Big Data on Coral Reefs

After six years, 2,500 coral reefs and 80 coauthors, a new publication in Nature Ecology and Evolution proposes a protect - recovery - transform management portfolio for Indo-Pacific coral reefs. But with big data comes big collaborations. Here are six ideas to inspire your next big collaboration.

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In a recent paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution, over 100 coral reef scientists contributed to one of the largest syntheses of underwater coral reef survey data. So far, the responses from other scientists to a paper with 81 coauthors has ranged from “herculean” to “insane”. To go 'Behind the Paper', here are six ideas to inspire your next big data effort in ecology and evolution. 

1. Don’t be scared off. Collaborations are common, and getting bigger all the time. According to Nature, science has entered the era of ‘hyper-authorship’ with even thousand-author papers. To date, a publication from the Large Hadron Collider holds the record with 5,154 authors! So 81 coauthors seems fairly reasonable. Many of your colleagues have probably been involved in collaborations. Before you start leading your next collaboration, ask them what worked and what didn’t work. Whether it’s 8 authors or 80, spend some time developing your style of leadership, organization and facilitation. There’s no need to be scared off by the number of coauthors, unless it’s 5,155..

2. Work with experienced collaborators. Our project was inspired by other recent global efforts to evaluate ‘bright spots’ of coral reefsand the performance of marine protected areas. Inviting experienced coauthors to your collaboration early on can help you broader your potential network and provide inclusive opportunities to many coauthors. 

3. Get organized, and be transparent. We used online Google spreadsheets to track data contributions, contact information and affiliations; since they were online, coauthors could see and edit this spreadsheet (although I wish I’d shared this earlier). Online spreadsheets can be imported into R using the package ‘googlesheets’, which helped design an automated and reproducible workflow; for example to filter authors from acknowledgements and export ordered lists of authors and their affiliations. Google Docs were used to edit every version of the manuscript, so that each collaborator could see each other's edits, which set a collaborative to build on each others comments and avoid duplication.

4. Coauthors bring diverse perspectives: use them. Early on, invite feedback, listen, build trust and be open to changing your mind. Building relationships and trust can be more important for meaningful feedback than lengthy email chains. During the project, I tried to visit as many of the data contributors as possible (timed with other work trips). Not only did this give me new perspectives on different coral reef systems, but this also provided an opportunity to build lasting relationships with many collaborators. But it can also be useful to divide and conquer. A small ‘core team’ was tasked with providing key guidance and critical feedback before drafts were shared to the full group. This approach also helped structure the author list, with a lead author followed by the core team and then data contributors. For future papers I’m inspired to try different approaches to authorship order (for example, scoring co-author contributions to concept development, data provision, analysis, intellectual input, writing, editing, etc.), but with 81 authors I admitted defeat and stuck with alphabetical by last name. 

5. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. As a rock climber, this advice on moving through the mountains (i.e., “go slow to go fast”) works just as well for how to move through collaborations. Go slow by providing collaborators with sufficient time to comment, propose new ideas, or offer additional perspectives. Moving too fast towards a final draft can end up wasting time if people disagree with the direction that you’ve taken. Remember: you can’t please everyone, but you can try your best to get their general stamp of approval. 

6. Have fun (and have other projects). Large collaborative projects can be fun and fulfilling if you focus on a research question that you’re passionate about and can invite a supportive group of collaborators to join you. But they also take a lot of time and perseverance. Stay positive! Having other projects, and of course a work-life balance, can ensure a productive portfolio of different publications that can balance the risk and time commitment of larger collaborations. 

Even 80 coauthors later, I’m still a big advocate of collaborative approaches to big data. When big data means big collaborations, we hope going Behind the Paper will inspire you to take a rewarding risk for your next big collaboration! 

Photo captions. Top: Shinta Pardede, WCS Indonesia marine scientist and coauthor, on a coral reef survey dive in Indonesia. Bottom: Dr Sangeeta Mangubhai and Dr Stacy Jupiter of WCS Melanesia survey coral reef communities in Fiji. Photos: Emily Darling/WCS. 

Go to the profile of Emily Darling

Emily Darling

Conservation Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society

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