Many of the activities undertaken by birders – surveys and censuses, for example – are scientific in nature; and the expectation in the write-ups of such studies is that they include a clear statement about the way the work was conducted.
Traditionally, a scientific paper – including some of those in British Birds –consists of four main sections: Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. For many readers, however, the Methods section of a paper is the least interesting; something to be skipped over and taken on trust. Journal editors know this and often reinforce that idea by relegating the Methods to an all-too-brief account, sometimes, in some journals, even placing it as an appendix – almost an afterthought – at the end of the paper. Even with the recent advent of online Supplementary Material to accompany publication, this problem still persists because few editors or referees have, or find the time to review all the details in these often-extensive documents. One recent three-page paper published in the journal Science had 70 pages of supplementary material, and still failed to provide all the necessary details that would allow someone to repeat the study.
However, if you are planning to replicate someone else’s survey or starting your own, then thinking about the Methods is an important step. The validity and credibility of a study is judged by the quality of the methods employed (and by the availability of the data).
Many birders undertake their own surveys (e.g. Gosney 2015), act as fieldworkers for larger projects managed by, for example, the BTO or other organisations (e.g. Crick & Sparks 1999, Woodward et al. 2020), or contribute data for global projects such as eBird. In large-scale surveys, the birder usually need not worry about the methods employed since they trust that the organisation has these under control – that they are well documented, available to all participants, and are reliable; but when writing up one’s own studies for publication, attention to the Methods really matters.
The need for reproducibility or replication is the point. When I was a teenager, it was drilled into me that the Methods section of a scientific report should allow someone else to come along and do exactly as you’ve done. In the case of population censuses this need for replication is – obviously – to check for changes in numbers over the years. Imagine if the BTO or the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology allowed its volunteers to use their own methods to census birds – how confident would we feel about those estimates? We rely on well-established, rigidly applied methods to be able to confidently detect changes in population size, or some other attribute, like breeding success, from year to year. With increasing concern over climate change and its effects on birds and other wildlife (including us), we need to be able to accurately document such changes. Reliable data provide us with a quantitative yardstick by which to measure the magnitude of the effects of climate change – and is our ammunition against climate-change deniers.
My years of monitoring seabirds and talking to others who do the same have made me realise that, often, far too little attention is paid to the way things are done and how this affects the reliability of the data obtained. In one instance, deviation from established methodology resulted in what appeared to be 30 years of year-on-year decline in breeding success in one seabird species – a potentially worrying situation. However, on investigation, the decline was an artifact – the result of inappropriate methodology.
This made me think about why anyone would NOT follow established and reliable methods. There may be many reasons, but here are three possible answers:
Ignorance Too often, it simply isn’t recognised that methods have to be adhered to if results of different studies are to be meaningfully compared. Many of those undertaking ornithological field surveys may not have anything other than the most basic scientific training and may therefore be unaware of the necessity of sticking rigidly to the stated methods. In turn, this reminds us that training, mentoring and management are important issues for anyone overseeing surveys.
Arrogance Sometimes, even after appropriate training, some individuals think they can improve on existing methods. I have seen this at seabird colonies where fieldworkers felt that their method was better or quicker than that laid down in their instructions. Of course, methods sometimes do need to be revised or updated, but that decision should not be taken at an individual level, especially if the changes are not fully documented. Either way, the risk is that census numbers get entered into some central database with no reference to any change in methodology.
Indifference and indolence Frequently, and especially in consultants’ and government reports, results are presented, but a full report (including the Introduction, Methods and Discussion) never materialises. For many who undertake survey work, the pleasure is in the fieldwork but not in producing a written report. Fieldwork requires one set of skills, writing another, and not everyone feels equally competent or motivated to do both. Writing a scientific paper requires considerable skill and is often laborious, and for those unfamiliar with its nuances, it can be a challenging business. When that’s the case, the solution is to team up with someone who can provide the appropriate help. Some scientific journals provide a guide to writing the Methods section (e.g. Kallet 2004; see also https://plos.org/resource/how-to-write-your-methods).
It is a sad fact that failure to adequately document the methods employed undermines the value of ornithological surveys and studies, especially since just a little extra effort could add a wealth of valuable information.
Crick, H., & Sparks, T. 1999. Climate change related to egg-laying trends. Nature 399: 423–424.
Gosney, D. 2015. Changing numbers of breeding birds in the Sheffield area. Brit. Birds 108: 66–79.
Kallet, R. 2004. How to write the methods section of a research paper. Respiratory Care 49: 1229–1232.
Woodward, I., et al. 2020. Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. Brit. Birds113: 69–104.
Tim Birkhead is emeritus professor of behaviour and evolution at the University of Sheffield. His main research interests include promiscuity in birds, avian egg shape, the history of ornithology and an ongoing, long-term population monitoring study of Common Guillemots Uria aalge on Skomer, Pembrokeshire. Other interests include the public understanding of science, playing the guitar, painting and walking.