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The concept of ecosystems
- Life and death on the coral reef: an ecological perspective on scholarly publishing in the health sciences

The first half of this article must begin by defining the biological structures that frame it. The word “ecology” first appeared in the writings of German zoologist Ernst Haeckel in the 1860s and was derived by combining two Greek words to mean “the study of the home” [9]. In 1957, biologist Ralph Buchsbaum observed that “the word ecology is beginning to appear regularly in newspapers and magazines” [10]. He posited that humankind's survival hinged on understanding what we depend on or affect directly or indirectly in our environment. He described food chains; the concept of “mutualism,” where organisms can live together and benefit each other; and “ecological succession,” where once dominant organisms are replaced by others better suited to an environment. The concept of ecological succession becomes important later in this lecture.

Buchsbaum used the simple analogy of a watch, which works properly only if every little part is in place. And he cautioned that people frequently ignore or discard pieces of ecological systems at work in the world, overlooking the interdependence found in very complex cycles. Humans willfully rearrange the natural world, resulting in all kinds of unforeseen disturbances and imbalances. Ironically, in 1957, Buchsbaum stressed that “the single most striking fact about seasonal change in the oceans is that at least 95% of the total marine environment undergoes no change that significantly affects the life of the seas” [10]. However, since then, we have come to understand this is not quite true due to the cycles of El Niño and La Niña, and then there is the cumulating impact of humans. The sea is changing in very significant and worrisome ways as we meddle with and disrupt the ecosystems that keep our world stable.

Scientist and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke is credited with saying “how inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it clearly is Ocean.” Seventy percent of the surface of our very blue planet is ocean, which we tend to forget as we concentrate on the human activities that take place on the much smaller land masses. Despite some modern concerns about overfishing, Buchsbaum is correct that we mostly ignore the sea and the consequences of our actions on systems we fail to understand. This perspective may be exacerbated by the Internet explosion that has nearly linked all land masses and islands into one global network, an electronic framework that skips over the open oceans as if they no longer exist. How ironic that technology draws us closer together as an international community and yet allows us to overlook what happens in the vast spaces that separate us.

Last fall, the president of the Ocean Conservancy reported on the largest volunteer effort in the world on behalf of oceans [11]. Over 391,000 individuals in 100 countries removed 8.2 million pounds of trash from coasts and shorelines. Yet, can 391,000 people out of a global population of 6.4 billion truly clean up 70% of the planet? As we become more closely bound together by the Internet, can we afford to neglect the natural structures that shape our daily existence?

Ecosystems present a useful model to remind us of the complexities and interdependence of many factors in the modern world, be they natural rhythms or human interactions. As a discipline, ecology does not exist in isolation but is inextricably bound up with economics, the study of the allocation of scare resources in society as a means to satisfying human wants or desires [12]. Those scare resources often come from the natural world. The remainder of this lecture focuses on how humans impact a particular ecosystem, the coral reef, and what that may tell us about the current turmoil in scholarly communication and the advent of open access publishing.

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