An opinion I have commonly heard is that young people should concentrate on primary research instead of writing reviews or synthesis papers, and that we have too many reviews anyway. In the following guest post, Alexander Kubisch disagrees:
The question I’d like to elaborate on is: Should you write a review/synthesis paper, although you just started to actively participate in science?
I say : Yes! You cannot be too young, too busy or too unimportant to do so! And it is important to do things like that, for you and for others! In the following I’d like to explain my opinion. I want to do so by giving some insights into the origins of a recent synthesis paper that I authored together with Bob Holt, Achim Poethke and Emanuel Fronhofer, which has just appeared in Oikos (see virtual special issue). In this paper we deal with the problem of understanding the formation of species’ geographical range borders by focusing on the eco-evolutionary dynamics of dispersal.
But let’s go a step back – where did the idea for this kind of synthesis come from? Well, it all started with finishing my PhD thesis. I worked on dispersal evolution along environmental gradients, focusing on dispersal evolution and its influences on range formation. All studies I did were, of course, rather detailed, using simulation approaches to address problems that were (probably) partially unknown. Anyway – once there was the time of putting the pieces together and writing my PhD thesis (the hard time was in winter/spring 2012). Actually I was quite happy with my plan for the discussion of my thesis, until, in a break, my main supervisor (Achim Poethke) asked me what my plan for the discussion was.
Well, I had one, didn’t he see it? … He proceeded and told me that he was expecting something synthesizing on my topic (dispersal evolution and range formation), something that would really advance science, including provocative and sensible conclusions, as a good discussion should be (to my opinion he really was – and is – the best possible supervisor). He actually mentioned (and hopefully still thinks) that I was a leading expert in this particular field of science. Wow! Listen to that. At first glance it was balm for my soul. At second glance… it was terribly frightening! Yet, I did not have any other way than to address this challenge (I mean, he was still my supervisor, right?). I thought about some kind of concept and rapidly realized that I needed help. That’s where my coauthor Emanuel (and in the beginning also Gita Benadi) came in.
This is the first very important message, I’d like to stress: for some kind of review and synthesis, ask someone you trust and you can talk to. It is a challenge to do such a study per se, but it is close to impossible to do it on your own. The greatest ideas can only come up, when you are in close interaction to a person, who thinks like (or probably especially unlike 🙂 ) you do.
So we made a first draft of the concept (in close interaction with Achim) and helped us one another to sort our ideas and to realize, how our work would fit together. Still, it was a huge topic, so we decided that – to be really sure that we were not just creating bullshit – we should ask someone, who definitely understands a lot about this topic and thus invited Bob Holt to join our dispersal-eco-evo-range-team. Luckily (very, very luckily!), he agreed and offered more than just helpful contributions to our paper! He was open for our ideas from the very beginning and yet was constructively criticizing and advancing our common work (thanks again, Bob!). From this experience of working on this really huge challenge, I learned that it is so very important to not just focus on some details of a system, but to try to keep (or achieve) an overview over what I knew, and what was known by others. And the most important lesson was to do it together.
By the way, it was, of course, really a lot of work. Researching the literature, organizing the findings from that, drawing a red line through it all (resp. a framework) and doing some additional simulations, until we finally wrote the paper, took all in all more than one year of work (while it was more or less our main project). And of course, we could probably have created more than one theoretical paper during that time, if we wouldn’t have focused on that project. Yet, we really thought that this kind of synthesis can be more valuable than a bunch of other detailed studies, which we would have produced otherwise – especially as it helped us to really carefully think about what we are doing, and why we are doing it. In times of an exploding mass and diversity of publications, it is (to my opinion) especially helpful and necessary to more often come to rest, digest what has been, and then – after discussing that with others – synthesize one’s own thoughts.
To come back to my title (aren’t we way too young to do that?) – I don’t think so (sure, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it 🙂 ). Especially with regard to the synthesis and perspectives of science, a fresh view with (as far as possible) open-minded ideas is what we really need! Young scientists should more than anyone else think about synthesizing their particular field of science, be it in a paper, a blog, a facebook post, or even a tweet (of course, in a paper you can say more 😉 ). And from my experience, I really would like to give you the following tips:
- Don’t think, you’re too young or too busy or too anything to address such a mission – if you are convinced that it would be necessary to synthesize a given topic, everybody else will be (at least soon) convinced, too!
- Do it together! Do not overestimate yourself or underestimate the help of others – a group of people can do amazingly great work and come to conclusions, which every single participant would not have thought of!
- Think! Take the time to think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it – what is the broader concept of your work? Of course, in the beginning you do, what you have to do, but you are always free – so occasionally take a moment of time and rest, relax, prepare a cup of tee (or a glass of beer (Alex) or wine (Emanuel) or anything else) and figure out, what role your research plays within the prevailing theories.
And never think, you’re not prepared to do it – you never are. Just do it 🙂