Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Encouraging ethical publishing

Scientists establish their credentials and reputations by publishing in peer-reviewed articles. Participating in the act of asking answerable questions, collecting unbiased empirical evidence to evaluate those questions, and passing through the gauntlet of peer-review to publish findings are the hallmark of science. Essentially, publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journal means that you are a scientist. However, the publishing landscape is replete with ethical, moral, practical, reputational, and economic decisions. 



Deciding where to publish is a complex and multifaceted decision process. The considerations about where to publish typically include:


1) Journal impact factor (and there has been a lot written about this).

2) Breadth of journal/topic area (is your article of general interest or better suited informing a more specific audience).

3) Cost to publish (Open access charges, page charges, etc.).

4) Article match (does the journal tend towards robust experiments, observational data, theory).

5) Editorial board (people you respect or are knowledgeable about your area of research)

6) Experience with journal (a place you’ve published before).

7) Who is doing the publishing and realizing the benefit of your work (we don’t discuss this enough)


The recent article by Receveur and colleagues, titled “David versus Goliath: Early career researchers in an unethical publishing system”, published in Ecology Letters, makes the argument that better publishing decisions need to be made by individual researchers in order to support a more ethical publishing landscape. They come at this from the point of view of early career researchers (ECRs), who are more impacted by publishing, but nothing in their article is exclusive to ECRs. In fact, I’d say that these discussions about publishing are best served by including the entire community.


Before I dig a little more into Receveur et al.’s suggested path forward I will say a bit about my publishing philosophy. I now only send my articles to society owned or non-profit journals. My more general-appeal manuscripts are sent to Science or PNAS (both society journals). I do not review for Springer-Nature, Wiley, Elsevier, etc. unless the publication is a society one. I do not want my labour, effort, and creativity to be turned into someone else’s profit, rather if indirect benefits arise, I want them to serve academic communities. I came to this philosophy slowly over time, but it solidified probably about five or six years ago seeing Nature journals created without any meaningful contribution back to the communities they purportedly serve. As those in working groups or collaborations I am in can attest, I do make my perspective known, though I won’t hold up others’ publishing decisions.


The Receveur et al. general guidelines are a good set of rules to follow, though some aspects could use more detail. For example, they state that decisions should be made on whether publications are ethical or not. But they don’t really set the parameters on what is ‘ethical’ or not. They do cite profits as one consideration. They do highlight some of the profits made by publishers, and Elsevier profits were two orders of magnitude higher than Wiley’s profits. Does this mean Wiley is much more ethical than Elsevier? Maybe, or maybe not.


What does ethical publishing look like?

- The journal follows the prescribed ethical guidelines laid out in COPE. This means that the publication has transparent processes and business practices, bases decisions on anonymous peer-review.

- Academics/researchers should be the ones making both the operational and strategic decisions for the journal.

- Editorial boards are populated by active researchers in the field, and these boards should be diverse and representative (gender, geography, career stage, etc.).

- The journal’s primary mandate is not to generate profits for a company, but rather to advance scientific knowledge.

- Proceeds made by the publication feed back into the scientific community.


As a result of these ethical imperatives:

- Journals should be society owned and managed. Even if the journals are published by for-profit publishers, society ownership indicates that oversight is likely not profit-driven, and that proceeds go back into supporting the community.

- If the journal is not owned by a society, then non-profit publishers again ensure that profits are not the primary motivation which could influence decision-making.


For an example that I am intimately familiar with[i], the British Ecological Society, who own eight ecological journals plus a grey literature repository, partner with Wiley to publish. Wiley obviously has a profit mandate, but the Society negotiates publishing contracts that prioritize benefits to the BES members, and they retain all decision-making power over their publications.


Moving forward

As Receveur and colleagues argue, there needs to be a culture change. I wholeheartedly agree. Right now, many academics support a perverse system that does not have our best interests in mind. Building on the Receveur et al. recommendations, what should we do as individuals? 


- Publish in society or non-profit journals.

- Publish in journals that adhere to ethical standards.

- Evaluate quality of the contributions of candidates for positions or promotion.

- Choose to serve on society or non-profit journal editorial boards rather than on publisher-owned for-profit ones.

- Only review for society or non-profit journals.

- Value service to society or non-profit journal editorial boards and reviewing in hiring, promotion, and annual progress evaluations.


Finally, Receveur and colleagues point to an invaluable resource for determining which journals are owned by societies or non-profit organizations: the DAFNEE database of ethical journals 


This is a discussion that needs to be had by academics more broadly, and needs to influence hiring, tenure, awards, and grant committees, so that we are cognizant of individual and shared ethical publishing behaviour.


[i] Note that I am the Editor-in-Chief of Ecological Solutions and Evidence and the Chair of Applied Ecology Resources, two newer BES publication projects. Before this, I was the Editor of Journal of Applied Ecology. So, I have been intimately entangled with the BES-Wiley relationship for years and might not have a completely objective perspectives and I have developed friendships with people on both sides of this.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Thinking about cities: Were ancient cities greener than modern ones?


*This is part of a series called ‘Thinking About Cities’ which are parts of a book I am working on about urban green space that I’ve decided to cut out of the book manuscript.


Picture a large modern city. Undoubtedly, your mental image includes a lot of grey. Grey buildings. Grey roads. Maybe grey skies saturated with ozone and particulate matter. Yet we don’t see green as a dominant feature of a city despite the undeniable importance of vegetation and green space to the well-being of a city. 


Now picture an ancient city. This image probably has a lot less grey and more browns and greens. We likely see dirt (unpaved) roads, wooden structures, trees here and there, a river with a natural bank, and chickens and other livestock intermingled with human activity. 


Were ancient cities inherently greener than modern cities? If so, was this done by design, or by accident, or because humans lacked the technology to completely transform the landscape? Before we delve into this question, we need to think about what a city is and where it comes from.


History of the city

Cities have evolved from small permanent settlements to massive human-created landscapes that house large and densely packed populations. As Gordon Childe argued (Childe 1950), the city is a revolution. They represent revolutions of technology, governance, economics, and our relationship with nature and place. Nothing like cities existed in all of human history until about 9-10 thousand years ago when the first known large settlements appeared near the shores of the Mediterranean Sea ( These were Jericho in what is today the West Bank and Catal Huyuk in Turkey. These cities housed somewhere between 2 and 6 thousand people).  To understand the origins of the city, we need to look to the birth of the major civilizations, and to find these, we need to go to the banks of the major rivers of the Middle East and Asia. The Nile, Ganges, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers were the cradles fostering the birth of cities. Just like a germinating seed, cities required water to grow. The rivers were the lifeblood of these new forms of civilization and was essential for the irrigated agriculture that fed populations, a supply of drinking water and for construction, a means for moving waste away from human populations, and were the express highways of the day –moving people and goods.


These first major cities were home to several thousand people (certainly less than ten thousand) living in loosely organized communal areas, and though these do not seem like cities by today’s criteria, they were massive by the standards of the day. Pre-agrarian societies supported population densities of about 0.04 people per square kilometre and early agrarian societies, which gave rise to the first permanent settlements, had between 1 and 5 people per square kilometre. Cities today have densities of hundreds or thousands of people per square kilometre.


The shift from nomadic cultures to agricultural ones was the necessary development for cities to emerge. Having a permanent source of food drastically changed how people spend their time and allowed them to produce more food than they could personally eat. Sounds trivial, but this new reality allowed for specialized occupations that were not focused on finding and gathering food. The farmer produces the food, while others pursue their own vocational callings like carpenter, artisan, priest, and so on. With new occupations involving training and expertise, innovation and technological development ensued. Metal workers tested new methods and alloys, farmers found ways to increase yield, and the priests and elites organized people and resources.


By this point, cities were all but inevitable. As different cultures shared information and technology, small cities began to emerge along the great rivers of the world. These rivers all supported the eventual growth of large cities of ten thousand or more people by about 5 thousand years ago. But the rivers also needed to be controlled. While they were an invaluable resource, they could also be unpredictable and devastating. The ancient city of Petra in modern Jordan, was a thriving capital city between 300 BC and 300 AD, but it was subject to floods after heavy storms and the Petroneans built damns and culverts to reduce flooding. This was not unique to Petra. Many ancient city archaeological sites include evidence of engineered structures designed to control flooding.


Cities also required governance. Ten thousand people living together would be chaotic if there wasn’t some sort of government in place to create and enforce rules. For these early cities, this governance was intertwined with religion. Temples were the centre of these early cities and provided guidance, worship, laws, education and were the focal points for political power. People no longer relied solely on family or clan allegiance but were increasingly tied to loyalties to king, high priest, and nation-state. These power structures were important for organizing people and pooling efforts and creativity into larger and larger projects, while promising protection from other nation-states, which were also increasing in power.


The emergence of cities was a slow evolution from small permanent settlements to large centrally governed and densely populated ones. It is hard for scholars to say with certainty when the first city appeared because both the evidence has been washed away by time and it is not entirely clear what a city is.


For ancient settlements, we can say that the designation as a ‘city’ corresponds to certain features that are necessary to successfully house thousands of people in a small area. These would include: sturdy streets capable of sustaining constant use, dense and organized housing, central governance and control of law enforcement, taxation to pay for services and common good building projects (e.g., aqueducts, city walls, etc.), specialized occupations and trades that provide expertise in various elements of culture, governance and construction of cities (e.g., engineers, teachers, etc.), markets allowing specialized occupations to trade goods and services, because blacksmiths do not grow much food and farmers make few metal objects, and finally cities have large and permanent impacts on local environments.


Let us paint a picture of an early city by looking at the largest city in the world during the 11th century –Kaifeng, China (historically called Daliang or Bianjing). Kaifeng was the capital of the Song dynasty (960 - 1279) and at the height of its glory, it was home to somewhere between six hundred thousand and one million people. We actually know a lot about Kaifeng. China is the oldest continuous civilization on Earth and has tremendous collections of historical documents. Further, Kaifeng is still a major city today with a population of about five million people –a medium-sized city by Chinese standards, but a very large one by standards elsewhere. Most importantly, one of China’s most cherished historical artifacts is a giant scroll measuring 5.25 meters (or over 17 feet) long called “Alongthe River During the Qingming Festival”, and it beautifully depicts Kaifeng life during a national holiday. 


A small segment of the painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival, painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145). It depicts city life in Kaifeng, China at the height of its prestige when it was the capital city and the largest city in the world.

From this beautiful illustration, you can see the elements of what it means to be a city. First, there are lots of people milling around and participating in different activities. There is trade, we see people moving goods in carts and on camels. There are specialized occupations, notice the tea houses and restaurants. There is organised building construction lining a major road. We see the overwhelming evidence of codified economics as people are buying goods and exchanging money (and gambling!). And with economics we see class inequalities as the lady pulls aside the silk curtains and looks out of the litter, or shoulder carriage, being carried by porters. There is a city gate protecting the population and regulating and taxing the flow of goods. If we move along the scroll, we would see the Yellow River and the docks and ships necessary to move people and goods over great distances. Looking at the amazingly detailed depictions in the scroll, we can almost smell the odours and aromas and hear the sounds that permeate through a dense city. Horses neighing, dogs barking, people shouting, and dishes clanging. This was a city by any definition.


So was Kaifeng greener than modern Beijing?

Obviously, Kaifeng, if it existed today, would be a greener city than Beijing. Modern Beijing, or any other megalopolis, is defined by a massive concentration of material and energy that results in a concrete landscape capable of housing millions of people. Keifeng simply had less impervious surface and more space for nature. So, the short answer is yes, ancient cities were physically greener.


But if we think of ‘green’ as being a philosophy or approach that directs how we interact with nature, then I don’t think we can say that ancient cities were greener. Humans have created cities precisely to alter local environments to better suit our needs. A city is the embodiment of our innate desire to increase our own fitness by removing threats (from predators and other people), creating security through strength in numbers, and reducing environment unpredictability. We might want to romanticize early human relationships with nature, but the reality is that once technologies were created that advance urbanization, they were implemented and spread rapidly. Being susceptible to flooding, early cities channelized rivers once they were able to. In response to threats from other groups of people, cities around the world accepted being encased in walls as the technologies emerged.


The history of cities can be seen as a continuum from small and low-impact settlements to large, urbanized landscapes like Tokyo. What drives a smaller and greener city towards being a megalopolis? So long as the population demand is there and the technologies to build a city exist, the megalopolis is all but inevitable.


Unlike previous generations, we are in a unique position to ask the question, what do we want a city to look like? Most of the technological hurdles that would limit urbanization have been overcome. We now have the conceivable ability to create a completely urbanized planet, like Coruscant from Star Wars. But most people would think that this is a bad idea. But is barely constrained sprawl around urban centres like Los Angeles, Mexico City, Delhi, and Toronto not a microcosm for these urbanizing forces that we think are ultimately undesirable?


The point is that neither in ancient times nor now do people have an agreed upon vision of urbanization’s endpoint. Urbanization has been and is driven by the mix of demand and technology, but we now need, more than ever, an agreed upon vision and set of principles directing urbanization. We need cities that minimize environmental impact, reduce the effects of inequality, and ensure people realize the potential benefits of green space.


So, were ancient cities greener than cites today. Yes and no. While they had less impact on their local environments, the megalopolises of today were written into their DNA. The devaluation of nature has always been a defining feature of cities. Now, more than ever, we need to rethink the relationship between the city and nature, and rewrite what is coded in a city’s DNA.


Childe,V. G. (1950). The urban revolution. Town Planning Review, vol. 21, pg. 3-17.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Avoiding scientific McCarthyism: reversing the recent call to punish Russian scientists


A recent call for punishing individual Russian scientists, instead of institutions and political power holders, is a wrong-headed and mean-spirited response to the atrocities of the Russian war on Ukraine.





Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine is an abomination of any ethical or moral norm, and Russia deserves to be held accountable and liable for the resulting humanitarian and economic costs. One powerfully employed punishment has been severe and expansive sanctions meant to ply direct pressure on Russia’s economic and political elite.


A group of scientists have published an open letter in Nature and are requesting signatories for a call to end scientific cooperation with Russian scientists. This appeal requests that international funders, publishers, societies and individual scientists should immediately endeavour:


1.     to block access to all scientometric databases and materials of scientific

publishers for citizens and institutions of the Russian Federation and Belarus;

2.     to make it impossible for researchers affiliated with institutions and scientific

institutions of the Russian Federation and Belarus to participate in international grant programs funded by the European Union and other partners;

3.     to suspend participation of researchers, students and institutions from the

Russian Federation and Belarus in current international academic mobility programs;

4.     to boycott attempts at holding scientific events on the territory of the Russian

Federation and Belarus (in particular, scientific conferences, symposiums, etc.);

5.     to suspend indexing of scientific materials published in the Russian Federation

and Belarus in all scientometric databases;

6.     to prohibit citizens of the Russian Federation and Belarus from being

editors/co-editors/reviewers of international publications.


To be clear, these actions will do harm, and are unlikely to effect change in Russian policy. These measures are meant to be punitive. Only number 4 on the list above makes sense.


I have Russian scientific collaborators and I have been in contact with them. They use subtle language to communicate their disagreement with Russia's war and that they hope for an end to it. They write e-mails as if someone is watching. Because someone is watching.


The political climate in Russia is one that is extremely dangerous for internationally connected Russians and for those who do not agree with or support Putin. Putin recently opined that Russia needed a cleansing and traitors to be spit out like flies. Countless Russians died in previous political cleansings. To demand that scientists renounce the Russian war in order to participate in global funding and information exchange, as the appeal does, is oblivious to the risks individuals face in Russia for expressing views that counter political decrees. This appeal comes across as insensitive and, quite frankly, ignorant.


As an Editor of a journal, I strive to ensure that information is disseminated broadly and that we are as inclusive as possible by assembling diverse teams of editors. As the head of a lab, I endeavour to provide opportunities to a diverse group of students and researchers. I have supported and worked with students and researchers from many countries, including some from countries controlled by repressive and authoritarian regimes. I prioritize these types of engagement because I believe that this promotes global inclusion and expands the worldviews of people that can help turn the political tide in their own countries, or to provide leadership when dictators finally fall. 


What should we be doing as scientists? We should support Ukraine and Ukrainians, and we should pressure our own governments to do more, including creating a no-fly zone in Ukraine. Further, we should maintain our ties to those inside of Russia and keep the lines of communication open, and let those who are disheartened by what their country is doing that they are still part of the wider world. These international ties might be important for what comes next in Russia.