Alistair Auffret (Stockholm University) has written a blog post about the challenges of networking and collaborating in ecological research. You can also read Alistair’s lay summary posted on the blog last week, here.
Although I like to think that I’m getting better, I’m still not very good at networking (otherwise known as talking to people who I don’t already know personally) at meetings and conferences. I’m pretty sure that this is something that a lot of people experience, and something that can be a worry for early-career researchers. There can be a feeling that there is some kind of pressure, expectation or need to build a new collaborative network for their future research career, and that conferences are important places to do that.
Talking to other researchers at conferences is undoubtedly valuable, and I am glad that I am gradually gaining the confidence to approach and talk to people who I don’t know. But this blog post is about another way to start a collaboration, in particular, the way that resulted in my recent paper in Journal of Ecology.
My PhD project was focussed around how humans influenced seed dispersal in rural landscapes. A lot of my time was spent collecting dung from livestock, mud from cars and mud from shoes, and seeing what seeds could be found. It was a lot of seeds from a lot of species, so I concluded that good management of livestock and roadsides could improve the functional connectivity in a landscape, i.e. that we could make plants more successful in dispersing across the landscape.
However, more than once I received comments from referees along the lines of that functional connectivity can only change in response to a change in the landscape structure. It turns out that the literature supported this stance, and as a result I once had to almost eradicate the word ‘connectivity’ from a manuscript in which it featured prominently.
But I did not agree. Surely the ability for an organism to disperse across the landscape and connect isolated habitat patches could be affected by other factors? For plants, that are usually stuck in the same place, they depend on the movement and behaviour of dispersal vectors (livestock, motor vehicles) and that these things are affected by a range of things, not only landscape structure. I thought that it would be a good subject for a paper, but I had two problems.  I didn’t think that my opinion would have much weight on its own, and  I didn’t know anyone whose opinion would have much weight. It was time for some drastic action.
I made a list of all my favourite dispersal ecologists, and in one mass email asked if they agreed with me and wanted to help me write a paper on the subject. They weren’t complete strangers, but still not anyone that I really knew. There were referees who had signed their reports, Associate Editors who had handled a paper, people my supervisor knew to varying (but usually quite low) degrees, plus my PhD opponent. It was with very sweaty hands that I clicked ‘Send’, but within one working day everyone had answered positively and we were a team of ten ecologists with interests in dispersal ecology and modelling, landscape ecology and landscape genetics, ready to set the record straight about plant functional connectivity.
All communication was done by email and by sending manuscript versions back and forth. What started as my initial skeleton of a paper was filled with comments and additions in all the colours of the rainbow. It was a lot of work trying to accommodate everyone’s points of view and decide which cool new papers that everyone found (or wrote) should or could be included. In the end, there was plenty of meat on the bones and I think we’ve come up with a really nice paper.
Working in this way had its advantages and disadvantages. It was nice to be able to sit at my desk, calmly deciding which comments and changes to delete without having to look anyone in the eye and explain to them exactly why I was doing it. On the other hand, larger things to do with the main themes of the manuscript and issues like author order can be difficult to work out remotely when you have never met the people whose opinions you are trying to compare with others and with your own.
In the end, I’m very glad to have had the guidance of other much more experienced scientists within the group. Above everything, I cannot describe how much better the paper is with all of the input I had from everybody else, compared to how it would have turned out if it was just written within our lab group in Stockholm.
I would definitely recommend others to go ahead and make contact with their favourite ecologists for some virtual collaboration. I have really learned a lot about leading projects, writing papers (and pre-submission enquiries, cover letters), setting and meeting deadlines and writing positive and informative emails. I have also learned a huge amount about the different aspects of functional connectivity that I previously knew little about, and I hope that our paper can also be useful to others for the same reason. The project has inspired a successful BiodivERsA project proposal, and I can happily report that by the time that this blog is published, I will have met more than half of my co-authors on the paper. Only three to go!
Alistair Auffret, Stockholm University