20 November 2015

From spreadsheet to synthesis: my last paper from UTPA

My latest paper started as a spreadsheet.

During the writing of my last paper on the crayfish pet trade (described here), I was kind of surprised that I kept finding new papers about pet crayfish. I cited these in my paper, but mainly for the total numbers of species sold in different countries. I realized that I didn’t have a clear picture in my head of what the common species might be across all the places that had been examined.

So I made a great big spreadsheet compiling all the crayfish species sold as pets in all the countries from all the papers I could find. And I started to get a sense of the patterns. Here’s a visual (click to enlarge):

Germany was the hotspot for pet crayfish, by a long, long way. But as you can see from the map, the places that have been examined are patchy. I thought if I didn’t have a clear picture in my head, maybe others didn’t either.

So I wrote a review article.

Academics sometimes tend to view review articles as “make work” projects. Reviews are the things you write because you’ve hit a dry spell and can’t publish a data-driven experimental paper. You know, a real paper.

I get that. I’m proud of my data-driven papers. But there are a factors that can make a review very valuable.

First, when the literature is scattered, or in hard to get journals, a review provides people with a key to finding that literature. That was definitely the case here. These papers were published in were often obscure (thank goodness for Google Scholar and alerts), at least to me. There were many key papers in journals I’d never heard of before.

Second, when the literature is new, a review can draw attention to an emerging research topic. All the literature was pretty recent: 2010 and onwards. There wasn’t archival research that I could find on aquarium keeping in the twentieth century.

Third, when the research field is new, the literature is likely to be disconnected. A review of a new research topic can show where the empty spaces in knowledge are, and point ways forward. For instance, in this paper, I think one of the things that hasn’t been talked about explicitly in other papers is the supply chain from crayfish harvest to owner.

This was a fairly quick project compared to many of my papers. In some ways, I almost wish I had waited a little bit longer to submit. I didn’t think of including a couple of figures, like the map above, until it was too late. A new article about crayfish as pets in Japan appeared in the International Association of Astacology newsletter just before this article appeared.

On the other hand, I did sneak in some new data. It was data should have been in an earlier paper, but I hadn’t bothered to do the calculations until I had to give a presentation.

The journal, Crustacean Research, is a well-established society journal in Japan, but a new one to me. When I heard about it earlier this year, I kept it in mind for my papers. I like publishing in different journals, rather than going back to the same ones over and over. I like the challenge of having articles scrutinized by different sets of people, rather than going back to the same journal over and over again because you think the editor likes your work.

I liked that the journal is open access, and had moderate article charges. I had not submitted to them before, partly because their PDF production was slightly lower quality than other journals. But they just changed their production this year, and their new PDFs are as sharp as any other journal.

This paper has some personal significance for me, because it was the last I created under the auspices of The University of Texas Pan American. I completed it and submitted it two weeks before the university ceased to exist and I became a professor at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The one trace of how close it was to the transition was that while I listed UTPA as my institutional affiliation, I gave UTRGV as my email. I listed my new email because I knew my UTPA email account would be dead in a few months.

And, as has been the tradition this year, I celebrated the publication of this review by dipping into my stash of Canadian chocolate:

Update, 21 November 2015: I just uploaded the spreadsheet that started this all to figshare. And I added in that newsletter article I mentioned, just for extra usefulness.

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