1. Allen thanks for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with an overview of your current academic and editorial responsibilities.
I moved to the University of Georgia in September of 2011, where I am the Head of the Department of Genetics. At Georgia, I have the normal academic responsibilities of teaching, running a lab, and conducting research, but I also have administrative responsibility for the running and direction of the department. I have also retained a part-time position at the University of Exeter, where I maintain an ongoing research program with funding from NERC. So I have responsibilities for teaching (in the area of evolutionary genetics), research (at both Georgia and Exeter), and administration. Skype and e-mail are essential to my life!
Editorially, I only work on Ecology and Evolution. The success of Ecology and Evolution means that I really don’t have time for other projects.
2. The role as Editor of Ecology and Evolution is a new endeavor – what attracted you to it?
There are two reasons. First, I’m a scientist. I like experiments. This is something new for our field and I was interested to see how people would respond. I like to conduct the experiment, though, not just observe.
The second reason is that I felt that journals were becoming too safe. Because of pressures of workload, space, and page limits it has become easier to reject papers than to look for diamonds in the rough. I felt that Ecology and Evolution was a journal where we could take more risks and encourage more dialogue amongst scientists in the field.
3. In your first editorial you wrote about a desire to improve the efficiency of the process for everyone involved while maintaining the integrity that peer review delivers. We’re 12 months into the initiative, how is it working out?
Better than I could possibly have hoped. We have a rapid time to decision, including for manuscripts that are directly submitted! The field has responded with enthusiasm, and reviewers seem to really get it, look for what is good and what needs to be improved in the paper. You don’t need to find a reason to reject.
4. The journal receives articles from two sources – direct submissions and referrals from other journals -what’s been your experience so far of the quantity and quality of the two routes?
Again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised although I really didn’t know what to expect. My one fear was we would get all of the ideas that people could never publish submitted to us as direct submissions. We’ve had a few, but no more than I saw as Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Evolutionary Biology (every once in a while, someone discovers a flaw in evolution. These are relatively easy to spot as they often have no citations to other works.) Instead, we have seen direct submissions on topics from biodiversity, conservation biology, animal behavior, evolutionary genetics, and even theory. My sense is that people appreciate the space to develop their ideas, or our willingness to accept somewhat more preliminary results as long as there is a real contribution to biology.
Referrals have worked just as I expected. By and large, they come with opposing reviews. One reviewer likes the work and has only minor comments. The other review (or two, and many papers come with three reviews) typically says solid work but not of the quality or novelty I expect for journal X – the dreaded split decision. Given rejection rates approaching 90% for some of our supporting journals, editors typically reject these papers rather than work to get them acceptable for publication. This is understandable there are only so many hours in a day and so many pages available. But it also means that many good papers are rejected. These are not flawed, they just need more work.
We also get referrals where people feel the methods are not cutting edge (e.g., using microsatellites rather than SNPs in molecular ecology and evolution). Scientists are fickle; we are all attracted to the shiny new toys. But that doesn’t mean that older methods are less valuable. Sometimes they are equally good. New methods are best when they reveal something new that the old methods couldn’t reveal. This isn’t always the case.
Ecology and Evolution allows authors to address the concerns that have been raised. In many ways, we are the reject and resubmit after revision option for journals. I’m delighted to provide this role.
5. How have authors responded to the referral approach that Ecology and Evolution uses?
They have responded with enthusiasm. They like the speed, the freedom to express their opinions (as long as it is clearly identified as an opinion where others may differ), and the space. I’ve never worked on a journal that got so many positive emails from authors.
6. You’ve previously written an editorial encouraging scientists to support societies when making decisions about where to publish. How does Ecology and Evolution fit with this?
We work closely with society-based journals. I still feel that scientists should support their professional societies, and the best way to do this is to publish in society-sponsored journals. Because Ecology and Evolution is published by Wiley we are also working with societies, keeping up Wiley’s tradition of supporting societies.
There are many other journals out there. I think our strength is that we have a focused journal, covering all of ecology and evolution. We have an editorial board drawn from leaders in the field who themselves are active in their societies. I hope we can serve multiple societies and provide added value to the journals that they already produce.
7. From your work on Ecology and Evolution and other editorial projects you’ve been involved with, what are the key ingredients of a successful journal?
Speed and quality of reviews, understanding of the frustrations of authors, and sympathetic treatment of authors. Science is a weird profession. We seek rejection. Even when we get our work published, we are told what is wrong with it. It is important to remember that every time an author submits a paper they expect it to be published, not rejected. Criticism is fine, but it has to be tempered with an understanding of the frustration authors feel. This is why I think it is important that editors remain active scientists. I too have my papers rejected. I too get frustrated when journals sit on manuscripts without making a decision. I too get frustrated when editors simply seem to count positive and negative comments to make a decision on a paper. I’m on the side of the authors!
8. Open Access has become a more significant part of academic publishing, what feedbacks are you picking up from colleagues, authors, reviewers and editors you work with?
Open Access may be misunderstood by the community, but it is wildly popular. The popularity may reflect some misconceptions there are no free lunches and somebody always pays but they also recognize that Open Access may put their work in front of more people. Open Access is particularly popular with younger academics. I really have only had positive feedback about the move to Open Access.
9. Looking beyond the research article itself, what are your views on sharing data and initiatives such as Dryad?
I have to declare a conflict here. I am on the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of Dryad. This is because I am completely behind the movement to provide public and open databases. Data only become more valuable when they are shared. The most common complaint I hear is that scientists are afraid that someone will steal their data (and yes, this is the word they use.) This is based on a misconception over ownership of the data. It is true that the scientists have worked hard to generate the data, and that they deserve priority of publication, but the data do need to be available to a wider audience. In reality, the data are rarely owned by the scientist. Typically they were collected with support from a government, university or school, company, or combination of these. The data, really, should be public.
One of the most compelling arguments for archiving data is that the value of data grows over time and the future value of a specific dataset is almost impossible to predict. The reason we have museums is because the Victorians had the foresight to save material for future study and use. I don’t think they realized there might be techniques for extracting and analyzing ancient DNA. Nor do I think that our 19th and early 20th century scientists saw global climate change and the need to document how biodiversity is affected over time. Yet having datasets from the past have allowed ecologists and conservation biologists to produce excellent research and inform policy.
I don’t know which data will be needed tomorrow, but I want to make sure it is available. Secondarily, I want to see the value of data collected by evolutionary biologists grow.
10. Finally, what are your aspirations for Ecology and Evolution over the next five years?
I would like to see Ecology and Evolution continue to innovate and incorporate new forms of communication. Social media has really changed the way we interact. I think there is a lot of opportunity to incorporate this into our scientific publications.
We publish our science to educate others about what we have found and what we think is going on in the natural world. If we didn’t publish, it would simply be a hobby; interesting to a few acquaintances and ourselves but rarely having any real impact beyond a small social circle. If there are new ways to get ideas and findings out there and educate more people, let’s do it! Open Access is a step in the right direction, allowing more people access to the primary literature. But I am certain that there will be additional tools for disseminating scientific findings and ideas.