As a young undergraduate, I remember researching my first term papers and take-home exams, flexing my new-found research skills to find the absolute best references. At first, I equated “best” with “newest.” This wasn’t necessarily a product of my training; my undergraduate advisor teaches ecology from Foundations of Ecology, which starts with Forbes’ 1887 paper on The Lake as Microcosm and ends in 1970 (Foundations of Biogeography goes even further, beginning with Linneus in 1781). Our society is obsessed with novelty in general– we want new models, new editions, new releases, so why not new science? I am happy to say that, perhaps because of my advisor’s emphasis on history, I quickly outgrew the tendency towards novelty, and learned to value the importance of Reading Old Things.
Historians have a word for Reading Old Things: historiography. Historians of science do it for a living. Why don’t scientists read (and cite) Old Things more often? I don’t mean just the classic 19th century examples, either– for some fields, anything older than 10 years is considered out-dated. A common answer I hear is that reading takes up precious time, and it can be difficult to keep up with the emerging ideas in new publications, let alone exploring the papers of the past. I think it goes beyond time management, though. I wonder if the ways in which we fund, do, write about, and report on science have influenced how much we value the research of the past?
In the Geographical Distribution section of Darwin’s Origin, one finds hints of vicariance, land bridges, continental drift, species-area relationships, coevolution, sea level change, invasive species, and island biogeography, in many cases a century before such concepts became a part of the academic mainstream. Focusing on the recent leaves out an historical perspective on the intellectual development of one’s field, but it could also mean that some really cool ideas are left by the wayside. Conversely, some classic concepts that get distilled and replicated ad nauseum in biology textbooks (I’m thinking MacArthur’s warblers* here) could stand for a bit of primary scrutiny.
Reading Old Things has served me well; for my masters thesis, I took an observation from a paper in 1987 and used it to test an hypothesis about the influence of mammoths and other large herbivores on novel plant communities. When people ask me how I came up with such a clever idea (using spores from a dung fungus to reconstruct the timing of the extinction of ice-age herbivores), I tell them I didn’t: Owen Davis did. I just read about it in my perusals of paleoecological literature as an undergraduate. I wonder how many other gems are out there, buried in the back issues of medium-weight journals?
Here’s an idea for you professors out there: Assign your students to write two review papers or exam questions on the same subject. For the first, they are to use only research published before a particular year. For the second, they can only use papers published after that year. This should accomplish two things: First, students will have a better appreciation for how ideas change through time. Secondly, they should come away with a better understanding of the value of both old and new. This could be a fun exercise for science writers to try, too (blog ideas, anyone?).
The next time you do a search in Google Scholar and find yourself about to exclude the results to the most recent years, stop and think for a moment. Do you really need the most recent, or do you want the most useful? The two may not be the same. To close, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Old Things to read, T. C. Chamberlain’s The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses, originally published in the late 19th century. This paper should be required reading for any young scientist-in-training (or science writers, for that matter).
*As an undergraduate, the aforementioned advisor took us to see MacArthur’s spruce trees. Not only did I not see a single spruce tree that resembled anything like the textbook diagrams, but I have serious doubts as to the ability of anyone to tell anything about niche partitioning among warblers in those trees.