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Reflections on a Career in Fisheries and Marine Science

March 19, 2015


Brian J. Rothschild has an intriguing article in the ICES Journal of Marine Science in which he reflects on a long and successful career in fisheries and marine research. I think the concluding paragraphs are worth a read by anyone entering into the marine science field, if not academic research more broadly. It speaks to the difficulty of predicting what ideas will “gain currency” and potential flaws in how ideas are spread. They are:

In the course of working on population-dynamic variability, I wrote many papers and book chapters. I thought that some were highly innovative and worth further pursuit by the research community. It seemed to me that they would all become citation classics. But they did not. Was it because the concepts were really not worthwhile? Was it because they appeared in the wrong publication at the wrong time?Was it because the mathematical explications they contained discouraged readers? Was it a question of crossing discipline boundaries? Was it that some challenged received wisdom, like the blind acceptance of “overfishing” as a scientific term?

I do not have answers to these questions. However, in an analysis of what moves forward and what does not, it seems appropriate to examine how ideas propagate in the scientific system. There are two major pathways. The first involves publication; the second involves citation once a paper is published.

Regarding publication, in my own experience, and from my discussions with others, peer reviews can be helpful, but they are often flawed. Partly, it is a question of who constitutes a peer for the writing of a “peer review”. It seems that some reviewers are either not competent or not objective, and are not willing to admit to either. It is my view that removal of reviewer anonymity would open scientific dialogue and prevent suppression of innovative papers that are beyond the ken of reviewers.While this has been suggested a number of times and appliedwith unconvincing results, our current information explosion might make it appropriate to reexamine this issue

Regarding citation, it seems to me that editors need to ensure that a paper critically incorporates the corpus of knowledge for the subject area being considered. “Critically” is an important word here because it requires that the paper is introduced with an analytic discussion of what is known and what is not known rather than merely listing the literature. A coherent development of knowledge requires an understanding of its provenance. Without such provenance, the student is forced to consider each and every paper independently, constraining a refined criticism and the scientific structure of the ideas that we are attempting to advance.

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