It is tempting to think of a journal article as a performance. Like an actor or a musician, we tell ourselves, we take the stage and either fail or succeed. Either way, we will have to do it again the following night with a new audience.
I recently noticed that Karl Weick thinks of his work in these terms. Here's how he puts it in Sensemaking in Organizations.
Among [jazz] musicians, there is the saying "you're only as good as your last date," by which they mean that history and reputation count for less than does the most recent exhibition of your craft. The same can be said of the topic of sensemaking.
Sensemaking, as a focus of inquiry, is only as significant and useful as are its most recent exemplars. (64)
Notice that he is not just talking about the individual scholar here. He is talking about a whole "topic", a "focus of inquiry". This strikes me as obviously wrong. What, after all, counts as a "most recent exemplar" of sensemaking inquiry? The publication of an article does not guarantee that it will be read, nor that it will have an effect on other researchers. Surely the sensemaking topic is as "significant and useful" as, well, its most significant and useful exemplars.
The truth is that you do not stake your whole reputation on your most recent publication. People who found your article from five years ago useful will continue to use it in their work even if you have moved on to, for them, less interesting topics, and even if you have since changed your mind and now disagree with your celebrated paper. In that sense, it is quite possible to be much better than your most recent performance.
When trying to understand a research tradition (a particular approach to a topic or focus of inquiry), history and reputation should count a great deal more than Weick here suggests. You have to go back through the literature and find the lasting "monuments", as Foucault might put it. You don't have to read everything that is happening right now.
Jazz, for obvious reasons, is not merely as useful or significant as its most recent performance. There are masterpieces, which are both scored (i.e., written down) and recorded. They are permanent parts of the tradition. Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew do more to determine the validity of more recent jazz performances than recent performances do to determine the validity of jazz as a genre. They also do more to determine the validity of the specific kind of jazz (cool, rock) than any given contemporary exemplar. They are permanent parts of a tradition. A tradition without permanent monuments is neither significant nor useful.