The approaches that researchers use to generate knowledge typically vary with the state of knowledge within a discipline: description of phenomena during early phases, documentation of patterns and explanatory proposals during intermediate stages, and tests of causal hypotheses and theory building during mature stages. Ideally, the approaches used will result in the most efficient maturation of knowledge given the current state of knowledge. However, this idea has seldom been examined for freshwater benthic science, a habitat-based discipline. We evaluated the research approaches used by recent authors of papers published in the Journal of the North American Benthological Society (J-NABS) to assess the state of freshwater benthic science as perceived by freshwater benthic scientists and members of the North American Benthological Society (NABS). To do so, we categorized articles published during 2000 to 2005 in J-NABS with respect to the general research approach (taxonomic descriptions, case studies, descriptions of empirical relationships for predictive purposes, description of patterns sometimes resulting in hypothesis generation, hypothesis testing, and synthesis), how clearly authors addressed knowledge gaps, and more specific research methods used in a study. The following types of descriptive studies were most common: case studies (20%), pattern detection (21%), and quantification of empirical relationships (25%). Tests of hypotheses (25%) or syntheses (6%) were used less often than descriptive methods. Freshwater benthic science papers published in the journal Ecology were much more likely to involve hypothesis testing (54%) than were papers published in J-NABS. The papers published in J-NABS do not seem to be indicative of the true state of knowledge in freshwater benthic science in that authors often seemed to have sufficient information to justify more rigorous research approaches designed to test meaningful hypotheses. Furthermore, only 45% of authors clearly linked predictions or hypotheses to knowledge gaps, although such gaps were clearly defined in 72% of studies. Hypothesis statements clearly were not appropriate in 24% of studies, but their use in the other 76% of studies was highly variable. Hypotheses were explicitly stated in only 24% of studies, implied but not thoroughly developed in 28% of studies, and could have been developed in an additional 24% of studies. Many patterns in freshwater benthic science are now documented, and these documented patterns should provide solid foundations for proposing causal hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, and developing theory. Periodic analyses of the type we present here provide a means by which professional societies such as NABS can assess whether their journals are contributing to the growth of scientific knowledge in a manner consistent with their goals. Such empirical assessments should foster discussion of when and how editorial policies should be adjusted to promote efficient growth of knowledge.
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Vol. 27 • No. 3