Are we speaking the same ecological language?

24 02 2014

group communicationThe simple answer to that question is ‘no bloody way’.

In the last few days a paper we’ve been working on for years has just appeared online, and lead author Salvador Herrando-Pérez (no stranger to has put together a beautiful little post about why we think it’s so important. If heeded, our suggestions could transform ecology and place it on the scientific pedestal it deserves to occupy.


The ecological literature can sound like a multilingual chorus when authors ignore the genesis of ecological concepts and terms in their publications under the terminologically lenient editorial policy of ecological journals. As a first step towards regulating this situation, we have just proposed the bases of a convention of ecological nomenclature (1) as a substantial element of ecological synthesis. Below we expose the rationale of this proposal, and summarise the elements of the convention.

In the 2000s, I spent quite a bit of time writing stories and doing storytelling performance. I have always had a passion for words, and was able to entertain this passion in the confines of science when in 2007 I embarked on a PhD with the goal of doing a conceptual and macro ecological revision of the once-upon-a-time controversial concept of density dependence (DD). It took me several months of reading to realise that many of the problems I then experienced to understand the literature were caused by a formidable jargon comprising > 50 terms for naming only 4 DD types, and many associated concepts in population dynamics (like boundedness, determination, limitation, persistence, regulation, spreading the risk, stabilisation, vagueness). After four years of further readings (and four manuscript rejections along the way), that realisation turned into a paper (2) in which we (including Corey, Barry Brook and Steven Delean as partners in crime) showed that DD jargon has thrived not only because terminology tracks and genuinely expands in response to conceptual development and refinement (e.g., 3 for Allee effects), but many population ecologists work/ed isolated within their areas of expertise, and use/d words to express opinion more often than facts – for example see references 4 and 5, or the (classic and sometimes indigestible) exchanges between Alexander Nicholson and Herbert Andrewartha (6-9).

The use of terminology in the ecological literature is governed by a silent rule (silent because it is written no where, and rule because everyone appears to follow it) in that you write a paper and enjoy the freedom to re-define a concept, to coin a new term, or to use a term without defining it. This rule favours individualistic writing styles and propels the proliferation of synonymy and polysemy, albeit coming at the expense of general understanding. Read the rest of this entry »