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What is SIL?
by Prof. Dr. Robert G. Wetzel
Former SIL Secretary-Treasurer
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I offer a few reflections on what SIL is, as an international scientific association. I do this firstly from the perspective of an officer and scientist intimately involved with SIL on a daily basis for the past 24 years. My nearly continuous exchange and interaction with thousands of letters and discussions on SIL activities perhaps puts me in an effective position to comment on how SIL presently functions. Secondly, I have a rather unique long-term exposure to how most members want the SIL to function. Finally, I take this opportunity to express my perceptions of what facets of SIL are important to most of its membership and, most importantly, to the profession.
SIL is clearly international, perhaps better said “supranational” in the words of one of our founders A. Thienemann. Our membership extends to some 80 countries and is expanding rapidly in tropical regions that had been underrepresented previously.
SIL is limnological. We have aggressively expanded the interests and activities of SIL to all inland waters. For example, research, interactions, and instructional activities on tropical and saline waters, constituting over half of surface waters, have been enhanced markedly in SIL during the past decade. In addition to these broad topics, vigorous attention is being given to detailed and rigorous research on specific subjects of major functional importance, e.g., microbiology, land-water interface, and many others, particularly associated with working groups.
SIL is really SILTA, theoretical and applied. A very significant, and increasing, portion of our membership is integrating fundamental research-driven understanding into practical questions of human usage of freshwater resources. Much greater emphasis is being given to the integration of exponentially expanding human activities into the composite analyses of freshwater ecosystems and their effective management than was the case previously. We have been attacking these enormous problems from many directions, particularly by encouraging interdisciplinary coupled research developments on complex ecosystems of great biological and economic importance, e.g., Lake Tanganyika.
SIL is scientific. This statement is foremost and fundamental, and clearly must remain the foundation of SILTA. If the scientific foundation of SIL is weakened or compromised in any manner, the demise of the association is certain. Why am I so adamant about this point? A small but vocal contingency of our membership insists that the primary function of SIL should be to address social problems of environmental utilization by devoting most of the SIL expertise and financial resources to environmental education and activism. Publications of SIL are treated incorrectly by these ill-informed individuals with contemptuous disdain as worthless. An overwhelming majority of SIL members appreciate the need for activism in addressing social ills in relation to fresh water but are steadfast that SIL can only be effective if it has scientific credibility as its essential underpinning. As has been demonstrated so often in many international groups, the essential scientific expertise will not participate if the dominating science foundation of the congresses and working groups is supplanted with endless gaseous rhetoric and debate about social environmental ills.
SIL will be rendered impotent without a scientific journal. The only important communication in science is the written, published record in scientific journals. Oral presentations are heard by only a minuscule audience and the words quickly dissipate. Abstracts are not true published records. Research that is not published and communicated to the scientific community in written form is not completed. The interactive scientific expertise that has been nurtured and networked over seven decades in SIL activities and congresses will simply dissipate and not participate without the scientific structure. Every member of SIL must retain his or her constitutional right to present and publish a scientific contribution in a quality scientific journal. This statute is not only accepted but demanded by an overwhelming majority of SIL members.
SIL has a primary responsibility to provide quality scientific proceedings. In 1988, SIL established a Publications Committee to evaluate the opinions of the membership towards our publications, their quality, and costs. I summarize the results of that report here (available upon request from the General Secretary).
- The Proceedings provide a triennial overview of worldwide limnological research activities and directions. The information of these proceedings provides a major, in some cases almost only, source of limnological information within a large number of Eastern and developing countries. A recent survey of membership found that > 95% of members found the Proceedings (Verhandlungen) and Communications (Mitteilungen) of use in their research and administrative positions.
- The Proceedings functions as a major attractant for both established and emerging scientists. The quality of scientific contributions remains high and is increasing consistently (one of the five most cited publications in limnology). Members have equal opportunities to publish and the Proceedings affords the possibility for young scientists to attract attention to their work.
- The Proceedings are distributed to nearly 3000 scientists and institutions, which is nearly an order of magnitude greater than most commercial journals.
- The length of scientific contributions in the Proceedings are now four pages of the new format (equal to five in the old style) without page charges. Much longer articles are accepted with page charges, and provisions are available for waiving page charges in certain justifiable cases. Arguments that valuable contributions cannot be written in the space available are simply invalid. Some of the best contributions in limnology and ecology occur as succinct, concise presentations with supporting data and interpretations. It has been agreed that no further reductions in length will be made.
- The Proceedings are large volumes and as such consume a significant portion of the income of SIL. A number of cost reduction measures have been undertaken (e.g., computerization) that have held costs constant despite increasing size. Members of SIL generally recognize the exceedingly low costs of membership in our Association that result largely because of the frugal operation by mostly gratis services of many dedicated colleagues. Clearly the Proceedings, as most journals, will eventually yield to totally electronic recordings and distribution. During this interim period, however, an overwhelming majority of members concur that this publication expenditure is essential to the scientific structure of SIL.
SIL is vigorous, diverse, and growing in its roles in the scientific and public communities. It also has limitations. For example, it is becoming so large and active in many multidisciplinary directions that several full-time paid business and international lobbying officers should be undertaking the daily operations. The costs of such a business office would however approach our current total annual income and it is obviously not possible. The present reliance upon donated time by persons in addition to their regular full-time employment limits what can be done. However, complacency is not acceptable and much more can be done by means of further collaboration and cooperation by the membership. I express my appreciation to so many that have helped, particularly National Representatives of the International Committee and other committee members. We have gained, but we can do much more to increase our profession to the supranational level. As Bede noted, "It is better never to begin a good work than, having begun it, to stop." SIL must always be flexible with the needs of the profession, but the science foundation is the sustaining good work and must never be compromised.