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525,600 minutes, 365 papers, and 100 articles every ecologist should read

Last month, Nature Ecology & Evolution published Courchamp and Bradshaw’s ‘100 articles every ecologist should read.’ Here, Courchamp and Bradshaw attempt to compile a list of seminal papers as a foundational reading list for ecology students. To this end, they enlist the help of editorial members of a selection of ecology journals to nominate and rank papers that “each postgraduate student in ecology—regardless of their particular topic—should read by the time they finish their dissertation… [and] any ecologist should also probably read.”

 

Ultimately, Courchamp and Bradshaw created a list that skews heavily male through a methodology that seems designed to avoid engaging in deep reflection on unconscious bias. Many ecologists have voiced their disappointment with the list; on twitter Kelly Ramirez and Terry McGlynn started collecting nominations of favorite female-authored papers for an inclusive list of 100 articles every ecologist should read.

 

Four of the best papers that I read in 2017 were responses to Courchamp and Bradshaw:

 

Bruna’s “Editorial board members are a non-random sample of ecological experts

Editors are indeed experts, but very few of the world’s experts are editors. Until Courchamp & Bradshaw’s survey is repeated with demographically and geographically distinct populations of qualified scientists, the extent to which the list of must-read papers they report reflects the consensus of the ecological community remains an open question.

 

Baum & Martin’s “It is time to overcome unconscious bias in ecology

 Rather than developing a representative and inspiring list of papers for young ecologists, Courchamp & Bradshaw have presented a highly gender and racially biased list in which 97 of 100 selected articles are first-authored by white men.

 

Gilbert’s “Can 100 must-read papers also reflect ‘who’ is ecology?

 Robert May (ten papers), Robert MacArthur (eight) and David Tilman (eight) each had more articles in the list than all female ecologists combined.

 

Rameriz et al.’s “The future of ecology is collaborative, inclusive and deconstructs biases

The list continues a long-standing tradition of highlighting almost exclusively work from male scientists and perpetuates a false perception that women, people of colour and people from the Global South are new to the field of ecology. In addition, the list is restrictive in classifying what ecology is, and is not.

 

These four letters to the editor at Nature Ecology & Evolution capture and articulate the most important critiques of Courchamp and Bradshaw’s list. But, I think that this one paper and its list of one hundred papers that every ecologist should read begs one more question: What does it mean to read a paper?

 

Courchamp and Bradshaw note that we are reading more papers than before (supposedly 468 papers per year for the average science faculty member in 2012), and more efficiently (average time spent reading has decreased by one-third). They explain that we are able to keep up with this Seussian treadmill of reading more faster through strategies like ‘flick-bouncing.’ But, somehow, despite all their best flick-bouncing, the journal editorial members that voted on the 100 seminal papers ranked articles that they had not read: they marked each paper as ‘“Read it”, “Know it” or “Don’t know it”. The result: “the ranked list of articles differed substantially depending on the stringent criterion of the respondents having actually read them. Overall, only 23% of the 100 top-ranked papers in the all-article list were also in the top 100 of the read-only list. A remarkable example is the top-ranked paper in the all-article list, which is entirely absent in the read-only top 100 (in fact, it was in 325th place in the latter ranking).”

 

So, what does it mean to read a paper? Is it sufficient to flick-bounce these 100 must-read papers? (Apparently it’s sufficient to not read them at all, if we go by the voters’ recommendations.)

 

I argue for slow reading — not Courchamp and Bradshaw’s list necessarily, but in general and across a more diverse reading list. Slow reading has become one of my favorite academic activities, and a practice I will forever associate with new parenthood. As I was preparing to return to my dissertation research at the end of my maternity leave, I stumbled on a series of blog posts about #365papers. It was late December 2015, and many of my academic heroes were reflecting on a year in which they had challenged themselves to read a paper a day. In 2015 I was decidedly not on top of the literature: that year I had navigated committee meetings & pregnant fieldwork, presented my research at 35 weeks pregnant and with an eight-week-old baby, I had learned how to install a carseat, but I had not kept up with reading papers. But, I was inspired by the lists, the #365papers hashtag, and the honesty in the recaps. Anne Jefferson’s post especially resonated with me: she wrote of her experience reading with a newborn and I thought I could do thatMeghan Duffy at Dynamic Ecology wrote about how she defined a #365papers paper:

 

Overall, I read 181 “papers” – though what to count was not always clear. I counted only papers that I read thoroughly and completely – say, at the level that I read something for a lab meeting. This meant that a lot of things that I read didn’t get counted, because I didn’t read the whole thing or only skimmed parts of it. I decided to count manuscripts and grant proposals that I was reviewing, as well as individual chapters of books and dissertations.

 

The thorough and complete requirement intrigued me — I had spent my first few years in graduate school perfecting the art of the skim. I often read an abstract, the opening paragraphs of the introduction or discussion, and some figure captions, and then considered myself prepared for class discussion. I didn’t really do deep dives, especially in papers that weren’t directly related to my research. But I liked the idea, as Josh Drew wrote, that this resolution would give “me an excuse to read papers that were outside of my field.”

 

So, I began #365papers in 2016. In those early exhausting months of parenthood, I could at the very least read one paper each day and feel like I had accomplished something academic. I may have spilled every ounce of milk I pumped, I may have fallen asleep at my desk at office hours, I may have posted the wrong grading rubric for my class, or applied for a field permit for the wrong GPS coordinates, but I was reading!

 

Reading slowly in 2016, I worked my way through the literature behind four chapters of my dissertation and two sets of revisions on my first paper. I re-read the papers that were the cornerstones of my fieldwork methods, I set up google scholar alerts on my field site, I pulled out my copy of Foundations of Ecology, I collected recommendations from folks on twitter, I identified which journals I consistently turned to and started systematically scouring their tables of contents. I came out of the experience with a deeper appreciation for good writing. My reviewing and writing skills improved as I gained confidence in my expertise in both ecology and syntax. In 2016, I averaged a paper a day for eleven months — I took a break in October — and I loved it. I’ve been less consistent in 2017, but I jumped back into #365papers this October and I’m ending the year on a solid three-month streak.

 

I still skim abstracts (though often those papers end up in my To-Read list for #365papers) and I engage in my share of flick-bouncing. But the papers that shape my thinking — the ones that spark new ideas & stick in my brain for weeks — are slow reads. As a freshly-minted ecology PhD, I’m not convinced that we need a single list of ‘must-read’ papers. I think instead we need to learn how to read slowly, to build our own systems for collecting pdfs and organizing our stacks of papers, to practice carving out time in our busy days to dig into the literature and think deeply.

 

My favorite slow reads of the year:

  • The four letters to the editor in response to Courchamp & Bradshaw.
  • Kueppers et al. 2017. Warming and provenance limit tree recruitment across and beyond the elevation range of subalpine forest. Global Change Biology.
  • Hudson et al. 2017. Phenoseasonal subcanopy light dynamics & the effects of light on the physiological ecology of common understory shrub, L benzoin. PLOS ONE.
  • Frederickson, ME. 2017. Mutualism are not on the verge of breakdown. Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
  • Ogilvie, et al. 2017. Interannual bumble bee abundance is driven by indirect climate effects on floral resource phenology. Ecology Letters.
  • Toomey, Knight & Barlow. 2017. Navigating the space between research and implementation in conservation. Conservation Letters.
  • Nelson et al. 2017. Signaling Safety: Characterizing Fieldwork Experiences and Their Implications for Career Trajectories. American Anthropologist.
  • Rabinowitz D. 1981. Seven forms of rarity. In The Biological Aspects of Rare Plants Conservation.
  • Graae et al. 2017. Stay or go — how topographic complexity influences alpine plant population and community responses to climate change. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics.

And one more recommendation — it’s not related to scientific literature at all, but I titled this blog post so I could link to David Rakoff’s radio essay on Rent. He felt as salty about Rent as I feel about ‘100 articles every ecologist should read’.

Here’s to the 525,600 minutes awaiting us in 2018 — to daylights, sunsets, midnights, cups of coffee and 365 papers next year.

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