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.