When is a jellyfish plague not (necessarily) a jellyfish plague? When time-poor scientists selectively cite the literature to make it look like the oceans are flooded with jellies – even when it’s far from clear that they really are.
What does scientists being in a rush have to do with jellyfish populations? Let’s start from the beginning.
The identification of patterns and trends in nature happens through the accumulation of consistent observations, published in scientific reports. Once observed, the emerging patterns are usually reported in narrative reviews, which often stimulates a flurry of research activity in that field.
Eventually, the purported patterns are formally tested using “meta-analyses” of the published literature, to either confirm the pattern and establish it as theory, or refute it.
This path from the primary observations to theory can be traced through a network of citations.
Science, however, is done by humans and citation practices are subject to errors of bias and accuracy. Citation practices that are biased in a particular direction have the potential to lead to the identification of false patterns and flawed theory.
Are scientists seeing what they want to see? Fabryczka Fotografii/Shutterstock
Enter The Jellies
In the 1990s and 2000s, reports began to appear in the scientific literature of increased jellyfish populations in some parts of the world’s oceans. Various reviews reported the possibility that jellyfish blooms might be increasing globally. Over time, these became increasingly assertive about the existence and extent of the trend, until researchers were asking what to do about the increasingly “gelatinous state” of the oceans worldwide.