Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Reading your first scientific review paper

Feeling scholarly? Today might be the day to kick off your shoes, put up your feet, grab a favorite beverage and read a scholarly review paper.

The Journal of Integrated Pest Management is a relatively new, open access (meaning free!) publication put out by Oxford Press and the Entomological Society of America.  Its purpose is to provide a place for researchers to publish reviews of the literature concerning significant pests.

Most of the papers appearing in the JIPM summarize current knowledge about the control of an agricultural or horticultural insect, weed or disease pathogen.  But this month a paper of interest to pest management professionals was published on brown recluse spiders.

Rick Vetter and Stoy Hedges, both long-time friends of the pest control industry, have teamed up to write a paper on current practical knowledge about the biology, importance and control of Loxosceles reclusa, better known as the brown recluse. Although both authors are well-published, Hedges admits the paper marks an especially sweet accomplishment for him, as his first paper in a refereed scientific journal.

What's a refereed article?

If you're a PMP and never read a scientific journal paper before, this could be a good one to start with.  But first, just what is a "refereed" journal article? If you've ever heard the old line, "publish or perish" as applied to college professors, the term publish generally refers to refereed journal articles or scholarly books. The "perish" in the saying is almost literal and refers to holding onto or losing your job as a professor. To avoid perishing professionally, it is almost universally true that professors must write refereed articles.

A refereed article is first and foremost a scholarly paper, written by someone who has become learned through study and/or research. Scholarly papers are not meant to entertain, but to precisely explore, inform or enlighten a reader on a topic.  Scholarly papers don't have to be dull or difficult to read (though many are), but they do have to be based on data, sound observation or logic. To ensure this is the case, all must go through a rigorous process of peer review and critique by fellow, equally qualified scientists or scholars.

To publish, Vetter and Hedges first wrote their paper and submitted it to the editor of the JIPM.  The editor then read the paper, made sure it was readable, whether the authors followed journal instructions, and whether it was appropriate for the journal. Once it passed the editor's initial review, willing reviewers with knowledge of spiders or urban pest control were identified and the paper was sent out for review.  Three (usually) reviewers read and commented on the paper, offered suggestions and told the editor whether they thought the paper was OK, whether it needed revision, or whether it was so bad it shouldn't be published. Only after it passed the reviewers' and editor's approval, was the paper approved for publication. Many, if not most, publications get rejected by reviewers at least once. If you look closely at these papers you can almost see the blood, sweat and tears... sometimes from both authors and reviewers.

By the way, reviewers are volunteers. If you are a professor or scholar who has previously published you might be asked to review a paper in your published field. This in itself is considered a scholarly activity and professors are graded by their institutions, partly, on how many papers they have reviewed in a given year. Reviewing a paper is a lot of work, but science could not advance without good reviewers.

The abstract

Most scientific publications have abstracts, usually at the beginning of the paper.  This is one of the most useful parts of a scientific paper. The abstract should summarize the reason for, and the key findings of, the paper.  Unlike a book description on the dust cover of a novel, the abstract should give away the ending. It should be short, but thorough enough to tell the reader what the paper is about, and its conclusions.  In a given year I read relatively few papers from start to finish, but I read a lot of abstracts. They are great time savers.

Vetter and Hedges' paper is a particular type of scholarly article called a literature review. Rather than writing about original research they conducted, they have summarized others' research and put that information into context. As the authors say in the abstract, "...we review biology and life history of the brown recluse spider as it relates to pest management as well as control measures as they pertain to an IPM strategy..." The best literature reviews are written by scholars who know their subject matter well enough to explain not just what another researcher published, but why it's important.  Literature reviews are one of the most important types of publications for new readers on a topic.


A literature review is typically peppered with citations--abbreviated references to refereed papers or books. You'll see lots in this paper. Citations generally include the first author, or two co-authors names, and the year of publication. For example, (Thoms and Scheffrahn 1994) refers to a paper by two researchers, Ellen Thoms and Rudi Scheffran, published in 1994 on the control of pests using Vikane gas.  The full reference citation is found in the section in the back of the paper, usually in the section labeled as References Cited. When the article has more than two authors it will be referred to by the primary author's name followed by et al. For example, Atkins et al. 1958 refers to a paper by J.A. Adkins and three other collaborators, Wingo, Sodeman and Flynn, published in 1958 on "necrotic arachnism" (spider bites that result in flesh-eating, slow-to-heal wounds).  Sounds like a real page turner.

Like all of us, scientists have egos; and having your name first in the list of authors is a badge of honor. Being first usually means that you led the study or done most of writing on the paper.  Surprisingly, being last in a list of authors is often considered second best. Last place is often reserved for the supervising professor (if the first author is a student), or someone responsible for securing project funding. Being stuck in the middle of a long author list is like being the "middle child"--more likely to be overlooked and forgotten.

Let's Read

That's really all you need to know to read this paper. It's more engaging (and you are less likely to fall asleep) if you use a highlighter to mark things new to you, or which might be relevant to control of these spiders. For example, several years ago I did some insecticide tests on brown recluse spiders, so I was especially interested in the review of insecticides that others found effective. I also know from talking with fumigators that spiders are notoriously hard to kill with fumigants. So I was interested to learn that Thoms and Scheffran determined that a 1.5X rate of Vikane was needed to kill brown recluse spiders. I highlighted both of these sections.

Lastly, remember that even writers of scholarly papers are ordinary people--sometimes a little geekier or nerdier than some of your football-watching buddies, but still just people who put their pants on one leg at a time. Even scholars make mistakes, overlook data, and draw bad conclusions. Even though peer review is a rigorous process, it's not perfect. To me, that makes reading science papers more interesting. It means that they should always be read critically, with an eye to your own experience and to common sense.

When you're done, take the paper and file it. I have a My Library folder on my computer. This article went into a sub-folder on spider papers.  Whatever system you use, put it somewhere you can find it later. Otherwise you will forget most of what you've learned and highlighted.

So grab a cold one and dig in. There's a lot to learn about spiders in Vetter and Hedges 2018.