Why are ecologists so obsessed with “monitoring”?

This is my 200th post on my blog and I am going to celebrate with a rant about a subject that continues to needle me.

A few years ago I searched the Newcastle University library catalogue for all books that had “monitor” or “monitoring” in the title. I then grouped the 433 books that fulfilled this criterion into their disciplines and made a bar chart of the results.   35 per cent of these books, the largest proportion in any discipline by far, were from the environmental sciences, followed by engineering and health (both just under 20%), then disciplines such as economics, sociology and education, each contributing less than ten per cent to the total. Then I sat back and wondered why the environmental sciences are so obsessed with “monitoring” compared to other disciplines.


Books with “monitoring” in the title in Newcastle University library by discipline. Based on a search of the catalogue performed in 2008.

Over the past month I have watched as my youngest son has come to terms with a diagnosis of diabetes. When it was first diagnosed he spent a few days in hospital while his condition was stabilised and so that the specialist nursing staff could teach him how to monitor his blood sugar and adjust his insulin levels.   He has continued monitoring his blood sugar subsequently and the consultant and nurses have used these data to adjust the parameters that he uses to calculate the quantity of insulin that he requires.   “Monitoring”, in other words, is an integral part of the management of diabetes.   It is so integral that when I search Web of Science for papers on diabetes, I find that there are about 2000 with both “diabetes” and “monitoring” in the title compared with almost 11000 with “diabetes” and “management”. My theory is that many of these papers on management of diabetes will, by necessity, discuss monitoring and that, conversely, there is little need to write papers on “monitoring” alone as this is so much embedded within the management of the condition.

By contrast, environmental science is a much younger discipline, and academic and practical aspects are still not as tightly dovetailed as they need to be. “Monitoring” offers academic scientists an opportunity to convert conceptual ideas into potentially useful data but we still often lack strong enforcement regimes and budgets to turn theory into practice. So the “monitoring” has become uncoupled from the overall management regime.

The second part of my gripe is to ask why the term “biomonitoring” has crept into usage in the academic literature in recent years.   Why bolt a Greek prefix onto a word derived from Latin? What does “biomonitoring” tell us about the process that is not already obvious from the context?  Very little.   Personally, I prefer the term “ecological assessment” as it is a truer statement of what is actually taking place.   “Monitoring”, derived from a Latin word meaning “warning” implies a temporal dimension whereas many of the studies in the academic literature that describe themselves as “biomonitoring” are, essentially spatial studies often with limited temporal replication.  The word does seem to have been around for some time: the oldest reference that I found on Web of Science was a 1974 paper by A.S. Pronin in Meditsinskaia tekhnika volume 3, pages 57-60. Interestingly, the paper is in a Slavic language (I don’t know which) and “biomonitoring” appears in the translation of the title. I had suspected that “biomonitoring” might be derived from a language that makes extensive use of compound words, the process perhaps accelerated in recent years by the large number of non-native speakers who now edit scientific journals and this discovery appears to support this hypothesis. “Biomonitoring” is, in my opinion, a completely unnecessary word in English. Actually, most of the papers with “biomonitoring” in the title are also completely unnecessary, but I’ll save that rant for my 300th post.

One thought on “Why are ecologists so obsessed with “monitoring”?

  1. Pingback: Winning hearts and minds … – microscopesandmonsters

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