Ecological Influence

The British Ecological Society (BES) turns 100 this year. As part of the celebrations, they’ve published this great collection of 100 of the most influential papers published in the five “world-renowned” BES journals over the years. The editors explain how they selected the papers in the Introduction, but the main criterion was more than 500 citations by 31 March 2012.

Even if you’re not an ecologist, have a look through the collection. Rather than presenting the abstracts of the paper, each entry has a short paragraph explaining the significance of the findings and the influence the paper had on future research (you can also download a copy of each paper). It is an interesting anthology of the development of thought in the natural sciences over the last century. It’s also a thought-provoking piece on scientific research in general.

I was surprised to find that I had only read five out of the 100 papers, and I have never cited any of these myself. Many of the papers that have been the most influential for my work, or my personal educational development, are not on this list. Of course, this is partly because there are plenty of other non-BES journals out there that also publish influential work, but it can’t be the only reason.

Does it mean I’m not a good ecologist, because I’ve only read five of these papers? No. Should I put my thesis on hold and sit down and read the other 95 as soon as possible? Definitely not.

Reading through this list made me realise just how nuanced and detailed, yet simultaneously broad and omnipresent, ecology is. “Influential” research does not mean everyone has to read it. It means that if a study is well-planned, well-executed and the results are carefully-considered and discussed, that single study can have immense impact on future thought, research and even policy direction.

Some of the papers are influential because they introduced a key ecological concept that we have all come across, regardless of whether we have read the original paper. For example, the first paper on the list describes the famous “lynx-hare cycle” we all know and love (Elton & Nicholson 1942, p. 8), but which most of us have only read about in textbooks!

Some papers defined key terms that are now in common use throughout multiple disciplines and beyond (e.g. Stephenson & Stephenson 1949, p. 19). Others set the standard for sampling methods or statistical analyses used in hundreds of papers since (e.g. Hill 1973, p.20; Anderson 1964, p. 21), or were a catalyst for future discoveries and questioning minds (e.g. Webb 1959, p. 19).

A few provide an interesting commentary on changing social/economic/political priorities, and how these issues are associated with scientific research. For example, Monteith’s 1972 paper titled “Solar radiation and productivity in tropical ecosystems” is listed at number 45 (p. 24). Monteith was simply describing plant productivity as a function of radiation absorbed from a crop canopy, but his approach is now the basis for determining annual productivity of both agricultural and natural plant systems – from harvest index calculations to global biomass inventories. Most interestingly, although the paper was published 41 years ago, 25 % of its citations occurred in the last three years…which coincides with an increased interest in studies on carbon sequestration and food production.

So take some time to look through the list. I guarantee you will find at least one paper of interest that you haven’t read, and could even be directly relevant to your own research. I found 11.

Copyright Manu Saunders 2013


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