Fewer results, more open questions: Insights from ESA by Ignasi Bartomeus

ESA_logo2017The more compelling talks I’ve seen at #ESA2017 are the ones that have left me with more questions than answers. Reflecting on this, I think that the role of conferences in ecology is switching from advertising your work to creating opportunities for open conversations. With the rise of Twitter, blogs and preprints, advertising your new results to a wider audience has become really easy. In fact, by using social media you can reach way more people than the 20-50 people that fill a typical ESA session. However, creating meaningful conversations is hard, and this is precisely the power of having conferences.

Here there are some sessions I really enjoyed and that really accomplished this spirit of posing questions for which we may not have the answer yet:

1) I’ll start with the session Standing on the Shoulders of Clients. It’s more important than ever to challenge how we do science and how are we going to ensure open reproducible processes. This session, far from offering magic recipes, did something better. It points out inconvenient questions to make us think how do we want to shape the future of data publishing. Who owns the data? Who has to pay for the costs? How do we guarantee reproducibility? With major players of the scene like Dryad, rOpenSci or Elsevier, the discussion was a real conversation.

2) The session on Multiplex networks. This symposium was introducing new methods and data collection efforts with great potential but in a very explorative stage. The main questions were, what can we do with this? and what is the potential? It also included a brutal talk by Daniel Stouffer asking, Why should we use Multiplex networks?

3) The symposium “When are traits functional?” has already appeared in this blog, so I won’t comment too much more (Read about it here). I particularly enjoyed Angela Moles talk where she showed patterns through data, but let the public really engage on how to interpret her non-intuitive results.

4) Finally, I participated in the session on Phenology on a community context, and I was super pleased to see a lot of ongoing evidence showing that we are at times asking the wrong question. We challenged the concept of phenological asynchrony and created debate during the last 20 minutes that clearly illustrated how we should not think of binary asynchronic/synchronic pairwise interactions, but move to understand complex dynamic interactions at the community level.

All these sessions had lively discussions and follow-ups in the hall after the talks. So when preparing your next presentation, consider showing a result that puzzles you, or an idea you couldn’t test just yet. I promise you won’t look like a fool, and you have the chance to get some real insights from the audience. 

Ignasi Bartomeus, Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

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