What papers should be considered for the 2018 George Mercer Award? Nominate someone! (UPDATED)

The George Mercer Award is given annually by the ESA to an outstanding research paper published in the previous two years (so, 2016 or 2017 for this year’s award) with a lead author age 40 or younger at the time of publication. The age limit is in memory of George Mercer, a promising young ecologist who was killed in WW II.

I love awards like the Mercer Award. It’s great that the ESA recognizes outstanding work being done by up-and-coming ecologists. And thinking about potential nominees is a fun excuse to think about what makes for truly outstanding ecological research today. This would be a great topic for your next lab meeting: ask everyone suggest a nominee for the Mercer Award and then talk about them.

I have an old post looking back on past Mercer Award winners to look for common threads (more specific than, you know, “being a great paper”). So have a look at that post, and the list of past winners, if you want help forming a “search image”. Broadly speaking, Mercer Award winning papers tend to be those that powerfully combine multiple lines of evidence (often including both theory and data) to really nail what’s going on in some particular system, but in such a way as to also have much broader implications (e.g.). But there are exceptions, plus there’s no rule that says future winners have to be the same sorts of papers as past winners. In particular, it’s notable that only one review/synthesis/meta-analysis paper has ever won as far as I know. One of these years, surely we’ll see the award go to an outstanding working group paper led by a young author, or to a paper from an outstanding large collaboration like NutNet. Maybe this is the year?

So, what papers do you think should be in the conversation for the Mercer award this year? Here are three just off the top of my head, but I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of great papers by young authors so please add your favorites in the comments. And then follow through and nominate them!

  • LaManna et al. 2017 Science. A rare beast in ecology: a discovery of new and important large-scale patterns in empirical data (a latitudinal gradient in the strength of negative intraspecific density dependence, and in the degree to which density dependence and species abundances are correlated). Further, those patterns suggest an explanation for maybe the most famous pattern in all of ecology: the latitudinal gradient in species richness. There are challenging statistical issues in using observational data to estimate density dependence and so I’m not sure if everyone is yet totally convinced of the results. But this is clearly an important paper even if it’s not the final word.
  • Usinowicz et al. 2017 Nature. Speaking of latitudinal gradients in the strength of coexistence mechanisms: Usinowicz et al. use long-term monitoring data on seed recruitment in 10 forest plots spanning a long latitudinal gradient to estimate the strength of the temporal storage effect in each plot. They find that there’s a latitudinal gradient in the strength of the storage effect; it’s stronger at low latitudes because seed recruitment is more asynchronous there. This weakens interspecific relative to intraspecific competition and so promotes species coexistence. As with LaManna et al., there are challenging statistical issues here (it looks like they’re estimating a lot of parameters), and I haven’t yet dug deep into their data and supplements to satisfy myself that they’re actually estimating the storage effect and that their estimates are accurate. But if this is right it’s a very important result.
  • Hart et al. 2016 Ecology Letters. The Mercer award has never gone to a pure theory paper as far as I know. If it ever has it’s been a long time. Which doesn’t seem quite right. I mean, it often goes to papers that test or apply theory but don’t develop it. So why can’t it also go to papers that develop theory but don’t test or apply it? Hart et al. use simple models to demolish the common intuition that intraspecific variation should generally promote species coexistence by “blurring” interspecific differences in competitive ability. In fact, intraspecific variation usually inhibits species coexistence. This illustrates one of the most important tasks for theoreticians: correcting widespread pre-theoretical intuitions and replacing them with new, better intuitions. Before you read Hart et al. it’s hard to imagine how it could be right. After you read it, it’s hard to imagine how it could be wrong. The main limitation of the paper is its focus on purely ecological effects of intraspecific variation, thereby ignoring, e.g., selection depleting variation over time and eco-evolutionary feedbacks. But every paper has limitations, so nobody should hold it against Hart et al. that they don’t yet have a complete theory of intraspecific variation and coexistence. You can’t do everything in one paper.
  • Weiss-Lehman et al. 2017 Nature Communications. I love this sort of thing: taking full advantage of the power of a model system to do an experiment that teases apart the subtle (but very general) mechanisms underpinning a striking pattern. Weiss-Lehman et al. use an incisive microcosm experiment with flour beetles to explain why populations undergoing range expansion evolve both a higher mean rate of spread and a higher variance in spread rate. Randomly shuffling the spatial locations of individuals within populations without altering population density or demography revealed that spatial evolution is a key driver of the mean and variance of range expansion speed. And they didn’t stop there; they also did phenotypic trait assays to directly test for spatial evolution of movement propensity and demographic parameters. Likely to become a future textbook example of eco-evolutionary dynamics. Last year another great microcosm experiment on the same topic became the first microcosm paper to win the Mercer award (Williams et al. 2016). The Mercer’s never gone to papers on the same topic in consecutive years as far as I can recall (too lazy to check). But that doesn’t take anything away from Weiss-Lehman et al., plus there’s a first time for everything. (UPDATE: and see the comments; the post neglected to mention Ochocki & Miller 2017 Nature Communications, a third outstanding paper on this topic. All three papers were done in loose collaboration.)

Nominations for the Mercer Award and other annual ESA awards are due Oct. 19. Details here for all ESA awards, and further details here that are specific to the Mercer award.

This year our very own Meghan Duffy is chairing the Mercer Award subcommittee. She would love for you to nominate a paper! As we’ve discussed in the past, the Mercer Award subcommittee is not overwhelmed with nominations and takes every nomination very seriously no matter who it’s from. So you should definitely go ahead and nominate a paper, even if you’re a grad student or postdoc. Your nominee might well win! Plus, writing a Mercer award nomination letter is a good way to practice explaining to your colleagues why some bit of science is really great. Which is something you need to be good at if you expect to get grants and publish papers in selective journals.

If you’re not sure how to write a Mercer award nomination letter, here’s what you do: in 1-2 pages, summarize the paper for a broad audience (remember: possibly none of the committee members will be experts on the paper topic), and place it in a broader context to explain why it’s exemplary/novel/interesting/important science. Each of my little blurbs above could be expanded into a nomination letter.

7 thoughts on “What papers should be considered for the 2018 George Mercer Award? Nominate someone! (UPDATED)

  1. I whole-heartedly second Weiss-Lehmann et al! It’s a wonderfully-written paper with very clear and convincing results. I would only point out that it was published in 2017 (not 2016), so the paper is eligible for both this year and next year’s Mercer award.

    One thing that makes Williams et al 2016, Weiss-Lehmann et al 2017, and Ochocki & Miller 2017 really interesting is that the three manuscripts were prepared in a loose collaboration; we had discovered that we were all working (unintentionally) on very similar projects, and discussed ideas and results in a way that I think improved each of the manuscripts. Weiss-Lehmann et al and Ochocki & Miller were even submitted to NC in a joint submission, and were published in the same issue. The outcomes are (in my biased opinion!) a clear testament to the reproducibility of the key findings, and demonstrate the value of openly collaborative research.

    • Thanks for stopping by to comment Brad. Typo corrected, and I updated the post to point readers to your comments. That’s interesting that all three groups independently started working on the same topic and then started loosely collaborating. Clearly, great minds think alike!

      We have an old post on getting scooped in ecology: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/on-getting-scooped-in-ecology/comment-page-1/. It’s pretty rare for ecologists to independently end up working on very similar studies. And when they do, I think it’d be great if they could handle it the way your three groups did.

      I recall back in grad school that a labmate of mine submitted a protist microcosm experiment on biodiversity and ecosystem function to Nature at about the same time as another independent group did. If memory serves, both papers were published in the same issue of Nature, and we later heard through the grapevine that they’d been assigned at least some of the same reviewers. That both experiments reported similar results apparently helped convince reviewers that neither was a fluke.

  2. One of my personal favorites is Farrior et al. (2016) “Dominance of the Suppressed” in Science, which I also brought up in last year’s thread. The paper develops an elegant and intuitive model to explain both the dominant power-law trend in tropical rainforest size-structure and the deviations from the power-law for very small and very large trees. It’s primarily a modeling / simulation paper, but they do some pretty cool work to link several aspects of the model to previously unexplored aspects of empirical data.

    • Wahey, a comment! I’m kind of bummed this post hasn’t gotten more love.

      Yes, agree Farrior et al. should be in the conversation. As with any paper that proposes a mechanistic biological explanation for a statistical pattern like a power law, I do wonder a little if the ultimate explanation isn’t more “generic”, for lack of a better word. See this old post: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/steven-frank-on-how-to-explain-biological-patterns/. But that’s not really a comment on Farrior et al. specifically, just a related musing.

      You should totally nominate Farrior et al. if you haven’t already.

      • I submitted my nomination just before writing that comment!

        You make a good point — if a power-law is a statistical attractor of sorts, as Frank suggests, is the close fit between the empirical pattern and the model results really a strong test of the idea that the mechanisms being modeled are the ones that really generated the pattern? (Or at least, I think that’s the point you’re making… either way, it’s something I wondered, too.) I think there are three factors that clinch it for me:

        1. The model is able to explain not only the dominant power-law trend at intermediate diameters, but also the deviations on either end. My intuition is that the problem of underdetermination here is much less severe than it would be for a regular power law.
        2. The dynamics of the model can explain multiple features of the empirical data, just like you point out how Wiser et al. (and Lenski’s experiment more broadly) can explain multiple patterns simultaneously.
        3. Although the model makes a bunch of big simplifying assumptions, it’s really just modeling a bunch of processes that we know should matter in any forest where light competition is important.

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