Defining a Field

What does it take to have a real impact on the development of your field? Those charged with assessing UK research have taken the view that a small number of exceptional papers are a better indicator of quality than a mass of ‘lesser’ papers. Now we can quibble (indeed, I have done) about the way that ‘exceptional’ papers are identified (in particular by risk-averse departments and institutions). Furthermore, I’ve argued that setting out with the intention of writing a ‘high impact paper’ is often antithetical to doing good science. However, that’s beside the point. Regardless of the nuts and bolts of measurement, the idea that one should be judged on quality not quantity seems to be reasonably widely accepted. But if we’re taking a retrospective view, is it always the case that you can trace the development of a field back to one or two highly influential papers? I’ve been pondering this since the first meeting last month of the British Ecological Society’s Macroecology Special Interest Group. (Macroecology is ecology at large spatial scales, by the way, and is what I do. There’s a brief but useful wikipedia page here.)

As is the nature of such inaugural meetings, first our committee chair Nick Isaac, then our opening keynote speaker, Ian Owens from the Natural History Museum, provided a potted history of the discipline. In so doing, it is common practice to pick a significant publication and trace its subsequent influence. But in macroecology, that’s tricky...

OK, you could pick the 1989 Science paper by James Brown and Brian Maurer which originally coined the term ‘macroecology’. This paper has accrued a satisfying-but-not-stellar 329 cites, but my suspicion is that it’s not actually been that widely read, and that many of the citations run something like “the term ‘macroecology’ was first coined by Brown & Maurer (1989)...”

Or we could focus on the pioneers of UK macroecology, Kevin Gaston and Tim Blackburn. They have forged a formidable partnership, coauthoring 87 papers over a 20 year period, with a phenomenal burst of productivity in the mid to late 1990s which saw them publish as coauthors around 10 papers a year, papers which provided the foundation for much subsequent macroecological work. (Both have been prolific independently of each other too. Sickening isn’t it?) The point is, though, that it is difficult to pick a single of these 50 or so papers as being suitable for the ‘what happened since the publication of x’ rhetorical device. Although their work in aggregate has been well cited – 8 papers from that period 1993-2000 have picked up >100 cites – the maximum number of cites for a single work is <300. Which is good, no doubt, but not spectacular.

So what Nick and Ian both did was to pick as their milestones three books, two by Kevin and Tim (Pattern & Process in Macroecology from 2000, which summarised much of their previous five years of work, and the edited volume Macroecology: Concepts & Consequences) and one by Brown (Macroecology, a single-word title which has amusingly been cited in 20 different ways according to ISI WoK, including the antonymous Microecology!). Rich Grenyer Tweeted at the time that this had interesting implications for the high-impact-paper-obsessed REF, but I think it also tells us something about the development of scientific fields more generally.

Of course there are occasions when one or two landmark publications define decades of subsequent research (think Einstein, or Crick & Watson, even the occasional book like Hubbell’s Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity). But often it is steady accumulation, the gradual assembly of a body of work which counts. This recognises that it is not always possible – or if possible, not desirable – to force everything of value that you have to say into the strict limits of some of the higher profile journals (and you may not wish to see what you consider to be important analyses buried, probably unread, in supplementary material). This view of science essentially treats the literature as a kind of open notebook – a record of thought processes and incremental progress, rather than a single statement of ultimate  truth. And in the case of macroecology, this broad foundation has served us very well.

Perhaps I can make a (non-Olympic) sporting analogy. Cricket exists in several formats, with the extremes being the smash-bang-wallop of Twenty20 (matches last about 3 hours) and the rather more sedate 5 day test matches. A test match batsman will steadily accumulate, and won’t try to hit every ball out of the ground – although if a ball is tempting enough, of course he won’t turn down the opportunity for the big hit. This mix of accumulation and opportunism seems to me to be a much better strategy for ensuring that a field is built on solid foundations than the headline-grabbing, REF-driven, try-to-hit-everything-straight-into-Nature T20 style.

As any cricket fan will tell you, test matches are more substantial and ultimately far more satisfying than any limited overs jamboree. And the occasional 6 is made all the sweeter for its scarcity.