, which appears below. Thanks very much to Tack et al. for taking the time to share the ‘story’ of their very nice paper.

-Jeremy Fox


In a recent paper in Oikos, we examine the foundations of community genetics. As a part of this paper, we reanalyze some of our own earlier data, and point out that in fact, the role of community genetics may– to some extent – have been exaggerated, or that the quest for evidence has at least been tilted in a certain direction.

The publication of a study like ours may seem like a deliberate act of shooting ourselves in the foot. Yet, we believe we have done so for a good reason – and we have actually enjoyed the process.

The rationale for this paper may partly be traced to its genesis. In an obscure bar in Manchester, two of us (Ayco Tack & Marc Johnson) met during a conference on community genetics in Manchester. Here, and at a further meeting, we pondered on how different authors can interpret their data in a very different way. What we discovered was that while Johnson & Agrawal (“Plant genotype and environment interact to shape a diverse arthropod community on evening primrose”) and Tack et al (“Spatial location dominates over host plant genotype in structuring an herbivore community”) may come with very different titles and abstracts, the underlying data will actually reflect a joint pattern: that the impact of genotypic variation simply depends on the scale at which you look at it.

More fuel was added to this notion several months later, when Marc served as the opponent of Ayco’s PhD thesis in Helsinki. In scrutinizing a chapter on the effects of spatial location vs genotype, he suggested to Ayco and his coauthor Tomas that conducting a more comprehensive re-analysis of published literature would offer a good way to examine potential biases in our perception of genotypic effects. So we did, and the paper is out right now.

In collaborating on this paper, we believe that we have lived up to some of our own ideals for making science. As scientists, should we not be open-minded in the real sense of the word? What would science be if we all get hung up on our favorite ideas and keep interpreting all our data in favor? How much faster might we not advance if we were to pick up new ideas, critically re-examine our own data in this context and propose new avenues to weigh together “old” and new perspectives? And most importantly: if we stumble upon a pervasive problem in the field, might not your colleagues be more willing to accept it if one is first willing to show it with your own work? (For a classic example, see Paine’s paper on food webs)

Rather than raising monuments to last, we believe that we should ask ourselves: Are we finished when publishing our data? Do we expect (or even want) results that stand rock-solid in the new waves of science, without a need for re-interpretation? Or is it, in fact, that the most valuable route to knowledge is based on an open mind and on remoulding old truths with new ideas?

So why do we refrain from reinterpreting our own work? Do we fear that it will devaluate published results? We believe it will not. By contributing ourselves to linking old findings to new truths, we are actually more likely to make them part of vivid science than to lose them in the scientific sediments.

So – why shoot yourself in the foot? Because it is actually refreshing. And it may, in fact, offer the fastest walk forwards…

Ayco Tack, Marc Johnson & Tomas Roslin



  1. […] A new guest post by Ayco Tack and colleagues, discussing the background and implications of their interesting new Oikos paper, is now up. But due to a quirk in the way WordPress schedules posts, the post appears further down the page, inserted between two older posts. Don’t let that stop you from scrolling down to find out why they just published a paper criticizing their own previous work (!) Share this:FacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  2. I can think of a few people who should read this post and take it to heart:

  3. “As scientists, should we not be open-minded in the real sense of the word? What would science be if we all get hung up on our favorite ideas and keep interpreting all our data in favor?”

    Oh that everybody would print that out and put it on their wall above their desk. You guys are to be commended for your approach. It’s not easy to criticize your own past work. But better than having someone else do it.

    I knew a guy in graduate school at Davis named Agrawal who was studying plant/insect interactions; I wonder if it’s the same guy.

    • Jim. The Agrawal from Davis and the Agrawal referred to in Tack is indeed the same person. Anurag is now a Professor at Cornell, but was formerly my PhD advisor at U Toronto.

  4. […] you find it valuable if I occasionally highlight Oikos papers I find particularly interesting, or invite the authors to do so, just like I hope you find the other posts valuable. But if for whatever reason you don’t, […]

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