Sometimes you read a paper and think “ooh, that’s cool”. As an editor you get the added delight that it’s a manuscript submitted to your journal, so you get to think “ooh, I really want to have that in the journal”. This is followed by “I hope it’s good enough”. At Methods we’ve just published one of those manuscripts where that was my reaction. And it was good enough.

The paper tackles a very practical problem. We often have to leave equipment out for several weeks or months to make continuous measurements. Sometimes this can be expensive stuff, for example camera traps. So how do we make sure other people don’t mess around with the equipment, either by stealing or vandalising it? Obviously we try to hide it, and secure it to something immovable (but beware – years ago a friend locked her bike to her gate and the dustbin lid, so some thieves took bike, gate and lid). But we can also appeal to our fellow citizens to leave the equipment alone, and this paper looks at different strategies for doing this.

The authors – Markus Clarin, Eleftherios Bitzilekis, Björn Siemers and Holger Goerlitz – are all at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology near Munich, where they study mammals (bats, which are just wannabe birds anyway). To find out how best to protect their equipment they decided to experiment. They put out several tool boxes made up to look like scientific equipment:

A pretend piece of scientific equipment
Vandalise this and I will be vewwy vewwy angwy
Photo © Eleftherios Bitzilekis

On each they attached a tag with one of three messages (in German):

  • Personal: please don’t disturb this, and phone me if you have any questions (this also had a photo of a cute squirrel, just to melt any remaining hearts)
  • Neutral: do not disturb
  • Threatening: any theft will be reported to the authorities

The pretend scientific equipment, with tags, were left out and picked up a week later to see which boxes had the least amount of vandalism. And the winner was…

The personal tag (and the squirrel). Suggesting the most effective way to stop vandalism is this:

Cuteness disarms all but the most hardened vandal
Please don’t destroy my beautiful experiment

What I like about this paper is that it tackles a really practical problem. I’ve no idea how well it will be cited, but I’m sure it will be well read, and most importantly I’m sure a lot of people will find it useful, and will change the way they set up their experiments.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the matter. I’m sure sociologists will find this interesting (and point to a body of literature saying the same thing in different contexts). But one important question is whether the study is repeatable across cultures. Would Brits, Swedes, Americans, Japanese etc. behave in the same way? It would be great to know, and might make a nice student project: adapt the protocol in the paper and try it in your area. But make sure the local authorities know what you are doing:

“We would explicitly like to thank the local authorities, especially the police and the park management”, says Markus Clarin. They had been informed beforehand and remained cooperative, even when in one occasion a false bomb alert has caused some confusion: a visitor took one of the boxes to a beer garden and left it there with the red LED flashing.


Clarin, B.-M., Bitzilekis, E., Siemers, B. M., Goerlitz, H. R. (2013), Personal messages reduce vandalism and theft of unattended scientific equipment. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.12132.
Max Planck Institute for Ornithology press release.
Also see GrrlScientist’s blog post