Scientific papers often start by noting that lots of people are interested in the topic: “Topic X is of wide interest in ecology”, or some similar phrase. Sometimes they also talk about changes over time in how many people are interested in the topic, for instance by writing “Topic X has long been of central interest in ecology” or “Much recent research in ecology considers topic Y”.
Please, please don’t do this.*
As a colleague of mine likes to say, your paper should tell the reader about biology, not biologists. That is, your paper should introduce the biological topic and explain why it’s interesting and important, not say that other people think the topic is interesting and important. No, not even if everyone since the dawn of time has thought the topic interesting and important. Science is not a popularity contest. If the topic really is interesting and important, then you should be able to explain why, in which case the fact that other people also think the topic is interesting and important is at best superfluous. And if the topic is not interesting and important, pointing out that lots of other people think it’s interesting and important just shows that lots of people care about boring and unimportant things. Or at best, that your topic is a bandwagon.
For instance, one line of research in my lab concerns spatial synchrony in population ecology. Populations of the same species separated by hundreds or even thousands of km often exhibit positively-correlated fluctuations in abundance. Which is frickin’ amazing when you think about it. (UPDATE: Judging from the comments, that last sentence is confusing readers. My bad. The important thing about synchrony is not that I personally think it’s amazing, or that many others do too. The important thing is that it’s a real phenomenon (not just noise), and that it’s unexplained.) It’s like “action at a distance” in physics–how can such widely-separated systems behave as if they’re somehow connected? Such mysterious behavior cries out for an explanation. That’s why spatial synchrony is worth studying.** Not because spatial synchrony has long been of interest in ecology, or because much recent research in ecology addresses spatial synchrony, or etc.
The difference here can be subtle. For instance, there’s ongoing disagreement over whether short-distance dispersal leading to phase-locking is a plausible explanation for the observed long-distance synchrony of population cycles in nature (as opposed to in theoretical models or tightly-controlled microcosms). Alternatively, though not mutually-exclusively, long-distance synchrony of population cycles might be due to the long-distance synchrony of weather fluctuations, known as the Moran effect. If I was writing a paper on spatial synchrony, I might refer to this ongoing disagreement and use it as motivation for my own work. But it’s important to be precise here, and cite the disagreement for the right reasons. The motivation for further work is that there’s an interesting biological question–the causes of long-distance synchrony of population cycles–that hasn’t yet been answered. Resolving disagreement among the people working on this question is not a good motivation for further work. The goal of science is to figure out how the world works, not to produce agreement among scientists as to how the world works. Those are two different things, although it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between them in practice (e.g., it’s hard to recognize if a question hasn’t been answered, if everyone working in the field thinks it’s been answered). So here, it would be better to say something like “There are two alternative, though not mutually exclusive, explanations for long-distance synchrony of population cycles…” Rather than “Ecologists disagree about the causes of long-distance synchrony of population cycles…” The former phrasing is better because it keeps the focus on biology, rather than on what biologists think about biology.
From my own experience, I can tell you that it’s hard to avoid slipping into talking about biologists rather than biology. You have to constantly guard against it, or at least I do. This is a good mental habit to get into. It makes you alert to bandwagons and zombie ideas, and so keeps you from jumping on them or falling for them.*** It also helps you develop the courage of your own convictions and the ability to articulate them. Writing about biologists rather than biology is a crutch. It’s something you do when you don’t really know–and I mean really know–why your topic is worth studying.
p.s. This advice applies to talks and posters too.
UPDATEx2: As noted in the comments, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t talk about the history of research on your topic. The whole comment thread is great, actually, you should read it.🙂
*Note that I’m sure I’ve done it myself, though I haven’t gone back and checked. We are all sinners.
**Well, I could and sometimes do wave my arms about the applied importance of synchronized disease or crop pest outbreaks and argue that my work will improve our ability to predict/manage/prevent those things. Which doesn’t make such arm waving a good thing. Again, we are all sinners.
***In general, I think graduate students in particular tend to overrate the importance of working on “hot” topics. At the risk of overgeneralizing from my own example, I am living proof that you don’t have to work on “hot” topics, or use popular approaches or systems, to have a career in ecology. Spatial synchrony for instance has never been an especially “hot” topic, protist microcosms have never been a popular study system (just the opposite, in fact), and hardly anybody even understands the Price equation. What’s important is that you work on a topic for good reasons that you can articulate. One of the hardest things to do for graduate students who want to go on in academia is to become familiar with the current state and history of their field, while retaining/gaining the ability to think critically and independently. Also while gaining/retaining the confidence that thinking critically and independently, rather than following the crowd, is actually good for their academic careers rather than bad. (Note that “thinking independently” is not at all the same as “not knowing or willfully ignoring what everyone else thinks”, and that “thinking critically” is not at all the same as “thinking everybody else is wrong about everything”. The foundation of independent and critical thought is a broad and deep grasp of previous thinking.)