Nibbling at the Margins—Part 2

In December 2009, my critique of “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) was rejected by outgoing editor Gary Meffe. Frustrated that Meffe was willing to publish something he considered “nibbling at the margins” topic-wise, but then reject a thoughtful critique of it, I appealed—noting, among other things:

  1. Longcore et al. were very “careful” about the studies they selected, and even the particular claims within the studies cited (this despite the fact that they criticize TNR advocates for their “reference to selected peer reviewed studies”). The authors make no attempt to explain their rationale for this obvious cherry picking.
  2. Although I was, as Meffe suggests, “critiquing the overall literature in the area and pointing out its complexities, problems, and uncertainties,” it was only to put the original essay into context. Meffe’s comment ignores the larger issue: Longcore et al. were essentially breathing new life into flawed studies by citing them uncritically. And here, Conservation Biology is also implicated (which might help explain Meffe’s decision to reject my commentary), a point I made to Meffe:

Conservation Biology is, according to the journal’s website, “the most influential and frequently cited journal in its field.” I’m afraid that by publishing the essay submitted by Longcore et al., Conservation Biology has effectively given its “stamp of approval,” thereby burying more deeply the complexities of the subject and its body of literature. No wonder bird advocacy groups have embraced the paper, including PDFs on their websites—here, it would seem, is additional “proof” of the damage cats are doing to bird populations!

In the end, Meffe didn’t budge. And neither did current editor Erica Fleishman, who seemed to have little patience for the subject. What Meffe found to be too broad, Fleishman read as a “fairly personal critique,” adding, “…we aim for objective presentation of facts that may provide evidence contrary to a previous publication rather than (what comes across as) a more pointed rejoinder to authors and the journal.”

At this point, it seemed clear that I was getting nowhere. Nevertheless, I appealed, explaining what I intended to include in my paper:

… regarding “a more comprehensive piece,” what I’m proposing is a detailed review of the literature regarding cat predation on birds, the scope of which includes—but also goes well beyond—the material covered in the essay by Longcore et al.

Once again, my appeal fell on deaf ears, eliciting this response—obviously intended to put an end to the discussion—from Fleishman:

Thanks for the detailed explanation. I think it would be best to pursue publication of your review in a different journal. Good luck and again thank you for considering Conservation Biology.

Perhaps I will follow her advice and submit a similar proposal to another journal. For now, though, it’s all going right here. Indeed, many of the next several posts will draw on the main points I made in my first letter to Conservation Biology.


The Cat Debate