1am: made a complete monkey of myself

March 18, 2005

Not even a free prize draw could coax Tim Birkhead to record what he does 24/7

Researchers in animal behaviour, such as Jane Goodall, often need to know how much time their subjects - chimpanzees in her case - spend foraging, grooming and copulating. The methods are well established and comprise either scan sampling or focal-animal sampling. In the former, you look at what every individual is doing at set points, say every ten minutes. Focal-animal sampling, as its name suggests, means focusing on one individual for a longer period. Both methods provide good time estimates, but the most reliable technique depends very much on the nature of the beast you are studying.

Academics lead busy lives. The Government's desire to establish the full economic cost of what academics and other university staff do has resulted in bureaucrats, with little or no knowledge of animal behaviour, adopting a type of scan sampling to assess how much time academics spend teaching, researching and grappling with bureaucracy.

The plan in some universities is that each academic will record what he or she is doing every 15 minutes for three or more weeks: a form of self-scan sampling. This sounds like a bold, no-nonsense approach to obtaining the required information but, as an experienced observer of the behaviour of birds and academics, I anticipate a few snags.

Most academics already struggle to find enough hours in the day to do all they have to do. The additional burden of interrupting themselves every 15 minutes to note what they are doing is unlikely to be welcomed. Data collection will continue - 24/7 apparently - which at least is thorough, if hardly convenient (will staff get paid overtime?).

All genuine researchers are obsessed with accuracy. Sloppily collected data do not answer the question, or at worst generate erroneous results. In studies of human behaviour, it is well known that the self-reporting questionnaire is about as reliable as asking a bunch of school kids to mark their own maths tests and report their scores. It was precisely because of this problem that when the Wellcome Trust wanted to know about people's sexual habits to predict the true human and economic costs of HIV, they went to extraordinary lengths to avoid the problems associated with self-reporting.

All studies have constraints and no doubt the "every-15-minutes-for-several-weeks" approach has been carefully thought out in terms of providing enough data without being too disruptive. But this simply tells you how little whoever devised the system knows about their study species.

Your first week arrives. From now on, every 15 minutes, day and night, you'll record what you are doing, whatever you are doing: in the middle of lectures, while showing sixth-formers around, while trying to write a research paper at home in the evening. Come on, think about it. Is anyone really going to do this? They are simply too busy and will be irritated by an extra burden that has no obvious benefits. Even second-rate journals that send out e-questionnaires to ask whether their second-rate e-submission system is any good are smart enough to know that they have to offer a free prize draw to have any hope of getting a response.

So what will happen? Either the forms won't be completed or more likely (because academics are basically nice and they won't want to disappoint) they will make up the data at the end of the week. In other words, this is an utterly pointless exercise. What is so tragic is that there is a perfectly simple solution to obtaining accurate time budget data, and it is exactly what Goodall did for her beloved chimpanzees. She employed a handful of researchers to move from troop to troop, efficiently scan-sampling as they went. What she never did was to ask the chimpanzees to fill in their own forms.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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