José M. Riascos is a professor of Marine Ecology at Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia and an associate researcher at the Corporation Center of Excellence in Marine Sciences (https://www.jmriascos.space/). His research interests include the dynamics of coastal ecosystems and their responses to the effects of human impacts and extreme weather conditions. Prof Riascos recently joined our Section Editorial board. In this blog post, we talk about his enthusiasm for open science, the sea and his motivations coming to this new role.
PLOS: You have recently become our new Section Editor for Marine Ecology. Why did you decide to join our Editorial Board and what motivates you about your new role?
JMR: I love books -I used to go to the library sometimes just to smell them- and so I discovered journals and started to understand how they work. I was amazed at the central role that peer-review has played for the development of science -editors and reviewers act as gatekeepers of science. Being involved in peer-reviewing is both an honour and a responsibility, so when I was invited to become a section editor for marine ecology I had no doubts, it is an opportunity to promote the advance of ecology as a scientific discipline. The centuries long tradition of peer-review as a self-regulation mechanism talks about its pivotal role, but it is far from perfect. There are acknowledged biases and in a period of unprecedent anthropogenic global changes we need truly global editorial boards: the participation of scientists from lower-middle income countries (LMIC) has been conventionally scant, although they are in the frontline of major ecological challenges.
PLOS: Being a marine ecologist from Colombia, what are, in your opinion, the unique challenges that scientists from LMIC face?
JMR: Many Colombian students starting their studies in ecology have the feeling that ecology and environmentalism are intertwined things. There is a famous piece, entitled the Ecological Science and the Human Predicament (https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.282.5390.879c), authored by renowned ecologists, which basically called young ecologists to devote part of their professional lives to stemming the tide of environmental degradation and the associated losses of biodiversity and its ecological services, and to teaching the public about the importance of those losses. I think that this kind of approach is wrong and biased by beliefs of what is good or bad and I feel that ecologists from LMIC are more permeated by those ideas because biological diversity is higher there. We are increasingly seeing studies that seem only devoted to galvanizing a narrative of the destruction of nature, which when reconsidered by other scientists, often render contradictory results. These biases, soon or later, erode the credibility of ecological science –contradictions often benefit deniers. As ecologists, our primary mission is to establish and maintain a strong, value-free evidence base that is truthful for decision making and policy.
PLOS: What role can Open Science and PLOS ONE in particular play to help overcome these challenges?
JMR: We live in a world where commercialism is encroaching every human activity -including the development of science. Scientific publishing is now recognized as one of the most lucrative industries, which is not necessarily good news for science or the society. I like how PLOS arose as a response to pay-walled publishing to offer an alternative model for research communication underpinned by Open Science principles that research should be available and accessible to everyone without fees or other barriers (although the APC-model has its own challenges). That PLOS is a non-profit means these funds are reinvested in the journals themselves and initiatives that benefit the research community.
PLOS: What are, in your opinion, the most pressing issues in marine ecology that people should be aware about? But also, what are the most overlooked successes that give experts like you hope?
JMR: The rate and magnitude of changes are so fast and big that sometimes I feel that marine ecology is not progressing fast enough to face the more pressing challenges. Marine ecology, particularly in LMIC, is still dependent on conceptual subsidies from classical terrestrial ecology and is often too committed to scientific traditions. For example, jellyfish (a highly diverse taxonomic group) are claimed to be proliferating as a response to human transformation of coastal habitats. To describe the life cycle, a basic knowledge to understand population dynamics of these pelagic animals, we still rely on old fashioned husbandry experiments of a few representative species. That sounds as if we would claim that we can understand how vertebrates would react to climate change by studying the life cycle of a few species confined in a zoo. For me, one of the more pressing issues in Marine Ecology is the need to integrate new observational technologies that collectively will permit an overview (i.e. the so-called “macroscope”) of the global problem of anthropogenic transformation of biodiversity. With scientists from LMIC having restricted access to most of those technologies, open science and open data is critical.
PLOS: What advice would you give to a young scientist that would like to become a marine ecologist?
JMR: There is a proliferation of big data sets that is influencing the advance of many areas of biological research (satellite images, global observation networks, bio-loggers, environmental DNA, etc). I would recommend ecologists to train themselves and embrace this new focus on big data sets to address classic questions in ecology, particularly the problem of scale and pattern in ecology. Much in the same way microscopy changed the way we understand the world during the XVII century, a macroscopic view of life on Earth is going to change the way ecologists understand the world.
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