Keeping up with the literature is part of being a researcher. A few years ago, the #365papers hashtag started on Twitter, as a way to encourage academics to read more papers in a calendar year.
In reality, very few academics would actually read 365 full papers over a single year. #260papers, a paper every work day, was suggested as a compromise and, more recently, #230papers goes one step further to account for public holidays etc.
Two things strike me about these hashtags:
1. They are quantitative, not qualitative. Many of the tweets simply report the paper title and sometimes the link but don’t comment on its findings or relevance. Other than boosting a paper’s Altmetrics score, how useful is this?
‘Discovering recommended papers’ is apparently one of main reasons academics use Twitter. But if a researcher is looking for recommended papers in his or her field of study, clicking on #365papers will just provide a long list of titles across multiple mostly irrelevant disciplines, with very little comment or recommendation.
Focusing on the quantity of papers you’re reading also ignores the qualities of those papers. Are they useful or relevant? Are they revealing any new insights? In fact there are plenty of good reasons not to read too much literature (e.g. from Stephen Heard and Markus Eichhorn). Just as vomiting words on a page in the name of ‘writing productivity’ is not always a good thing, reading for the sake of reading, without any contemplation or evaluation, may not be that useful.
2. There’s a strong bias toward recent literature. I’m not sure if that was the original aim of the project, but most of the #365papers appearing in my feed were published in the last few years. I had a quick look at 50 of the most recent tweeted papers on the #365papers tag while I was writing this: 49 of those papers were published after the year 2000 and only 8 were pre-2010.
A focus on recent literature is not unique to Twitter hashtags. I remember being told repeatedly during my undergrad degree to not cite anything older than 10 years. The thinking behind this is that science is always progressing and a paper from 20 years ago may have been disproved or improved upon since then. This is possible, but it doesn’t mean we should completely disregard old literature.
With so much focus on recent work, it’s easy to forget that very few ideas are truly novel. Reading older literature provides context for many of the concepts, terminology and sub-disciplines that claim to be brand new. Context is important in understanding how a concept developed and how it applies today. Reading older literature also minimises the risk of incorrect citations, or giving unfair credit to authors of review papers for other scientist’s ideas.
The ecosystem services (ES) concept is a great example. The most common origin references for the ES term and concept are Gretchen Daily’s 1997 book Nature’s Services, or the 2005 Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. These two references were probably most responsible for bringing the term into broader use and kicking off the current trajectory of ES research. But the term and its related concepts were in use long before 1997 e.g., Westman (1977) How much are Nature’s services worth?; Ehrlich (1981) An Economist in Wonderland; Ehrlich & Mooney (1983) Extinction, Substitution and Ecosystem Services. And even before ecology officially became a discipline – see my previous posts ES: myth or reality? and ES: our past, present and future for more examples.
Reading only the most recent literature on a particular topic or discipline creates a set of blinkers on the history of that topic. For controversial topics, where semantics, philosophy and methodological processes are widely-debated, understanding this background builds a more informed debate. For topics that aren’t really controversial, old literature is still extremely useful. Reading about what’s been done before can be a source of inspiration for adapting old methods, analyses or experimental approaches.
And this is where using qualitative hashtags on Twitter can be more useful than tally counts. They can be tailored to specific fields, eras or subject areas, minimising a lot of the disciplinary noise that you get on generalised hashtags. They can also be used to encourage broader reading of the literature beyond the 10-year itch.
A couple of years ago I asked Twitter if there was a hashtag for sharing older ecology papers, because new releases get most of the airwaves. After a bit of searching, the #ecologyclassics hashtag was revived, first used by Stephen Beckett way back in 2013.
So next time you come across an old text that’s relevant or interesting, share it via the #ecologyclassics hashtag. If you’re not on Twitter, write a blog about it (e.g. my post on this old book about insect ecosystem services, or Simon Leather’s series Ten Papers That Shook My World).
Happy reading in 2017!
Update 2018: Also follow this great series by Hari Sridhar ‘Reflections on Papers Past’. Hari interviews the authors of well-known ecology & evolutionary biology papers from the past, with some great insights into research and the backstories of some influential papers.
© Manu Saunders 2017