Sam Scheiner. 2013. The ecological literature, an idea free distribution. Ecology Letters. Early View. DOI: 10.1111/ele.12196
“Ecology is awash with theory, but everywhere the literature is bereft”. That is Sam Scheiner's provocative start to his editorial about what he sees as a major threat to modern ecology. The crux of his argument is simple – theory is incredibly important, it allows us to understand, to predict, to apply, to generalize. Ecology began as a study rooted in system-specific knowledge or natural history in the early 1900s, and developed into a theory-dominated field in the 1960s, when many great theoreticians came to the forefront of ecology. But today, he fears that theory is dwindling in importance in ecology. To test this, he provides a small survey of ecological and evolutionary journals for comparison (Ecology Letters, Oikos, Ecology, AmNat, Evolution, Journal of Evolutionary Biology), recording papers from each journal as either containing no theory, being ‘theory motivated’, or containing theory (either tests of, development of, or reviews of theory). The results showed that papers in ecological journals on average include theory only 60% of the time, compared to 80% for evolutionary papers. Worse, ecological papers seem to be more likely to develop theory than to test it. Scheiner’s editorial (as the title makes clear) is an indictment of this shortcoming of modern ecology.
|Plots made based on data table in Scheiner 2013. Results combined for all evolution and all ecology papers. |
The proportion of papers in each category - all categories starting with
"Theory" refer to theory-containing papers.
|Plots made based on data table in Scheiner 2013. Results for papers from individual journals.|
The proportion of papers of each type - all categories starting with
"Theory" refer to theory-containing papers.
It may be that the proportion of papers that include theory is not a good measure of theory’s importance or inclusion in ecology in general. For example, Scheiner states, “All observations presuppose a theoretical context...the simple act of counting individuals and assessing species diversity relies on the concepts of ‘individual’ and ‘species,’ both of which are complex ideas”. While absolutely true, does this suggest that any paper with a survey of species’ distributions needs to reference theory related to species’ concepts? What is the difference between acknowledging theory used via a citation and more involved discussion of theory? In neither of these cases is the paper “bereft” of theory, but it is not clear from the methods how this difference was dealt with. As well, I think that ecological literature contains far more papers about applied topics, natural history, and system-specific reports than evolutionary biology. Applied literature is an important output of ecology, and as Scheiner states, builds undeniably on years of theoretical background. But on the other hand, a paper about the efficacy of existing reserves in protecting diversity using gap analysis is both important and may not have a clear role for a theoretical section (but will no doubt cite some theoretical and methodological studies). Does this make it somehow of less value to ecology than a paper explicitly testing theory? In addition, case reports and data *are* a necessary part of the theoretical process, since they provide the raw observations on which to build or refine theory. In many ways, Scheiner's editorial is a continuation of the ongoing tension between theory and empiricism that ecology has always faced.
The point I did agree strongly with is that ecology is prone to missing the step between theory development and data collection, i.e. theory testing. Far too few papers test existing theories before the theoreticians have moved on to some new theory. The balance between data collection, theory development, and theory testing is probably more important than the absolute number of papers devoted to one or the other.
Scheiner’s conclusion, though, is eloquent and easy to support, no matter how you feel about his other conclusions: “My challenge to you is to examine the ecological literature with a critical eye towards theory engagement, especially if you are a grant or manuscript reviewer. Be sure to be explicit about the theoretical underpinnings of your study in your next paper…Strengthening the ecological literature by engaging with theory depends on you.”