What are the greatest neglected classics in ecology and evolution? Truly great papers or books that deserve to be much more widely known than they are?*
Part of the challenge here is deciding how little-known a paper has to be before it counts as “neglected”. I’d be very surprised if any truly great paper was totally unknown–say, never cited, or cited only a handful of times. Indeed, lots of my very favorite papers are hardly obscure, even if they’re not nearly as famous as I think they should be.
The other part of the challenge here is deciding how good and important a paper has to be in order to deserve to be called a “classic”. There’s no single right answer here. Major league baseball fans fall on a continuum from those who’d prefer a small Hall of Fame, to those who’d prefer a large Hall of Fame. Similarly, I’m sure ecologists and evolutionary biologists fall on a continuum from those who think that only papers on this level count as “classics”, to those for whom “classic” means “any paper I like a lot”.
Note that a “neglected classic” needs to be old enough that it could’ve attained “classic” status. Ok, I don’t know exactly how old that is. But probably at least a decade, right? Maybe even more?
Here’s an opening bid: Levin 1970. A huge step forward for coexistence theory, I think. Mark McPeek thinks so too. I agree 100% with Mark that this paper totally supersedes older verbal ideas about coexistence. If you want to understand coexistence as a dynamical phenomenon, and so appreciate all the ways in which Hutchinson’s famous “n-dimensional hypervolume” metaphor is limited and unhelpful–even the opposite of helpful–you need to read Levin 1970. It’s also very accessible, and it’s got an unusual and charming epilogue. And Levin 1970 has only been cited 262 times according to Web of Science, about 1/10th as often as the most-cited ecology papers from that time. Perhaps Mark’s paper looking back on Levin 1970 will raise its profile to “classic”.
Armstrong and McGehee’s work on nonequilibrium coexistence via the mechanism now known as “relative nonlinearity” might qualify. This is hugely important work and was a big conceptual leap for community ecology at the time (though see next paragraph for related work from around the same time). But Armstrong and McGehee 1980 (the paper most ecologists cite, even though they first published the idea in 1976) has been cited 572 times, which arguably means it’s not really “neglected”.
And as long as we’re talking about neglected classics in coexistence theory, I’ll throw Levins 1979 out there. Terrific paper, only been cited 278 times. But some of the key ideas are in Levin 1970 (Levins basically extends the argument to non-equilibrium situations), so if you forced me to pick one I’d pick Levin as the neglected classic.
Until not too long ago, Price 1970 was definitely a neglected classic. But thanks to the work of Steven Frank and others, the Price equation is now much more widely known. Price 1970 has now been cited 651 times, and unlike most papers it’s been cited much more often in recent years than it was when it was first published.
I can think of numerous others just off the top of my head, though I don’t know that any are quite on the same level as Levin 1970. Armstrong 1979 (ahead of its time, though it has antecedants including Levin 1970; Robert Armstrong has numerous underrated papers). Kaunzinger and Morin 1998 (ok, I’m laughably biased on this one since Christina Kaunzinger was a labmate of mine and Peter Morin was my supervisor, but I still think it’s maybe the greatest food chain experiment ever and should be in every ecology textbook). Chesson and Huntly 1997 (one of my favorite papers ever, a big influence on me and very well-known in the circles I move in, but not as widely known as it should be). Lots of others I’m dying to name–I could go on and on. But I’ll shut up now and open the floor for comments.
*Maybe we should call them “should-be classics”, since “neglected classics” is something of an oxymoron.