Michael Singer

intermittent professor, Plymouth University
  • United Kingdom


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Sep 21, 2019


You might think it would be hard to stimulate reviewers to enraged eloquence by trying to publish a slightly novel technique for testing the oviposition preferences of butterflies.  But you'd be wrong!  Back in 1981, I was a displaced Yorkshireman struggling to publish for my tenure in the Zoology Dept at the University of Texas at Austin.   I wanted to submit to Evolution a MS showing that the diet breadth of a butterfly population arose from three mechanisms: (1) variation of preference rank: different individual females preferred to oviposit on different host genera;  (2) weakness of preference:  some individual females were generalists;  (3) rarity of a preferred host, which caused females preferring it to choose a more abundant less-preferred genus, on which I found them naturally laying eggs. 

I reasoned that I should begin by publishing my preference-testing technique, which was simple:  to stage encounters with two hosts in alternation and record acceptances and rejections without allowing oviposition.  By this means I could estimate the length of time that the butterfly would search in the motivational state in which it would accept only its preferred host, before reaching the level of motivation at which either host would be accepted, whichever were next encountered.  This length of time turns out to be a heritable trait, unaffected by learning.

I did not send the MS to Nature, I sent it to Ecological Entomology.  The editor, John Lawton, replied:

"Dear Mike, I sent your MS to three referees in the hopes of finding someone who might like it a little.  Sadly, i failed.  Clearly, you will have to think again.  I would NOT be prepared to look at a revise.  Yours, John. "

He sent this memorable review:

"The interesting, if prolix, titles and abstracts led me into the introduction with great expectation.  There, my interest was mired in the third sentence and NEVER extracted.  The overlapping and unclear denotations of "preference,"  "specificity" and "choice" make the MS extremely difficult by the first page.  These and ordinary problems of syntax make it impossible by the second.  At the risk of being wrong, it does appear that the subject is interesting and that the MS could be rewritten and rendered reviewable.  As it stands it is not."

Well, on reflection this doesn't quite meet my initial assertion that reviewers were "enraged."  So, how about this one, with respect to the same technique:

"The business of motivation involved in the so-called preference test is incompetent, irrelevant, immaterial and without any foundation whatsoever in the established literature."

I called the then editor of Evolution, Doug Futuyma, to ask whether he would consider my MS reporting the results of preference-testing, even though I could not get the technique published.  He said NO.  Quite right, too, Doug.

My former PhD supervisor, Paul Ehrlich, called me, worrying kindly about my tenure.   I explained my problem.  He said: "Don't you need to get this published if you're to get tenure?"   "Er, ...yes."  "OK, don't worry, I'm an editor of Oecologia, you can publish it there, it's better than Ecol Ent anyhow.  But, of course, I shouldn't handle it personally, just send it to Charlie Krebs and tell him I suggested it."  So I did, and Charlie sent it along to Paul with a negative review that I never saw, and a letter telling Paul to do his own dirty work if he wanted this nonsense to see the light of day.  However, it WAS published in Oecologia, by means that I should not admit and that would be seriously embarrassing were I not  proud of my technique, which continues to generate publications, including a cover paper in Nature last year.

Back to 1982. Now that my technique was published, I submitted my MS to Evolution.  It was resoundingly rejected. My chance of tenure was fading like the photos in the "Back to the Future" movie when the past was tampered with.  I called the editor:

"Doug, I'm feeling much misunderstood down here in Texas."

"Why's that, Mike"

"You rejected my MS.  I felt that I posed an important novel question, tackled it experimentally and got some answers."

"Frankly, Mike,  I read your MS and I didn't think you'd shown anything at all."

"Huh?  Why not?"

"Suppose you did a t-test on frequencies of acceptance and rejection and got significance, why then I'd see that you'd shown variation of preference."

"That wouldn't show anything at all."

"Huh?  Why not?"

So I explained why not, he published the paper, I got my tenure by the skin of my teeth, and I'm STILL preference-testing the same species of butterfly with exactly the same technique.  THANKS for listening, Doug!  Many editors wouldn't take the trouble.

I do think that preference tests cannot have a universal design, even for butterflies.  They should be devised around the behaviour of each study organism.  I never implied that anyone else should use my technique and to my knowledge only one paper using it has been published by anyone but me.  However, if folk perceived an unintended implication that they should be using this relatively labour-intensive technique, perhaps that would explain their reaction against it.  I sent a MS using the technique to my friend Liz Bernays, who said:

"I wouldn't believe you could do what you SAY you can do.....(long pause)... except that it produces such sensible results"  which I took to mean "You expect me to believe this?" 

I submitted a MS using the technique to Ecology, co-authored with two Finns, including a high-profile Finn, Ilkka Hanski.  We got a review that said:

"This preference-testing technique used to be considered highly suspect, but I suppose that by now it has been used by several people."

Ilkka said"  Mike, I begin to see the problems you have had:" and I replied

"Ilkka, what this means is that, if your name were not on this, it would have been rejected."

But I survive.  A further, unexpected, "review" of my preference-testing technique came in 1988 in the dissertation defence of my grad student, Chris Thomas:

"When Mike Singer was twelve, he discovered ho much nicer it is than sticking pins in butterflies to HELP them to find places to lay their eggs.  Unfortunately, he's been coasting ever since."