Conducting and publishing my first systematic literature review – A unique experience

PROTECTS project PhD student Elena Zioga reflects on her experiences publishing her first paper…

To begin with, YAY, excitement all over the place!!!

Frankly, when I started my research quest back in September 2018, I was not thinking that it would end up being a paper for publication. It started as a literature review, in order to set up the basis for my PhD research on characterizing pesticide residues in floral resources for bees. Upon discussions with the rest of the members of the project in which I am involved (PROTECTS), we decided that there was a need for establishing the existing knowledge in terms of the pesticide residues ever found in pollen and nectar collected from plants. We wanted to know which compounds have been evaluated until now, and what their exact concentrations in pollen and nectar were. This knowledge would be very helpful for the risk assessment studies for pollinators. Soon, we discovered that instead of finding an answer to that specific question, we could also identify major knowledge gaps in the area; gaps that had to be highlighted.

There was a need for not only recording what was already known in the field, but also identifying the major gaps by summarizing results from a diverse inter-disciplinary research combining the research areas of bee biology, ecotoxicology, botany and chemistry. Setting up a basis not only for my PhD thesis, but also for future residue studies requested for a Reliable, Quantifiable and Reproducible systematic literature review. Hence, with my supervisor Jane Stout (Trinity College Dublin) and co-supervisor Blanaid White (Dublin City University), we started working towards that. One of the most important steps of this process was the beginning of the literature search and making sure that our question was clear and specific, in a way that our search terms over the various databases were well identified and established. Lesson learnt – During this stage, EVERYTHING need to be recorded, or everything will be forgotten. Try to keep notes of how, when and why you did things, as you will soon need this information regardless using it or not.

Since I had a 50 year period of interest, and given the technological advance during all these years I had come across studies with various methods of chemical analysis. As there were not many studies on the topic, I was trying to include as many as possible, but in the meantime I had to critically evaluate whether the studies contained the information we needed and in a form that could be further processed in our analysis. Lesson learnt – Critical thinking, Strike 1.

Once the studies relevant to our research question were identified, we were ready to proceed with the extraction of the data of interest. This is the stage where Excel was our best friend. As such, it supported us and was there for us, but also did not hesitate to ‘slap’ right in the face when wrong decisions were made. Lesson learnt – Excel is wise, take full advantage of its opportunities, Critical thinking, Strike 2. Make sure you name your columns in a strategical way and then fill the rows with all the essential information provided by the studies of interest. Keep in mind you research question, as this is the best guide during his stage.

When the data are collected in an excel layout they can be easily quantified. This is where I got to explore them and tried to see how and if they could be further analyzed in order to get more information out of them. Given the limited amount, the nature and the knowledge gaps of the residue studies, we could not perform a meta-analysis. However, the data indicated that we could go a bit beyond of just reporting the major gaps and the median values of the compounds found in pollen and nectar. That was when Dr Ruth Kelly, who was a Postdoc in our lab at the time, came to the rescue, joined our paper and offered her valuable information and skills on stats. It turned out that even though we were restricted to few compounds (neonicotinoid insecticides), we could identify a positive relationship between their residues found in pollen and nectar of plants. This is very important as it means that for those compounds, we could use the concentrations found in pollen to predict those in nectar. Taking into account how difficult nectar collection is and that it is slightly easier to collect pollen, this would facilitate future residue studies. Also, this could imply that this relationship may apply to more compounds belonging to other chemical groups (e.g. herbicides, fungicides and other non neonicotinoid insecticides), pointing out new roads for research. Lesson learnt – Listen to your data!

Once we got the results from the data analysis, all I needed to do was to think of the best way to present them to the rest of the scientific community. I tried to create a story that would make sense to other people, keep them interested while reading the article and potentially positively influence the future research of some of them. All was going great until we reached to a point where I was asked to reduce the size of my discussion part as I had written too much… For example, a discussion of 10 pages is a discussion good for a thesis, but can be tiring for a paper – very true. Managing to reduce that to six pages was a great challenge for me. Lesson learnt – Critical thinking, Strike 3.

While writing this paper, there were times I reached what seemed to be a dead end or this crucial spot were decisions had to be made. This is when my supervisors and/or co-authors of the paper came as my saviors and gave the solutions to all my problems. Lesson learnt – It is OKAY to not being able to answer to some questions. Remember we are here to learn. Discuss about your thoughts and worries with people that are more experienced, and are willing to help you.

To me, a paper is always a team effort. The better the teamwork, the better the outcome. From the contribution of the co-authors, to the discussions with the people of your research project, from the discussions with the rest of your lab members to the comments of the reviewers, every single person adds a small or a larger stone to it. A big ‘THANK YOU’ to my co-authors, to all the PROTECTS’ group that is so supportive and especially to Dara Stanley (University College Dublin) who triggered us in starting this paper, to the rest of the plant-insect interactions lab members for the fruitful discussions, and to all those who contributed in making this paper ready to be published!

Lesson learnt – Good things can happen through good collaborations!

In case you are interested in reading the full paper entitled ‘Plant protection product residues in plant pollen and nectar: a review of current knowledge’, here is the link:

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2020.109873.

Elena graphical abstract
Graphical abstract summarizing the paper

You may follow the general updates on our research through our project’s twitter account @ProtectsProject and my personal account @ZioElena.

For an excellent guide on how to conduct a systematic quantitative literature review visit the following link: https://www.griffith.edu.au/griffith-sciences/school-environment-science/research/systematic-quantitative-literature-review.

 

 

 

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