Friday, October 23, 2009

When 2007 Was

At a conference earlier this year and during some talks by visitors to my department in recent weeks, I noticed something. I heard, on multiple occasions, variations on the following two statements, each made by different people:

I published this in my recent paper in 2007.

I published this many years ago in my 2007 paper.

So, was 2007 like yesterday or was it a long time ago?

A reasonable hypothesis is that speakers of a certain age would think of 2007 as recent whereas the youngsters would think of it as a long time ago. There may indeed be some speaker-age effect on the observed phenomenon, but I have not seen a strong correlation between the age of the speaker and the perception of 2007 as being in the recent vs. distant past. Instead, I have seen (= inferred) a correlation between the productivity level of the speaker and the perception of the distance between now and 2007.

My hypothesis:

Those who have published many papers since 2007 think of 2007 as ancient history. Those for whom a 2007 paper was and still is a big deal (because there have not been (m)any other papers since then) think of 2007 as a recent date, not matter what the age of the speaker.

I further posit that these statements are most commonly made about a speaker's own publication(s). Publication years by other authors may be devoid of editorial opinion unless the publication was truly very recent (example: This paper by X just came out in Science); i.e., more a statement of fact than perception.

I do not yet have enough data to be entirely certain of these observations, but after I noticed a tendency for some speakers to editorialize about the distance between now and 2007 (or 2006 or 2005 etc.), I became obsessed with keeping track of these statements about time perception in talks. This post is motivated by the most recent of these incidents.

I have also been keeping track of the oldest publication date for which someone uses the word "recent". The record so far: 2005, though 2007 is by far the most common "recent" date.

And I wonder whether 2007 will be displaced by 2008 next year and fade into the distant publication past.


biochem belle said...

I have noticed this among speakers, as well, although I have not diligently tracked as you have :)

I wonder if there is a possible correlation between the magnitude of the paper (e.g. the novelty of the idea or how high-falutin' the journal is) and the classification of recentness.

David said...

It might make a difference whether the author had to spend a long time going through peer review and how long it waited "in press", or whether the process was swift.

I had a paper come out just this month, but since it took a good two years of peer review and "in press" due to slow reviewers and a big publication queue, I'm almost tempted to refer to it as ancient history already.

Phiala said...

It might also relate to publication cycles and delays. In my field, it can take a ridiculously long time to shepherd a paper through the review and revision and publication process. One result of that is that my papers from 2007 and newer have never been cited, while all my papers older than 2007 have. By that measure, 2007 is still new.

grad student said...

Perhaps the "long time ago" ones refer to studies that had been conducted long before the paper was published while the "recent" ones are studies that were carried out not so long ago?

Anonymous said...

There is a closely related construction that I hear and read a lot, "There has been a great deal of recent interest.." or "Recently, Smith et al. showed..." when the paper (or papers) in question is up to a decade old.

In all cases, I would conjecture that the use of the word "recent" is purely political. I suspect it has less to do with how a speaker calibrates time internally than it does as a means to influence what you think about a piece of science or a particular scientist by pointing out its youth/age.

The History Enthusiast said...

In my field (history) 2007 would still be considered fairly recent. Perhaps it is a field-specific understanding.

cookingwithsolvents said...

If I am talking about somebody else's work that stimulated my own research then 2006-2007 and on is recent because those papers shaped what I've been doing recently. 2007 is ancient history for my own research. The work done then is either published, submitted, or on the shelf above my desk in an old lab notebook and will probably never see the light of day again.

The biological types tend to have projects that take longer (growing stuff, etc) so that may influence their perception, too.

Kevin said...

People can remember what year a paper was published? I have to look at my list of papers to remember when papers came out.
I have plenty of research from around 2000 that hasn't been written up yet. Is that recent or ancient history?

Ms.PhD said...

Maybe worth listening carefully- can be enlightening.

For a while I had to use the phrase "my most recent publication" to refer to a paper that came out 4 years ago- because I hadn't be able to get any first-author papers accepted since then.

It didn't mean I hadn't done any work or submitted any other manuscripts in the meantime. Quite the contrary.

Also, 2007 could be a long time ago for a postdoc or grad student who has been desperately trying to get a job since then. Dog years, my friend. Dog years.

It's all relative.

Ms.PhD said...

p.s. you should make a graph with age, number of publications, and dates referred to as "Recent" for our enjoyment!

yolio said...

I've caught myself calling things recent when they aren't when I am regiving an old part of a talk. When iwrote the talk, it was recent. But it is time to update the language.

amy said...

In my field (philosophy), you can talk about a 7-8 year old paper (and especially a book) as recent. 10 year old items are kind of pushing it. I guess knowledge moves a lot more slowly in the humanities. Some of us are still working on Socrates' research questions!

Ursula said...

I got caught at something like this, when using old slides for a talk (about a project that hasn't progressed since, because other things got in the way), and the slides referred to a few papers being in press, or in preparation, when they had been published in 2008.
Time flies, and 2007 doesn't seem to be that far back.

Anonymous said...

You have a lot of time on your hands, miss!

Anonymous said...

I recently heard a 2001 paper characterized as "recent" in a talk, which was really surprising. The speaker was ~60 years old and not terribly productive, so it's hard to say which is the determining factor here.

shan said...

hmm i think i would say "a paper which came out a couple of years ago," so more in the fact-stating camp.

also, it may depend on the field. a paper from 2007 may be pretty recent to a more obscure topic that doesn't see many publications.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Wow. Even if 2007 seems like a long time ago, which it does often enough, I don't think I could ever call it "many years ago"!

undine said...

In the humanities, 2007 would be considered "recent," but I can see why it would seem like an ancient date in the sciences.