How do you tell your story?

A good paper is supposed to tell a story. Set up an interesting question, tell how you tried to answer that question, and then tell us what you found and what it means. The middle part of that process isn’t so tough. The Methods and Results sections require the very logical “science-y” part of our brain. Specific details, graphs, statistics…This is where the Sheldon part of my brain comes through for me. But how to write that Introduction can be more difficult. Grad students in the lab have been struggling with in the past month. They’ve got really interesting ideas for thesis projects, but they encompass concepts from a lot of different areas. They’re asking if they should make this a project about invasive species or community genetics? Should they write about phenotypic plasticity or climate change? Each approach could be a compelling story, but especially when writing grant proposals, it’s difficult to figure out which topics will be of the most interest to other biologists.

A recent paper in Ecosphere by Munguia and Ojanguren discusses how this approach differs between marine and terrestrial ecologists.  The authors looked at papers involving either marine or terrestrial organisms that were published in general Ecology journals (Ecology, Oikos, Oecologia), traditional marine journals (JEMBE, Marine Biology, Marine Ecology Progress Series), or traditional terrestrial journals (Journal of Ecology, Journal of Vegetation Science, Journal of Arid Environments). In each paper, they noted the first line on which the author(s) mentioned the study organism. Here’s what they found:


Terrestrial papers tend to start with a broader question or some aspect of ecological theory, waiting to mention the study organism until much later, usually towards the last paragraph of the Introduction. Papers in marine journals tend to mention the study organism very early on, often in the first paragraph. However, when publishing in a general ecology journal, marine ecologists take an approach similar to terrestrial ecologists. This is an interesting pattern that plays out very frequently in my experience. At the Benthic Ecology meetings, where nearly all talks are about marine organisms, talks often start by discussing the study organism on the first slide, whereas at the Ecological Society of America, talks begin with a broad discussion of ecological theory and the study organisms pops up around slide 5 or so. You see this at NSF too, where the Population and Community Ecological panels at DEB are focused on ecological questions, but the Biological Oceanography panels tend to focus more on study system. Even the ecologists in our own department at CSUN are divided into two sections: Marine Biology and Ecology & Evolution. Notice that the former is defined by system, but the latter is defined by topic. The folks on the marine side refer to the E&E folks as the “terrestrial ecologists”, but I rarely hear ecologists who work on plants or land animals refer to themselves as “terrestrial ecologists”. We’re just ecologists…and I always wonder why the people who study marine ecology aren’t in the same part of the department.

I find this pattern really interesting and the Ecosphere paper discusses some reasons why this pattern might exist. I think the biggest reason arises from why we are motivated to do science. Personally, I’m motivated to do science because I love answering questions. I like solving problems. I like figuring out how things work. That doesn’t mean I don’t love a lot of different critters. I love being in the ocean. I love a good natural history story and I could watch the Discovery channel all day (the old Discovery channel that played nature documentaries, not the new one that features Gold Rush, American Choppers, and I swear to god, a show called Big Giant Swords). I even have a special fondness for the microbes we have in the lab. My undergraduate students are sick of hearing me talk about rotifers…and don’t even get me started on Tardigrades (they’re called Moss Piglets! Who’s not on board with that?!). So I love organisms, but for me, they’re just a cool fringe benefit of this job. I’m in it for the questions.

For others, I think the organisms are what turned them on to science in the first place. It’s their basic motivation for doing research. This is probably true in most departments, including ours. Ask anybody in Larry Allen’s fish lab…they’re here because they LOVE fish! Fish are their motivation to do research. A recent discussion among the E&E group here revealed that this isn’t exclusive to the marine side of the department. Polly Schiffman loves plants. Paul Wilson can’t get enough of bryophytes. Bobby Espinoza would be happy to chase lizards all day. Yet, all three of those people sell their science primarily with a general question about ecology (that we test using an organism we love).

So, why do you do science? And does this affect the way you tell your story? If what we’re really interested in is organisms and systems, then should we be doing more research to discover more information about those organisms and systems? Or should we continue to focus on broad questions that test ecological theory about how nature works? Are the two mutually exclusive?

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  1. […] papers name the study organism(s) much earlier in the introduction than do terrestrial papers (Menguia & Ojanguren 2015, open access). Casey terHorst comments. Meg, what do you think the results would be if you looked […]

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