Part 1 of a series on choosing your research topic
FADSI might be guilty of stereotyping here, but I suspect relatively few readers of this blog would consider themselves fashion-conscious. Do you go to fashion shows? Regularly read fashion magazines? Discard last month's clothes in favor of the latest trends? That's not something I normally associate with the crunchy-granola environmentally-conscious caricature of an evolutionary ecologist. [if you do, my apologies for stereotyping]
But we do follow fashions in our own way. Science too has its academic fashions, and in particular I'm thinking of fads in research topics (see Fads in Ecology by Abrahamson Whitham and Price, 1989 Bioscience). My goal today is to contemplate the role of fashions, for good and ill, and what you should do about them when planning your own research. This post is inspired by a discussion I co-led yesterday with Janine Caira, with our first year Ecology and Evolutionary Biology graduate students at the University of Connecticut. The focal topic was, "How to choose a good research question".
A core rule I tell students is: when choosing a research topic you must have an audience in mind. Who will want to read your resulting paper? How large is that audience, and how excited will they be? If the audience is small (e.g., researchers studying the same species as you), you aren't going to gain the recognition (citations, speaking invitations, collaboration requests) you likely crave and which will help your career progress. If your audience is large, but you are doing incremental work that will be met with a widespread yawn, that's not very helpful either. Ideally of course you want to present something that is really exciting to as many people as possible. But, the more exciting and popular it is, the more likely it is somebody has gotten there first.
Which is what brings me to fads. A fad is defined (in Google's Dictionary) as "an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object's qualities; a craze". Intense. Widely-shared. And with at least a hint of irrational exuberance (a reference to former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan).
Fads happen in science, with a caveat that they aren't always irrational exuberance: there are research topics that genuinely have value, but which nevertheless have a limited lifespan. I'll give an example: When I was a beginning graduate student, Dolph Schluter [for whom I have immense respect] had recently started publishing a series of papers on ecological speciation, along with his Ecology of Adaptive Radiations book which I heartily recommend. The core innovation here was that ecology plays a role in (1) driving trait divergence between populations that leads incidentally to mating isolation, and (2) eliminating poorly-adapted hybrids. Both ideas can be found in the literature of course, few ideas are truly 100% new. But what Dolph did was to crystallize the idea in a simple term, clearly explained, and solidly justified with data, making it compelling. And suddenly everyone wanted to study ecological speciation, it seemed to me. There was a rapid rise in publications (and reviews) on the topic. Then at a certain point it seemed like fatigue set in. I began encountering more conversations that were skeptical: how often ecological speciation might fail to occur, where and why is it absent, how common is it really. At one point, an applicant for a postdoc position in my lab said he/she wanted to work on ecological speciation and I couldn't help wondering, okay that's interesting material but what do you have to say that's new, or is this yet another case study in our growing stockpile of examples? And I think I wasn't alone: the number of papers and conference talks on the topic seemed to wane. Its not that the subject was misled, wrong, or uninteresting: I'm not saying it was irrational exuberance. Just that the low hanging (and medium-hanging) fruit had been picked, and people seemed to move on. To drive that point home, below is a Web of Science graph of the peak and maybe slight decline in the number of publications per year invoking "ecological speciation" in a topic word search. Interestingly, total citations to articles about "ecological speciation" peaked just three years ago, after a steady rise, and the past two years showed somewhat lower total citations to the topic.
|Ecological speciation articles by year|
Meanwhile, other topics seem to be on the rise, such as "speciation continuum" (next bar chart), which Andrew Hendry, Katie Peichel, and I were the first to use in a paper title in 2009 (it showed up in sentences in 2 prior papers) and was the topic of a session at the recent Gordon Conference on Speciation [still not anywhere near a fad, just 72 papers use the term, and there are reasons to argue it shouldn't catch on]
|Eco-evolutionary dynamics, total citations|
Life cycle of a scientific fad:
Avoid or embrace the fad?
6) Revive old fads (zombie ideas). Old fads never truly die, they just hide away in a quiet steady tick of more papers that aren't making a big splash anymore perhaps. The key thing is, their audience never truly went away, they just reached a point where they moved on. But like many failed relationships, you often never truly stop loving your ex. So, if you can locate a former fad and give it new life, you have a ready-made audience and a small field of competitors. This is especially easy to do when a previous fad ran out of steam because people in the old days lacked analytical tools that we have now: sequencers or flow cytometers or Bayesian statistics or whatever. If you can apply modern lab or computational technology to an old fad, you might make fundamental new progress, on a widely-known topic. Doing this requires reading your history, to know where the good zombies are buried. When I was a graduate student, I spent a summer reading Ernst Mayr's Animal Species and Evolution. Its a seriously dry book, packed to the gills with case studies and examples, and ideas. Many of these were abandoned, for various reasons, and are just waiting around to be exhumed, re-examined in light of new perspectives and tools, and maybe re-animated.
I'm sure there are more variants on this theme, but I think the point is made: fads are a great way to make your name in academic science. They are also a trap, if you hop on the band wagon just as it goes over the cliff into obscurity. To know which is which, you need to read read and read, and go to conferences and talk and listen, to get a sense for the pulse of your field.