What was the best ecology paper by a young author in 2011-12?

Nominations are open for the Ecological Society of America’s annual awards. Including one of the big ones: the George Mercer Award, which goes to the best ecology paper published in 2011-12 by a lead author no more than 40 years old at the time of publication. The paper can come from any journal. Our own Meg Duffy is a past Mercer Award winner.

Anyone can nominate a paper for the award (click the link for details on how to do this). I’ve done it a few times in the past. A paper I nominated even won once, which was cool*. I feel like I should get in the habit of submitting a nomination every year. It’s a good excuse to reflect on what you’ve read, and it’s a nice way to give a shout-out to someone who’s work you think is really superb.

So, what papers would you like to see considered for the Mercer Award this year? To be clear, this is purely for fun–I’m just posing this question as an excuse to let people talk about papers they really admire. Neither Meg, Brian, or I is on the Mercer award committee, and nothing anyone says on this comment thread is going to influence the award committee.

*This is the closest I’m ever likely to come to winning myself. My papers from 2011-12 are still eligible, as I just turned 41 this year. But while I’m quite pleased with this paper, somehow I don’t think they’re going to give the Mercer award to an opinion piece based on zombie jokes. 🙂 Plus, even I think there are plenty of more deserving candidates.

18 thoughts on “What was the best ecology paper by a young author in 2011-12?

  1. Like you, Jeremy, I’ve nominated somebody who won. So that should be a lesson to people who think they can’t have any impact on this process. If you think there’s a really cool paper, you should definitely take the time to write half a page describing why it is a great paper and nominate it.

    As for my nominations. Its funny, my mental filing cabinet has things sorted by author, topic, year even journal, but it doesn’t have an index on young vs old and doesn’t even have papers sorted by quality. I think I’m going to have to scroll through papers I downloaded in 2011 and 2012 to look for candidates.

    • Yeah, my own mental database can’t sort by author age or paper merit either, so I’m going to have to do the same as you.

      Good point re: anyone being able to have an impact on this process. Let me just add that I was early in my postdoc the year I nominated the winning paper. You should definitely not think to yourself “I’m only a grad student or postdoc, nobody will take a nomination from me seriously”, because that is totally not the case.

  2. OK Here are three:

    Moles et al 2011 “Assessing the evidence for latitudinal gradients in plant defence and herbivory” – brings empirical data to one of the most frequently claimed assumptions of ecology (i.e. stronger biotic interactions in the tropics) (you’ve already commented on this one Jeremy https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/angela-moles-vs-zombie-ideas-about-latitudinal-gradients-in-herbivory-and-plant-defense/)

    Laughlin et al 2012 “A predictive model of community assembly that incorporates intraspecific trait variation” – a real genuine predictive model linking traits to community relative abundance. I think everybody sort of kind of has something like this in the back of their head when they talk about trait filtering but Laughlin wrote a real model down and tested it (and it works pretty well) (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01852.x/abstract)

    Pawaar et al 2012 “Dimensionality of consumer search space drives trophic interaction strengths” (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v486/n7404/abs/nature11131.html) – a really creative (out of left field in a good way) paper that bring together theory and data and links metabolic scaling, optimal foraging and community structure in a profoundly insightful way.

    • Ok, this is good, as I don’t recall either of the latter two papers (maybe I will after I go look at them). Hopefully people will fill this comment thread with great stuff and people can treat it as a reading list.

  3. Just out of curiosity, I went back and looked at the list of past winners: http://www.esa.org/history/awards.php

    A few thoughts, glancing over the list

    -You wouldn’t necessarily expect any commonalities across the winners. After all, the composition of the awards committee changes over time, and the committee can only pick from whatever nominees they happen to get. If there are any commonalities, it suggests that maybe there’s some level of widespread agreement as to what “really great ecology” consists of.

    -Remember Meg’s recent post on the power of combining a diversity of approaches? https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/the-importance-of-diverse-approaches-in-ecological-research/ Well, that appears to be the way you win the Mercer award! That’s the common thread that jumps out at me: the winners are almost always papers that combine different approaches and lines of evidence. They often have extensive field observations documenting some pattern, experimental data testing alternative causal hypotheses about the processes generating that pattern, *and* a mathematical model (often tailored to the system and partially or completely parameterized from independent data) demonstrating that all the various kinds of data are in fact quantitatively consistent with one another, meaning that the “story” actually works as opposed to merely being plausible.

    -There are only a couple of exceptions in the last 10 years. Jon Chase won for a mesocosm experiment. Jean Richardson won for a phylogenetic comparative analysis of a bunch of trait data she collected herself. (And Bolnick et al. is a review paper, which is kind of difficult to classify in terms of “diversity of approaches”)

    -The winning papers always have strong links to big, general ideas, but *also* almost always tell very well-grounded stories about what’s going on in some specific system.

    -Relatedly, winning papers are papers that dot all their i’s and cross all their t’s. By that, I mean that they typically *don’t* merely test some hypothesis. They also check whether the assumptions underpinning that hypothesis actually hold. You do not ordinarily win the Mercer for work that’s merely suggestive, or that’s merely consistent with some hypothesis. Doing that often obliges you to combine different approaches, since the kind of data you need to check an assumption often is totally different than the kind of data you need to test a prediction.

    -Nobody’s won with a pure modeling paper.

    -Nobody wins the Mercer by following a “recipe”. Every Mercer Award winner is quite a creative paper in terms of the approaches taken to addressing the question asked. Nobody’s won the Mercer for, say, testing neutrality by fitting alternative models to species-abundance distributions, or for testing “habitat filtering” vs. “limiting similarity” by looking at how closely-related coexisting species are (to pick two examples of popular “recipes” that many authors have followed in recent years). The work that people most admire isn’t work that’s easily emulated, and it’s never based on “general purpose” approaches that anyone can go out and apply in their own system.

    -It’s very rare to win if you haven’t collected your own data. As noted above, the only review paper to win in recent times is Bolnick et al. And that wasn’t a review of data on a question people were already interested in. Instead, they proposed a new question, and then reviewed data relating to or addressing that question. So if Angela Moles wins for that meta-analysis, she’ll be breaking the mold! I note this *not* as a criticism of meta-analyses, but just as an observation about what sort of papers tend to win. (Aside for grad students: Bolnick et al. arose from a graduate student reading group. There’s no law that says your reading group just has to be a way for you to keep up with the literature. It can be a way for you to develop your *own* ideas and *contribute* to the literature!)

    -EDIT: and most winners seem to be single individuals, single lab groups, or small collaborations. Big collaborations or working groups led by someone under 40 mostly don’t win. Could be various reasons for that, obviously.

  4. Oh, and I can’t *believe* I didn’t instantly think of this one: Adler et al. 2011! (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6050/1750.abstract) Both for the results, and for the way they obtained them (see this old post for discussion of the latter: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/thoughts-on-nutnet/)

    Sadly, hard to see the Mercer going to a paper that some heavy hitters don’t like, even though the heavy hitters’ reasons for not liking it are unfounded in my view and in the view of many others (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/03/22/trying-to-save-a-zombie-idea/)

  5. I wonder why it’s age-based, rather than experience-based. It’s common to see funding awards that are based on number of years since Ph.D., but I’ve never seen one based on age. Seems weird to go by age, since some folks have been doing ecology-related research since they were in high school, and others of us didn’t discover the field until we were in our 30’s…

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  7. If you guys submit nominations, it would be great if you posted them on the blog (unless that is against the rules), because it would be nice to see your short summaries of what you consider the best papers of the year and why. (Beyond the one sentence mentions in the comments).

    (Sorry for the late comment, catching up on blog reading after a long hiatus)

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