Quality in sustainability science: what is it, and how do we produce it?

By Joern Fischer

Assumption 1: The world is full of stuff, full of information, and increasingly busy. We have gazillions of papers already; even if we just consider those ‘few’ top papers that have been cited several hundred times, there’s still hundreds of those related to sustainability. So a lack of information doesn’t seem to be what’s causing un-sustainability.

Assumption 2: Because it can’t be quantity of research that will be of use to the world, it must be quality.

This begs the question: what is quality research in sustainability science? Or in other words: what counts as successful research, and therefore, what is worth doing? For a start, I suggest we consider three indicators of successful, or quality, sustainability science.

The first indicator of success is whether people read it. With most journals you will never know if people read it (although there are exceptions – such as the PLoS journals), but about 2-3 years after you publish something, you will know if anybody is citing it. I assume that there is a link between a paper being widely read and it getting widely cited. A very successful paper, in my mind, is one that many people read and cite – it shows that the paper somehow made an impression on people. Note under this definition it’s not a success to publish in a top journal. While that might help you to get widely read, we should probably think of it as a means to get read, rather than an end in its own right.

The second indicator, I suggest, is that your work somehow informs stakeholders, such as NGOs, members of the public, the policy communities, or resource managers. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that every paper will do this, but perhaps every medium to large project should achieve this aim, if it is to be considered a success. So, you might write three papers in your project; and then with the third one you visit conferences, talk to the media, and summarise it for policy makers. Such a project then would be successful, according to my simple definition – perhaps you feel it’s particularly successful if the work has been noted by many stakeholders, or by particularly important stakeholders.

The third indicator is related to both of those above, but it’s of a different type. It’s whether your work manages to make people see the world in a different way. If it does, most likely it will be popular with both other academics (i.e. widely read) and stakeholders (e.g. policy makers). My friend Adrian Manning once called these papers ‘lightbulb papers’. They’re the sorts of papers that actually teach you something new. They’re not just the most recent review of a topic you knew about already; nor the neatest analysis of something already well established. Such papers often become highly cited, too, but they’re not quite the same as a true ‘lightbulb paper’.

What are examples of lightbulb papers? That’s difficult to answer because what might be a lightbulb paper to one person might be boring to someone else. But some papers have inspired many people, and those are the real lightbulb papers – they shed truly new light on things. Let me list some that I find have qualified in my own thinking:

–          Henry Gleason coined the individual concept of plant association in the 1920s, thereby sparking a lot of fresh thinking to challenge the community concept.

–          MacArthur and Wilson came up with island biogeography theory, as a simple explanation for immigrations and extinctions (and species richness) on islands.

–          Buzz Holling coined the term ecological resilience in the 70s, and with it, sparked a whole body of new research.

–          Michael Soule and Kevin Crooks discussed the notion of ‘mesopredator release’; when the top predator goes, smaller ones kick in, with flow-on effects throughout the food web.

These are just some examples of course, and perhaps some of these concepts would even be attributed to other authors by somebody else – i.e. I can’t guarantee that the above individuals weren’t themselves inspired by something that switched on a lightbulb in their heads.

But whichever way you put it: it seems that the most successful papers are ones that make us think in a different way; and that make us see something we didn’t previously see. I suggest it’s those ideas that move us forward, while a lot of other work then follows to refute or improve an initial idea.

So if you have a lightbulb moment: pause a second and ask yourself, if perhaps your thought is worth putting down on paper. It might just turn into a lightbulb paper!

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One thought on “Quality in sustainability science: what is it, and how do we produce it?

  1. Hola – interesting and nice writing. I agree since some of the persons mentioned by you impacted my thinking. I would go even more, after reflecting about myself for example: the environment from childhood. I know when I was young, I was somehow seduced by books of Gerald Durrell, Konrad Lorenz, Desmond Morriss etc. I basically grow up with these books (to find out that today at University – biology and ecology – virtually nobody know about these people! And I know it is not an unique phenomena, in England may be the same in many Univ…etc.).

    I would suggest teachers and people in general: suggest books , good books and readings for children. What Animal Plantes and Discovery show today is lrgely a show. I dont reccomend it (maybe once I develop this idea: why).

    A children by definition is a huge sink of knowledge and feelings. And we want a normal society right? How to achieve this without individuals which feel, are sensitive toward beatuty of the nature (and other people) etc.?

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