25 January 2024

What to read in the ecological literature

Three thoughts, but a caveat first. 

"In our times, we would only publish when we felt we had something to say. Today, if you don’t have anything to say, you do that in at least two or three papers." Dennis Chitty said that (1). That was in 1996, when Chitty was 84 years old, and I was 31. I have lived by his standards ever since. 

I never had much to say, and even fewer things that hadn't been said before.  (I remember one time I discovered something interesting about probabilities, and it turned out to be Bayes's theorem (2). About 250 years too late.) Consequently, I never believed that reckless publishing would move society forward. 

And yes, as was pointed out to me frequently: "Publication is the currency of our success." (3)

1: During my grammar school years and undergraduate studies, I wish my teachers had taken the time to expose me to the original books rather than some child's play version of them. Euklid, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, come to mind.
2: During my Ph.D. years, I rated every book and paper I read. It turned out that about 90% of the books I read were worth my time and 90% of the papers were not. So, I focused on books and classic papers (4). But even here I wish I had had better guidance (5).
3: There is normal science and there are scientific revolutions (6). During periods of normal science, scientists work within a framework of beliefs and accumulate facts that strengthen the framework. Who is challenging the frameworks today?

And of course, there is the story of the newly hired professor at U.B.C. who only reads the abstracts, because reading doesn't get you tenure or grants, writing does.

(1) D. Chitty (1996), pers. comm.
(2) T. Bayes (1763), An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances.
(3) L. M. Ward (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006), pers. comm.
(4) F. Courchamp and C. J. A. Bradshaw (2018), 100 articles every ecologist should read. Nature Ecology and Evolution 2: 395 - 401. This publication lists only six papers that were published after 2000.  
(5) It was years after I completed my Ph.D. in 1998 that I discovered: E.g. T. C. Chamberlin (1890), The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses; A. Szent-Györgyi (1960), Introduction to a Submolecular Biology; J. R. Platt (1964), Strong Inference. 
(6) T.S. Kuhn (1970), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Second edition.