Friday, February 11, 2011

Over-reviewed?

EP: Please submit original research articles for your presentations, not review papers.

Student X: What is a review paper?

EP: It is a summary of prior studies.

Student X: Why should we not pick them?

EP: Because they are summaries. The data are in the original studies – that is what I want you to focus on.

Student X: Submits review paper.

I have now had this conversation, and this result, more than once. So, why are my students picking reviews? And what does this have to do with eco-evolutionary dynamics when my class is on marine global change?

When considering these questions, I had a thought – maybe my students are picking reviews because there are so many out there. Perhaps a student choosing a paper at random has a relatively high likelihood of picking a review.

This reminded me of a question posed at the recent QCBS working group – is eco-evolutionary dynamics “over-reviewed?” This question stemmed from a recent flurry of reviews on the topic and the brief proposal that our working group supply yet another (we opted against). So I thought… if selecting at random, is an undergraduate student taking a course on eco-evolutionary dynamics more or less likely to select a review paper compared to a student taking a course on marine global change?

I did a bit of searching on Web of Science, and it turns out that reviews make up a larger proportion of papers on the topic of eco-evolutionary dynamics than on the topic of marine global change. For example, searches on “eco-evolutionary dynamics,” “niche construction,” “community genetics,” and “contemporary evolution” all independently yielded about 25% review papers (if papers categorized as “editorial material” are combined with papers categorized as “reviews”). Searches for common topics in marine global change, such as “coral bleaching,” “ocean acidification,” and “arctic warming” all independently yielded around 10% reviews.

So, it is unlikely my students are selecting at random. They are actively picking reviews – perhaps because reviews often present a more straightforward message than original research articles. And if the topic of my class was eco-evolutionary dynamics, they might be picking even more reviews. Of course, my quick-and-dirty analysis is admittedly imperfect. Many early research papers we would now consider to be eco-evolutionary dynamics, do not use one of the key words I searched. Nonetheless, 25% is a surprisingly high proportion.

So, is eco-evolutionary dynamics over-reviewed? Perhaps I will delve more deeply into that question next time. I have to get cracking on a paper on “the eco-evolutionary dynamics of marine global change.” It promises to be one heck of a review!

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