Constructive criticism on citation classics

If we, one of the University of Edinburgh Critical Thinking tutorial groups, were on the Editorial board at Am. Nat. in 1959 (but with our modern take on ecology and scientific writing):

Dear Prof. Hutchinson and Dr. MacArthur,

Thank you for submitting your work to The American Naturalist.  Before we can accept these manuscripts for publication we have some constructive criticism for you to incorporate.

Prof. Hutchinson, in the written form of your address to the American Society of Naturalists entitled “Homage to Santa Rosalia or Why are there so many kinds of animals?”, though we very much appreciate the personal detail and wandering nature of your narrative, we wonder if your manuscript would benefit from greater structure including an abstract summarizing the results and clearer linkages between the different sections and less deviation from the primary message of the paper.


The official logo of the American Society of Naturalists now and in 1959 (presumably).

Think on the future students reading this address, which may for all we know now go on to become a citation classic.  You might improve your communication of your synthesis of ecology – including food webs and niche theory as it stands in 1959, which is later called limiting similarity – to that future audience by being more clear and structured in your delivery.

In regards to your co-authored manuscript, Prof. Hutchinson and Dr. MacArthur, entitled “A theoretical ecological model of size distributions among species of animals”, we have additional and more detailed feedback.  Though we very much appreciate the impressive novelty of the ideas and theoretical concepts with tests from real world data presented in this manuscript, we also feel that the clarity of writing and specific details presented in the tables and figures are somewhat lacking.

We feel that this manuscript, like your other submission could use better structure and greater attention to scientific writing conventions, some of which you may not be familiar since they haven’t yet been formulated (see The 5 Pivotal Paragraphs in a Paper).

In particular, we would like to draw your attention to the fact that Table 1 does not include an informative table caption explaining the variables summarized by the letters x, n and r.  Though these variables are somewhat explained in the text, a lot of the understanding is left up to the readers’ own intuition.  In figure 4, and some of the other figures, we notice that axis labels are missing.  This obscured the message being conveyed by these figures and puts the burden on your readers to figure out what each axis might represent.


Table 1. from Hutchinson and MacArthur 1959 – note the lack of table caption. This creates much more work and additional confusion for the reader!

We also feel that it is perhaps unnecessary for you to resort to the following statement in the caption to Figure 4 “The straight line is fitted by eye with a slope of 1:2”, even in 1959 you would have had access to graphing paper and a ruler so as to be more precise. Perhaps you would appreciate knowing that one day such a linear regression can be statistically calculated using something called a ‘laptop computer’ and the statistical software known as ‘R’, meaning that you will no longer have to resort to the eyeball approach in future.


Figure 4. from Hutchinson and MacArthur 1959 – note the lack of axis labels. This is unacceptable for figure presentation even in 1959!

We think perhaps that the statement: “In a certain sense the application of the theory to mammals tells us little that we did not know before, and is therefore trivial”, may not be required to make the point that you are making.  We believe that this study may have major influence on the field of ecology as a whole, perhaps opening up entire new sub-disciplines such as one we might call ‘macroecology’ and future concepts that one might term ‘metabolic theory’ – and we do not necessarily think it is in any way trivial.

With the successful revision of these two manuscripts, we would be happy to accept them for publication in The American Naturalist.  We appreciate the great insight and potential future impact of these studies, but feel that the syntheses and findings could be a bit better communicated to your future audience of fourth year ecology and environmental science students in 2016.

By Isla and her Critical Thinking Tutorial Group

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