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Academic Editor Interview – Tom Tregenza

Tom Tregenza is a Royal Society Research Fellow at the Centre for Ecology & Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus. He recently became the Section Editor for Evolution at PLoS ONE and in this capacity he has already handled 82 manuscripts. We talked over Skype last week about his science and about the world of scientific publishing.

BZ: I’d like to start with a bit more detail on your scientific background. How did you get into science, and in particular why evolutionary and behavioral biology?

TT: Like many others, I was excited about nature as a child. Living close to the coast here in the UK, where the tides are very large, every time the tide was low it exposed a rich and magical world of creatures living there. Later on, reading Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” was a trigger for me to study biology. The elegant concept of Natural Selection is an incredibly powerful explanation for the diversity and adaptations of living creatures. Behavior, in particular, is such a complex emergent property that it is a constant source of wonder. It illustrates the constraints on Natural Selection, where it is really the survival of the fitter, not the fittest, that drives evolution.

I focus my research mainly on sexual selection, where the emphasis is less on the survival of the fittest and more on other ways that genes can increase their representation in the next generation. For instance, my studies on sexual conflict reveal adaptations that favor one member of a mating pair, even if they are bad for his/her (usually his) mate. In a sense, a male is a parasite on the female and mate choice and courtship behaviors are a struggle between the interests of the two.

I started out my postdoctoral studies with Roger Butlin at the University of Leeds, using grasshoppers as a model system. I was interested in their biogeography and what made populations diverge and form new species. Later, I switched to crickets as they are much easier to take care of in the laboratory. After a number of lab studies on crickets in the lab, I am now testing the ideas about sexual conflict and sexual selection in the field. I would like to see if the laboratory results reflect what is really happening out in nature, as well as to develop a model system that can be equally easily studied both indoors and outdoors. We now have 100 cameras trained at the burrows and we are filming marked individuals continuously. We then analyze who mated with whom, genotype the individuals, then genotype their offspring in the next generation.

Finally, I’m involved in an ongoing collaboration with Dr.Mark Norman and Dr.Julian Finn from the museum of Victoria, Melbourne, and the University of Tasmania, studying mimicry in cephalopods. My colleagues go out on the boat, dive, look at the behaviors in the field and make videos. They then send me the video and their ideas and we try to put the work in an evolutionary framework to see what we can learn from cephalopods about nature in general . The observed behaviors are mind-boggling, for example, the mimic octopus can, very quickly, change its shape, posture, color and movements to mimic either a sea snake or a lionfish or some other creatures. We are assuming that there must be something advantageous for the octopus to be able to mimic two or more different predators instead of just one. Perhaps this is frequency-dependent, making it more difficult for predators to learn that the mimic is not actually dangerous. Octopuses are known to be very smart, but this range of dynamic mimicry has not been seen before in any other animal.

BZ: Apart from behavior and evolution, you have also published a number of papers on the topic of science publishing. You have recently published an article in PLoS ONE on this topic – Systematic Variation in Reviewer Practice According to Country and Gender in the Field of Ecology and Evolution. What was your motivation to scientifically study the world of scientific publishing?

TT: It is glaringly obvious that that there are far fewer women at senior levels than at junior levels in science, which does not reflect their abilities. The reasons for this are multifarious, but the resulting gender bias is, first, not fair to the women, and second, not good for science as we are missing their talent. Recent studies suggest that there may be subtle sources of gender disparity in the peer-review system, with manuscripts written by women being judged more strictly than those written by men. Also, as peer-reviewers, men and women behave differently. Biases in peer-review and in academia as a whole are very difficult to study as there are many factors involved. It is not that male scientists are deliberately sexist, but that many aspects of the way science is organized subtly favor men over women. But just because something is difficult to study does not mean we should not study it at all. It is important to make inroads into this study even if the early work is not perfect. Much of the work I’ve done has major limitations, which I do not dispute, however, I think to demand perfection at this early stage of such research is to miss the point of why we are doing it.

BZ: Is this related to what it was that attracted you to PLoS ONE in the first place?

Yes. Peer-review in PLoS ONE gets away from value judgement and subjectivity to a great extent. Work is judged on merit – are the experiments properly done and do conclusions follow from the data. Grading on novelty is a lot of time wasted on debates between editors, reviewers and authors. PLoS ONE got rid of it – the reviewers only judge if the paper is fundamentally sound.

BZ: How many hours a week would you say you devote to PLoS ONE and when do you fit that into your busy schedule?

I’d say I spend about 4 hours per week as a Section Editor at PLoS ONE. And I feel it is time well spent.

BZ: How does the peer-review process on PLoS ONE work?

The peer-review process in PLoS ONE is very similar to many other journals, although I think it has some advantages, especially over the weekly journals, as it concentrates on the question of whether or not the manuscript is fundamentally correct instead of how novel the findings are, which is a subjective judgment. I am actually surprised that we do not see many papers in PLoS ONE that describe repeats or negative results – most of our papers describe novel and original research. Yet, novelty is not what the reviewers are looking at. I would actually like to see more repetitions of famous studies being done and being published.

As a result of the PloS ONE review policy, authors can write more objectively. They do not need to use the polemical marketing tone in order to “sell” their work to the reviewers and editors. In high impact journals, like Science and Nature, manuscripts tend to be ‘sexed-up’ with large claims of novelty, leading to a high rate of Type I errors in such journals. In contrast, peer-review at PLoS ONE is just as rigorous, but authors do not need to apply their salesmanship skills – the research is judged on its own merits.

BZ: What do you feel makes PLoS ONE relevant to scientists? When you suggest to your colleagues to publish in PLoS ONE, what do you tell them?

I tell them that their papers will be widely read and easy to find. The publication is rapid, as the review is not bogged down in discussions about novelty. I also believe that the age of the Impact Factor is shortly going to be behind us and that in the nearest future individual papers will be evaluated regardless of the journal in which they are published.

BZ: Thank you very much for your time. Your research is fascinating and this was a very enjoyable conversation.

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