What are the best research papers you've ever read?
October 3, 2006 9:26 PM   Subscribe

Academics: What are your favorite research papers?

I want to read some awesome research papers in any field.

What classic papers in your field might interest the general public?
What papers really make you think?
What papers inspire you?
What papers do you still remember 5 years later and bring up at parties?
posted by tasty to Science & Nature (23 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
Gould, SJ & Lewontin, RC (1979) The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A critique of the Adaptationist Programme. Proceedings Of The Royal Society of London, Series B. 205 (1161) 581-98

A vital paper that ecologists and evolutionary biologists should be familiar with. It explores in detail how we interpret ideas like evolution, adaptation and natural selection, and stirs up some controversy along the way. It suggests that too often, we observe an organism and decide that some individual feature of its biology is an optimum adaptation to its environment, when in fact there may be other explainations and constraints and random events that have shaped the organism instead.
posted by Jimbob at 9:58 PM on October 3, 2006

(Show this paper to your creationist friends, by the way, particularly those who think evolutionary theory hasn't "evolved" since that tool-of-Satan, Charles Darwin, invented it. Yes, folks, scientists are way beyond debating the existance of evolution...now days we're just ironing out the creases.)
posted by Jimbob at 10:01 PM on October 3, 2006

One member of our site has his own site dedicated to this: http://www.tastyresearch.com

I read the Cognitive Daily ... daily. They contributed a post on this just a short time ago.
posted by fake at 10:40 PM on October 3, 2006

The Merton Model, seminal in that it gave us an entirely different way of pricing risk; that is uncertainty in asset prices. Without the Merton Model many of the assets classes we depend upon today for the efficient functioning wouldn't be viable businesses, at least not to the degree they're used now.

It's rather accessable as well, so don't worry about a lack of specialised finance knowledge, but you will need some math - not much though. We tend to toss it at first year Masters students first semseter.

Merton, R. C., 1974), 'On the pricing of corporate debt: the risk structure of interest rates', Journal of Finance, 29, 449-470.
posted by Mutant at 10:51 PM on October 3, 2006

Lol, sorry tasty, I didn't see that it was you. Enjoy the site. Thanks.
posted by fake at 10:52 PM on October 3, 2006

The two I can think of off the top of my head are as follows. I can't figure out a good short way to link to them.

Anderson, PW. More is Different. Science, Aug 1977.

It is a short, conceptual paper on why reductionism misses a lot of fascinating, important things when taken too far and why the study of lots of things is very different than the study of just one.

Purcell, EM. Life at low Reynolds number. American Journal of Physics 45, 1977.

This paper examines what it would be like to be a bacteria moving through water. A very conceptual paper, as opposed to technical and with surprising results.
posted by Schismatic at 10:54 PM on October 3, 2006

What papers do you still remember 5 years later and bring up at parties?

Anything highlighted by the loons over at the Annals of Improbable Research - especially the Ig® Nobel prize winning papers.
posted by datacenter refugee at 11:41 PM on October 3, 2006

Computing machinery and intelligence by Alan Turing, Mind 59, 433-460.

Also known as the "turing test" paper, it's an absolute classic in the field of AI. Brilliant, challenging and readable. Philosophers, cognitive scientists, and AI researchers still argue about it in pubs more than 50 years on.
posted by handee at 12:57 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, my google-fu is not strong enough to find web sites that have all of these articles in their entirety for free, but the following articles are very much worth reading if you can locate them:

-The New Property by Charles Reich (originally published in 73 Yale L.J. 733 in 1964). Reich argued that new forms of government largess such as Social Security, income supplements, use of public resources, etc. have become a "new property" inasmuch as almost every U.S. citizen / resident relies upon them to some extent, and as such, they should be protected in ways that traditional forms of property have been protected.

- Toward a Fair Use Standard (see here) by Pierre N. Leval, published in 103 Harv. L. Rev. 1105 (1990). A must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in copyright, this article is a great primer on transformative uses and a history of copyright.

- The Problem of Social Cost (see here) by Ronald Coase. A bit of a slog to get through, but a very significant article that introduced the Coase Theorem, which holds that if transaction costs approach zero, parties will bargain among themselves to resolve externalities that hamper utility, and as such, any government allocation of property can be considered efficient. (Externalities, here, are things like the pollution that a factory imposes on a local population, etc.) Coase won the Nobel Prize for Economics in the 90's for this, incidentally.

- Hard Cases by Ronald Dworkin (published in 88 Harvard Law Review 1057 in 1974). Somewhat controversial, but very interesting. Dworkin essentially argues that when judges have to decide "hard cases" (that is, cases where legal rules and precedents cannot be mechanically applied), they rule in accordance with that interpretation of the law that is most in accordance with the principles and current interpretation of the law.

- The Right to Privacy (see here ) by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. Whether or not you agree with it, it is a tremendously important and influential piece of writing. In this article, Warren and Brandeis proposed a new tort of invasion of privacy, claiming (a radical claim at the time) that privacy was a personal rather than a property right.
posted by Pontius Pilate at 2:24 AM on October 4, 2006 [3 favorites]

Craig Muldrew, 'Interpreting the market: The ethics of credit and community relations in early modern England ', Social History 18, no. 3 (1993): 163–83.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:10 AM on October 4, 2006

Two personal favorites are:

`The making of Oliver Cromwell', in Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1990) by John Morrill - an inspirational piece of historical detective work that completely transformed understanding of its subject.

TW Laquer, ‘The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the reign of George IV’, Journal of Modern History (1982). Made me fall in love with the period and a great application of other disciplines to history.
posted by greycap at 3:25 AM on October 4, 2006

Luria SE and Delbrück M. Mutations of bacteria from virus sensitivity to virus resistance. Genetics 28 (1943): 491–511.

It's old-school phage genetics and the definitive refutation of Lamarckian inheritance. There's a PDF of it up here that has a pretty decent introduction explaining the historical significance.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:14 AM on October 4, 2006

Check out the del.icio.us clone for research: Connotea. Some papers I liked enough to present to our group recently are:
  • Sachs, et al. a paper sophisticated enough to use Bayesian inference yet disciplined enough to remain grounded in real-world application.
  • Garfinkel et al. a paper showing how signalling gradients can form in monolayer culture, which is also cool because it cites "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis" by none other than Alan Turing.

    I remain underwhelmed by the tastyresearch blog.

  • posted by Mr. Gunn at 5:44 AM on October 4, 2006

    The Present and the Past in the English Industrial Revolution 1880-1980, by David Cannadine, Past and Present, 103 (May 1984). Cannadine demonstrates the extent to which historians of the Industrial Revolution have been influenced, often unconsciously, by the economic situation of their own day. He uses this to suggest that Kuhn's theory of 'paradigm shifts' can be applied to the study of history as well as science.

    Fear of Failing: Economic History and the Decline of Britain, by Barry Supple, Economic History Review, 47 (1994). Supple shows how the British have tended to assume that their country is in decline, even when the economy is actually growing. Though presented as economic history, this article also raises some very interesting social and cultural questions about why the British are so obsessed with failure.
    posted by verstegan at 5:53 AM on October 4, 2006

    Noam Chomsky's "Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization"
    posted by dsword at 6:52 AM on October 4, 2006

    I'm not sure where you're located, tasty, but to second what datacenter refugee says, the Annals of Improbably Research have some amazingly cool (if occasionally practically worthless) papers they've put out. And, tomorrow is the 2006 Ig Nobels, which you can still get tickets for if you're near Boston!
    posted by Mayor West at 7:16 AM on October 4, 2006

    On the electrodyamics of moving bodies, by Albert Einstein. This is the paper in which Einstein introduced relativity (special not general). The first half is very simple. Einstein derives the space and time stretching effects of relativity in a beautifully simple and elegant way. Minimal maths required.

    The second half is an extension of these concepts to electormagnetism, mathematically more complex, but less interesting.
    posted by Touchstone at 7:31 AM on October 4, 2006

    Two Dogmas of Empiricism, W.V.O. Quine. The most influential paper in philosophy in the 20th century.

    The Naming and Necessity lectures, Saul Kripke. Both revolutionary and easy to understand.
    posted by Kwine at 7:48 AM on October 4, 2006

    Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight by Clifford Geertz (anthologized in a bunch of places, but get his book, The Interpretation of Cultures, which opens with another classic essay, 'Thick Description'). It's a classic in cultural anthropology that's been taken up by humanities scholars in a number of disciplines (it's a cornerstone text in the Media Studies program I went through). Interesting enough as a description of the cockfight and its gambling culture; much moreso as a sketch of a collective national psyche.

    The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton. [Here.] 'The funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent, according to a worker who witnessed it, was a riotous massacre of cats. The worker, Nicolas Contat, told the story in an account of his apprenticeship in the shop, rue Saint- Séverin, Paris, during the late 1730s. Life as an apprentice was hard, he explained...' A classic of a certain kind of historical investigation/reconstruction, profitably read along with...

    The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg. It's an attempt to recreate the 'intellectual cosmos' of a miller accused of and executed for heresy in 16th century Italy. It's a book but quite short; Ginzburg is an entertaining writer without being precisely flip, and this is a fascinating book.

    The opening chapter of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, entitled Odysseus's Scar. Mimesis is one of the great achievements in literary criticism, a rare spectacle, and 'Odysseus's Scar' takes on a grand subject: literary representations of reality in the Old Testament and the Odyssey - the beginnings of literary realism. It's an older book, written during WWII (if I remember correctly), and so its style, ambition, and preoccupations are very much out of fashion in literary-critical circles. That's part of the reason it remains so valuable.
    posted by waxbanks at 7:56 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

    Philosophy here:

    "What is it like to be a bat?" by Thomas Nagel

    "Later Selves and Moral Principles" by Derek Parfit

    "Dthat" by David Kaplan

    "The Essential Indexical" by John Perry

    "The Importance of Being Identical" by John Perry

    "Morality as Freedom" by Christine Korsgaard

    "Are Pregnant Women Fetal Containers" by Laura Purdy

    "The Case Against Raising and Killing Animals for Food" by Bart Gruzalski

    Could do this all day...
    posted by ontic at 11:29 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

    My choice as a practicing chemist is papers written which illustrate the actual pitfalls of science. Specifically, all those projects which for one reason or another burned through a graduate student, postdoc or two, or just got given up because of new data suggesting their impossibility, a change in scientific fashion, funding running out or the million and one other reasons why a project is halted before publication.

    “Some Got Away, but Others Didn't...”, Julius Rebek, Journal Organic Chemistry 69 (8), 2651 -2660, 2004

    "The perils of polynucleotides: the experimental gap between the design and assembly of unusual DNA structures," N. C. Seeman, , Proceedings of the Second Annual Workshop on DNA Based Computers, June 10-12, 1998

    Neither of the above are great examples of writing, but they are crucial modifiers to that old maxim: ‘history is written by the victors’. The above writers are victors, but at least they write about their failures. Usally all that is written about is success - this is how most of science is. Failure, surrounded by the odd piece of success.

    Does anyone know any more from other fields? Especially well written ones?
    posted by lalochezia at 3:45 PM on October 4, 2006

    In CS we're lucky that the seminal work is recent enough that most of us were around when it was happening. I remember 1984; in particular,

    Reflections On Trusting Trust. Communication of the ACM, Vol. 27, No. 8 (Aug. 1984). This was Ken Thompson's 1984 Turing Award lecture, reprinted in CACM.

    Easy to read and understand by anyone with a basic knowledge of compilers and code. Read it at the ACM website: Reflections On Trusting Trust.

    And, of course, Einstein's Annus Mirabilis (1905) papers that turned all physics upside down (but I wasn't around when they were first published).
    posted by phliar at 7:59 AM on October 13, 2006

    Schismatic, More is Different is available online.
    posted by Chuckles at 6:32 AM on February 19, 2007

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