Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What papers influenced your journey as an ecologist?

For ESA’s centennial year, they are running a pretty cool series called “The Paper Trail”. A variety of ecologists write about the particular paper or papers that catalyzed their research path. Sometimes the papers are valuable for bringing up particular questions, sometimes they facilitated the connection of particular ideas.

William Reiner provides some insight into the value of this exercise: “What are some of the generalizations one can deduce from this paper trail? For me there are five. First, in ecology one cannot take too large a view of the problem one is addressing. Second, it is useful to step out of one's science into others to gain useful new ways of addressing questions. Collaboration with others outside ones field facilitates this complementarity. Third, teaching provides a useful forum for developing one's ideas. Fourth, there is no literature that is too old to have no value for current issues. And fifth, one must take time to read to be a thoughtful, creative scholar.”

In general, people are writing about papers that either specifically related to their own research at the time and opened their eyes to something new, or else broadly inspired or fascinated them at a critical time. (For Lee Frelich, this was reading The Vegetation of Wisconsin, an Ordination of Plant Communities at 12 years old.) I probably fall into the second group. My undergrad degree was in general biology and math, so although I had taken a couple of ecology courses, I knew essentially nothing about the fundamentals of ecological literature. So I was an impressionable PhD student, and I read a lot of papers. When I started, my plan was to do something related to macroecology, and the first paper I remember being excited about was James H. Brown’s 1984 “On the Relationship between Abundance and Distribution of Species”. It is everything a big idea paper should be – confident, persuasive, suggesting that simple tradeoffs may allow us to predict broad ecological patterns. And while with time I feel that some of the logic in the paper is flawed or at least unsupported, it definitely is a reminder of how exciting thinking big can be (and 1870 citations suggests others agree).

The next paper was R.H. Whittaker’s “Gradient analysis of vegetation” (1967). There is a lot of recommend in Whittaker’s work, in particular the fact that it straddles so well modern ecology and traditional ecology. He introduces early multidimensional analyses of plant ecology and asks what an ecological community is, while also having such a clear passion for natural history.

Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest influence was probably Chesson (2000) “Mechanisms of the maintenance of species diversity”. The value of the ideas in this paper is that they can (and have) be applied to many modern ecological questions. In many ways, this felt like the most important advance in ecological theory in some time. It is also the sort of paper that you can read many times (and probably have to) and still something new every time.

Of course, there are many other papers that could be on this list, and I’ve probably overlooked something. Also, makes me miss having free time to read lots of papers :)

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