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.