Post provided by Aud H. Halbritter
To celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the launch of Methods in Ecology and Evolution, we are highlighting an article from each volume to feature in the Methods.blog. For Volume 11, we have selected ‘The handbook for standardized field and laboratory measurements in terrestrial climate change experiments and observational studies (ClimEx)’ by Halbritter et al. (2019).
We got in touch with Aud Halbritter and asked some questions about the ideas behind the ClimEx Handbook, how have things changed and what is to come in the future. It’s been a year since the publication of their previous blog post here and the Halbritter et al. (2019) paper published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution has proven to be a valuable resource for the community.
The Handbook of standardized methods in terrestrial climate change experiments and observational studies was initiated within the ClimMani Cost Action network. The ClimMani Network is a group of ecologists interested in climate change ecology using experimental and modeling approaches. At a ClimMani COST Action Network meeting in Copenhagen in 2015, the problems with synthesizing data across different studies were discussed. For example availability of data and/or data compatibility due to the use of different protocol methods. Vigdis Vandvik and Hans DeBoeck led a discussion group on ‘facilitating synthesis by standardizing methods across experiments’. Together with a small group of participants (Nelson Abrantes, Thomas Wohlgemuth, György Kröel-Dulay, Sara Vicca, Philip Ineson, Jürgen Kreyling, and Håkan Wallander), they decided that the solution was really quite simple: let’s write a handbook!
They came up with the title, “Handbook for field measurements in ecosystem research”, and (because they realized this would be a lot of work) decided it was best to involve a lot of people. So they set out to contact all the experts they knew from across the community “to make sure that enough people are willing to invest time” as they wrote in the report from the meeting.
Vigdis and a group of students, PhDs and postdocs (including myself) at the University of Bergen started collecting all protocols from climate change experiments that we could find, while eating pizza sponsored by ClimMani (thanks to Linn Vassvik, Christine Pötsch, William Fernando Erazo Garcia, Inge Althuizen, Francesca Jaroszynska, Ragnhild Gya, Amy Eycott, and Siri V. Haugum for helping with this boring but crucial task).
The importance of student involvement
“Why involve students?” you might ask. Well, students are one of the main target audiences for the handbook. They‘re also really used to reading up on new methods to find out which ones to use and how. Also, maybe because of this, the students really saw the point of the handbook and were keen to contribute! So keen, in fact, that several of them have now ended up on the main contributors part of the author list – a special thanks to Bernd Berauer and Ragnhild Gya.
Workshop at the mountains
In March 2017, we organized a workshop at Finse in the mountains in southern Norway (where the scenes from the planet Hoth in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ were filmed). The group had now grown to 26 ClimMani members. We discussed the goal, scope, and structure and identified five main groups (chapters) of responses that we generally measure in climate change experiments. We decided we would not only write the protocols, but also organize an internal review process.
In this review process, experts who were not involved in writing a protocol would give feedback to the author(s) of each chapter and protocol. Lead authors were appointed to organize the writing and reviewing of the different chapters. I took on the challenging task of helping Vigdis out with overseeing the process, communicating with the authors, and making sure that everybody met the deadlines. The workshop also included some skiing and sauna, and it was documented extensively.
We quickly figured out that we needed even more help and expertise to write the handbook. Colleagues and other experts from the community were identified and the response from the community was extremely positive. It turned out that everyone we asked was keen to join what was by now known amongst the authors as ‘the most boring paper we ever wrote’ (repeatedly writing the methods section of a paper)! [Editor’s Note: At Methods in Ecology and Evolution, we think that methods sections are super fun and cool.] A huge amount of work lay before us, but it seemed like a more manageable task now with over 100 experts contributing. And they did contribute and deliver protocols without needing excessive amounts of nagging.
The protocols were finalized by the end of 2017. A second workshop was organized in January 2018 in Bergen to bring together all protocols and agree on data presentation. Gaps were identified and a few protocols were added and some expanded. Once the handbook was finished, we wrote ‘The handbook for standardized field and laboratory measurements in terrestrial climate‐change experiments and observational studies (ClimEx)’, which is now published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution and is really just the motivation for, and a pointer to, the actual handbook (appendix of the paper).
How have things changed between your article’s publication and now?
We have created a webpage with the appendix of the paper (including all the protocols). We intend to keep the protocols updated, especially the ones from fast-moving fields. Once a year we are organizing a round of protocol updates, when authors of the protocols can contribute with developments on the protocols and methods. However, we are open to contributions from everyone via the GitHub repository to request a change or adaptation in the protocols. These changes will be carefully assessed by several members of the ClimEx Handbook and realized once they have been accepted.
One convenient thing is that the handbook allows us to send one article (with a large appendix) to our students, instead of having to dig up many different articles and protocols. The students can read the relevant protocol(s) and check out the important literature by themselves.
Recent research highlighting the ClimEx Handbook:
I want to highlight 3 articles that have cited the handbook. All of those articles cite the handbook as an example of advocating standardized methods/protocols in ecology. These articles point out that standardized measurements in very different fields are not very common, but there seems to be a growing awareness that using standardized methods and protocols and reporting of data and methods are key to synthesis, evaluation, and to help generalize research outcomes. Maybe we will see many more “handbooks” like this one in the future.
– Evju et al. 2020 in Restoration Ecology is a systematic review on the evaluation of restoration outcomes. The authors collected a number of attributes used for the evaluation and find that very many different methods are commonly used, which makes the comparison and standardization of the evaluation of restoration outcomes very difficult. Hence they cite several initiatives including the Handbook to advocate standardized protocols.
– Hulcr et al. 2020 in Symbiosis is a review on the status of the bark beetle mycobiome research. The authors point out that systematic data recording and standardized data reporting are key for advancing the field. They also advocate for adopting standards similar to our handbook in their field.
– Lopez-Balleseros et al. 2020 in Environmental Research Letters is an initiative to identify methods and protocols for environmental observations in understudied places, such as Africa. The authors suggest that protocols should be applicable, but at the same time comparable to data that is collected in other places. Again, Lopez-Balleseros and colleagues also highlight the importance of using standardized methods.
To find out more about the ClimEx Handbook, read the Methods in Ecology and Evolution article, ‘The handbook for standardized field and laboratory measurements in terrestrial climate change experiments and observational studies (ClimEx)’, check out the previous blog post, and visit the ClimEx Handbook website.
Find out about the Methods in Ecology and Evolution articles selected to celebrate the other volumes and our editors’ favourite papers in this collection of MEE blog posts.