Sharon’s Guide to Understanding Scientific Papers: I. Querying the Abstract

In the spirit of teaching a person to fish, I’ll explain my own process for reviewing scientific papers. Because I’ve been in the forest biology/forest ecology biz for almost 50 years, it may be easier for me. But I’m hoping that curious TSW readers will be able to adapt these steps for your own use, and I’ll give you some hints to make things easier. Along the way, you’ll also find out what peer reviewers may look at, and what they don’t or can’t. I hope others will share their own methods and shortcuts.

We’ll start with the paper Jon posted here:

1. Get a copy of the paper. Some may be open-source (yay!). The next step is to go to Google Scholar and look it up. Often you will find a copy for free there. The last step is to write the corresponding author (there’s usually an envelope and an email if you hover over the list of authors) and ask for a reprint. Back in the day, we would send each other postcards and slip copies in the surface mail. This is pretty much the modern equivalent of that process. So far, no one has turned me down or not replied to an email. That’s how I got the copy I am posting so thanks to author Thom Thom et al (2019) – The climate sensitivity of carbon, timber, and species richness co-varies with forest age in boreal-temperate North America

2. Look at the abstract with an eye to data sources, methods and conclusions. What are they measuring?
(one of the most difficult things to wade through is terminology, but it has to be done).

We focused on a number of ESB indicators to (a) analyze associations among carbon storage, timber growth rate, and species richness along a forest development gradient; (b) test the sensitivity of these associations to climatic changes; and (c) identify hotspots of climate sensitivity across
the boreal–temperate forests of eastern North America.

What is “ESB”? It’s some combination of ecosystem services and biodiversity. There are many indicators of those (e.g. genetic diversity of amphibians, species diversity of insects, and so on for biodiversity). So to relate what they measured to what we know, we’ll have to dive deeper into the methods section. We may have our own experiences with carbon measurements, but not so much with species richness.

The data used was FIA and other plot information, and they used modeling to test the sensitivity to climate change. By now, you may be curious and ask “how can you tell what climate change will do? how can you tell what aspects will be sensitive?” That again, will have to wait for methods section.

Next, I look for the conclusions in the abstract:

While regions with a currently low combined ESB performance benefited from climate change, regions with a high ESB performance were particularly vulnerable to climate change. In particular, climate sensitivity was highest east and southeast of the Great Lakes, signaling potential priority areas for adaptive management. Our findings suggest that strategies aimed at enhancing the representation of older forest conditions at landscape scales will help sustain ESB in a changing world.

Then I try to paraphrase it in my own words. I came up with “if you combine indicators, the regions with low marks get higher marks after climate change and regions that have high marks now will go down, that would be east and SE of the Great Lakes.” A natural question would be “do all indicators go the same way?” “How sensitive are these findings to the way you combine them and which ones you include?”

And how does the above relate to “old forest conditions” that strategies should enhance?

3. Write down your questions. This is particularly helpful if you can’t get back to this for a day or so. In this case, my questions would be:
a) what ESB indicators did they use? It sounds like carbon, timber and species richness, but it could be others as well.
b) how did they figure out what changes would occur due to climate change?
c) how did they figure out whether an indicator was sensitive to climate change?
d) do all indicators change in the same direction and/or how sensitive are the findings to the way they are combined and which ones are in and out?
e) how does all this relate to “old forest conditions?”

Next steps will be in my next post.

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