Just for fun* I decided to look up how often various classic ecology papers have been cited over the years. I restricted attention to papers that are old enough to be considered classics, but are young enough to still be cited (Darwin’s Origin is a classic, but it’s so old that it’s now considered part of scientists’ shared background knowledge and so isn’t ordinarily cited).
Just off the top of my head, these are the papers I decided to look at:
- May 1972 (stability-complexity)
- May 1975 (chaos)
- Connell 1978 (intermediate disturbance hypothesis)
- Paine 1969 (keystone predation)
- MacArthur and Pianka 1966 (optimal foraging)
- MacArthur and Levins 1967 (limiting similarity)
- Likens et al. 1970 (deforestation and nutrient cycling)
- Ehrlich and Raven 1964 (coevolution)
- Hairston, Smith, and Slobodkin 1960 (trophic cascades, though they didn’t use that term)
- Price 1970 (the Price equation; couldn’t resist)
I also tried to look at Levins (1969), the paper introducing the idea of “metapopulations”, but it’s from the Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America and doesn’t show up in a Web of Science search. And Cole (1954), a classic paper on life history evolution, seems to be too old to show up in a Web of Science search. Obviously, there are many other papers I could’ve looked up, but this seemed like a nice mix.
It was actually really interesting to see just how much variation there is among these papers in terms of how much they’ve been cited, and in their patterns of citation over time. They’re all unquestionably classic papers, but apparently not all classics are created equal, at least when it comes to accumulating citations! And no, the differences among them in citation patterns are not primarily a matter of some papers having had more time to accumulate citations. I’ll have more to say about their citation patterns in a future post (although right now let me emphasize that I do not think that citation counts are a good measure of how “classic” a paper is! I’m just having a bit of fun here.)
One thing in particular that surprised me is that one of these papers has been cited far more often than any of the others, and one has been cited far less. So here’s a little quiz. Without cheating and looking it up, can you guess which paper is which?
Answers to the questions, and more discussion of the data, in a future post.
*For “for fun” read “to procrastinate”