What's your best paper?

This is a common job interview question in academia, but it’s also fun just to think about, at least once you’ve published more than a couple of papers. Often, the papers of which we’re proudest aren’t the ones that are most cited, because our pride reflects features of the paper, or its genesis, of which others aren’t aware.

I think my best paper, or at least the paper I’m proudest of, is Fox (2006). This is the first paper applying the Price equation from evolutionary biology to the problem of biodiversity and ecosystem function. I won’t further summarize it here (go read it if you want to know what it says!) I’m proud of it for several reasons:

It shows my strengths as an ecologist. I’m a lousy naturalist, and I don’t know much math or programming (certainly not enough to call myself a proper theoretician or modeler). But I like to think I read a bit more broadly than the average ecologist, or at least I read somewhat different stuff.  And I’m skeptical and somewhat contrarian—I often wonder if we’re even asking the right questions, never mind getting the right answers. This paper uses a simple equation most ecologists had never heard of to argue (in part) for a reframing of some key questions in biodiversity and ecosystem function.

It represents hard-won knowledge. It literally took me three years of hard work to really understand the Price equation (‘speed’ is not one of my strengths as an ecologist). And there were several points at which I thought I understood it but didn’t. One of those ‘false dawns’ led me to embarrass myself in front of Alan Grafen, a great evolutionary theoretician and one of the world’s leading experts on the Price equation. He came to Silwood Park to give a talk while I was a postdoc there, and I scheduled a one-on-one meeting with him to tell him about my clever idea. So we stood in front of a white board and I started walking him through my idea. After about 30 seconds he interrupted with a small question about my notation. It was an easy question, so I started to clarify—and then I realized I didn’t actually know the answer. Which meant I didn’t actually have any idea what the hell I was talking about. The conversation went downhill from there. When Fox (2006) finally came out I had a strong urge to send a reprint to Alan Grafen with a note reading “Sorry for wasting your time.” Or perhaps “See, I’m not an idiot after all!” 😉

It was the lead article for that issue, and highlighted on the journal cover. Yes, silly as it is, I’m actually proud of this kind of thing. It’s the academic equivalent of getting a gold star from your teacher in elementary school.

It’s my biggest idea, in that it led to several follow-up papers, including a couple in Oikos (Fox 2010, Fox and Kerr in press). Many of my ideas tend to be single-paper sized: they’re (hopefully!) not so small as to be uninteresting, but they’re not so large that I feel like I can build a whole line of research around them.

A few colleagues whom I really respect and admire liked it a lot. Presumably the others were all too polite to tell me how much they thought it sucked. 😉

It was a solo effort. I’ve had some really wonderful collaborations that have led to what I think are some really good papers. But if asked what’s my best paper, I feel like I need to name something that’s really is mine and mine alone, for better or worse.

It may possibly have had a bit of influence. Not on biodiversity-ecosystem function research, where the questions of interest, and the ways of answering those questions, were already far too well-established by 2006 to be seriously altered by any one paper. No one but me has ever applied the methods in Fox (2006), and the paper hasn’t been much cited. But since that paper was published several other ecologists have started applying the Price equation to other ecological problems (e.g., Collins and Gardner 2009, Barfield et al. 2011, Ellner et al. 2011). I flatter myself to think that I perhaps had something to do with that. At least, that’s the sort of influence I’d most like to have. Influencing how people think about a particular question is nice, but questions come and go. Influencing the approaches people use to think about a wide range of questions seems to me like a more important and lasting sort of influence. Plus, nothing else I’ve ever done has had any influence whatsoever as far as I can tell, so the mere fact that Fox (2006) may have been influential makes it hugely influential relative to all my other stuff. 😉

So what’s your best paper?

p.s. Note to any impressionable students reading this: If during a job interview you’re asked to name your best paper, don’t follow my example and include in your answer self-deprecating remarks about your lack of influence or natural history acumen, not even in jest (seriously). Your honesty may be appreciated by the search committee, but not in a way that will help you get the job.

9 thoughts on “What's your best paper?

  1. Why is everyone being so shy about naming their best paper? Sure, some of you crank out two Nature article per year and are having trouble choosing your favorite, but what about everyone else?

    My own choice is “Formate as the main branch point for methylotrophic metabolism in Methylobacterium extorquens AM1” (G. J. Crowther et al., J. Bacteriol. 2008). This is for several reasons, but the non-discipline-specific one is… I was a postdoc at the time, following up on the work of a just-departed grad student who published eight first-author papers based on his work in the lab. He is both smart and a careful worker (as his current status as an associate prof at Harvard might also attest), but the last part of his dissertation was perhaps accomplished too quickly, and I inherited a major misconception from him before eventually disproving it and publishing the paper cited above. I was pleased that, in my own plodding way, I was able to improve upon at least one aspect of his previous analyses….

    • Thanks for the comment Greg, like you I am surprised more folks haven’t commented. Maybe if I did a post asking everyone to name their worst paper? 😉 Or better yet, a post asking everyone to name my worst paper–with “all of them” as one of the options! 😉

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  3. Pingback: From the archives: What’s your best paper? « Oikos Blog

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  6. Alright – I’ll play along on this repost. My favorite is either my first (in submission order, not publication order) (McGill and Collins 2003 Evolutionary Ecology Research https://www.mcgill.ca/files/neo/EvolutionaryEcologyBrianMcGill.pdf) or an invited piece (McGill 2011 American Journal of Botnay doi:10.3732/ajb.1000509). They are closely related so I’m not cheating by picking two. They both point out how all of the major patterns of biodiversity macroecology trace to a few key assumptions. The first was my own excursion into this based on Whittaker’s bell curves on transects, the latter is my attempt to write a review paper on this topic and introduce the gory math. The first has had decent but not great citation success (mostly cited for reasons other than my main point), the second hardly any cites at all. The first also got rejected from two journals (the 2nd was an invited piece).

    So a pretty similar story to you Jeremy. My favorite papers are not in the highest impact journals, most cited, most easily accepted, or anything. Probably my top paper across those categories (my 2003 Nature paper on testing Neutral theory) reports something that I consider obvious and not that profound and in the end I hope will not be remembered as an important paper.

    I think people very close to my own field would agree with my assessment of the relative merits of the aforementioned papers, but in the wider community my favorite papers are hardly known. We do not have much control over how our papers are received!

    • Thanks Brian, that’s interesting. I figured you wouldn’t pick your 2003 Nature paper, as you’ve talked in the past how you consider the point of that paper to be fairly obvious. But beyond that I had no clue which paper you’d pick.

      Now we just need Meg to chime in. I’m wondering if she’d pick her Mercer Award paper or not. She’s talked in the past about how much work went into that paper, so I could imagine her picking it for reasons that have nothing to do with it winning a major award. On the other hand, I imagine that winning a major award might shape one’s own view of one’s work–might cause one to see it through new eyes. Or maybe not, I don’t know, never having won a major award!

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