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