That was a great project–whatever happened with that? (CORRECTED)

Have you ever seen someone give a talk on some unpublished research and gotten really excited about it? Maybe even told the speaker “That was great–can’t wait to read the paper when it comes out!” And then you never hear anything more about it, and time passes. And then years later you remember that talk and think, “That was a great project–whatever happened with that?”

In my own field of community ecology, maybe the most famous unpublished project is a collaboration between Peter Chesson and Nancy Huntly, testing Peter’s ideas about the storage effect as a key coexistence mechanism in fluctuating environments (CORRECTION: My phrasing here can be read as implying that Nancy Huntly’s contributions to her collaboration with Peter Chesson were purely empirical. I apologize; this implication was not my intention. Nancy Huntly and Peter Chesson have co-authored several important papers, including conceptual work [Chesson and Huntly 1988, 1989, 1997; Chesson et al. 2004].). I heard Nancy talk about this work early in my postdoc (so around 2001 or so), and it looked ready for publication. It would’ve been one of the first really good tests of a really important theoretical idea; I thought it was a surefire Nature paper. Nancy said she and Peter just had to complete a few more analyses, and they’d be submitting soon. I don’t know if they ever actually submitted or not, but the work has never been published. And while it’s not too late, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact now, I don’t think, as several other tests of the storage effect have been published since then. Which is probably one answer to the question “Whatever happened with that?” Sometimes, what happened was “We kind of got scooped, so we just set the project aside and moved on.” (I’m not saying that’s what happened in this particular case, I’m just noting the possibility.)

I once helped a couple of colleagues write a grant on which I was to be the postdoc if it got funded. It was a microcosm project to manipulate dispersal rates in patchy metacommunities, in order to study the transition between the colonization-extinction dynamics that should occur when dispersal rates are really low (so that there’s a separation of timescales between within-patch population dynamics and among-patch movement), and the source-sink dynamics that should occur when dispersal rates are higher. The grant was funded, though I didn’t end up taking the postdoc (I got my current job instead). And years ago I heard from one of my colleagues that the work had been done and what the results were. The results were unexpected, in what seemed to me to be an interesting way (as opposed to in a boring or confusing way). But it’s never been published as far as I know, and I don’t know why.

A few years ago, David Ackerly gave a great talk at the ESA meeting on how people trying to use phylogenetic data and trait data to explain patterns of diversity and coexistence needed to step back and totally rethink what they were doing in light of modern coexistence theory. I thought it would make for a really provocative and important perspectives-type piece. But David never submitted it as far as I know, and I think he’s moved on to other things now.

Obviously, this kind of thing is related to something Meg talked about–scientists being time-limited rather than data-limited, and so having to prioritize manuscripts. But the sort of thing I’m talking about is still kind of surprising. Because if a project’s sufficiently close to complete, and sufficiently high quality, that you can give a talk on it and really impress people, wouldn’t you think that that’s the manuscript you’d prioritize?

Just to be 100% clear, I’m not criticizing any of my colleagues at all for having yet to publish work I thought was really good! After all, as an outsider you never have anything close to the full picture of what’s going on in anyone else’s lab–what other projects they have in the pipeline, the various demands on their time, etc. Or in anyone else’s head–their changing interests, etc. Heck, for all I know, there’s someone out there who’s chomping at the bit to see a paper from the the as-yet-unpublished (and indeed, not-even-close-to-complete) work I talked about at ESA last year!

In Hollywood, Franklin Leonard releases an annual “Black List” of the best unproduced screenplays, as voted on by hundreds of film executives. One reason he does it is to encourage someone to produce the screenplays on the list. Which has happened numerous times: critical and commercial successes like Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, The Descendants, and Argo appeared on the list before being produced. Maybe we need a Black List for unpublished ecology projects too.🙂

4 thoughts on “That was a great project–whatever happened with that? (CORRECTED)

  1. What if the student did not want to stay in academia, just got his or her degree and left the prof with data that he/she does not have the time or knowledge or will to push through? Wouldn’t that speak against the tedious peer review system?

    The black list is a good idea, but it would require that scientists can obtain the data of research, which they find worthy of publishing.

    • I don’t think the fact that many studies go unpublished speaks for or against the peer review system. There are lots of reasons why work goes unpublished. And I doubt “it got rejected in peer review” or “I didn’t have time to write it up because I was too busy revising previously-rejected papers for resubmission” are among the most important. Survey data indicate that something like 75% of papers are accepted by the first journal to which they’re submitted. And academics have many demands on their time. “Revising previously-rejected papers” is only one of them, and far from the largest.

      The black list wasn’t intended as a serious suggestion, but it’s been interesting to see some folks take it that way and try to figure out if it could be made to work.

  2. There is a tremendous amount of effort to go even from an a finished project to a published paper. Not even a lot of work, but a lot of very boring stuff. Sometimes, people just might be excited about something else and no longer willing to go through the process.

  3. This is exactly why we should push for open access and sharing standards for data. That way even if the authors you were excited about didn’t publish, at least their data is out there for others to use, and maybe someone can join them to give that final push to publication, or provide a novel analysis, etc.

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