From the archives: the story behind my favorite paper

New posts are on their way next week. In the meantime, here’s an old post of mine that didn’t attract nearly as many comments as I thought it would. Maybe it will the second time around.

In it, I talk about what I think is my best paper and why I think it’s my best work, and invited commenters to do the same for their own work. If you click through, I think and hope that you’ll find the reasons for my own choice surprising and interesting. Your own work always looks different to you than it does to others. For instance, my best paper (in my view) isn’t my most-cited paper, or the one that was published in the highest-impact journal. But my best paper is the one that took me the longest to write, and the one that caused me the most embarrassment while I was working on it. I’ll bet there are similarly interesting stories behind your best work. Don’t be shy, share your stories in the comments!

7 thoughts on “From the archives: the story behind my favorite paper

  1. Perhaps one reason so few replied to your original question on their best paper is that your audience is largely skewed towards early career types, and if they are like me the title of “best paper” is an ephemeral one.
    Nearly every first author paper I have written has at one point been my “best paper” , but was quickly relegated to the ranks of “its a paper…” It’s a little frustrating because it would be really nice to have a paper for which you maintain that initial level of pride. But in another way, the feeling you get when you notice the improvement from one year to the next was probably the most rewarding part of grad school. I don’t fret too much about if I will eventually get a TT job because thinking back on how little I knew about anything as a a newly minted college graduate reminds me it was a worthwhile investment.
    I wonder for people further along in their career, if there is a point where you eventually feel like more or less made it, for example there is no longer a significant (positive) temporal trend in the quality of your work? If so about when? Or what was is the functional form of your scientific growth? Linear, exponential, hyperbolic? If I had to guess, I would go with sigmoidal growth with an inflection point around the last year of the phd/first year of a postdoc, but maybe this also varies a lot among disciplines and individuals.

    For the record, my best paper is currently in revision 😉

    • “I wonder for people further along in their career, if there is a point where you eventually feel like more or less made it, for example there is no longer a significant (positive) temporal trend in the quality of your work? If so about when? Or what was is the functional form of your scientific growth? Linear, exponential, hyperbolic? If I had to guess, I would go with sigmoidal growth with an inflection point around the last year of the phd/first year of a postdoc, but maybe this also varies a lot among disciplines and individuals.”

      That’s a great question! You’ve just earned yourself a “hoisted from the comments” post! 🙂

      I’ll have to think a bit to decide how to answer your question…[thinks]

      Ok, I do feel like the rate at which I’m improving as an ecologist has slowed a lot, though hopefully the rate hasn’t quite gone to zero (or negative!). But I’d say that I continued improving pretty rapidly as a researcher most of the way through my postdoc. And then continued improving at a substantial-but-somewhat-slower rate through my first few years as a prof. It’s only in the last few years that I’d say I’ve been close to plateauing in terms of how good I am at doing research. Although I still hold out hope that there will be future improvements, perhaps arising from interactions with students or collaborators or embarking on some significant new project like writing a book.

      Somewhere, there’s an analogy here to the evolution of evolvability. I’m thinking of work from Rich Lenski’s group showing how some mutations in E. coli increase fitness a lot, but also reduce the opportunity for subsequent beneficial mutations–they “close some evolutionary doors”. Lineages carrying such mutations initially increase in frequency, but before they can sweep to fixation they eventually get outcompeted by other lineages in which the first mutation was less beneficial but left open more opportunities for further beneficial mutations. As a scientist, how do you manage your own intellectual development so that you’re like the latter sort of lineage? So that things you learn and do don’t drive you into an intellectual “cul de sac”, closing off avenues of further intellectual development?

      Re: always feeling like your best paper is the one you just finished, I didn’t have that feeling myself, even early on in my career. Though on the other hand, my very first paper is one of my weakest ones. It’d be *so* much better if I redid it and rewrote it today. Indeed, I kind of am! (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/my-first-publication-revisiting-an-oikos-non-classic/)

  2. Hi Jeremy

    Fun … and not an easy. But given the opportunity for free promotion let me choose this:

    http://www.cifor.org/mla/download/publication/Diameter%20fluctuations%20CJFR.pdf

    It isn’t highly cited. Nor is it whizzy high-powered ecology. Why do I like it? Partly it was the quirky process of the research. I enjoy doing these little low-cost side projects and am especially pleased when they yield something interesting. I had done a lot of work (my PhD) on measuring tree and forest dynamics and the insight that trees can undergo relatively large and rapid diameter changes unrelated to biomass growth was not recognized and still remains underappreciated (and helped explain some analyses examining tree growth seasonality).

    Happy New Year to all.
    Douglas

  3. I think the paper I am proudest of was my first (Journal of Herpetology 28:225-230; http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1564624?uid=3739920&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103210711161). It is about competition among two species of introduced geckos in Galveston and I like it for a number of reasons. First, it represents a collaboration between a PhD student, two MS students and an undergraduate student. None of our professors did anything but read drafts of it and offer comments. Second, it is kind of elegant and so much of what has come after in my own work has seemed brute force in terms of its implementation. It was a simple idea that grew out of a small group of friends applying the scientific method before we really knew what we were doing. And we were young enough to jump into a project without considering all that could go wrong, a place I wish I was more often. Finally, the results were clear and made clear predictions about what would happen in the future. It has been a few decades since the data were collected and I was just thinking a few months back that I need to return to that site and see if the two competing gecko species ended up doing what we predicted they would (the newly introduced species continuing to displace the earlier resident). So I also like the idea that it is a paper that can be followed up on in a productive manner.

    As far as our science changing over time, a colleague of mine (Ray Huey) once said he would rather put out 1 good paper a year than 15 mediocre ones. And when you get tenure, you have the leisure (perhaps) to be better but less “productive”. I guess I need to get back to elegance and simplicity. Cheers.

    Paul Klawinski

  4. Pingback: Hoisted from the comments: are you still improving as an ecologist? | Dynamic Ecology

  5. Who can pass on an opportunity for shameless self promotion 😉 ?

    I’m most proud of this recent paper ( Oecologia 172(4): 1105-1115, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00442-012-2550-2) . I like it because it pulls together some community and ecosystem/meta-ecosystem concepts in a novel way by linking local interactions to larger scale effects on the ecosystem, and it provides a very detailed mechanism for the interaction. That last bit I’m particularly proud of. My adviser pushed me to go further than to infer interspecific interactions, and was right to do so! An undergraduate and I ended up filming and coding the caddisfly behavior and it turned out beautifully and really completed the story. I don’t think its every going to be a highly cited part of ecology, but I think its a very nice little paper and one worth being proud of.

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