How representative of ecology are the top 100 papers?

The publication in Nature Ecology & Evolution of the 100 most important papers in ecology has led, inevitably, to a fierce debate. Several rapid responses are already in review. The main bone of contention has been that not only were the first authors of 98% of the papers male, but the only two papers written by women were relegated to the very bottom of the list. In a generous reading this reflects implicit biases at every stage of their compilation, rather than any malign intent on the part of the authors*, but I’m sure they’ve received plenty of feedback on this oversight.

Pretty soon after it came out, Terry McGlynn on Twitter asked:

If you want a guide to all the essential papers that didn’t make the list, and happen to have been written by women, this thread is a good place to start. I’m not going to fan the flames any further here, but it’s important that this glaring omission remains the headline response. Instead I’m going to respond to another observation:

This pricked up my senses, given that I am also an undergraduate textbook author. In writing the Natural Systems book (published 2016) I made a deliberate attempt to not cite the same things as everyone else, and to emphasise promising directions for the future of the field of ecology. That made me wonder: how many of the 100 most important papers in ecology did I manage to cite? Note that I had no input into the Nature Ecology & Evolution article, and the book only includes references up to the end of 2014, so these form entirely independent samples. Without formally counting, I estimate that I’ve read around 80% of the top 100 papers, and I’m aware of almost all of them.

How many? Only 17/100 papers.** That raw figure disguises some interesting discontinuities within the list. Of the top ten I actually cited six, and a total of nine from the top twenty. This indicates a reasonable amount of agreement on the most important sources. But of the bottom 80 I only managed another eight (10%). This comes from a total of over 800 sources cited in the book.

Why did I cite them? The main reasons:

  • Posing an important question we have since spent a long time trying to answer (Hutchinson 1957, 1959, 1966, Janzen 1967).
  • Defining a new idea which remains relevant (Grinnell 1917, Gleason 1926, Janzen 1970, Connell 1978).
  • Creating a framework which has been elaborated since (MacArthur 1955, MacArthur & Wilson 1963, Tilman 1994, May 1972, Chesson 2000, Leibold et al. 2004, Brown 2004).
  • Reviewing the evidence for an important principle (Tilman 1996).
  • The first empirical demonstration of an important idea (Tilman 1977).

In many cases I have cited the same authors from the top 100 multiple times, but not necessarily for the original or classic piece of work; often it’s a later review or synthesis. This is because I deliberately chose citations that would be most helpful for students or other readers, not always on the basis of precedence.

The aim of this post is not to argue in any way that the authors of the paper were wrong; this is only a reflection of my personal opinion of what matters in the field. Theirs was generated through the insights of 147 journal editors and a panel of 368 scientists from across the discipline, and is therefore a much more genuine representation of what opinion-makers within the field of ecology believe (although there are better ways to conduct such an exercise). Mine is only one voice and certainly not the authoritative one.***

Writing a textbook is something like curating an exhibition at a museum or art gallery. It bestows on the author the responsibility of deciding which pieces to show in order to tell a particular story. Of necessity this becomes a very personal perspective. I’m amused to find that my view of ecology overlaps by only 17% with the leaders in my field.**** That doesn’t make either of us right or wrong, only that we must be looking in very different directions.

As for their aim of creating an essential reading list for post-graduates or those wishing to learn the foundations of the field, here I profoundly disagree. The best way to learn about current practice in ecology is to start with a good core textbook (and there are lots more out there), read recent synthetic reviews, or pick over the introductions of papers in the major journals. In the same way that you don’t need to read Darwin to understand evolutionary theory, or Wallace to understand biogeography, it’s not strictly necessary to read Grinnell, Clements or Gause to get to grips with modern ecology. Fun if you have the time but most people have more important things to do.

One final comment: three of the top ten papers in ecology were written by one man, G. E. Hutchinson. There is no doubt that his work was highly influential, and I agree that these are important papers to read. What I find most interesting though is that all of them are essentially opinion pieces that frame a general research question, but go little further than that. None of them would get published in a modern ecological journal.

Where would you find similar pieces of writing today? On a blog.


UPDATE: Dr Kelly Sierra is soliciting suggestions for a more inclusive list. Whether or not you feel that such lists have any inherent value, if we’re going to make them then they should at least represent the full diversity of our scientific community.

* In the comments below, Jeremy Fox points out that this isn’t very well worded, and could be read as a suggestion that I think there was some malign intent. So, to be absolutely clear, I am not suggesting that the authors made a deliberate choice to exclude or devalue papers written by women. If anything this was a sin of omission, not of commission, and we all need to learn from it rather than attribute blame to individuals.

** As an aside, 16 of the 17 were sole-authored papers. Only Leibold et al. (2004), which defined the metacommunity concept, had more than one author.

*** Nor do I think it’s healthy for there to be a voice of authority in ecology, or any other academic field. We make progress through testing every argument or piece of evidence, not by accepting anyone’s word, however senior or trustworthy. If there were an authority figure you can almost guarantee that I would disagree with them.

**** I’m more in line with the recent attempt to define the 100 most important concepts in ecology, although a little peeved that so many people dismissed Allee effects given my recent work on them.


9 thoughts on “How representative of ecology are the top 100 papers?

  1. Manu Saunders

    Great post. I did a tally & I’ve read 22 of these papers & cited 6, although I’ve heard of/been aware of most of the others. As a recent-ish addition to the ecological career path, I’ve always been advised to cite more recent papers – I remember as an undergrad, one lecturer drumming into us that we weren’t allowed to cite anything older than 10 years in our assignments. While I disagree with this sort of ‘citation machismo’, I think it’s a key influence on how PhD students/ECRs cite work – unless we are literally referring to the original theory or history of the concept, there are often more recent reviews/syntheses/experiments that expand on the original to a degree that they may be more relevant to the current research, especially with research relevant to landscapes and ecosystems that have undergone rapid land-use change in the last century. And, as Jeff notes, ecology is such a broad discipline….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Thanks Manu. I’d hate anyone to see this list and feel insecure that they hadn’t read enough of the ‘classic’ papers. Most physicists don’t read Newton, and most chemists don’t read Mendeleev, but that doesn’t impede their understanding of the field. Ecology may be younger as a scientific discipline but I think the same holds for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeremy Fox

    Quibble: it’s not a “generous” reading to assume that the gender balance of the list reflects implicit biases (plus the historical fact that ecology used to be even a more male-dominated field than it is today), rather than malign intent of the authors. That should be the default reading.

    I’ve seen a number of thoughtful criticisms of this paper, yours included. But attributing malign motives to the authors (they must be sexist jerks, they must not care about diversity and equity, they must be ruthless careerists out to publish clickbait so they can get famous, whatever…) is totally out of line. That Terry McGlynn felt the need to vouch for Franck Courchamp as being a nice guy who does in fact care about diversity and equity is a sad sign for public discourse, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeremy Fox

      I should also say that I don’t attribute malign motives to anyone who’s attacked Courchamp & Bradshaw’s motives. Everybody sometimes says things they regret later, me very much included. And I was glad to see one person whose tweet appeared to attack their motives later apologized.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Absolutely, and my wording above was not ideal. I certainly did not mean to imply any of the opinions that you suggest. I don’t know either of the first authors; like Terry I’ve shared a beer with Corey Bradshaw but no more. I’m sure they are mortified by the suggestion that the list is implicitly sexist. There is however room for discussion about whether this was an excusable oversight or the sort of problem that we should all be carefully attuned to. It’s more important to learn lessons from it than to point fingers at the authors; shifting blame onto them would merely be a way of distracting from the broader structural inequalities within science for which we all bear a distributed responsibility.


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