The Scientific Sweet Spot? [Updated]

We here at Weecology have just recently discovered John Bruno’s blog SeaMonster, and have been getting a great deal of enjoyment out of it. While perusing some of the posts, we ran across one that made Ethan and I both laugh and cringe at the same time: Are unreasonably harsh reviewers retarding the pace of coral reef science? It’s the troubled story of a young manuscript just trying to get a break in this cruel world of academic publishing. In particular it was this part summarizing the reviews the paper has received that caught our attention:

Reviewer 1: This is impossible!  They are clearly wrong!

Reviewer 2: Everyone knows this! The study lacks novelty and impact!

Ethan and I have long had the hypothesis that getting these types of reviews, where your idea is both wrong and trivial, is a sign you’re on to something good. We call it the Charnov Zone. Why you ask? I spent a couple of years as a postdoc working with Eric Charnov and I learned all sorts of great things from him, some of it scientific and some of it about the more practical aspects of being a scientist. The latter lessons were often delivered as stories, and one of his stories was about him presenting his work at Oxford as a newly minted PhD student1:

Eric Charnov went out to Oxford to present his dissertation research on optimal foraging. When he finished his talk, an eminent biologist2 stood up and proceeded to explain why Ric’s work was deeply and horrifically flawed. After that an extremely eminent evolutionary biologist3, stood up and explained kindly how the work wasn’t wrong at all, just trivial.

What was this work that was both wrong and trivial?

Charnov, EL. 1976. Optimal foraging, the marginal value theorem. Theoretical population biology 9: 129-136.

And yes, it is a Citation Classic that’s been cited nearly 3000 times according to Google Scholar.

While having a manuscript that lands in the Charnov Zone doesn’t necessarily mean you have a Citation Classic on your hands, it probably does mean you have an idea that is causing cognitive dissonance in your field. This particular brand of cognitive dissonance seems to be an indicator that there’s something in the paper that part of your field takes as uninteresting trivia (often without proof) and another part of your field rejects as impossible (and you must be wrong). Thus you have something the field needs to think very carefully about. So, give your manuscript caught in the Charnov Zone a little love. At Weecology, we think that papers that are paradoxically wrong and trivial are in a scientific sweet spot4 and well-worth the effort.

UPDATE: Eric Charnov emailed with a correction to the story. The paper in question was actually Charnov, E.L. 1976. Optimal foraging: attack strategy of a mantid. American Naturalist 110:141-151. This paper is also well cited (~750 citations) and Ric says that the Current Contents group (who managed Citation Classics and solicited the essays about the papers) gave him a choice of writing up either the mantid paper or the marginal value theorem paper. Ric chose the Marginal Value Theorem. Thus the story generally still stands. For insights into the troubles the Marginal Value Theorem paper had in the review process (which is also a Charnov Zone story), see Ric’s comment below.

1 Please note that my memory has become less reliable after having a kid, so this story may or may not accurately reflect what was actually told to me ten years ago!

2 Honestly can’t remember the name, but I assume he was eminent because surely Oxford doesn’t have any other type!

3 My memory says the man’s name rhymed with Dichard Rawkins.

4 Admittedly a frustrating one

8 Comments on “The Scientific Sweet Spot? [Updated]

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your post. ‘Enjoyed’ because I retired from academia and all its drama last year and can now laugh at it.

  2. I think academia is inherently funny. But maintaining perspective on it is hard when you’re mired in it! Congrats on your state change that returns the funny to it all!

  3. I enjoyed watching an Extremely Eminent Evolutionary Biologist use air quotes around the word “theory” in describing Ethan’s work, after his talk here. After which a Rather Eminent Theoretical Physicist-cum-Biologist explained that it was, in fact, a theory and that Ethan was entirely correct about its utility.

  4. …MVT (Marginal Value Theorem) paper was turned down by TPB (Theoretical Population Biology) cause the math, including a stochastic version of the search rule, was considered trivial by the ‘ math oriented’ reviewers, who completely overlooked the idea. Schoener, the TPB editor, had me rewrite it, leaving out the stochastic model, and arranged for friendly reviews. Schoener wrote/published this history somewhere [??].

    (this comment was added by Morgan with Ric’s permission, comments in [ ] were added by Morgan to clarify for other readers)

  5. Not a “Charnov zone” story exactly, but still a funny anecdote about a now-famous paper that had a hard time getting published. George Price and Bill Hamilton knew that Price, an unknown, would have a hard time publishing his very deep idea of what’s now called the Price equation. So they hatched a plan, which worked to perfection. First, Price submitted his paper to Nature. As expected, it was rejected. Then, Hamilton submitted to Nature a paper based on Price’s work. As expected, Nature accepted it (Hamilton was after all already very famous at the time). Hamilton then wrote to Nature withdrawing his paper, saying that he couldn’t in good conscience publish it because it depended on as-yet-unpublished work by George Price. So Nature wrote back to Price saying more or less “Umm, would you mind resubmitting that paper of yours?” And the rest is history: Price 1970 has something like 1000 citations.

    The editors of Nature weren’t the only ones to fail to appreciate Price’s work initially. Dick Lewontin initially thought it completely trivial, but later changed his mind and apologized to Price for failing to appreciate the value of Price’s equation.

  6. “The words “Ethan is right” have never sounded so good.”

    Wait, are there times when those words sound bad to you? Or like, just ok?

    I’m now trying to imagine circumstances in which those words wouldn’t sound really good to you. The only ones I’m coming up with are when they’re spoken in response to you saying something like “I think the car just ran out of gas” or “I think a huge meteor is about to destroy the Earth”.

  7. “I think that’s a bug in our code”
    “I don’t think that analysis means what you think it does”
    “I think the toddler may have a stomach virus”
    “I think Jeremy Fox might have a good point” 🙂

    Of course I really just meant that it sounded better than usual.

    That’s a pretty great story about the the original Price equation paper. Of course you have to really trust that your partner is going to be willing to threaten to withdraw an accepted Nature paper.

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