Behind the scenes of the Maestre lab (I)

With this post we start a (hopefully regular) series of posts where we will describe the results of our research in a slightly different way as we have done so far with the updates on upcoming articles (example here) or with synthesis of the research carried out in our experimental sites (example here). For doing so we will present the “behind the scenes” of the research presented in the articles we publish.

All papers look great once they appear in a scientific journal, with their polished text and great-looking figures, but publishing an article is a long journey, and there a large number of obstacles to cross to get the research that will lead to the published articles done, as well as failures too! (you can find great posts by Jeremy Fox and Franciska de Vries about this topic here and here). To get additional insights on what we do, we will conduct a short, informal, interview with the lead authors of the papers we publish, which will provide interested readers with the “behind the scenes” of the work described there. By doing so, we will also know a little better current and past lab members, as well as their interests and motivations.

We start the series with a paper just published in the August issue of Ecology Letters entitled “Climate and litter quality differently modulate the effects of soil fauna on litter decomposition across biomes”, led by our former graduate student Pablo García-Palacios (pictured above). Pablo is now a Marie Curie post-doctoral fellow at the Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive / CNRS in Montpellier, France. These are the Q & A for Pablo:

What is this article about?

This paper describes the results of a meta-analytical review of the effects of soil fauna on decomposition at the global and biome scales. We also assessed the relative importance of climate, litter quality and soil fauna for litter decomposition rates, and evaluated how climate and litter quality modulate the effect sizes of soil fauna on such rates.

What are the main key messages of this article?

Our study provides solid evidence that soil fauna enhance litter decomposition rates at global and biome scales. Our review also demonstrates that the positive effect of soil fauna is important, even in comparison with that of climate and litter quality, and that soil fauna can be the major decomposition driver in certain biomes such as tropical wet forests. The third key message is that the modulation of soil fauna effects on decomposition by climate and litter quality varies with the biome considered, from climate-driven biomes such as tropical wet forests, deciduous forests and cold or dry systems, to biomes where climate effects are mediated by changes in litter quality, such as temperate humid grasslands.

How did you come up with the idea of conducting this synthesis?

Well, I got a post-doc position in 2012 to work with Diana Wall at Colorado State University on the relative contribution of climate, soil biota and litter quality for litter decomposition. This was my first contact with the decomposition world ever, as this was my first postdoc and I did my PhD on plant-soil interactions in roadside grasslands. Talking with Diana, we ruled out time-consuming field experiments (I only had a 1-year postdoc!) and came up with the idea of conducting a global meta-analysis. I was certainly inspired by her paper published a few years before in Global Change Biology (Wall et al. 2008). In addition, I do think meta-analysis is a superb way to get started with a new topic because you have to read hundreds of papers and allows you to get a pretty good idea of what´s going on and what are the knowledge gaps. I highly recommend it for first year PhD students or short-term postdocs!

What have you enjoyed the most during the “life cycle” of this article (from its conception to its publication)?

Again, digging deep into the decomposition literature was really satisfying for me, as I discovered a very interesting topic which still constitutes my main research line. Learning how to conduct a meta-analysis from the very basics was also great. Of course, I had the inestimable help of Fernando Maestre, who had previously led excellent meta-analysis on plant-plant interactions and shrub encroachment. In a data-rich world, meta-analysis are required to synthesize, from a quantitative point of view, the huge amount of information gathered by ecologists worldwide; and I am very happy to have learnt how to use this tool. And getting a nice data set without even moving from your office is definitely a pro!

What have been the major difficulties you have encountered when conducting the research reflected in this article?

Extracting all those data from 75 articles can be a nightmare, I still remember all the days spent in front of the computer filling a huge Excel file! The stats were also challenging. First of all, the meta-analysis caused a few headaches: which measure of effect size use? How to deal with the hierarchy of the data set? Which selection criteria should the studies meet to be included? Using the output of the meta-analysis as a response variable in the structural equation models was very exciting, but also difficult. Santiago Soliveres opened my eyes in a couple of things here that really helped me to deal with the complex models.

Publishing today is really hard, particularly in top journals like Ecology Letters. How has been your experience with this publication?

Well, I have to say that Fernando convinced me to try Ecology Letters as the first choice for this study. I was a bit skeptical about it because, even though I knew the study had potential, it was my first meta-analysis and I wanted to be careful. Finally, we submitted the MS to the journal and after 4 weeks I got the revisions. Both reviewers were very positive and constructive, pointing to some corrections that should improve the MS, but that were totally doable. The editor (John Klironomos) also did a great job involving himself in the revision, which I think all editors should do when some divergences arise. Submitting the revised version was top priority for me, so we did it quickly, and after a couple of days the MS was accepted. So I only have good words for the journal, as they were fast and serious during the revision process and very helpful during the production stage.