Pre-Peer Review and Why it Matters

During my first semester of my Master’s degree, I took an ichthyology course taught by the Master’s Program Advisor, Dr. Joshua Drew ( Being given considerable leeway for our final paper, I undertook a project Josh had long been meaning to pursue, assessing the gender disparity at marine conservation conferences. To do so, we compiled the names of symposia speakers and organizers from two major societies that hold annual and biannual conferences. From there, we analyzed how the number of female organizers influenced the number of female speakers. Not only does this project hold direct importance to me as a woman in science, but the imbalance of female role models in science is also a critical subject for the marine biology community as a whole to address.

The initial steps of writing were straightforward, in line with years of academic teachings; collect your data, fiddle with R, and report on statistically significant results (of course, I’m paraphrasing). I was impressed by the abundance of published scientific research that outlines the inequality in wages, job opportunities, citations, and awards given to men compared to women scientists in all STEM fields. Anticipating our results would demonstrate that an increase in male organizers would be connected to a decrease in female speakers, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged that the message is loud and clear but progress towards equality is slow moving.

As Josh and I hypothesized, our results indicated the number of female presenters increased as the number of female organizers did. This suggests that women organizers are not “pulling up the ladder” and preventing other women from following their paths to success, but are instead providing increased opportunities for both women and men to participate equally in conferences. Further, we did not find that the number of female organizers or female speakers had increased over the 15 years of our study, suggesting that despite the best efforts of the societies to balance the gender of their participants, little progress has been made.

The next step was the most daunting: prepare the piece for submission to editors. Until now, I had been taught that the world of publishing could be a harsh and scary place (based on the advice of an esteemed scientific journal editor and previous professor, who explained what not to do when applying for publication by showing us some horrific submissions he had encountered during his career) [1]. For a less biased and more thorough history of the peer review process and why it is important, check out this article written by Spier (2002). With the proliferation of manuscripts and papers available online, producing quality and well-reviewed work is more important now than ever.

Despite my (albeit negative) understanding of the actual publication procedure, I definitely underestimated the amount of work that was involved with the preparation before peer review. Since papers are accepted into journals based on the validity and reproducibility of their methods, as well as the novelty and importance of their results, there is great benefit in preparing the manuscript for scrutiny with preliminary evaluations [2]. Although there are online services that provide “pseudo” peer reviews of your work with the goal of strengthening your manuscript before initial submission, Josh has some well-rooted connections in the marine community and was able to send our research to some colleagues for evaluation. I am extremely grateful for their time, as well as their expertise that they shared with us, and will hopefully be able to extend the same services to others in the future. So, above all else, thank you to our pre-peer reviewers.

Herein lies arguably the most important lesson I have learned during the publication process (that will hopefully expedite my writing processes in the future!): Pre-Peer Reviewers are Astonishingly Valuable and Thorough.

There it is, folks, plain and simple. The pre-peer review step provides you with a venue for thoughtful, constructive criticism, helping to enrich your paper and increase the chances of acceptance with revisions as opposed to straight rejections. But let me tell you, this pre-peer review was by no means just a “proof-read”, addressing grammar and asking for more citations (which they still did, thankfully). Instead, the reviewers who helped us asked the more dominating questions we needed to consider (without getting into specifics): was there error in our sample methods? Did we explain our results clearly? Are our results truly indicative of the concepts we broach in our discussion? More than anything, an outside perspective brought forward additional interpretations and applications of our results.

These were all questions that Josh and I would have likely had to address had we submitted our original draft, but because of our pre-peer reviewers’ feedback, we were able to solidify our research even before submission (although I am not naïve to the fact that our manuscript will still go through many drafts yet). As a first-time publisher and a new graduate student, I cannot stress enough how much that support aids my confidence as a scientist moving forward. I have learned the value of engaging collaborators and building a stronger paper based on the interpretations of other scientists.

And so, Josh and I are moving forward with our paper, which has been restructured, re-mastered and revitalized, and we hope for publication to start our 2016 calendar year off right! Knowing how much more taxing the publication process has been thus far (for the better, I assure you), I anticipate many more reforms in the near future when editors recommend revisions. Fingers crossed for a smooth process!



[1] If you have time on your hands and are looking for a chuckle, Meredith Carpenter and Lillian Fritz-Laylin, of the Molecular and Biology Department at the University of California Berkeley, run a blog compiling and review comical scientific publications. Their blog, called the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Rolling On the Floor Laughing, can be found here:

[2] Voight et al., 2012. Publishing your work in a journal: understanding the peer review process. Int J Sports Phys Ther, 7(5): 452-460.
**As a resource for others, this paper also includes a list of questions reviewers may address regarding each section of a submitted manuscript, which can act as guidance during personal review.

Plastic-Free July

Last month, I took a pledge to live plastic-free through the Plastic-Free July initiative. As an advocate for reusables (and a hoarder of plastic bags I’m sure I’ll find a secondary or tertiary use for), I wanted an opportunity to actively quantify how much plastic I cumulatively use.

July started off swell: my plastic use for the first two weeks was kept to a daily maximum of four items, most of which were associated with storing food. A trip to the Dufferin Grove farmer’s market reduced that plastic use further, as did keeping a set of reusable cutlery in each of my bags (which came in handy at the Mac and Cheese festival!). I invested in soap bars without packaging, paper-wrapped hygiene products and a wooden-handled, compostable toothbrush. There were, however, two major areas of my life in which I faced difficultly preventing plastic use.

1. Reducing Plastics While Travelling is Hard

I am fortunate enough to travel a great deal. I spent a full week of July hiking the mountains of the Banff National Park with my family, and a long-weekend away at the WayHome Music Festival in Oro-Medonte. While all of my foods were packed neatly in tupperware and my water bottle always on-hand, I often felt compelled to resort to single-use plastics while on the road or in the airport. Perhaps I have become to accustomed to comfort via convenience during travel (for example, after four hours on a plane I find it difficult to say no to plastic-wrapped cookies or pretzels courtesy of WestJet). There also lies reducing uncertainty in where you are staying; our hotel did not recycle. While the establishment’s recycling policy is sadly outside of my control, the plastic I consume in future travels is not. I will put more effort into packing foods (if flying domestically) or bringing reusable contains with me internationally, budgeting this into my packing space and baggage weights.

2. Convincing Others to Reduce is Twice as Hard

My fortune continues in that I work for a locally-sourced, organic restaurant that either recycles or composts all of their waste. While I am extremely proud of this (since some organizations I have worked for in the past did not), there is still room for plastic reduction. As a server, however, it is completely socially inappropriate for me to tell someone they don’t need a second straw for their smoothie or that they shouldn’t need plastic cutlery for their take-away meals. In this sort of environment, I instead found that offering plastic accessories to customers during their dining experiences was viewed as “excellent customer service” rather than an environmental misdeed. I couldn’t help feeling at fault for supplying guests with more plastic than they needed, and am inclined to include those items in my personal plastic use tally.

The past month has taught me a number of clever tricks for using less plastic (including how to identify products with less packaging and how to prepare yourself before travelling or dining out to say no to offered plastics), but I still have much room for improvement. The Plastic-Free July website has a number of excellent suggestions, and I recommended checking them out for yourself to find ways you too can reduce your use! Hopefully, by this time next year I will have found answers to my plastic dilemmas that I was at least able to identify this July.

Steph Sardelis

Whales in Wales!

An article published by COAStNet (Canadian Oceans Awareness Student Network) about my time with the Sea Watch Foundation in New Quay, Wales! We’re heading out on our first dedicated line transect survey tomorrow morning, bright and early. Wish us good luck – to quote the highly academic and definitely real Dumbledore: “Let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, [dolphins].”


Joining the Ranks of the Interns

When one door closes, others open. I’m so pleased to say that I will be joining the Sea Watch Foundation in April as a marine mammal intern. Based in New Quay, Wales, I will be assisting in bottlenose dolphin, harbour porpoise and grey seal population monitoring from land and sea with transect surveys, as well as leading some community education programs. I was shown this program by a former classmate of mine who interned last summer, and her beaming reviews and educational growth acquired during her time abroad continue to increase my confidence that this will be a positively shaping experience. With one of the largest populations of small cetaceans in the UK, let alone Europe, I’m ecstatic to be contributing to conservation-based and on-going research. Best of all, I will be able to get a hand at working with acoustic monitoring devices, which is an area of marine mammalogy I have a keen interest in.

A bottlenose dolphin breaching. Taken by the founder if Sea Watch, Peter  Evans.

A bottlenose dolphin breaching. Taken by the founder of Sea Watch, Peter Evans.

check out Sea Watch’s website for more information: In the meantime, I’ll be sure to write many a post in preparation for my departure as well as during my internship. If you have any advice for research assistants in the field or how to keep warm on the chilly Welsh coast, please share!


The Passing of Lonesome George

Lonesome George was the last of his species (Chelonoidis abingdoni) and somewhat of a celebrity. He died on June 24th 2012 not long after I had the opportunity to meet him. It is sad to witness the extinction of any species, and Lonesome George gained the world’s attention for a day, but the extinction of species is a daily occurrence. Chivian and Bernstein (2008) predict that we are now in the “sixth great extinction event.” While this post was not supposed to be a sad lecture about the loss of biodiversity, I do hope it raises awareness. Consider it a vector for me to share this really great musical tribute to Lonesome George that NPR just released!



Chivian, E. and A. Bernstein (eds.)  2008. Sustaining life: How human health depends on biodiversity. Center for Health and the Global Environment. Oxford University Press, New York.

The Lionfish Ciguatera Controversy

I recently did a presentation on Lionfish spearing in the Caribbean and am supportive of the initiative to eat them. This is an interesting consideration, though, especially considering bioaccumulation would make sense in a species that preys on so many juveniles fish of other species. This is a great article, reminding me that “simple solutions” often require more in-depth research! I look forward to following this progression more.


UNder the C

Since lionfish invaded the Caribbean and Atlantic, there have been programs promoting the consumption of lionfish in an effort to control them. There have been lionfish cookouts following lionfish derbies, restaurants serving lionfish, and even fishermen selling and exporting lionfish filets.  But in 2012, Florida Sea Grant and the FDA found detectable levels of ciguatera toxins, or “CTX’s”, in lionfish samples. Have lionfish been promoted as food when they are actually unsafe to eat? A recent study explores the lionfish ciguatera controversy and finally provides some answers.

What is ciguatera?

Bioaccumulation of Ciguatera Bioaccumulation of Ciguatera

Ciguatera is a toxin produced by dinoflagellates, a type of plankton. The dinoflagellates that produce this toxin are found in tropical and subtropical regions such as the Caribbean and South Pacific islands. So how is a toxin produced by plankton a problem for humans? This toxin “bioaccumulates” meaning that small fish that eat seaweed covered with…

View original post 459 more words

Ocean Wise Ambassador Training

Here is a great website that the Education department at our aquarium has been passing around. Ocean Wise, a non-profit organization linked to the Vancouver Aquarium, is dedicated to helping the public mitigate the stresses of overfishing on our oceans. To do so, they suggest sustainable fish options to help consumers make environmentally friendly eating decisions. Working with distributers, restaurants and grocery stores or markets in the Vancouver area as well as across Canada, Ocean Wise is an excellent source to reference before any seafood dining experience!

I completely support the Ocean Wise organization and mandate – if you are reading this blog, PLEASE consider doing the training program and sharing it with your friends and family. You will receive a certificate at the end of the course, and it will take less than an hour to complete.

Ocean Wise Ambassador Certificate

One more point I’d like to add is to not only be conscious of the seafood you consume, but also the seafood the restaurants you visit serve. Some restaurants serve items such as shark fin soup or stingray meat, and as these are unsustainable products I advice you to stop visiting those locations. Inform the owners that you will be taking your business elsewhere as a result. A few months ago, while reading an online menu for the pho restaurant across the street from my house, I noticed they serve stingray soup. I am writing a letter for the owners including information on why they should not sell such items and encouraging them to stop. Ocean Wise will support small organizations like theirs and help them label their menus with sustainable indications, which can also help to increase revenue! If enough people contact their local restaurants as well, it will show businesses that we are serious about sustainable fishing and protecting our oceans.