Competition, Predation, and Selection: The Usefulness of Scientific Debate

Kidd Cay, one of the islands included in the Calsbeek and Cox (2010) study (photo from Losos and Pringle, 2011).

Chances are that if you read this blog, then you also tend to note when Nature publishes something anoley.  Thus, you’re probably already aware that last week Losos and Pringle published a reply to a paper by Calsbeek and Cox that appeared in Nature last year.  In that paper, C&C concluded that competition is a more important agent of selection than predation for island anoles.  In their reply, L&P point out limitations in the original study’s major assumptions, experimental design, and statistical analyses.  Rather than go into all the gory details, I suggest you look at their reply directly.  Just don’t let your non-anolologist colleagues or family members get a look at their Fig. 1a or you’ll lose any credibility you might have once garnered by speaking about the rigours of field work.  As is usual, C&C have also published a reply to the reply where they respond to the criticisms, re-performing some analyses.  Again, I don’t want to focus on the details; I’d rather let each reader decide for themselves.

Personally, I enjoy reading replies and replies to replies and if it gets to a reply to a reply to a reply, well even better!  It’s the way science should work – someone publishes something, there is debate, and the scientific community self-corrects if necessary.  However, recently an article in Ecosphere entitled “Do rebuttals affect future science?” by Banobi et al. challenged this view.  They examined citation patterns of seven high-profile articles and the accompanying rebuttals.  They found that the original work was cited 17 times more than the rebuttals and that only 5% of citations were critical of the original work.  Banobi et al. suggested that authors of replies are “wasting their breath.”  Now, the Banobi et al paper has shortcomings (including sample size and breadth, and year corrections) and it is certainly possible that the rebuttals they examined were not convincing – just because a reply is published does not mean it is automatically valid.  Nonetheless, I suspect there is something to what the authors suggest.  Even papers that have been soundly rebutted are probably often cited as if they hadn’t been.  Still, I disagree with Banobi et al. that rebuttals are a waste of time – instead I view it as a call to action for authors, readers, and reviewers to more critically evaluate citations of papers that have had rebuttals published.  Journals, like Nature, that include links to replies when accessing an article are certainly a step in the right direction.

So what does all this have to do with anoles?  Well, nothing really, except that it has made me very curious to see how the C&C paper and its replies are treated in the literature. I suspect that amongst hard-core anolists, the limitations and arguments will be carefully considered.  But what about the less anole-focused literature?  Only time will tell.  Undoubtedly, regardless of citation counts, the best result – as noted by both C&C and L&P – will be if the debate spurs improved experiments on competition and predation as selective forces on anoles.

About Adam Algar

Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham (UK). My research focuses on niche limits and dynamics across scales, from individual organisms to the globe. Mostly lizards.

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