A short history on the luck, failings and success of field work

This blog entry has been triggered by encountering the article: “let’s re-write the scientific paper1 flagged up by Anna Doeser on twitter.

It discusses how modern scientific papers are too formal and that we should: “… report our research more nearly as it happened; let us overcome our fear of revealing our humanity, our good luck, even our failings, and acknowledge the contributions from our intuition and imagination as well as the hard graft in the field and at the bench.”

I can’t decide whether I agree with this or not. On one hand it’s interesting to know why experiments didn’t work and therefore know what to do/avoid in future. But on the other hand, publishing seems biased towards studies “delivering” results and therefore it’s unlikely that a study would conclude: “after x number of years and masses of money spent, we conclude that this method of research is inconclusive and need more money for further studies”. Also, the formality of papers can be good in removing any emotion attached to ‘charismatic’ animals, which may alter reader’s perception of the scientific result.

Failings, contributions and stories behind the research are probably then only used as anecdotes during lectures, seminars and whilst chatting with colleagues. But not everyone will hear of this, especially if you miss a conference, the study was conducted 20 years ago, you cannot contact the study’s author or have avoided the coffee room due to fear of leaving the computer whilst writing up.

So if unsuccessful experiments, luck and intuition aren’t reported in the peer-reviewed press, maybe scientific blogs or caveats associated with each paper are the way to convey experiences during a study?

I’ll use an example from a study I was recently involved in where we assessed the influence of beaver-created ponds in comparison to ponds where there was no influence by beavers.

The methods start with: “the study was conducted within a 100 x 100 km² area between Örebro and Skinnskatteberg, in southern, central Sweden”.

This is quite a large area, and as my co-author (Nigel Willby) and I are not from, or never visited Sweden, how did we find the study sites?

Thankfully we had two co-authors based in Sweden (Frauke Ecke and Oded Levanoni, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) who took us to a few sites (Fig. 1), and they let us use a database comprising details of reported beaver activity in Sweden.

A beaver dam near Örebro (© Nigel Willby)

Fig. 1 A beaver dam near Örebro (© Nigel Willby)

 

Of the reported sites within or nearby Örebro not all were suitable, e.g. we spent half a day driving to a site to find out that the beaver dam had been removed, or another site where access was extremely difficult. It was not practical to ground-check every report, especially when we only had 14 days to collect all our data.

Therefore, Google Earth came in particularly handy. By damming drainage ditches within tree plantations, beavers raise the water level, which can lead to localised tree death. Areas of standing dead wood show up well on aerial photography, so could view known sites before we visited them (using grid coordinates from the database) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 An aerial overview of suspected beaver-influenced areas (grey patches within the forest plantations)

Fig. 2 An aerial overview of suspected beaver-influenced areas (grey patches within the forest plantations)

 

Looking out the car window was also helpful for finding sites, as very occasionally you could see areas that had experienced water level changes due to the presence of leafless trees (Fig. 3). Finding sites that had no beaver-induced water level changes was often conducted by simply looking at a map to find the nearest pond/lake, making sure there were no beaver dams on the outflow, and hey presto you have a control site.

 

Fig. 3 Standing dead wood is normally a good indicator of a rise in the water table as a result beaver-created dams

Fig. 3 Standing dead wood is normally a good indicator of a rise in the water table as a result beaver-created dams

 

Although, sites spotted from the car window often didn’t show up on aerial photography as they were recently flooded (Google Earth photos were last updated for this area in 2010). As we wanted to study ecologically mature sites (with established aquatic vegetation), these recently flooded (inundated terrestrial vegetation) sites were often not suitable. Though you normally only find this out after you’ve traipsed across a field, been attacked by flies, tripped over grassy tussocks and fallen into water to then realise your dry suit wasn’t zipped up properly!

So due to a combination of colleagues, maps, Google Earth and good fortune we managed to find 10 beaver and 10 control sites within two weeks and quantify the richness and diversity of aquatic plants and beetles (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 An example of a; A – beaver-created pond and B – control wetland. Note the beaver-generated woody debris, standing dead wood and openings in the canopy in beaver ponds.

Fig. 4 An example of a; A – beaver-created pond and B – control wetland. Note the beaver-generated woody debris, standing dead wood and openings in the canopy in beaver ponds.

 

This is my attempt at informally documenting the methods involved in our study (maybe a little too soon since I’ve just submitted the paper!) as some of these ‘techniques’ will not be obvious or relevant when reading the manuscript. Yet they contribute to the final report.

Perhaps other authors may document their methods informally? This will not only be useful to readers who are conducting similar or related studies, but when I read a paper I really enjoy, it would be great to further understand the work that went on behind the paper.

 

1 Webster, R. (2003). Let’s re‐write the scientific paper. European journal of soil science54(2), 215-218.

 

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