What are the most important, influential review papers in the history of ecology?

Review papers (including but not limited to meta-analyses) grow in importance as the scientific literature grows. Nobody can read everything, and so everybody needs summaries.

But just as with primary research papers, not all review papers are created equal. Some are more important and influential than others, for all sorts of reasons. They might identify a surprising new empirical pattern in need of explanation. Identify fruitful new directions for for future research. Refute or confirm some important theory. Etc.

Question: what are the most important, influential review papers in the history of ecology?

Note that by “influential” I do not necessarily mean “most cited“. For instance, review papers on the ecological effects of climate change get cited a lot because they’re very topical. Everybody who write a paper about climate change starts with a paragraph summarizing what’s currently known, and cites some review paper (what Andrew Hendry calls “fill in the box” citations). Summarizing what everyone already knows is necessary and useful! But it’s no criticism to note that “summarizing what everyone already knows” doesn’t make a review paper important and influential. To be important and influential, a review paper probably has to change our collective thinking in some way.

The first candidates that come to my mind are Schoener’s and Connell’s dueling 1983 reviews of field experiments on interspecific competition. I feel like those reviews were influential not just in confirming what many ecologists already thought, that interspecific competition matters in nature. I feel like they were also influential in establishing field experiments as the way to do community ecology for more than a decade. But I was in elementary school in 1983, so perhaps someone who was active at the time can comment on this (and correct me if necessary!).

The next candidate that comes to my mind is Jessica Gurevitch and colleagues’ 1992 meta-analysis of field experiments on competition. Again, not so much for its influence on ecologists’ collective thinking about competition, as for its influence on ecologists’ collective thinking about how to write review papers. Most every ecologist now thinks that meta-analyses are the proper way to summarize the literature. They think that because of a change in their collective thinking that was kicked off by this paper.

The next candidate that comes to my mind is Hargreaves et al. 2014, a meta-analysis of experiments that transplant individual organisms beyond their geographic or elevational range limits, in order to test hypotheses about the determinants of those range limits. Great, great meta-analysis, because it’s not just a meta-analysis. Hargreaves et al. develop a novel framework that summarizes what different sorts of transplant experiments tell us about various alternative hypotheses regarding range limits. The existing literature, organized within that framework, reveals some very clear-cut conclusions, as well as some big gaps that need filling. I feel like this review has been quite influential on ecologists who work on range limits. But that’s admittedly a narrower sphere of influence than for Schoener 1983, Connell 1983, or Gurevitch et al. 1992.

The final candidate that comes to my mind is a paper that I think actually deserves to be more influential than it has been: Murdoch et al. 2002. Murdoch et al. pull together and reanalyze what was known at the time about the periodicity of population cycles, and document a very clear-cut and striking new pattern: generalist and specialist consumers that cycle exhibit cycles of different periods. Of course, one could question whether Murdoch et al. 2002 is truly a “review” paper. It’s a review in the sense that it pulls together previously-published data on many species. But much of that data wasn’t originally collected for purposes of addressing the specific question Murdoch et al. address, and so the analysis doesn’t just summarize previously published results.

If we wanted to broaden the conversation to include reviews from evolutionary biology as well as ecology, then one candidate would be Trivers and Hare 1976, pulling together published data on investment in male vs. female offspring by haplodiploid insects to test Hamilton’s haplodiploidy hypothesis for the evolution of sociality. As with Murdoch et al. 2002, it’s arguably a stretch to call this a “review” paper though.

These are just opening bids, I’m sure y’all can suggest many other candidates. Looking forward to learning from your comments.

49 thoughts on “What are the most important, influential review papers in the history of ecology?

  1. Here are two counter-bids:

    – Chesson (2000) Mechanisms of maintenance of species diversity. Review of Ecology and Systematics
    – Scheffer et al (2001) Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems. Nature

    I nominate these two because they reviewed topics that had been around for a while, but moved them into the ‘mainstream’ and really kicked-off large bodies of work in the 21st century (for better or worse).

    I met Marten Scheffer once when I was a grad student and he was the first to admit that their 2001 review was nothing ground-breaking. He even pointed out how Salvador Dali (!) knew about these concepts decades before (see Dali’s painting “The Swallow’s Tail” for a hysteresis curve: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Swallow%27s_Tail)

  2. A correspondent suggests Stearns 1976, which is an excellent bid. And also suggests that Trivers & Hare is far too original to be a true “review” paper, which is probably right.

      • Ok, thanks. Presumably that one’s only influential among those studying deserts. Rather like the Hargreaves et al. paper, which I love, but which is influential only among those working on one important but specific topic.

  3. I think Nathan et al (2008) “A movement ecology paradigm for unifying organismal movement research” punches well above its weight. While movement behaviour has been studied at least since Darwin, Nathan et al. laid out a coherent research program for studying movement behaviour, and shaped the kinds of questions that movement ecologists think are worth studying for the last decade.

  4. Stearns’ sequence of two review papers on life histories: 1976 in Quarterly Review of Biology and 1977 in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. Highly influential.

    Deevey’s 1947 review of life tables for natural populations of animals, in Quarterly Review of Biology.

  5. In “the history of ecology” is quite hard to judge as an early career researcher.

    But in the time, I was already around
    Daniel Bolnick “The Ecology of Individuals: Incidence and Implications of Individual Specialization”
    was quite influental in bringing intraspecific variation back on the table

  6. Levin, S. A. 1992. The problem of pattern and scale in ecology. Ecology, 73, 1943-1967.

    Hurlbert, S. H. 1984. Pseudoreplication and the design of ecological field experiments. Ecological Monographs, 54, 187-211.

    • Ooh, Hurlbert 1984 is an interesting bid. Like some of the others on the list though, it’s arguably a stretch to call it a “review” paper.

      I think of Levin 1992 as more of a perspectives-type piece than a review paper, but what do others think?

  7. More nominees:

  8. In my opinion the paper authored by Bruno et al. (2003) “Inclusion of facilitation into ecological theory”, published in TREE is a great contribution to formalize our understanding about how facilitative interactions may affect community organization.

    • Yeah, I think the question with that one is how influential it’s been. Christopher Moore gave a great talk at the ASN standalone meeting in Asilomar back in Jan. where he quoted from a bunch of theoretical ecology textbooks published at various times over several decades. Every single one had a chunk of text saying something like “mutualism and facilitation are undertheorized relative to their importance in nature; future theoretical work should change that”. So if Bruno et al. said that, well, they’re in good company, because people have been saying that for decades and yet somehow nothing changes!

  9. I’m not sure if it will stand the test of time, but Webb et al. (2002) “Phylogenies and community ecology” influenced a huge amount of work, including push-back, and cut across a lot of the field.

    Another more speculative entry is Pimm et al. (1991) “Food web patterns and their consequences”. That paper — and other reviews by Cohen and colleagues — predate me, so I’m unsure how influential each was at the time, but in retrospect the 1991 review seems to contain all the foundations for work on ecological networks, including some putative “laws”, a generative model for networks, etc.

    • Agree that Pimm et al. 1991 was fairly influential at the time. But interest in food webs as networks goes back further, to Cohen in the 1970s. And subsequent work shot down some of the patterns and consequences for which Pimm et al. argued. Hard for a review paper to be among the most influential ever if it ends up getting undermined or superseded within 10-15 years.

      I feel like Webb et al. 2002 was influential, but only for a brief time, because the key idea turned out not to work. I have some old posts on this:

      • “Hard for a review paper to be among the most influential ever if it ends up getting undermined or superseded within 10-15 years.” Is that really true? A review paper that leads to or facilitates subsequent work that shoots down some of its patterns might be the very definition of “influential”.

      • Well, in the case of Webb et al. 2002, the problems with it should’ve been evident right from the start. And I don’t think we learned much of lasting value from trying to apply the approach they suggested.

        The case of the Pimm et al. review (and Cohen’s earlier work) is a good example of what you’re suggesting. Early work suggested “stylized facts” about food web structure. That work was based on flawed data, which prompted Gary Polis and others to go collect better data. Which overturned many of the original “stylized facts” and suggested new ones to replace them.

      • A further thought on the food web example. My sense–which may well be wrong!–is that some of the people who went out and collected better food web data didn’t necessarily *like* doing so. Maybe I’m totally wrong, but I feel like some of them went and got better data in part out of frustration. Frustration that food web ecologists were getting excited about patterns in the very flimsy data available at the time. A feeling of having to clean up somebody else’s mess: “Ugh, *I* know the current data is useless, but these food web theorists don’t, so guess I’m gonna have to go collect better data.”

        Again, my sense of the history here is based on n-th hand anecdata, so could be totally wrong. But even if it’s wrong in this particular case, it does raise a broader point that I think is very interesting. Scientists, and philosophers of science, often talk about “fruitful mistakes”. Ideas that were scientifically useful to pursue, even though they turned out to be incorrect. But what makes a mistake fruitful? And what, if anything, is the difference between a fruitful mistake, and a mistake that just prompts some people to do a lot of pointless work demonstrating what’s already known? In a world in which different people know different things, the distinction between those two sorts of cases might be fuzzy. And if refuting something that some people already knew was mistaken leads to a lasting advance, well, should credit for influencing the direction of the field go to the people who made the mistake? Or to the people who corrected the mistake? Or both? I have an old post discussing these issues in the context of physics: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/09/08/book-review-how-the-hippies-saved-physics/

  10. Just want to say for the record how surprised I am that this post drew so much first-day traffic and got such a good comment thread going. I thought it would sink like a stone.

  11. Well surely someone has to say it …
    Connell, J.H. 1978 Diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Science 199, 1302–1310 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/199/4335/1302
    Was influential …

    While I am here …
    Grubb, P 1977 The maintenance of species‐richness in plant communities: the importance of the regeneration niche. Biological Reviews, 52: 107-145.
    also hugely influential in community ecology …

  12. One emerging theme is that the most influential review papers in ecology mostly aren’t meta-analyses. And given that meta-analysis has been a thing in ecology since the early ’90s, and was taken up quite quickly, I don’t think you can chalk that up to insufficient time for meta-analyses to be published and become influential. And while Gurevitch et al. was very influential, it’s a special case. It was influential in encouraging ecologists to do meta-analyses. It wasn’t nearly so influential on ecologists’ thinking about ecology.

    I’d chalk up the lack of very influential meta-analyses to a couple of factors. First, as I think this comment thread makes clear, influential review papers are influential in large part because they aren’t *just* reviews. Many of the most influential review papers in ecology stretch the definition of “review”. They don’t *just* summarize the existing literature. They also reframe it, propose new hypotheses about it, etc. And importantly, those reframings/new hypotheses/etc. usually aren’t *conclusions* of the review. That is, those reframings/new hypotheses/etc. don’t spring from review of the existing data. Rather, those reframings/new hypotheses/etc. shape the review, not the other way around. I wonder a little if it’s hard to do that in the context of a meta-analysis. There’s so much emphasis in meta-analysis on “objectively” summarizing the previous literature. These days, people do still propose reframings/new hypotheses/etc.–but they mostly seem to do it in opinion and perspectives-type papers, which don’t often contain meta-analyses. So I wonder if one effect of the wide uptake of meta-analysis has been to decouple “summarizing existing data” from “thinking of new ideas”.

    Second, many of these influential reviews date from the time when ecology was still forming the conceptual framework it has today. That framework was mostly in place by the ’90s, and certainly by the early oughts, when ecologists increasingly started to turn their collective attention to more applied work on global change. Most of these really influential reviews also date from a time when there were many fewer ecologists writing many fewer papers. Perhaps for those reasons, it’s just harder to write a really influential paper of any sort these days. Whether a review paper, or an opinion/perspectives piece, or a primary research paper, or whatever.

  13. A query: I’ve noticed a rise in the past few years in paper titles that are basically a 1 sentence summary of the study’s major finding. For example, ‘Soil microbial diversity decreases with multiple anthropogenic stressors.’ I always liked papers that tell you about the action of the study but don’t tell you the takeaway. For example, ‘Determining the effects of multiple anthropogenic stressors on soil microbial diversity.’ A third type is simply using your question as the title. For example, “Do multiple anthropogenic stressors affect soil microbial diversity?” Do you have a preference? Perhaps there is evidence to suggest greater readership or number of citations when there is a statement title as opposed to an action or question title?

  14. Late to the show here as usual. Really interesting post though.

    RE influential review papers:
    I think Sax & Gains (2003) – Species diversity: from global decreases to local increases
    was probably quite influential in shaping more nuanced thought on biodiversity change.

    And in that vein:
    Vellend et. al (2013) and Dornelas et al. (2014) might be good candidates for meta-analyses missing from the list. They’ve certainly stirred things up over the last seven years. And I think the following back and forth has been extremely productive so far.

    Veering off slightly. I don’t suppose you’d be interested in posing a similar question regarding Ecology books rather than review articles Jeremy? I’d be really interested to see which books the veteran academics on here think were most important in shaping the field. Also which books have stood the test of time better than others. It’s hard to see past the Monographs in Population Biology series as a cornerstone, but maybe I’m wrong? Obviously text books are a category in themselves.

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