Taxonomic bias in behaviour

This week’s paper of the week is a very nice study by Malcolm Rosenthal and friends looking at taxonomic bias in the species studied by researchers that publish in the field-leading journal Animal Behaviour. Unsurprisingly perhaps, they find that vertebrates – especially birds and mammals – are vastly over-represented in the study of animal behaviour, especially when compared to insects (although within insects, the Hymenoptera don’t do so badly). So far, so unexpected – we all know and love that animal behaviour is quite a “fur and feathers” game (although if one included behaviour genetics and/or behavioural neuroscience, Drosophila would be far more prevalent perhaps). The paper comes into its own though in terms of discussing the causes and consequences of this bias. In particular, the authors highlight that risk-averse publishers and grant-awarding bodies channel our science down familiar, safe paths, rather than allowing us to open up new studies with new organisms. Such studies may either fail (“model” organisms are models because they “work” in the lab or field) or – perhaps worse! – be seen as just more “stamp-collecting”. However, this latter criticism is at best misguided or at worst downright foolish – those stamps will either be valuable to test the generality of theories via meta-analysis, or those stamps will over-turn our comfy assumptions and reveal something truly new and valuable. Moreover, early studies with a new organism require much description, and such studies are frowned upon by major journals as well as promotion- or tenure-awarding bodies. However, there is much still to be discovered, if we choose – and are able – to look.

The paper is here and the citation is: Malcolm F. Rosenthal, Matthew Gertler, Angela D. Hamilton, Sonal Prasad, Maydianne C.B. Andrade. (2017) Taxonomic bias in animal behaviour publications. Animal Behaviour 127: 83-89.

Happy reading!


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