I have been asked to submit a list of my N most important papers for a certain nomination. In this case, N is five. In the past, for various reasons, N was often three, including for my tenure package years ago.
It’s always hard to chose; what does it even mean — “most important papers”?
There are highly cited papers that have an experimentalist as the lead senior author, so even though my student/postdoc and I did a lot of theoretical work and wrote large sections of those papers, I don’t consider them my papers, but the experimental group’s papers.
There are highly cited papers that have me as the lead senior author, but many of those I honestly think are boring. People read them and cite them because we did what needed to be done at the time when it needed to be done, we did it well, and we wrote it up clearly and compellingly. But I never thought that they were particularly technically exciting, at least to me. Maybe part of what makes them well cited is that they are appreciated even by the people who are not as enamored of theory and math as I am.
Then there are the papers that are not yet highly cited as they were only published 1-2 years ago, but I think will eventually get there, because the work is cool and their citation rate (number of citations per unit time) is pretty high.
Then there are those that often aren’t highly cited, but that I think were really exciting to work on or that really broke new ground. They may or may not get citation traction, because some of them are really complicated, but I think they are important, and sometimes they do start to pick up citations after a few years delay.
Why am I even hung up on citations? Well, they are a metric for how much we influenced the field. Still, I don’t really want to list the highly cited papers that I don’t think are technically beautiful.
I have to remark that, post tenure, I definitely have a much higher proportion of exciting, technically challenging work to the obvious-next-step-that-we-can-do-faster-and-better-than-others papers than what I did on the tenure track. And that’s a major perk of tenure — having the security to work on the harder, higher-risk stuff.
What say you, blogosphere? How would you pick your 3–5 most important papers?