Is the Internet a Viable Resource for Marine Aquarium Research?

marine aquarium researchVirtually since the advent of the internet, there’s been a tendency in our hobby to rate the reliability and trustworthiness of online content beneath that of print-format materials—books, magazines, and so forth. But is this assessment really fair?

The general premises behind this viewpoint are:

  • Anyone with a computer and internet connection can post anything they want online, whether or not he or she has the requisite expertise to expound on the subject.
  • Online articles and posts are seldom given professional editorial treatment and/or subjected to peer review, so you can’t trust that they’ve been vetted properly for accuracy.
  • There tends to be an “echo-chamber effect” online, so inaccurate or outright fallacious information appearing on one site can be picked up immediately by others and repeated ad nauseam, creating the false impression of consensus on the information/viewpoint.

Now, there’s truth to each of these arguments, but as someone who’s made his living as a writer/editor for nearly 20 years (primarily in print format) and once served on an editorial committee that reviewed book submissions for a major retail pet chain, I can say with some confidence that print materials have their limitations as reference sources, too.

Among them:

  • Just as with online materials, print books and magazines are no more reliable or accurate than the writers and editors who produce them. You can’t assume that just because someone went to the effort to produce something in hardcopy, the information it contains was properly vetted.
  • The longer production schedules associated with printed materials can mean (note emphasis) that some of the information they contain is already stale if not obsolete by the time they go to press.
  • Building on that last point, if you’re trying to research the very latest trends in technology or methodology—or something like the currently accepted scientific name of a particular species—you may have difficulty finding it in printed format (again, note emphasis).

Rather than place print over online content in the research hierarchy or vice versa, we should recognize that both formats have their pros and cons and both have their place. Where you should turn first when doing hobby homework should depend not on a sweeping generalization, but on what you’re trying to achieve and the type of information you need.

For example, right behind me as I type this is a shelf full of well-thumbed aquarium reference books penned by authoritative authors that I still reach for on a regular basis—including Bob Fenner’s Conscientious Marine Aquarist, Jay Hemdal’s The Salt Smart Guide to Preventing, Diagnosing, and Treating Diseases of Marine Fishes, Scott Michael’s Reef Fishes series, Eric Borneman’s Aquarium Corals, Delbeek and Sprung’s The Reef Aquarium, and Martin Moe’s Marine Aquarium Handbook to name but a few. Of course, I also have stacks of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazines, dating back several decades, here at my disposal. These are all great resources when I need good, durable, foundational information.

On the other hand, I couldn’t survive a day as a hobby author/editor without access to Fishbase.org, the Integrated Taxonomic Information system (ITIS.gov), and various other online information sources. And those are just my go-to sources for certain data. There are plenty of other trustworthy sites out there on the “interwebs” that you can turn to for quality, reliable, authoritative information. Of course, Caribbean Chris and I take great pride in the content we offer here at Saltwater Smarts and do our level best to ensure everything we put out is accurate and easy to comprehend.

Whether you’re researching with print materials, internet sites, or both, the key is always to vet the source. Don’t just take to heart any opinion you come across in a publication, blog, or forum. Ask other hobbyists who have successful marine systems which books, magazines, websites, and authors/experts helped them get where they are today. Then follow their lead!

What’s your take?
So, fellow salties, what’s your take on this topic? Where do you do the bulk of your research? Let us know in the comment section below.

Photo credit: Heidi Ansiel

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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.

Comments

  1. Great post.

    Websites like MOFIB (marinebreeder.org) and MBI (mbisite.com) have advanced captive breeding by leaps and bounds.

    We don’t have a dominant Wikipedia for the hobby yet, but I don’t hear anyone clamoring for their printed encyclopedia…it’s just a matter of time.

  2. Matt Carroll says:

    Bad advice on the internet – with special thanks to “search engine optimization” – theoretically never goes away or gets forgotten.

    That said, I think you may have mischaracterized the situation.

    In my experience, aquarists these days rarely if ever use a book, let alone buy one. The internet is their one and only top-priority source. “If it’s on the internet it must be true.”

    In fact, over the last few years it’s becoming more and more common for me to hear: “…I asked about it on Facebook…” followed by truly terrible advice. Apparently some prospective aquarists these days are too….lazy?….to even do an internet search.

    Just for contrast:
    When I was in college and just getting interested in aquariums – even before buying a tank (way too broke) – I read every single thing the university library had on aquariums. Every issue of TFH going back into the 60’s, every thesis, etc. And instead of an in-tar-web full of independent forums that are full of in-DUH-viduals*, I had Usenet access – a forum mostly filled with academics and other kinds of smart people.

    These days, books have almost disappeared (I have no major bookstores left in my area) and the online aquarist community has seriously degraded in quality….in part simply because you can’t find everyone in one place anymore like you could on Usenet. (In part!) For our purposes, increasingly better online access to scientific journals is the biggest positive going for the internet. And Wikipedia is not a bad layman’s window onto those scientific articles….just don’t follow any aquarium advice you find there!

    * There was only gopher, telnet, ftp and USENET back then….pre-world wide web.

    • Thanks for these insights, Matt! All good points!

      • Actually the internet should be appropriately called the “opinionette”. As of the last couple of years ANYONE who can reply and/or post has stated their view on any and all subjects which leads to ALOT of bad info available to anyone searching for an answer.

        Personally, I have to search twice as hard and wade through the BS then decipher what is fact.

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