In June 2002, the ASLO Board voted to move forward with a new journal, Limnology and Oceanography: Methods. L&O: Methods, as I am already accustomed to thinking of it, is intended as a companion to ASLO's top-rated journal Limnology and Oceanography, and will be held to the same high standards. The journal's staff consists of myself as Editor-in-Chief, and Susana Feng as Managing Editor.
As its founding Editor-in-Chief, and as someone who has been involved in virtually every aspect of implementation, I have developed a sort of paternal fondness for the journal. I have both high expectations and high hopes for this intellectual offspring.
But why do we need a methods journal?
I was visited recently by a student who had once been my lab technician. During a friendly exchange of news, I told her about the new journal and how I was excited at the possibilities. She laughed. Seeing my puzzled look, she explained that back when she worked for me, "You always said that you don't do methods papers!" Ruefully, I had to agree; it's true, I did say that. Despite that much of my work depended on methods development, a streak of misplaced vanity kept me thinking that it was the application that was important, and not the methods used. Then, I would argue that people who wrote methods papers were just trying to get publication credits.
I've changed my mind. I've come to realize that my own methods-starved area of specialization (marine microbial ecology) has spent much too much time following false leads, leaping forward only when a new method opened the doors to new insights - and usually, to new questions. In my own field, the development of epifluorescence microscopy changed our entire world view, when we realized that bacteria were orders of magnitude more abundant that we ever had thought. Oh, the possibilities and the questions that raised! More recently, the introduction of molecular techniques and the subsequent discovery of the widespread distribution of marine Archaea jolted our world view again. What are they doing out there? What does it mean? Have we been wrong about everything? That's why methods are important. It's not that one can finally answer the questions one has waited patiently to address. New methods lead to new questions.
When a really good new method comes along, everything changes.
I would be surprised if anyone would really disagree with that statement. Everyone understands that new methods lead to new insights. Why, then, are there so few places to publish methods papers? As part of the development of a proposal for L&O: Methods, I evaluated the distribution of methods papers among journals to see what the competition might be. In a sample of 95 aquatic-sciences methods papers, I found they appeared in 47 different journals. Despite their overwhelming importance to progress, methods papers tend to appear anywhere they can find a home.
ASLO is going to change that, by recognizing and highlighting the importance of methods development. I said earlier I have high expectations for the journal, and perhaps the most important is to increase the visibility, the perceived value and the prestige associated with a good, innovative, and insightful methods paper. To meet this goal, I intend to push authors to increase the rigor with which methods are developed, tested and presented. The journal will absolutely require a thorough, thoughtful and detailed analysis of any new method. Every methods paper published in the journal will have an assessment section that will present the critical experiments or studies that were conducted in the process of methods testing, the results of those studies, and the proof of concept they provide. The assessment must provide the answers to such basic questions as: How do you know that your method really works? How well does your method work? What are its strengths and limitations? How difficult or expensive is your method to adopt and use?
In addition, I would like to foster more dialogue about methods. It's common for a published method to require a bit of tweaking before it works in a particular environment. Such small amendments are rarely worth writing up a descriptive paper, and are usually buried in the methods section of an applications paper. L&O: Methods will offer users of a published method a chance to engage in both formal and informal dialogue. In addition to original methods, the journal will publish both peer-reviewed, substantive updates to methods previously published in the journal, and incremental updates that only require Editorial approval. The journal will also publish peer-reviewed, substantive comments on previously published methods, as well as procedural comments that are limited to specific details of the method (e.g. suggesting a higher incubation temperature) and are approved at the Editorial level.
I strongly believe that with a strong emphasis on rigorous, thoughtful and honest appraisal of new methods, Limnology and Oceanography: Methods can help the community move forward more swiftly, with fewer false leads and dead ends.
I would like to express my appreciation to Past-President Bill Lewis, who initiated the discussion of new journals; to the members of the Journals Committee Working Group, who sketched out the basic outline for the journal; to Everett Fee and Lucille Doucette, who provided a great deal of information about the inner workings of a journal; and to the ASLO Board, which had the courage (and I think wisdom) to approve the journal project - no light decision, when it is ASLO's first new research publication in 47 years! Susana and I are looking forward eagerly to the start of publication, now only a few short months away.
Paul F. Kemp, Editor-in-Chief
September 3, 2002