What are the top 100 must-read papers in ecology?


With the internet currently atwitter about a new paper in the upstart journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, I have a couple specific thoughts that I’d like to share that go beyond whatever character limit twitter is using nowadays. This paper is a list of must-read papers in the field of ecology. The idea is that there are a lot of scientists out there who aren’t familiar with the depth of the literature, and there are a ton of amazing papers (old and recent alike) that, as scholars, we should know. Gotcha. This makes sense.

I’m only aware of one piece of writing so far, that has a critique of this list. But it’s been less than 24 hours.

There are two aspects of this list that seem off. One is that it paints a very old portrait of what ecology is, and what ecology isn’t. There are entire dimensions of ecology that are not represented, and the emphasis on old school community ecology comes at the cost of population ecology, landscape ecology, ecosystem ecology, paleoecology, behavioral ecology, physiological ecology, and so on. It’s a very narrow view of what constitutes ecology, and not representative of the field today.

I want to focus on the second aspect of this list that seems off. The whole list has only two papers with women first authors, and those come in at #99 and #100. If you’re a working ecologist today, you must know and realize that there are far more spectacular must-read contributions that have come from women leaders in our field. (I asked folks on twitter for some suggestions, and the response has been overwhelming. The folk of 500 Women Scientists are assembling a document based on suggestions from the community, and your input is invited.)

How is it that such a biased list was created, and what can we learn from this?

Let’s listen to the authors of this paper — Drs. Franck Courchamp and Corey Bradshaw — who both wrote about their new paper on their own blogs. (By the way, I consider myself to be buddies with Franck, who I hold in high regard. I mostly know of Corey by reputation, I’ve just shared a beer with him at a conference once. Just to be clear, when I say I had a beer with him, I mean we had separate bottles. We didn’t actually share the same beer.)  Here is Franck’s post and here is Corey’s post. Franck’s blog post briefly identified this bias as an important issue. Corey doesn’t bring up the near-exclusion of women in his blog post, though he remarked on twitter that he currently has a paper in review about the gender bias in his own study.

Here’s the passage by Franck where gender comes up, where he notes some of the surprising things they found while writing the paper:

This came up with a few surprises, such as the discrepancy between the articles that experts recommend to students and those they have actually read themselves, the fact that the average scientist reads ~40 papers per month (if you thought that maybe you were lazy, now you know for sure), or the huge gender bias in authors of said articles, but, damned, I don’t have any space left (nor any patience left) to discuss that. I really should learn to focus on the important stuff…

There’s a lot to digest there. There is a huge gender bias, and this is important stuff. But it’s hard to find the time to deal with it. I hear you.

When we get the science wrong, we fix the science after getting feedback from our peers. But when we handle people wrong, this often gets glossed over. This is a problem, of course, because science and people are inseparable. When we get the science wrong because we handle people wrong, shouldn’t we have to fix the science?

In this paper, the science and the people are most inextricable — it’s about what papers (which obviously were written by people) are important for people to read.

I am not in a position to “vouch” or not “vouch” for Corey, but yes, I know Franck as a good guy. I’ve visited his lab, I’ve worked with junior scientists who have trained with him. He has been an advocate for women in science, and in his own personal life, has walked the walk when it comes to doing things at a personal cost to support the scientific careers of women. I happen to be in a position here to know that Franck thinks highly of the science done by many women. Why are these facts relevant? I am not saying this to exculpate him. I am saying this because it demonstrates the simple fact that biases manifest themselves even among people with good intentions, whenever we take a break from being vigilant guardians against bias.

This problem here isn’t men with bad intentions — it’s just the latest installment of bias doing its thing because authors, editors, and reviewers weren’t on the watch against it. That’s the nature of implicit bias — it ruins things even when there is no intent of wrongdoing.

We aren’t going to fix what’s wrong in our discipline if we merely avoid bad intentions. We need to be the watchguards against bias. All of us. All the time.

Whenever we are not taking active measures against bias, then the bias will manifest itself.

Is it tiring, to always worry about gender bias? Yes. It’s presumably infinitely more tiring to be a woman who is on the sharp end of this bias.

In this paper, I think dealing with bias after the fact was not enough, and this approach would not be acceptable in the design of other experiments. This is simply a methodological error that should have been caught in peer review.

Of course, a list of must-read papers is highly subjective. However, if it’s supposed to represent the overall state of the field, then it would need to be drawn from a sample that is representative of its expert practitioners.

It makes sense to assemble a panel of experts who know the depth of the field to recommend these must-read papers. And there is sense in picking these experts from the editorial boards of what are recognized as good journals. Though it makes sense, you have to make sure that the process isn’t biased.

Why is the science off in this paper? The best concise answer I’ve seen is from Dr. Emilio Bruna:

Emilio is one to know, as he’s the senior author of two recent papers that document how the composition of editorial boards of journals in ecology suffer from tremendous biases. One paper shows how editorial boards are lacking in women, and this one in press shows how there is a huge bias towards North America and Europe in international journals.

If you’re looking for expertise, then it makes sense to hit up editorial boards, of course. However, if you’re looking for an unbiased population that is demographically representative of all ecologists who are experts, then editorial boards are clearly not the way to go.

Okay, that’s it from me about this paper. I don’t have the time for this today, and I owe many people many things by the end of the day, I wasn’t counting on spending 2 hours writing this piece. I chose to do it anyway, because it matters. Because we can’t let the important things wait for convenient moments.

30 thoughts on “What are the top 100 must-read papers in ecology?

  1. Good to see some careful thought about this. What bothers me personally here is that I was polled (as part of one of the editorial boards) and didn’t contribute papers. But if I had: I think there’s a high probability my list would have been similarly skewed. A good reminder to keep my bias-guard up.

  2. As a woman and as a European ecologist, I have to say I agree 100% with your remarks. In our laboratory we don’t even bother submitting to North American controlled editorial boards anymore. The list published in the Nature article is so limited in scope that I have used it with my students already as an example of the Anglo-American bias they can expect to confront regularly in their careers.

    How relevant are these journals if they are not publishing articles from a representative selection of authors, schools and universities? Should I even bother to read and cite them? Ecology will never get out of its cultural silos if there isn’t a more conscientious effort to get more diverse perspectives into the publication record.

  3. Maybe I do not get your tone in the article correctly, but to me it sounds like one of those typical, we need diversity because of diversity and if we would have 50 % women in the list it would be fine. This takes away the focus from the most important thing that we need that diversity of ideas, perspectives and cultures in ecology and science which is of course fully linked to a diversity of gender, geography and culture and not with the current male-North-American-europenan-focus. Thus, the focus should not if they are only two women on it, but the lack of diversity in views, ideas and thinking which is of course linked to gender diversity and (for me equally important) geographic diversity.

  4. As one of the two authors of the paper, I’ll answer briefly on what is a very touchy subject. You are right Terry to mention that this topic is very important to me. It is also very important to Corey (check his latest book, check his blog (conservationbytes), check his lab, and you’ll be convinced).
    So just to be clear, and I guess I shouldn’t really have to, but Corey and I did not “choose” the 100 papers, we asked 665 editorial members to select them, hoping their combined experienced would remove much of all potential biases. Of course, it is impossible to get rid of biases entirely, especially in a specific sample such as this one (I’d be interested to know what other sample people would have found more relevant for this). It is unfortunate that editorial boards are still so biased, especially towards gender (not all of them, mind you, some made a huge effort on that – just as not all of them were US oriented). But this is also reflecting the general bias we have in our science as a whole. It is quite normal that most of these 100 papers are by men, because most classical papers are older papers, and there were relatively few established women scientists in ecology 4 decades ago.
    I could go on for very long on this topic, this is why we have chosen to devote a whole paper on this gender analysis, rather than just a few lines in the initial paper. To be published soon, hopefully.
    But as a final point, I just would like to remind all those here waiving female-authored papers as “should be on the list”, that I has NEVER occurred to me (until recently, until I started to know personally many of the authors) to look at the gender of the first author; and certainly not to assess whether or not the paper was going to be influential to me. This whole question of “What classic paper in ecology, written by a woman, has influenced you?”, although understandably needed in our awfully biased world, strikes me as as much nonsensical as “what classic papers, written by a scientist born in October”. I agree a different list of voters would have provided a different list of papers, and everybody regrets that this or that paper has not made it to the top 100, but there is no way to make an objective list, and thinking of contribution based by gender really bothers the feminist fiber I try to nurture.

  5. One of the anon comments says (and I think the last line in Franck’s comment thoughtful remarks implies) that the suggested fix would be to mandate a certain percentage of papers by women or women who are voting or something like that. Which is clearly not what I intended to say (nor what I said), and I don’t think this is an argument I’ve seen anybody make here yet.

    The point here is that when we look at the outcomes, which almost entirely excludes women ecologists, there is clear evidence that the process has an unhelpful bias.

    When we’re talking about bias here, we’re not talking about the sex ratio in the outcome. Bias is the process that led to the extraordinarily skewed sex ratio. In this case, bringing in a mostly-male panel from a limited suite of journals that are known to have geographic and gender and subfield biases resulted in a product that has those biases. And, as social scientists have pointed out, running social science surveys that minimize bias is a science of its own that most ecologists and evolutionary biologists are not trained in and not that competent in.

    To me, the key thing here is that Franck was very clear about the fact that he just wasn’t thinking about gender during the process. He presents this as a positive attribute, that as a feminist, taking account of gender is not constructive. I wrote this post to address that idea — that we need to take into account implicit biases by explicitly thinking about them during the design of surveys. It’s not proper to design a survey that is gender-blind, present the results, and then study the consequences of being gender-blind. At least, there’s little to be gained from it, other than understanding one’s own biases. But the title of the paper isn’t about gender and geographic biases. it’s just about a must-read.

    In short: being gender-blind (or race-blind, or geographically blind) when considering a broad survey of the state of our field is not a condition to aspire to. It’s just another form of blindness.

  6. wow. Without even having seen the 2 papers…
    Regardless of what you do, people will always criticize. Had we only kept this as a few lines in the 1st paper (not room for more in Nature Ecol Evol, and not the topic of the paper), we’d have been blamed as well.
    Corey Bradshaw and I will certainly look up to @Miasjien to advance ecology and helping ecologists…

  7. I think there are some important issues being discussed here, but, like often happens with this topic, the discussion is quickly devolving into un-constructive mud-flinging and virtue signaling. Franck and Corey generated a list of 100 very good papers that are worth reading; Terry and others pointed out some other very good papers that are also worth reading and could have been on the list; people on Twitter drew attention to some great women scientists who have been influential. This is all great for ecology. Then Franck said that we should live in a world that prioritizes content over gender. Aside from perhaps a small minority of activists and scholars from the postmodern/critical theory tradition, I suspect we all would agree with this. Terry then said that there are still some important respects in which we still don’t prioritize content over gender due to implicit biases. Again, most people, including Franck and Corey clearly given their comments and second paper, would agree. There are perhaps some minor disagreements on the details, e.g. to what extent the magnitude of the gender skew of the list reflects past inequities vs. current inequities (Dynamic Ecology has had some encouraging news recently regarding the gender balance of recent faculty hiring), to what extent implicit biases as measured by tests like the IAT translate into practical biases (a point on which the empirical evidence from the psych literature is actually quite mixed), etc. The point is: let’s keep focusing on the cool papers and scientists that this broader discussion has highlighted; let’s keep grappling with equity issues around gender and other dimensions, but let’s resist the urge to devolve into pile-ons, ad-hominem attacks, or Cultural-Revolution-style public shame circles. If even thoughtful, well-intentioned people like Franck and Corey get repeatedly raked over the coals every time an issue like this comes up, we shouldn’t be surprised that half the country (in the U.S. at least) has little patience left for these discussions.

    • Franck, you are saying that the criticisms of the complete scientific paper that you just published in a major peer-reviewed journal are uninformed? If your peers can read all of your paper and the supplementary data, that’s not enough to form a critique?

      I understand that you also have more to say in a separate manuscript, but if this paper is not ready for criticism from the public, was it ready to be published on its own?

  8. Terry: with all due respect, I think you’re trolling a bit here. Franck was quite clearly responding to the critique of the second paper (at the time not published), which you recopied above. Moreover, the fact that they published all the details of the first paper does not imply that all of their critics read and understood all of these details, and did not misrepresent or misinterpret them in their criticism. There were definitely some on Twitter who did, for instance, misunderstand how they chose the papers from the survey. In your initial post, and at the beginning of this discussion, I thought you were making some very good points and discussing them constructively. I appreciate the attention you’ve drawn to the gender bias issue here. But now, again with all due respect, you seem to be more interested in playing ‘gotcha’ with Franck and trying to grandstand. It’s not helpful to the discussion and, to be honest, I don’t think it reflects that well on you.

    • That is not my intention here. I am sorry for giving that impression.

      Anon, in your first comment, you said there was a bunch ofi mud-slinging and ad-hom attacks here. Where?

      As for my comment being trolling, I wholeheartedly disagree, and think I am engaging honestly and fairly to discuss the causes and consequences of biases that the author made a choice to overlook during the course of experimental design.

      Demonstrating that a study has an set of biases that reflect the outcome of the work is not a personal attack. I and others have voiced legitimate criticisms. Franck has chosen t deflect these criticisms by suggesting they are not adequately informed. I am saying the criticisms are valid. I don’t think that is trolling. It’s making sure that the valid critiques are treated with the sincerity and legitimacy that they deserve.

      I got bent out of shape that my pal has characterized my critique as uninformed. But I’m not saying he’s trolling me. If you’re concerned about tone and personal attacks, go easy on calling me a troll.

      Telling someone that you think they’re wrong, and explaining how they are wrong, is not an attack.

  9. Thanks for your response. I agree, as I noted in both my comments, that many of the criticisms have been legitimate, and I agree with many of them on their merits. The ‘mud-flinging’ and ‘ad-hominem attacks’ labels from the earlier comment refer to comments made (not by you) like the one from Twitter recopied above accusing Franck of just trying to increase his pub count, not in reference to the many other legitimate and matter-of-factly argued critiques of the paper. If you don’t think those types of comments are ‘ad-hominem’ then we can agree to disagree I guess. The trolling comment was in reference to the change in tone you’ve seemed to have in your last comment and on Twitter today. As for Franck’s ‘deflecting’ or ‘dismissing’ his critics, it’s worth keeping in mind the sheer volume of criticisms he has gotten on Twitter and elsewhere (not just here), which, in my personal opinion, vary widely in seriousness vs. snarky. My impression is that he and Corey have made a serious attempt to constructively engage with this criticism (including putting a rush on the release of the second paper), given the constraints on time they undoubtedly have. Has he responded to every single one individually? No, but if you Altmetric his two papers, you can quickly see how impossible that would be, given the volume of criticisms. As for his ‘deflecting’ your criticisms here, I think you’re maybe mislabeling his disagreeing with certain parts of your argument (e.g. to what extent his list has value to the field despite its biases, to what extent gender needs to be front and center in evaluations of papers to correct biases vs. more gender-blind) as deflecting. This is a pattern I see a quite often in discussions of these types of issues: people from certain political persuasions often seem to see any response to their criticism that falls short of repeated public atonement for wrongthink as deflective or dismissive. The fact that so many people seem so surprised by Franck and Corey not responding in this type of all-out-capitulative sort of fashion is perhaps indicative of the profound lack of political diversity in academia (one of the reasons the public is increasingly losing trust in higher ed institutions). But that’s probably a debate for another time.

  10. And I should say, I apologize for using the word ‘troll’, which I admit was a bit harsh, and not constructive. We’re on the same team (and so is Franck, I think).

  11. Terry, I agree with your anonymous commenter, in that I too was surprised and disappointed to see you copy Mia Wege’s tweet without any comment except to note that it reflects the viewpoints of several people. I recognize that it’s just one tweet and so lacks elaboration and context. But I’m finding it hard to read that tweet as anything other than an insinuation about Courchamp and Bradshaw’s motives. It’s basically accusing them of cynically salami-slicing, and of not caring about diversity and equity. Perhaps you could clarify why you copied that tweet into your thread here, and whether you agree with its insinuations about Courchamp & Bradshaw’s intentions?

    I was glad to see that in your post you went out of your way to emphasize that Courchamp & Bradshaw’s intentions aren’t what’s important, and that so far as you know they’re good people with good intentions (which as an aside is why I’m surprised that you copied Mia Wege’s tweet without further comment–the tweet seems to be exactly the sort of thing you went out of your way to defend Courchamp & Bradshaw against in your post). But I think it’s a unfortunate that you needed to stand up for Courchamp & Bradshaw’s motives and try to steer the conversation elsewhere. If we let attacks on our colleagues’ motives pass without comment, I think we make it harder to talk about important issues like diversity and equity. I’d hope that we could have a productive conversation about this paper and the broader issues it raises without also accusing its authors of being cynical careerists, or not caring about diversity and equity, or etc. My default assumption is that all of my fellow ecologists (including Mia Wege) mean well, and I think that default assumption needs to be adhered to in order for productive conversations to happen.

    I appreciated your thoughtful post and the related productive conversations you’ve been starting online. But this is one small respect in which I think you may have missed an opportunity to further improve the conversation around this paper.

  12. I would really like this to be my last comment on that. I’ve seen several interesting, critical threads on our paper, constructive and conciliatory, and this one started this way, but as mentioned above, it turned bad, especially reporting Tweets that are not constructive. I am now perceiving this as persistent attacks: if it was just a conversation between you and me Terry, no problem. But behind you is an entire community of people with whom I don’t want to fight, so it has a cost.

    So just to try one last time to convince you people that there isn’t such a strong bias in the “sample” (which is not a sample of scientists, but a chosen group), and that anyway it is not the cause of the gender-bias in the list (and if it was, I’m not convinced it’d be so problematic):

    - The 665 editors we contacted were 22% women, and this is about the proportion of women first authors in ecology nowadays. So, in this regard our group was no more gender biased than the entire population. Which arguably is what we would seek in such a survey (if that was a survey, which this is not). 
    - From that sample, much fewer women responded (10% vs 26% for men), making the final group indeed more biased. Not because we designed a biased sample, but because much fewer women responded. 
    - We did not anticipate this, and did not notice it until after the submission of the first ms, so accusations that we purposely published what would be a problematic study to get another paper just to correct it are both unfair and incorrect. 
    - We therefore made a more complete analysis of this interesting fact in a separate ms. Because we care about gender biases in science (and in general). Not because we want to have another article (neither Corey nor I need this).
    - The second study showed that not only men but also women are "men-biased", so having more women in our fist pool would not have changed the result that much

    – The first study is thus not problematic and the second study discusses an interesting bias in ecologists’ way of evaluating the papers (not a bias in our paper, as some have written).
    – IMHO, that does not change the fact that the our pool of respondents remains more adequate than any alternative I can think of to propose to students a long list of recommended articles by experienced ecologists.

  13. Clearly, my choice to share some comments from twitter that are broadly perceived to be less than constructive was a crappy decision on my part. It’s changed the trajectory of the conversation (on this site, at least) to be less constructive, and I regret this. As only a partial fix, I’ll delete those comments now.

    I haven’t engaged much in this conversation since I’ve written the post, though it’s only because I have not have the availability to do so – it’s not by choice that I haven’t been more wordy and substantial after my initial post.

  14. Thank you for revisiting your decision to link to that out-of-line tweet Terry, I think that’s the right choice.

  15. Terry; I dont think there is a case that Behavioral/Evolutionary Ecology is being ignored in the suggested 100: it has 9 papers…. in Foraging theory,Cooperation& altruism, Habitat selection, and life history theory. If any big topic in this area is missing, its sexual selection. I can easily find 4 timeless Classics here: Parker1970,Trivers1972,Emlen and Oring1977, and Hamilton& Zuk1982.
    let others propose their list, [and declare mine too old?]

    • Ric, I think evolutionary ecology is not as represented as it could have perhaps because some participants thought some papers were more evolution than ecology (admittedly a very fine line there). Yet, among the 544 papers proposed, 11% are in evolutionary ecology, which is not that bad. Hamilton & Zuk 82 is among them, even if not in the top 100.

  16. Hi Frank; I agree but ecology is such a big tent. 11% is still huge to me.
    I am surprized that it is so well represented.
    of course I too can come up with additional BIG suggestions: GC Williams 2 papers on life histories are probably the 2 most influential LH papers ever written. In my 1982 sex allocation book, I made williams 57 Aging paper the type specimen for adaptational thinking, and I still believe that. But this is just my opinion.

  17. Franck & Corey; I really appreciate the job you chaps did with this paper! Thanks.

    Ecology is such a big tent and lots of ecologists dont believe that topics like optimal foraging theory have contributed much to the central problems that define ecology. And I respect their opinions. Its often quite odd: Physiology in the context of ecology is ok, but not behavior, maybe not even life histories, at least the evolutionary why approach. As to whether ITS really ecology or evolution, that fight has gone on for ever. I supported/nominated GC Williams for the ESAs Distinguished Ecologist Award, which he got the second time around[ early 90s], and ALL of the spirited discussion among the choice committee was exactly that issue.

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