Bill Hooker over at the LifeScientists feed at FriendFeed posted a link to a collection of “Citation Classic” articles, which were short reflections written by authors years after publishing a paper that were highly cited. Many of these are available for downloads as pdfs, and I find them endlessly fascinating. Sure, many of the highly cited papers are reviews, and reflections on “What I did this summer - Sat in my office and wrote a review that my secretary typed up” aren’t terribly interesting. But by and large, those about experimental papers are cool.
Sometimes these reflections really bring home how much the practice of science has changed over time. Bernhard Frankenhauser describes his paper with Alan Hodgkin on the effect of calcium on squid axon excitability (i.e., surface charge screening effects):
“The exciting [Ed. Wait, Bernie, you forgot to tell us whether that was an unintended pun or not!] and exhausting three-month period of experimental work was followed by two years of struggle with the analysis of the measurements and with the manuscript.” [EMPHASIS ADDED]
Not too much worrying about getting scooped I see. Seriously though, how the hell did this work? I always find that halfway through the analysis and initial drafts, I need to go back and do a few more experiments, either because the initial ones weren’t quite good enough (“crap, we really needed to wait 3 minutes after agonist removal to have full recovery, not the 2.5 we used”), or to follow up and extend the observations.
But they also show that somethings haven’t changed: And that means griping about Nature editors. As John Foreman puts it (writing about his paper with Mongar and Gomperts on calcium and secretion):
“Our experiments were written up and sent to Nature. The referees’ reports were both favourable and enthusiastic, but the editorial staff of Nature was not quite so keen. It took quite a lot of pushing, as I recall, to convince them to publish the paper. In the end, of course, the relented and now, with the hindsight of the Science Citation Index, I guess they are content that we fought for what we considered to be the right place to publish this manuscript.”
HAHAHAHA, take that you bastards! Are you happy with the 550 citations you got in the 14 years since we published what you thought was boring crap? How do you like your impact factor now, eh? (Foreman wrote the above in 1987; Web of Science presently reports 615 cites).
So go check em out, and lemme hear what your favorites are.
For the electrophysiology/excitability geeks out there, here’s a few worth your time::
-Hodgkin and Huxley on their 1952 paper presenting the model of action potential. I’ve cited this, have you?
-Eccles on “how my book that was cited on 9 pages of some recent other book was published right in time for me to get my Nobel”
-Toshio Narahashi on “how I brought a vial of TTX into the US and boy I’m glad there wasn’t a TSA back then”
-Denis Noble and Dick Tsien’s on cardiac pacemaker currents. (this one’s interesting because they themselves called the current a K+ current, though they were upfront in saying the reversal potential was actually off for a strongly K+ selective pore. As we now know, HCN channels are permeable to both K+ and Na+. See, sometimes it’s ok to report observations that you’re not quite sure what to do with. Somebody else will come up with an answer.