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Nature Publishes Top 100 List for Ecology Papers. Here’s Why It’s Wrong.

This morning, I sat down at my desk to clear out my morning emails, make my to-do list, and go about my day. Through several of these channels, I was pointed to a new article in Nature detailing the top 100 articles every ecologist should read. There were already critiques of it flowing through social media, mainly about the representativeness of the list. Depending on which kind of professional hat I’m wearing at the moment, I tend to agree with these assessments. While I recognize – and have read – most of the papers on the list in my early ecological education, I think it misses the mark on defining ecology.

My Social Scientist Hat: Representation and Methods

In a nutshell, the methods employed a random sample survey that received a 55% response rate. The authors asked journal editors as their definition of “expert”: “We thus contacted the editorial members of some of the most renowned journals in general ecology (those with the highest impact factors and avoiding journals that are either specialized or multidisciplinary)”.  Much ink has already been spilled on covering how academic publishing is far from representative with regards to gender, geography, career stage, ethnicity, and the list goes on (here’s an example). Suffice it to say that this panel of experts does not represent ecology, and is therefore biased.

But more fundamentally, there are a number of well-established expert judgment methods available and published in the literature that could help structure this kind of study. These methods, the most common of which is the Delphi method, have standards for representation and built-in consensus-building processes to help negotiate decisions within the project. Instead, these authors relied heavily (though not entirely) on the sheer number of times an article was suggested. Altogether, the process they used systematically eliminated any chance for minority voices to be nominated to the ecological canon they were attempting to develop.

My Early Career Hat: Is this useful?

According to the authors, “our aim was to provide ecology scientists – especially those early in their career – with a compilation of essential ecology articles that they might have otherwise overlooked”. So that’s me! From that perspective, I am still unimpressed. They admit that their list produced mostly very old papers, an average of 38 years old. This definitely didn’t produce the papers that I might have otherwise overlooked. These are the classics, the names that show up in Ecology 101 textbooks. These are important, but they miss some critical developments in ecology over the last few decades.

The biggest thing they missed – and this goes back to representation – is the fact that our understanding of fundamental ecology has shifted to better incorporate humans and after several fundamental theories related to humans have been proven incorrect. The biggest change is the fact that in many cases around the world, forms of indigenous ecology have proven to be more correct than the original paper written by colonial white men. The challenge in ecology today is how to ethically integrate these forms of knowledge to advance our understanding of how the world works and how we might best respond to challenges such as climate change. Yet the list includes not one native author (please correct me if I’m wrong here) or even anthropologist (except for Jared Diamond, but he doesn’t count and is part of the problem) documenting such knowledge. For shame.

In the end, while these papers may have formed the foundation of ecology, I don’t think it’s worth an early career researcher’s time to go back and read them. It’s like a geneticist being forced to read the first paper documenting the structure of DNA – while an important piece of history, more modern papers have better described that structure with greater detail and accuracy. This is where we start today.

Ecologist/General Scientist Hat: The overall conclusions

The authors focused on some statistical analysis of the top 100 list, but they missed the big message that the vast majority (73%) of the articles suggested in their survey process were only suggested a single time. This means that, contrary to how the top 100 was presented, there is not an established canon of ecology. And even if there was, we have evidence to believe that it’s not representative already given the preponderance of studies that land in the academic literature take place in English-speaking temperate environments.

Maybe this is because ecology is such a diverse field and there’s so much embedded under that one umbrella we can’t decide. Maybe this is because it’s still a relatively new field (about 100 years old in total) and the canon is still being developed. Maybe because the canon would look different if thinking about basic versus applied science and ecology has long struggled with this divide. I’d love to see more discussion on these types of questions, rather than pretending there is a canon, albeit one with many problems.

Overall

In the end, I’ve had about a hour to really digest this paper, and I’m sure there are many more aspects of this work that warrant discussion. So consider this a discussion guide, and the evergreen warning to take big splashy headlines with a grain of salt. And always ask “what role does gender have in these conclusions?”

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