Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What makes a great paper?

'Tis the season for nominating papers for awards (at least if you're a member of the GSA Structure/Tectonics Division, like I am). The division's rules are that the nominees must still be alive, but there isn't any restriction on the publication year. (In fact, last year's award was given to a paper published in 1977.)

Two summers ago, when I was preparing to teach my first ever upper-level structural geology seminar, I looked through some of these papers to try to find something to discuss. And... I chose other papers instead. I got a copy of one (Treagus and Lisle, 1997) that seemed to ask fundamental questions about the discipline, but I didn't end up using it, because it seemed too theoretical for the interests of my students. I haven't even read most of them. I've got the three books on my shelf (Pollard & Fletcher, 2006; Passchier & Trouw, 1996, and Ramsay & Huber, 1983), and have meant to read them, but in the end, I've only read sections as I needed information. (I've been meaning to read Pollard & Fletcher and blog my way through it, because I found myself needing to stop and think about the material frequently. But that's pretty far down on my to-do list right now.) And I've only read three of the papers (all while I was an undergrad). (I also recognize five more as papers that I really should have read, and that I've seen cited and listed as great papers for class discussions, and yes, I do feel guilty about not having read all of them.)

So my experience with the Best Papers is pretty limited. But at least for those three, I agree with the choices:

Davis, Suppe, & Dahlen (1983) The mechanics of fold-and-thrust belts and accretionary wedges.
I think about this paper every time I shovel my driveway. It's an important paper because it solves a big problem (how do thrust faults manage to move stuff so far?), it's led to a fruitful model for understanding mountain belts all over the world, and it's got practical use (because thrust belts are so important for oil exploration). It transformed the way that we think about one major type of structure. I don't make students read it, in part because there's a lot of math (and although it's explained very clearly, a lot of my students are math-phobic, and I want them to understand the concepts even if they get lost in algebraic manipulations). But it's also a weird paper for structural geology - so much of structural geology involves using evidence from a particular place, either field evidence or GPS or modeling. Davis et al. derived a new way of thinking of a major type of structure from first principles. Very cool, and very powerful. But as a model for "this is the way a geologic paper is written," it's an anomaly, because it's making a different kind of argument from the ones we usually make.

Platt (1986) Dynamics of orogenic wedges and the uplift of high-pressure metamorphic rocks.
I read this paper repeatedly during grad school, because it essentially inspired my dissertation. Here's the gist, for people who haven't been obsessed by (and then disillusioned with) high-pressure metamorphic rocks: blueschists are way cool, because they form at unusually low temperatures for their high pressures. The only place where they form is in subduction zones, where cold rocks are shoved into the mantle at faster speeds than heat flows - they get buried too fast to heat up. They're only found in a few places around the world, in places that used to be subduction zones (or still are, in some cases). Blueschists were yet another puzzle that was solved by plate tectonics, but in this case, the solution created another problem. If blueschists form in subduction zones, where rock is sliding down into the mantle, how do they get back to the surface? To make matters worse, the mineral assemblages that record the metamorphism can be transformed if they get heated up (which is probably the reason why there aren't many good blueschists in Vermont, or in Precambrian rocks, or in my %$&@@! dissertation field area).

John Platt proposed a solution to the problem that used Davis et al.'s wedge idea: blueschists could be exhumed during subduction (which would keep them cold) if the wedge dynamics worked out correctly. The wedge needs to keep a constant shape (according to Davis et al.'s analysis), so if you add material to the bottom of it, you can force the wedge to spread horizontally, which would move rocks toward the surface. Presto! Exhumation!

In retrospect, this paper doesn't seem as powerful as it did when I first read it. For one thing, I wonder if Davis et al.'s model works for metamorphic rocks. (The derivation is based on the behavior of brittle rocks. If the rocks are ductile - whatever combination of plastic and viscous behavior you need to explain the various deformation mechanisms - does the wedge theory actually work?) For another, the only talks I've seen that have applied the model successfully in the field have been by John Platt or his students. (Of course, I may just be cranky because there weren't any well-preserved blueschists in my dissertation area, so I couldn't test the model myself.)

The third one of the papers that I've read is Paul Hoffman (1988)'s paper on the Precambrian assembly of North America. It's an interesting example, because it's an Annual Review, not a new research paper. It's the kind of thing that I'm more likely to assign in a class, however, because it pulls together ideas from a lot of different research and summarizes it in a way that's easy to digest. I haven't used it in class, because there's been enough new research on the Precambrian geology of North America that the paper is now somewhat dated.

***

What about the rest of you? Have you read any papers on the list below? Are there any that I really should read? And what do you think a Best Paper should do - should it change the way we think? Should it inspire new research? Should it summarize the state of research in an accessible and elegant way? Should it be a nice example of how research should be done (which was how a couple of the papers awarded in this decade have been described)?

And are there any papers that really should be on this list? (How about Tanya Atwater's original paper on the San Andreas Fault - the paper that brought plate tectonics onto land? Or for metamorphic people, Phil England & Alan Thompson's paper on metamorphic pressure-temperature-time paths? Or anything about metamorphic core complexes?) Would it be better to have recent papers, to show that the field is still dynamic (no, really, it is!), or should we recognize the classic papers that have shaped the field?

For reference, here's the list of all the papers ever given the Best Paper Award, stolen from the Structure/Tectonics Division web page:

2008: Thomas, W. (1977) Evolution of Appalachian-Ouachita salients and recesses from reentrants and promontories in the continental margin. American Journal of Science 277, 1233-1278.

2007: Pollard, D.D. & Fletcher, R.C (2006) Fundamentals of Structural Geology. New York, Cambridge University Press. 512 p.

2006: Dixon, T.H, Miller, M., Farina, F., Wang, H. & Johnson, D. (2000) Present-day motion of the Sierra Nevada block and some tectonic implications for the Basin and Range province, North America Cordillera. Tectonics 19, 1-24.

2005 (2 awards): Beaumont, C., Jamieson, R.A., Nguyen, M.H. & Lee, B. (2001) Himalayan tectonics explained by extrusion of a low-viscosity crustal channel coupled to focused surface denudation. Nature 414, 738-742.

Hodges, K.V., Hurtado J.M. & Whipple, K.X. (2001) Southward extrusion of Tibetan crust and its effect on Himalayan tectonics. Tectonics 20, 799-809.

2004: Atwater, T. & Stock, J. (1998) Pacific-North America plate tectonics of the Neogene southwestern United States - An update. International Geology Review 40, 375-402.

2003: Lavé, J. & Avouac, J.P. (2000) Active folding of fluvial terraces across the Siwaliks Hills, Himalayas of central Nepal. Journal of Geophysical Research 105(B3), 5735-5770.

2002: Catuneanu, O., Beaumont, C. & Waschbusch, P.J. (1997) Interplay of static loads and subduction dynamics in foreland basins: reciprocal stratigraphies and the "missing" peripheral bulge. Geology 25(12), 1087-1090.

2001: Dunlap, W.J., Hirth, G. & Teyssier, C. (1997) Thermomechanical evolution of a ductile duplex. Tectonics 16(6), 983-1000.

2000: Passchier, C.W. & Trouw, R.A.J. (1996) Microtectonics. 289 p. Springer.

1999: Treagus, S. & Lisle, R. (1997) Do principal surfaces of stress and strain always exist. Journal of Structural Geology 19, 997-1010.

1998: Muehlberger, W. (compiler) (1992 & 1996) Tectonic Map of North America. American Association of Petroleum Geologists (two sheets).

1997: Molnar, P., England, P. & Martinod, J. (1993) Mantle dynamics, uplift of the Tibetan Plateau, and the Indian monsoon. Reviews of Geophysics 31, 357-396.

1996: Suppe, J., Chou, G.T. & Hook. S.C. (1992) Rates of folding and faulting determined from growth strata. In: Thrust Tectonics (edited by K. McClay). Chapman & Hall. London, 105-121.(Click here for citation and response)

1995: Wojtal, S. (1989) Measuring displacement gradients and strain in faulted rock. Journal of Structural Geology 11, 669-678.[awarded in 1996]

1994: Armijo, R., Tapponnier, P. & Han, T. (1989) Late Cenozoic right-lateral strike-slip faulting in southern Tibet. Journal of Geophysical Research 94, 2787-2838.

1993: Worrall, D. & Snelson, S. (1989) Evolution of the northern Gulf of Mexico, with emphasis on Cenozoic growth faulting and the role of salt. In: The geology of North America - an overview (edited by Balley, A.W. & Palmer, P.). Geological Society of America Decade of North American Geology A, 91-138.

1992: Hoffman, P. (1988) United plates of America, the birth of a craton: early Proterozoic assembly and growth of Laurentia. Annual Reviews of Earth & Planetary Sciences 16, 543-604.

1991: Pavlis, T. (1986) The role of strain heating in the evolution of megathrusts. Journal of Geophysical Research 91, 6522-6534.

1990: Engebretson, D., Cox, A. & Gordon, R. (1985) Relative motion between oceanic and continental plates in the Pacific basin: Geological Society of America Special Paper 206.

1989: Platt, J.P. (1986) Dynamics of orogenic wedges and the uplift of high-pressure metamorphic rocks. Geological Society of America Bulletin 97, 1037-1053.

1988: Simpson, C. & Schmid, S. (1983) An evaluation of the criteria to deduce the sense of movement in sheared rocks. Geological Society of America Bulletin 94, 1281-1288.

1987: Boyer, S.E. & Elliott, D. (1982) Thrust systems. Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists 66, 1196-1230

1986: Davis, D. Suppe, J. & Dahlen, F.A. (1983) The mechanics of fold-and-thrust belts and accretionary wedges. Journal of Geophysical Research 88, 10087-10101.

1985: Ramsay, J.G. & Huber, M. (1983) The techniques of modern structural geology: Volume 1: Strain analysis. 307 p. Academic Press.

1984: Coney, P.J., Jones, D.L. & Monger, J.W.H. (1980) Cordilleran suspect terranes. Nature 288, 329-333.

6 comments:

GeologyJoe said...

Microtechtonics by Passchier and Trouw is my favorite geology book of all time.

Followed by Structural Geology by Hobbs, Means and Williams.

Elli said...

I was assigned the Passchier and Trouw as a textbook for two separate microstructure classes (1st edition). In both cases, I really liked the explanations and descriptions within the text and actually completed all of the assigned readings. When the 2nd edition appeared, I was a proud owner as soon as GSA came around. I don't have advanced students to use this book to teach with, but I always end up taking diagrams from the book for lectures in mineralogy, petrology, and structure. The photomicrographs included are amazing.

Silver Fox said...

Looking through this list, I can see that I need to read and re-read a few papers:
Atwater, T. & Stock, J. (1998)

Dixon, T.H, Miller, M., Farina, F., Wang, H. & Johnson, D. (2000)

Simpson, C. & Schmid, S. (1983)

Coney, P.J., Jones, D.L. & Monger, J.W.H. (1980)
...and probably a couple others.

For new Best Papers, I would certainly consider Tanya Atwater's 1970 paper. For any on core complexes in particular, they are often so site specific, but maybe Coney, P.J.,1974, Structural Analysis of the Snake Range ‘DĂ©collement,’ East-Central Nevada: Geological Society of America Bulletin v.85, p. 973-978 - because it did turn things around from thinking about compression to extension; and maybe Coney, P.J. and Harms, T.A., 1984, Cordilleran metamorphic core complexes: Cenozoic extensional relics of Mesozoic compression
Geology 1984 v. 12, p. 550-554, because it is a general paper and covers aspects of compression and extension through the cordillera. (Too bad the entire GSA Memoir 153 on core complexes can't be considered!). You might know some better ones, though, or more recent ones.

As for recent v. older papers, it looks like the existing list has been the result of awards to mostly at-the-time recent papers, but surely some early papers, prior to 1984, could be considered.

This reminds me that I used to belong to the Structure and Tectonics Division, and maybe I should consider re-joining!

Terry's world said...

donath and parker, 1964, folds and folding is the one great paper i would add, it convinced me to be a structural geologist. now retired.

Ish said...

I agree about Donath and Parker -- that is a great paper.

Mary Leech said...

Ah, yes, Kim. I remember inheriting a giant bottle of 'blueschit', presumably to pour over your PhD rocks left behind in the Bambi modular after what must have been a very jolly Christmas party at Stanford. I hadn't met you at that point, but you left behind the 'blueschit' (and was there something about a stray lone back seat from a field vehicle in AK?) in your wake? It's the stuff of legends!