One giant step for a researcher, one small leap for the research field
In a research world more and more obsessed with publish or perish, submitting research manuscripts can be a daunting hill to climb as a new researcher. That hill turns into a mountain when those results go against an existing paradigm.
This second blog is also inspired by the Rooting 2017 meeting in Umea in May (see the last blog here) and some amazing conversations I had with several PhD students and postdocs who have convincing results that go against different ideas in the root world. Despite discouragement from supervisors who thought the experiments wouldn't work, these researchers often did experiments anyway to produce truly interesting results!
This brings me to my first point: CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE NOW A BONIFIED RESEARCHER!
This really excites me - seeing the next cohort of research leaders thinking, testing and following their instinct and logic to do amazing science.
What worries me, however, is the consistent feeling of dread amongst these fantastic people regarding publishing these potentially controversial results and their impression that they won't be believed because they 'are nobody'.
My next point then: You are not nobody. Those big names were unknowns once!
And they typically built their careers on making some big findings that went against those before them. This is how science works (often in small steps, sometimes in paradigm shifts!). And often it's not that they were wrong (although sometimes…) but rather understanding has progressed to better tease out the science underneath, or new techniques have become available that weren't possible before, shedding light on the topic.
Ok so that's all good and well and I'm sure none of that makes any of you amazing new scientists feel any better about the challenge ahead of you! So I contacted a range of editors from several journals (from ecology and plant science fields) to get their take on how to publish something that goes against existing ideas.
One quote that should immediately cheer you:
"‘Something not in line with existing understanding’: isn’t the simple answer that this is what we’re all looking for – scientists and journals?"
"I think that giving a field a new direction with results that contradict the current model is as exciting as new discoveries. Science is not written in stone, it is constantly evolving. A published peer-reviewed scientific paper is not a definite and absolute truth, it is more like a temporary working hypothesis waiting to be confirmed by other labs, or to be used to go even further."
The following four points were made by each editor and I've paraphrased to incorporate all of their points.
So go for it! I'm looking forward to seeing these bright sparks light up the hidden half!
I'm going to end with a quote which sums up things I've said in previous blogs:
"And if at first it doesn’t progress, use the advice provided and don’t give up.”
Thanks to the editors who took the time to comment and provide these inspirational quotes!
Happy Monday morning to you all! (yes I think reading or writing blogs is a great way to procrastinate at the beginning of the week too!).
I've just returned from the Rooting2017 conference in Umea, Sweden and this blog and at least one other are inspired by that meeting (so watch this space for the next one too).
Today's blog is inspired by some comments on the first day that were in my (Australian/Britified) mind unnecessarily narky. What follows is more or less what I said in my seminar on the morning of day two so if you were there no need to read any further!
The first thing I will say is that I understand full well how protective we become of our research niche. This is driven by the nature of the research world we are part of with competition for jobs, and grants and the push for higher impact papers, and promotions (all of these being interlinked). And when we face rejection after rejection it's easy to become defensive.
However when someone has prepared a conference talk of their beloved system and opened their bubble to share it with a room full of critical, (often cynical) scientists - this is the most nerve wracking thing (at all levels - professors I've spoken with tell me they still get nervous)! The least we, as the privileged audience, can do is ask science based questions rather than making unhelpful comments on the relevance of their experimental system in a real world context.
And this is where the point of my blog begins.
Excluding some ecological research here and talking mainly about experimental biology (and probably experimental science in general) - we all work with experimental systems. We try to control as many variables as possible in order to understand one small part of an otherwise very complex set of systems. Whether we are using model species, or using some obscure interesting plant within a controlled growth chamber (or mathematical models for that matter) - we are all using models to simplify the complexity of the natural world. In a statistics text book I was reading the week before the conference (yes I'm that geeky and no I don't understand statistics!) the author (Crawley, Imperial College London) makes the comment that all models are wrong. Now he was referring to statistical models but they are built around our experimental models so by extension we are all wrong. You, me, everyone.
But that's ok!
We are all simplifying nature and there is no perfect way to do that (which is also what Crawley was saying).
My point is (and that of the review paper in 2016 that I was also discussing in my talk) that all experimental systems have limitations as well as advantages. This means that every piece of well thought out research is of value to the greater knowledge bank. The only thing that limits the value of any experiment is how well we communicate the details of the experimental system and why we chose to use it. This of course will also then affect how easily manuscript reviewers understand the manuscript and how many times our work is cited (all important for citation indices and promotions etc).
So be clear about the details of the system you choose and remember that no matter who you are or what system you work with your research is important and valid!
I'll end with a quote from an interesting chapter in Sustainable agroecosystem management (reference below):
"In its purest form, reductionism searches for mechanisms among the constituents of a system and holds that understanding the constituents is sufficient to understanding the system. Reductionism helps us make sense of the world; it is intuitive and generally it works. The beauty of reductionism is its simplicity and the relative ease of experimentally demonstrating cause and effect within system components. By controlling the variables, interpreting experimental results is relatively straightforward. On the other hand, the weakness of reductionism derives from its inability to predict system behavior that arises from interactions among its components."
Phelan PL (2009) Ecology-based agriculture and the next Green Revolution. Is modern agriculture exempt from the laws of ecology? In: Bohlen P, House G (eds) Sustainable agroecosystem management. Boca Raton, pp. 98–128
Also mentioned in the interesting review: Paungfoo-Lonhienne C., Visser J., Lonhienne T.G.A. & Schmidt S. (2012) Past, present and future of organic nutrients. Plant and Soil, 359, 1-18.
The review I was also discussing in my seminar: (shameless self advertising)
Steffens B. & Rasmussen A. (2016) The Physiology of Adventitious Roots. Plant Physiology, 170, 603-617.