Would you work on a project that you expected would not be cited for years?
I've had a couple of main lines of research for a good chunk of my career. I've published a fair amount on digging and sand crabs. In the last few years, a lot of my attention has been focused on Marmorkrebs (with nociception and other projects thrown in for good measure).
I've started to notice the difference in these two lines of work. The sand crab kinds stuff gets cited very slowly. The Marmorkrebs stuff is getting its first citations within a year or two.
Since I'm doing both, I don't think that one set of papers is that much higher in quality than the other. I approach both the way, and write them the same way, and they end up in more or less the same kinds of journals.
The difference is in community. There's an active little community of Marmorkrebs researchers (who I'll be meeting at SICB this week), but there isn't a cohesive community of sand crab or digging researchers.
Is the lesson here that: If you want to be a successful scientist, maybe you should do what everyone else is doing?
Maybe a little. A recent article over at the College Guide blog asked if it was worth putting out papers that are not cited. Certainly part of why I do research is because I want it to be useful to other people.
There are many measures of success, however. The external validation of having other people cite your research is wonderful, but you also have to have some belief in the intrinsic value of your own work.
Sand crabs are an obscure little group of animals. Always have been, and, despite my efforts, probably will stay so. But that is one of the things that makes me happy to work on them. I know that I am learning something new. I feel more like I'm pushing back the boundaries of ignorance with those projects.
I'm personally happy that I have a mix of projects. I think that it can be tempting to favour one or the other too strongly. Spend too much time chasing citations, and you do end up simply one of the pack, anonymous. Be too convinced that all knowledge is valuable, even in the face of evidence that nobody cares, and you end up as an oblivious loner.