Ken Raffa shares his passion for working with people to understand insects as agents of change

This is the third in a series where I peek into the lives of scientists. Click to read part 1 and part 2.

Ken Raffa pauses to take in the scenery during a hike at the IUFRO World Congress in Utah, 2014. Image courtesy of Ken Raffa.

Ken Raffa has had a storied career. His research has made great strides in advancing current understanding of how insect populations can rapidly explode. His work has revealed fascinating specifics and generalities that take place between pine trees and bark beetles during a beetle outbreak. An army of beetles is needed to attack and kill a tree and the tree has two different lines of defense. If both are compromised, the beetles win; if the tree can combat the beetles, the tree wins. It turns out this binary outcome is decided by the number of beetles attacking the tree; if enough beetles arrive for the attack, the tree will surely lose the battle. There is more: the first line of tree defense not only kills beetles by drowning them in pine sap; it also interferes with communication among beetles by physically blocking transmission of a pheromone the beetles make that attracts more beetles, which prevents beetles from assembling the numbers (the army) needed to kill the tree (see these ground-breaking studies for more details: Ecol. Monogr. 53: 27-49; Amer. Nat. 129: 234-262; Oecologia 102: 285-295). Ken used these key findings along with insights from others’ work to put forth a sophisticated model that explains how insect-driven disturbances operate across the landscape (BioScience 58: 501-517).

Throughout his career, Ken has won numerous awards (including the Entomological Society of America’s Founders Award in 2010), garnered over $9,000,000 in research grants, published over 250 papers in the primary literature, and trained 43 graduate students and postdocs, who have all gone on to be leaders in government, academia, and industry.

People are naturally curious about someone with such an impressive list of accomplishments (see his website for the full-length version of his CV). How did he arrive at forest entomology? What inspires him? How does he train students to be great leaders? I sat down with him at the recent International Congress of Entomology to find out. I discovered someone who is deeply passionate not only about the natural world (maybe not so surprising given his career path), but also about people. He believes in the strength of professional relationships—that are at their core really personal relationships—to solve scientific problems. This may be surprising, given his experience as a student. Here is what I learned from Ken about career paths, studying trees and insects, training graduate students, and the likely future of all three.

Read the full story on Entomology Today.

Are we ready for a revolution in scientific publishing?

Scientists publish their findings. Then others use that information to develop and test new ideas. Society accrues knowledge incrementally through this process. Necessary obstacles arise on the path from results to publication. In the current system, some obstacles are slowing the overall influx of new science and simultaneously letting poor science through.

for-reviewPeers must first evaluate the rigor of a study before it can be freely released into the scholarly literature. In their recent editorial, “Indexing the indices: scientific publishing needs to undergo a revolution”, Delzon, Cochard, and Pfautsch argue that the peer-review process has lost its ability to effectively and efficiently green-light additions to the primary literature. Delzon et al assert that this is a consequence of journals striving to raise their status (i.e., rankings against other journals, impact factor). The way in which journal impact is measured needs a serious overhaul, and Delzon et al think Google Scholar’s H5 index (equivalent to the Hirsch index) is just the tool for the job.

Instead of ranking the quality of a journal by the average number of citations received by its publications within the past five years (the traditional IF5 metric), the H5 index ranks a journal only by its top-cited publications. Papers not often cited (or not cited at all) won’t affect the H5 score either way. A switch to the H5 index doesn’t seem to change the current ranking of top journals (at least in plant science and chemistry, but see this other analysis). The strategy of H5 is advantageous because it doesn’t put pressure on editors to reject papers that they perceive to have little citation potential. If journals are more likely to accept papers (over 75% are currently rejected by top journals), authors are less hassled to re-submit multiple times, each time seeking an outlet with increasingly lower impact. New findings will then reach the scientific community (and maybe the public, if the journal is open access) at an appropriately rapid pace to advance science.

Most importantly, highlight Delzon et al, a switch to the H5 index will also lessen the burden on reviewers.  In the current system, high rejection rates translate to more reviews of the same paper. Reviewers are called into action more frequently than is necessary, and ultimately sustainable, given that peer review is essentially a volunteer service to the scientific community. Over-taxed expert reviewers must decline more reviews, which forces journals to reach out to non-expert or inexperienced reviewers. Not properly vetted, unsound scientific findings then enter the scientific literature, an unfortunate result that undermines the basic tenet of the peer-review process. So, yes, it seems we are in need of a revolution in scientific publishing!

Further reading on journal impact and peer review:

Impact factors don’t evaluate scientific quality and should not be judged as such

Impact shows whether journals can attract the best papers 

Journal impact ≠ research quality

Imbalance of peer review effort across the scientific community

How does research environment shape science and life outside of science?

This is the second in a series where I peek into the lives of scientists. See part 1 here.


Jesse Miller collects field data to investigate how soil, habitat connectivity, and fire history influences plant communities in the Ozark Mountains. Image courtesy of Jesse Miller.

All scientists try – or should try – their best to adhere to the scientific method. They pose a curious and contemporarily-relevant question about how something works, usually with a general idea of what they expect to find; they cleverly design a way to go about testing this question; they put in some hard work to carry out an experiment; and they examine the results to see if a preconceived idea about the question makes any sense. Usually it doesn’t, and it’s back to step one. This seemingly ancient cyclical process is the foundation upon which scientists base their life’s work. Traditionally this work took place either out in the natural world or in the laboratory. As we expand our knowledge base in an era of rapid growth in many scientific fields, people are also pushing the boundaries of where science takes place (click here for an interesting example). As scientists are specialists in their subject field, they also become specialists in their research environment. I wondered which aspects of working in different research environments are similar, and which are different? And how does dealing with these common and unique challenges transfer to life outside of science?

To gather some insight, I interviewed a scientist working in each of four research environments: outdoors in the field, and indoors in the laboratory, the office, and the classroom.

See the full story on Entomology Today.