Monday, September 7, 2009

Finding the needles in the haystack

There are a fair number of papers that are impressive for the number of times they are cited. “Instant classics” that accrue a hundred citations in a year—most in the first paragraph of a paper—and have helped define some part of a discipline.

These papers are impressive and worthy of study in hopes of replicating them, but I am more interested in papers that are likely just as important but have rarely been cited. Any scientist can use Web of Science to find the most cited paper on a topic and then cite it themselves in order to seem authoritative. But, the true scholar knows the obscure paper, one that might only have been cited a few times a year, but can make the case that the paper is as important as one cited a hundred times a year, if only the obscure one were discovered.

I do not have a comprehensive list, but it is an interesting exercise to think about what are the most important papers never to have been cited. If we restrict the list to the papers published over five years ago and have received less than five citations a year on average. And one cannot put one’s own papers on the list, which is unfortunate since most of my CV is obscure but important. (Except for the one soil CO2 flux paper in GCB. That one deserves to be obscure.) Here are ones that I came up with:

1) Wahl, S. and P. Ryser. 2000. Root tissue structure is linked to ecological strategies of grasses. New Phytologist 148:459-471. If ever there was a golden key to unlocking root function in different environments, this would be it. Why this study has not been replicated a dozen times, I do not understand. (30 cites)

2) Dietz, H. and F. H. Schweingruber. 2002. Annual rings in native and introduced forbs of lower Michigan, USA. Canadian Journal of Botany 80:642-649. The idea that you can dig up grassland plants and age them should have set fire to our understanding of plant population dynamics in grasslands. (12 cites)

3) McManus, W. R., V. N. E. Robinson, and L. L. Grout. 1977. Physical Distribution Of Mineral Material On Forage Plant-Cell Walls. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 28:651-662. The idea that plants accumulate minerals on their cell walls and might use them for structural purposes fundamentally alters how we think of plant structure and turns plant stoichiometry on its ear. It’s never been followed up on as far as I know. (12 cites)

4) McNaughton, S. J., J. L. Tarrants, M. M. McNaughton, and R. D. Davis. 1985. Silica as a defense against herbivory and a growth promotor in African grasses. Ecology 66:528-535. This one came to mind after the previous one. Silica as structure changes the game. This became cited a bit more in 2006-7, but other than those two years never had more than 5 citations a year. (85 cites)

I’ll give this some more thought later. This is a hard list to compile (and my kids are awake now). I should be able to come up with a top ten list of obscure papers later.

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