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Are ecological modeling papers just flashes in the pan?

November 8, 2012

A few months ago, I came across an interesting tool for comparing the citations of different categories of papers within a research field (within a country), while looking up some journal impact factors on the SCImago Journal & Country Rank website. When I used this tool for 2009-2010 United States papers in the field of environmental science, here’s what I got:

Apparently ecological modeling papers are more likely to be cited by other papers, and they get more citations on average, compared to all other subject categories in environmental science. The size of the circles corresponds to the number of papers published in that subject category, so the other thing that stood out to me was how few ecological modeling papers are published compared to some of the other categories. Basically, if ecological modeling papers are so well cited, why aren’t more people doing this kind of research? I decided to dig a bit deeper into this.  If we go back one year earlier, here’s the graph of United States environmental science paper categories from 2008-2009:

Ecological modeling papers published in 2008-2009 don’t have the highest average number of citations anymore. They’re beat by papers about global and planetary change. Let’s go back one more year and look at United States environmental science paper categories from 2007-2008:

These older ecological modeling papers published in 2007-2008 are starting to have citation records closer to the other categories. They get beat again by papers about global and planetary change, this time in both average number of citations and the % of papers with at least 1 citation. If we go back one more year to US environmental science paper categories from 2006-2007, here’s what we get:

For papers published in 2006-2007, papers about global and planetary change and also general ecology papers now have higher averages of citations per document than ecological modeling papers. There seems to be a pattern emerging here. So if I go back 10 years, to US environmental science paper categories from 2001-2002, here’s the result:

What happened to ecological modeling papers? Well for one thing, their circle colour changed from tan to purple for some unknown reason. It also looks like people have basically almost stopped citing the ecological modeling papers published from 2001-2002, while many other paper types continue to get steady citations and end up coming out ahead in the long run.

Take home message: If you do environmental science research and you want to write a paper that gives you the best chance of getting a few quick citations, write an ecological modeling paper. However, if you’re looking to write a paper that will remain a valued piece of literature in the long-run, an ecological modeling paper is less likely to accomplish this.

There are probably several factors that lead to the slowing down of the citation rate of ecological modeling papers over time, relative to other environmental science paper categories. Please leave a comment if you’ve got any ideas on what some of the most important ones might be.


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  1. Reblogged this on [Progress].

  2. Interesting stuff. How about this for an explanation. A modelling paper is put out to explain some ecological phenomena. The early citations are the test of the model using different study systems. Once the tests are done they either support the model or refute it. If the tests support the model people begin to cite the paper with the empirical data rather than the original model paper. If the tests do not support the model no one tests it again and the citations stop. Both of these scenarios would lead to a decline in citations over time.

    • This could be part of what’s happening here, although if empirical tests do support the original model, these tests should grant the model some practical utility and the model should contiune to garner citations as it is put to practical, predictive use. Your explanation could still work if most models end up not being supported by initial empirical tests and/or if the ones that are supported explain processes that have little practical value.

  3. I wonder how this trend will continue. I know there was a lot of talk recently about the absence of the environment as an issue in the Obama/Romney campaigns. Not that I think political focus determines scientific research. But maybe the environmental movement is losing steam in the media in general?

    • I’m still hoping that the environmental movement is gaining steam, not losing it. I agree that it didn’t get much coverage in the US presidential election, but I think hurricaine Sandy brought a “wave” of environmental media coverage with it when it made landfall in New York. There are bound to be ups and downs in environmental coverage in the short-term, but I think (and hope) coverage has been increasing in the long-term.
      I do think that politics can have real effects on scientific research. In Canada, the Conservative Harper government has been drastically cutting environmental research funding over the last several years, and have been shifting more of the government funding for scientific research toward projects with short-term industrial applications. This could have strong negative consequences for environmental research in Canada over the next decade.

  4. I really like the use of these tools to look at the citation history and growth of the field. There are possibly several very different take home messages that can be inferred from the information above. Two possible alternatives or corollaries are:

    1. The field of ecological modeling has evolved rapidly since 2001 so the numbers of articles being written and cited is increasing in concert with the growth in the field.

    2. Because of the growth in the field, the ecological models that are being developed are beginning to gain a greater degree of credibility and more and more researchers are looking to them as tools to improve their understanding.

    • The graphs show that the number of ecological modeling papers published per year has remained relatively consistent since 2001 (~200 papers per year) but you’re right that this pattern could also reflect an increase in the quality and relevance of more recent ecological modelling articles compared to those written in 2001, leading to more citations for these papers compared to recent papers in other areas of environmental science.

      I guess we’ll have to wait a few years and see if the more recent ecological modeling papers can maintain their top rankings for average number of citations per paper and % of papers that get cited…

      I recently read an interesting post on the value of scientific bets on the Dynamic Ecology blog. Care to make a wager? 😉

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