Writing scientific papers is, arguably, the most important task in a scientist’s working life. Papers are the universal currency by which scientists are compared and evaluated. For most scientists, papers will be the only scientific legacies they leave behind. Unfortunately, scientific papers are imperfect records of scientific activity. Papers present a cleaned-up, simplified, and reorganized version of the scientific process, leaving out any detail that might distract the reader from understanding the paper’s findings. In addition, although a paper is “true” when published, its truth diminishes with time, as new knowledge emerges that questions its claims. Finally, a paper can take on entirely new, unintended, and possibly erroneous meaning when it is cited by other papers.
Since June 2016, in an attempt to provide a more realistic documentation of the nature of scientific activity, I have conducted 130 interviews (an additional 25 are still in progress), each based on a famous paper in ecology, evolution, or behavior. In these interviews, I ask the lead author of the paper about: first, the making of the paper; second, the current validity of the paper’s findings and conclusions; and third, the impact the paper has had on subsequent research and the author’s own career. I have been posting these interviews, as and when they are ready, on a blog called “Reflections on Papers Past.” At the MPIWG, I would like to develop a proposal for a book that uses material from the interviews to illustrate the true nature of scientific activity. In addition, I would like to conceptualize an exhibition of scientific papers annotated with the interview material.