Interview With An Author – Richard Bateman

In today’s ‘Interview with an author’, we spoke with Prof. Richard Bateman, corresponding author of the recent PeerJ article “Systematic revision of Platanthera in the Azorean archipelago: not one but three species, including arguably Europe’s rarest orchid”, published last week amid a flurry of publicity.

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Richard was formerly Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Head of the then Botany Department at the Natural History Museum, and Head of Policy at the UK Biosciences Federation. Today he is an unpaid Visiting Professor at the University of Reading and Research Associate at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, “awaiting an approach from any prospective employer who still sees some value in harbouring an opinionated maverick.”

PJ: How did you first hear about PeerJ, and what persuaded you to submit to us?

Early in its genesis, the basic concept of PeerJ was outlined in the British academic magazine Times Higher Education, and I immediately recognised that, unlike other open access models, it chimed with my own experiences and egalitarian beliefs. It is true that the argument used most commonly to advocate open access is egalitarian – it enables anyone (well, anyone with internet access) to read scientific papers. But in my opinion, advocates tend to ignore the fact that this increased egalitarianism among readers is typically bought at the cost of decreased egalitarianism among authors. The major funding bodies that are driving open access are selfishly considering the contributions only of the increasingly narrow academic elite who are fortunate enough to be in receipt of one of their grants. Perhaps the majority of active scientists now belong to a rapidly expanding scientific underclass – students, retirees, amateurs, the unwaged, and the waged but currently grant-less – who cannot afford the substantial fees required for so-called Gold Route open access. The affordable membership model devised by PeerJ neatly side-steps what for me is a fatal flaw in the more conventional ‘authors pay through the nose’ model of open access.

PJ: Is egalitarianism the only reason that you decided to publish among our very first batch of papers?

No. I was equally enthusiastic about PeerJ’s clear statement that, within its laudably broad remit of topics, it will publish any paper that meets basic criteria of technical competence. This liberal policy makes a refreshing change from the increasingly precious and dictatorial attitude shown by most of the established journals. Increased pressure to publish, combined with page limitation in traditional journals, have created an intensely competitive environment in even low-ranked outlets. In my opinion, the determination of many journals to shape and constrain science rather than merely report it is highly damaging.

During the course of my 33 years as a publishing scientist, manuscript reviews have on average become more superficial yet also more intrusive. For their part, editors who now benefit from a considerable surfeit of potential copy are likely to adopt an even more negative attitude than their reviewers, issuing near-ubiquitous demands for length reductions of 30–50%, placing crucial data in electronic appendices, prescribing additional experiments that are technically or financially prohibitive, and/or routinely utilising that relatively new and most invidious of formal recommendations “Reject with recommendation to resubmit”. Such responses leave those academics who are willing to kow-tow to such dictatorial pronouncements wasting vast tranches of invaluable research time modifying what was actually already a perfectly acceptable paper, rather than moving on to the next manuscript in line as they had originally intended.

Add to this the fact that the average academic is able to spend less and less time actively engaged in research, and the net effect is that huge amounts of sound science currently being generated will never see the light of day. Indeed, as a general rule, the better funded the research group, the greater the proportion of their scientific product that goes to waste. PeerJ’s generous, yet fundamentally rigorous, approach to manuscript acceptance has the potential to reverse this distressing trend.

PJ: You’ve published not one but two papers with us during our first year. Does this mean that you’re happy with your experiences so far?

I’m not certain that my answer to this question can be viewed as wholly objective, given my active and enthusiastic involvement in the journal prior to its launch. I joined the editorial board fairly promptly, and as a result of volunteering various opinions, found myself visiting PeerJ’s London office in October 2012 in order to alpha test the (now much lauded) custom-built submission site. Although my test performance was less than perfect, it gave me a competitive advantage when the PeerJ submission site went live, and ours was among the first half-dozen manuscripts to be submitted.

Being a member of the long-term unemployed frees me from the obsession with publication metrics that must be endured by those of my colleagues who are still employed, nor am I as anxious as many of my colleagues regarding speed of publication. Rather, my primary criterion for assessing a journal’s performance is whether I smile or grimace when my paper is finally published. I’m anxious to ensure that my work is reported in full, in an aesthetically pleasing format, as free as possible from errors, and remains written in my rather individualistic style. Dialogue with copy editors is therefore as important to me as dialogue with editors, and it is not unknown for me to require four proofs prior to publication. In this context, working with PeerJ has been a joy.

Reviews have been informed and to the point, the review process and especially the subsequent manuscript processing have been fast and efficient. Copy editors have been responsive and helpful, leading to second proofs that were near-perfect. The format has been much admired by my co-authors and other colleagues. The more recent of my PeerJ papers occupied 86 journal pages and contained 26 Figures (most complex and coloured), together with some formal taxonomic descriptions that must be presented in an unusually prescribed format. Few if any traditional journals would have coped with such a submission, let alone voluntarily made it the focus of their publicity.

PJ: Yes, we understand that you’ve spent most of last week fielding requests from the media, following our press release on Tuesday the 10th. In retrospect, do you view this experience as having been helpful or an unwelcome distraction from your science?

I’m no stranger to media involvement, but in recent years my engagement has been more proactive than reactive. My experiences of this week have taught me how rapid online promulgation has now become. PeerJ released its press embargo on our article at noon on Tuesday, and by the end of that day, portions of the text and associated images had appeared on perhaps 50 websites. The vast majority of these reports were ‘borrowed’ from the much smaller number of accounts written by journalists who chose to contact me in search of quotes or clarifications. Given that the participants in those few dialogues included the BBC, NBC and LiveScience, this week has to be labelled as successful in terms of conveying widely the simpler messages prompted by our research.

Admittedly, persuading journalists to attempt the more complex messages (in my case, often addressing the issues closest to my heart) seemingly remains impossible, and you will always be exposed to at least one interrogator who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Downstream comments on blogs have also proven interesting. Stupidly critical comments have been rapidly countered by more informed observers, while more meaningful dialogues have begun regarding the wisdom or otherwise of drawing the public’s attention to a newly recognised and exceptionally rare orchid species. Might a misguided lunatic be fortunate enough to locate the population, and then illegally uproot plants that would have no chance of subsequent survival, operating in the mistaken belief that they were of considerable financial value? We can only say that, working alongside Azorean botanists, it was our collective judgement that the urgent conservation needs of the Azorean islands in general, and our study species in particular, outweighed the small risk of deliberate vandalism.

PJ: Please can you be more specific; which key messages would you have liked to see journalists emphasise more strongly?

New plant species are described every hour, and new orchid species every day. In our view, the unusual feature of this particular article was the quantity and quality of the data underpinning the reappraisal of this group of species; the paper synthesised many different lines of investigation, so that we are not merely hypothesising that three species of butterfly-orchids exist on the islands but rather know that three species of butterfly-orchids exist on the islands. We can also estimate with reasonably high probabilities how the orchid lineage reached the islands from mainland Europe and how it subsequently speciated. Unfortunately, it remains extraordinarily difficult to persuade many non-scientists to consider seriously the issue of evidence rather than passing directly to the final verdict. No commentator picked up on my serious concern that any living person is perfectly at liberty to formally describe and name new species, with no legislative constraint placed on the amount of evidence that they must first gather (I’m reminded here of the formal naming by pioneer conservationist Sir Peter Scott of the Loch Ness monster as Nessiteras rhombopteryx – the infamous anagram of ‘monster hoax by Sir Peter S’). Nor did any commentator choose to advocate rapid recognition of these three species by national and international conservation bodies, so that their legislative status can be clarified and their conservation taken more seriously. These are not trivial issues, but I suspect that the first was viewed as too esoteric and the second as passé in an era of fiscal austerity. I do hope that I’m wrong. In the meantime, I’m happy that PeerJ helped to put these and many other issues on the academic map.

We leave you with Fig 6 from the article. Dont forget that from now until end-2013, we are running a special offer for free PeerJ Publications.

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