Do synthesis centers produce novel, potentially transformative research? Research publication diversity as an indicator of novelty and transformative capacity


a few of the topics that emerged in our analysis

For this Roundtable, I will present a poster that I presented at the recent AAAS meeting in San Jose. The project is an outgrowth of a working group jointly supported by NCEAS and NESCent and led by Ed Hackett and John Parker. Please read the abstract below for a bit of background, and then come prepared to discuss how you think academic publications (including yours!) produced through synthesis center work might be measurably different from other publications in the field. Then we’ll see if your intuitions are supported by the data we have available. Prepare yourselves to either be really proud of your keen intuitions, or to be surprised by our results!


You can access the poster on figshare using this link:

Update: To initiate discussion prior to the meeting, I’ve put a question up on Tricider, and I welcome you to use the link below to add your ideas, comment on others’ ideas, and/or vote on the ideas that have been suggested. The question is the following:

“How would you expect academic publications that report on synthesis research to differ from publications resulting from other research approaches?”
Here is the link:
Synthesis is an emerging synthetic method for producing transformative research, and publications centers to promote synthesis are on the rise in the US and around the world. New analytic tools and techniques are needed to assess the originality and transformative potential of synthesis. We propose that research outputs produced within synthesis centers will exhibit distinctive qualities that distinguish them from other publications in their fields. To explore this possibility, we conducted a topical analysis of titles, abstracts, and keywords for approximately 400,000 articles published in 108 leading journals from the fields of Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Biodiversity Conservation, Forestry, and Fisheries. We then described each document as a proportional combination of the discovered topics, and used the Rao-Stirling heuristics to estimate, for each document, various measures that illuminate contrasting aspects of diversity (i.e. variety, balance, and disparity). We then compare diversity metrics for the synthesis center documents with those for all other documents in our corpus to evaluate whether and how the measured diversity of synthesis center publications differs from that of other publications in the relevant fields.

When big data and complex workflows meet the reality of finite data storage: a discussion of best practices for data management

"tapes, backup" CC-BY-SA 2.0 by Martin Abblegen via flickr

“tapes, backup” CC-BY-SA 2.0 by Martin Abblegen via flickr

Scientific workflows — for many of us, it’s a love/hate relationship. We love the fact that they help us keep our stuff organized, but hate the overhead required to maintain them. And then when we find out that our meticulously maintained workflow hasn’t captured some important detail? Oh the frustration!!

This discussion will be broadly about managing scientific workflows, and I hope to hear from everyone about the tools and tricks you have for keeping track of which outputs match with which inputs to an analysis, with which models, and which parameters, which figures, papers, and projects all of those things are connected to. It would be great to hear about a wide range of strategies ranging from how you organize and name your files to how you’ve implemented a workflow management tool like Kepler.

I also hope that we can spin up ideas for workflow management problems people may be facing, so if you have a workflow-related issue or question that you’d like to get input on, please let me know. I’ll make sure you get a few minutes to describe your problem or question so that you can get ideas from the crowd.

And if you’re reading this and thinking “I’m a workflow management pro, and don’t need any help with or ideas for managing my workflow,” then please come to the discussion! We (well, at least I) need your help. I have a homegrown scripted workflow management system for the text analyses I do, which does a great job of capturing a lot of details and documenting relationships between inputs and outputs, but requires me to purge unused outputs (e.g., outputs for all but selected runs of a model) manually. How do the rest of you keep track of which files you can throw away down the line and which need to be kept indefinitely? I need to downsize my data storage and am a little worried about making mistakes when I do this manually, so would love to hear ideas about how to build functions like this into my system.

Hope to see you all for a fun discussion!

Discussion: Obstacles faced by researchers who reuse, share and manage data, and strategies for overcoming them

Roundtable discussion for Wednesday, 17 Sept 2014
All too often it's an uphill battle for researchers who want to do the right thing. Photo Credit: Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland (Uphill struggle!) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland (Uphill struggle!) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

All too often it’s an uphill battle for researchers who want to do the right thing.




Why is it often harder than it should be to do the right thing when it comes to data management, sharing and reuse? I will introduce seven common sources of conflict that present obstacles to researchers who work with data. These seven sources of conflict were identified through qualitative analysis of transcripts for interviews and focus groups involving more than 35 researchers.


Following a brief introduction of these sources of conflict and resulting obstacles, we will discuss potential strategies for minimizing or overcoming these obstacles. Our conversation will focus around the following guiding questions:
  • For each source of conflict, what should be done to make it easier for researchers to do the right thing?
  • What can research centers like NCEAS do to prepare researchers and/or to improve the status quo?
  • What can I, as an individual researcher, do to avoid and/or prepare for potential obstacles, and to improve the status quo?

You may also be interested in checking out short stories based on some of the interviews:

I look forward to discussing ideas with you on Wednesday!


Using virtual collaboration to replace or supplement carbon-intensive research travel: barriers, best practices, and opportunities for innovation

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Discussion led by Drs. Mary Hunsicker and Stacy Rebich Hespanha

On Friday, February 28 from 12:15 to 1:30, we’ll be extending our earlier discussion of the environmental ethics of research travel to taking a closer look at virtual meetings and collaboration.

In preparation for the meeting, please check out the following (short) readings:

Please also come prepared to discuss your perceptions of the obstacles faced by would-be virtual collaborators and your ideas for how some of these barriers could be overcome. We have alloted time for each person to share his/her idea(s) on innovative ways to overcome barriers (2 minutes per idea). We encourage you to prepare 1 powerpoint for each idea and send them to Mary prior to the Roundtable.

For some virtual meeting-related chuckles, check these out:

Environmental ethics of research travel (discussion)

Image Credit: Ignotus the Mage CC BY-NC-SA via flickr

Image Credit: Ignotus the Mage CC BY-NC-SA via flickr

I’ll be leading a Roundtable discussion on Wednesday 8 January 2014 on the environmental ethics of traveling for environmental research. If you would like to prepare for the discussion by reading, I’ve found a few things that you might be interested in. If you know of any other good readings on the topic, please suggest in the comments section below!

Criticisms of air travel for environmental research

  • An article by Rupert Read on the morality of flying to environmental conferences. If you only have time to read a couple of things before the discussion on Wednesday, this should be one: (find in NCEAS Lounge folder Roundtable/20130108/ as described here.
  • A nice summary by Dominic Roser of some criticisms of air travel to conferences. If you only have time to read a couple of things before the discussion on Wednesday, this should be one:
  • A 1974 essay by Daniel Kozlovsky on the paradox of “using the destructive process to destroy the results of the destructive process” that advocates “thinking and living as simply and nondestructively” as possible: (find in NCEAS Lounge folder Roundtable/20130108/ as described here.

Quantifying the environmental impact of air travel

  • ‘Why do we fly? Ecologists’ sins of emission’, which appeared in Frontiers in 2009 and is authored by some of our own. Reports results of survey (n=13) of research ecologists focused on carbon footprints and reasons for travel. Proposes ‘well-justified’ and ‘poorly-justified’ reasons for travel and suggests institutional solutions that could minimize poorly-justified travel: (find in NCEAS Lounge folder Roundtable/20130108/ as described here.
  • Focused on ‘love miles’ rather than ‘research miles’, but the parallels are inescapable. Definitely check out the graphic illustrating the carbon emissions associated with various activities:
  • A look at the levels of carbon emissions associated with air travel, and how the US and Europe are making (or resisting) efforts to offset emissions associated with air transport. Another good graphic illustrating how flights relate to other activities in terms of emissions:

Possible justifications of travel for environmental research

Possible technical or market solutions?

Deeper background reading on environmental ethics

Nailing Your Elevator Speech with the Message Box

Nancy Baron sent a message in advance of her NCEAS Roundtable presentation next Wednesday (Jan 23). She writes:

Hi Folks,

Next week at the NCEAS Roundtable I am going to teach you how to nail your elevator speech about your research by using a simple but powerful tool called “the message box.” Some of you may know and already use this so this might be a refresher. And for those of you who aren’t familiar with it — it’s incredibly useful.

The message box takes all your complex knowledge and helps distill it into the key messages that journalists, policymakers, and everyone else who are not experts need to understand your work. It is a guide to make sure you stay on topic and make your important points during a conversation or interview. Or it can just help you cut to the quick at a party to explain what you do and why it matters.

So here is a copy of the box and a couple of examples, one by Boris Worm and another by former NCEAS post doc Ellen Damschen. You might want to give this a whirl before Weds because we will be rushed in an hour.  This will help you get a lot more out of our short time. You should have a particular audience in mind — say a journalist as they have to be able to understand what you say well enough to convey it clearly themselves. (See the sheet.) 

Notice that when you start your message box, you will probably write a lot. That’s ok, it’s part of the brainstorming process. Next, work on cutting it down to the most important idea you want to communicate in each section of the box. 

On Weds, I will explain this more fully. Hope to see you then.

all best,
Nancy Baron

See you at the Roundtable!

Sharing Roundtable readings via NCEAS Virtual Lounge

We are now able to use the NCEAS Virtual Lounge to avoid copyright infringement when sharing readings related to Roundtable presentations and discussions.

To share readings:

  1. Navigate to the Roundtable folder within the NCEAS Lounge site.
  2. Use your NCEAS LDAP user/pass to log in.
  3. Create a new folder named with the date of your presentation/discussion (YYYYMMDD).
  4. Place documents you wish to share in your new folder.
  5. Link to the document location from a post on the Roundtable blog.

To access a reading someone has shared:

  1. Click on the link that has been provided via email or Roundtable blog.
  2. Use your NCEAS LDAP user/pass to log in.
  3. Download file.

Storytelling and communication through environmental media: Blue Horizons films

image credit: Alan Wolf CC-BY-NC-SA

I was pleased to have the opportunity to host Richard Hutton and LeeAnne French, the Executive and Associate Directors of the Carsey-Wolf Center and two of the minds behind the Blue Horizons film program, for a Roundtable last week. It was very fun to be able to show this year’s Blue Horizons films for the NCEAS community, and especially great to join into the conversation that we had with Richard and LeeAnne.

Richard and LeeAnne shared some great advice for those of us interested in communicating the science relevant to environmental issues, several of the things they mentioned really stuck in my mind. We discussed:

  • the importance of knowing your audience and tailoring your message for the particular audience you’re trying to reach
  • the way a nuanced presentation of a variety of cultural, societal, economic, etc. perspectives on an environmental issue can help the audience move beyond their established positions and engage more deeply with inherent complexities and competing points of view
  • the powerful and honest way people can express their thoughts and feelings about an issue when trust between interviewer and interviewee has been established
  • the importance of casting when creating environmental media
  • the value of storytelling as a communication approach

Richard also recommended a book for those interested in learning more about how to improve communication through storytelling: The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall. If any of you are planning to read it (I am) and would like to discuss afterward, please let me know and I’d be happy to join you.

Thank you, Richard and LeeAnne, for taking the time out to talk with us! We appreciate your willingness to share some practical tips we can use as we think about how to improve our communication efforts.

How to sign up for a Roundtable presentation


image by rowie k via flickr CC-BY-NC-SA

NOTE: This post also appears in the ‘Host a Roundtable’ tab above ↑ to make it easier to find. 🙂

If you would like to lead a Roundtable presentation or discussion, please visit the relevant Google Doc.

First, navigate to

If #home has been automatically appended to the URL, erase it, and then append the following:


Edit the document to sign yourself (or a guest you’ve invited) up for a slot.

Professional development at NCEAS: community interests and expertise

The Roundtable discussion on 8/17 included a presentation of the results of a survey on professional development interests and expertise that was sent out to the NCEAS community. (Thank you to everyone who filled out the survey!) During the discussion, we spent quite a bit of time delving into ideas about presentations or discussions related to areas of professional development that elicited high interest from the survey respondents.

In the figures below, numbers of respondents who reported each level of interest and expertise are shown in the vertical, and different areas of professional development are listed from left to right. Purple segments represent level of interest, and green segments represent areas of expertise. Please let me know if you have any questions about how to interpret the figures.

Several people suggested topics for discussion in addition to the ones included in the survey:

  • dealing with sexism and other forms of discrimination in a professional setting
  • data visualization
  • how to resolve tensions between competition (me first) vs. collaboration/cooperation (us together) modes of advancing science
  • enhancing cross-disciplinary communication
  • framing research results

Some interesting readings were also mentioned during the discussion:

Please add a comment below if you’d like to suggest additional topics or readings. I hope that these survey results will be helpful for those planning to host the Roundtable in the coming months.

Just for fun, I also mapped out the survey participants based on shared interests and expertise using a self-organizing map (SOM) approach. The two images below show the results of this analysis. Colors represent cluster membership (k-means), and members of the same cluster can be expected to be more similar that members of different clusters.

See you at the next Roundtable!