Spotlight: Highly Cited Researcher Jane Elith

Ranking in the top 1% by citations for field and publication year in Web of Science, Highly Cited Researchers are leading the way in solving the world’s biggest challenges. But what makes them tick?

As we prepare to announce the list of Highly Cited Researchers 2019, and as part of our series getting to know researchers across the world, we put the spotlight on perennial Highly Cited Researcher — Environment/Ecology Professor Jane Elith, Ph.D., Quantitative Ecologist in the School of Biosciences, University of Melbourne.

Jane specializes in ecological models that focus on spatial analysis and prediction of the habitat of plant and animal species. She has made outstanding contributions to species distribution modeling. Jane shares her thoughts on what it means for her research to be highly cited.


Tell us how you came to be a researcher in your field/discipline.

I discovered the field I work in, quantitative ecology, after a bit of roaming. I first studied Agricultural Science, worked in research and teaching for a couple of years, then left university and stayed home full time as a mum to three sons. Twelve years later I started work again as a part-time tutor. In one of those “meet and chat” moments that open up new horizons, I discovered my supervisor-to-be, Professor Mark Burgman, who was starting an Environmental Science program at the University of Melbourne. The focus on quantitative methods and conservation-related questions sounded like just the place for me because I have always been fascinated by the diversity and intricacy of nature and I like working with data and models. I started a Ph.D. part-time in 1997, finished in 2003, worked as a postdoc and on an Australian Government Fellowship for several years, and finally secured a continuing position in 2016. Right through my postgraduate years, I’ve had excellent opportunities to work with others, nationally and internationally, and some of my most satisfying research has been from what we could achieve together, in collaborations across the disciplines of ecology, statistics and computer science.


Did you know, before becoming a Highly Cited Researcher (HCR) that you were one of the most read/cited authors on the planet?

I’ve been an HCR each year since 2014. In 2014 I had not at all anticipated it, and was of course, delighted. Each year since is a bonus. It’s made me reflect on what people see in papers, and why they are helpful. That helps me to learn what contributions I can best make to our science.


Why is your research important – how do you see it changing the world? What impact does your research have on the community/society/economy?

Human beings analyze and extrapolate from observations all the time, whether it be internally (unconscious, conscious), or mediated by statistical models or algorithms. My research is fundamentally about how observations (data) can be best put to use (analyzed) to understand the spatial pattern and dynamics of plant and animal species.

One of the fundamental questions that ecologists ask is why species occur where they do. What is it about the environment that species encounter – the temperature, the light, the soil, competition from other species – that makes them rare or absent in some places and common in others? And until recently, ecologists have been restricted to the observations they could gather, at scattered points, often in local areas. Big data, IT tools, machine learning and new statistical methods have changed all that, bringing models and data that allow us to work across landscapes and continents in ways that 30 years ago we couldn’t have dreamt of.

We now have massive volumes of data, with information on environments right across the world. Suddenly instead of just understanding a few places, we have the potential to make predictions right across landscapes and continents, to places where perhaps no foot has ever trodden. So instead of scattered points of data, we can fill in the gaps. Can you imagine how powerful and appealing this can be? It has captured the imagination of so many ecologists, statisticians, and computer scientists.

So as I talk about my work, I talk about “we.” Collaboration is so important, and I find it impossible to think about my impact without thinking about my collaborators, students, and peers. We can ask questions like: can we predict the best places to go to find a rare species? Can we identify new sites that are safe havens if we need to move a species that’s at risk of extinction? Can we predict where an invasive species will spread to, or what will happen to species and ecosystems under climate change? We’ve explained new methods in plain language so that users don’t need maths or IT degrees to use them well.

The models are used in biosecurity to predict where invasive species are likely to survive and flourish in Australia. That helps us to identify the biggest quarantine risks and to find and manage pests that arrive here.

The models make a difference in restoration. We’ve worked on biocrusts in the Mallee. Biocrusts are micro-communities of mosses, lichen, and cyanobacteria that carpet the ground in arid areas. They hold the soil together and help the water to infiltrate. We can show what conditions create the best biocrusts, and how long they take to recover from grazing and other disturbances. That’s critical information for helping land managers and farmers protect and restore the small amounts of remnant vegetation left on their properties.

The models are widely used in conservation throughout the world because they are an effective summary of what we know and can predict. They provide evidence, and evidence-based approaches to conservation are the smart way to balance competing goals for land use. My goal is to progress the science, see it applied in the real world, and achieve a healthier and more sustainable planet.

It is rare that one person can make a lot of difference with their body of work, and that is why I’m pleased that some of my highest cited works are those that were intended to help fellow scientists use these new modeling techniques with greater authority and thus use data to better effect. There’s a bit of a sense of compounding or cascading impact that I find particularly satisfying.


“As I talk about my work, I talk about ‘we.’ Collaboration is so important, and I find it impossible to think about my impact without thinking about my collaborators, students and peers.”


What impact does being listed on the HCR list have on your future work, professional career?

I have already found that being highly cited is influential: those assessing applications for grants, awards and promotions take notice of it. It’s one piece of objective evidence that I’ve contributed well in my field, and as such it helps me to progress. But primarily I don’t want it to be about me – I’ll be most satisfied if I feel I’ve contributed to the greater good. That’s harder to measure, but I think about things like the careers of up and coming researchers, the skills of people working in conservation, and the projects that we work on that have the capacity to have on-the-ground outcomes.


What advice would you give to new and emerging researchers/scientists?

Don’t worry or be apologetic if you haven’t had a conventional start to your career, or if there have been interruptions. Keep going. You never know where things will lead; if opportunities come your way, take them and see what they have to offer. There are so many ways to contribute. Find what you like doing and what you do well, and each day try to do your best to make the world a little bit better.


Learn more about Jane’s research.

Highly Cited Researcher: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018
Publons profile:
Institutional profile:


To see the full list of Highly Cited Researchers and read more about the selection methodology and other details, please visit