Quality assurance for fisheries science

Ensuring the quality of scientific information used to manage Australia’s sheries and marine ecosystems is important in earning the trust of stakeholders and the community in the decision-making process

By Andrew Penny

During the past 30 years or more there has been growing public mistrust of government decision-making, particularly in relation to the management of threats to human health and ecosystems, including fisheries.

For fisheries management decisions to be based on evidence that is trusted, government, stakeholders and the public need to have confidence and trust in the research and scientific information used to inform these decisions.

In response to this need, Australia has become one of a growing number of countries to adopt quality control guidelines for scientific research. 

Objective assessment

Scientific methods are designed to produce objective and reliable information and to document how that information has been derived so that the results can be validated and checked for reproducibility. Scientific conclusions are typically based on a long history of evidence collection, experimentation, testing of hypotheses and rigorous evaluation of conclusions.

As a result, scientific information is usually reliable. A key purpose of scientific quality assurance guidelines is to specify the key principles used to ensure this reliability.

However, the complexity and variability of natural systems results in inevitable uncertainty around results. Advocacy or interest groups may use this inherent uncertainty to discredit, challenge, bias or confuse scientific findings for their own benefit. A further key purpose of scientific quality assurance is to ensure that scientific evidence-based truth is not biased, misinterpreted or selectively used by such advocacy interests.

Australian guidelines

Research and Science Information Guidelines for Australian Fisheries outlines what constitutes best-practice, high-quality and reliable scientific information. The guidelines are intended to be applied to research on wild-capture fisheries and their impact on the marine environment, but hold relevance to scientific research generally. The guidelines establish high-level key principles for science information quality, supported by definitions for clarity and describe the responsibilities of research purchasers and research providers. They also provide criteria for effective peer review (Figure 1).

Flowchart showing the research and information guidelines for Australian fisheriesFigure 1 Research and Science Information Guidelines for Australian Fisheries componenents and linkages

PRIOR principles

The quality of research and scientific information relates primarily to relevance, reliability, objectivity and integrity, and the internationally accepted mechanism for evaluating this is peer review. These  have emerged as the key principles for ensuring quality of scientific information in guidelines and standards developed over the past two decades in the UK,European Union, Canada and the US.

The Australian guidelines are built around these ‘PRIOR’ principles, which are also the basis for a similar New Zealand fisheries science standard.

Peer review is an internationally accepted mechanism for evaluating the quality of scientific and research information. It is the evaluation of research or scientific information by one or more experts in the appropriate field, either with similar competence or in the same occupation, profession or industry as the producers of the work. Peer review is intended to ensure that the work meets appropriate or applicable standards of quality.

Reliability relates to the accuracy and reproducibility of information. Research and scientific information must be accurate, reflecting the true value of the results being reported, within an acceptable level of precision or uncertainty. Information should not be statistically biased or suffer from such a degree of imprecision that the results and conclusions are rendered unreliable.

Integrity refers to the security of information, and to the protection of information from inappropriate alteration, selective interpretation or presentation, including with regard to uncertainty in that information. Scientific information should remain complete throughout the science-to-decision process. It must be ensured that the information and associated uncertainty is not selectively reported in a way that introduces bias into the interpretation of such information.

Objectivity refers to whether the information presented is impartial and free of personal bias. Objective interpretations or conclusions do not depend upon the personal assumptions, prejudices, viewpoints or values of the person presenting or reviewing the information.

Relevance research and scientific information must be relevant to the fisheries management objectives and associated key questions for the fishery concerned, contributing directly to answering those questions and addressing management objectives for that fishery.

Roles and responsibilities

Meeting the requirements of these guidelines will primarily be the responsibility of those who “buy research” (research purchasers) and those who “supply the research” (research providers). These two roles may rest within the single organisation (buying and doing by different areas), or under separate organisations.

Responsibilities of research purchasers

  • Establish, maintain or support appropriate quality assurance and peer review processes, and ensure that research and scientific information is subjected to effective peer review against the provisions of these guidelines; 
  •  Ensure that research proposals are evaluated against the requirements for research and scientific information quality established by these guidelines relating to relevance, project design and proposed methodology;
  • Where necessary to ensure the quality of scientific information produced by substantial or complex projects, provide for staged technical guidance or peer review at appropriate stages in the project, ensuring that such guidance is appropriate to the cost, novelty, complexity or contentiousness of research and scientific information;
  • Ensure that research providers comply with relevant provisions of these guidelines;
  • Require research providers to establish, maintain or support databases to manage and securely store any raw data sets and final data sets, analyses and research reports, to enable subsequent verification of the repeatability and reliability of the results.

Responsibilities of research providers

  • Qualifications and capabilities
  • Project management and quality management
  • Data management and provision
  • Certification of laboratories and equipment
  • Data collection
  • Data analysis and synthesis
  • Experimental studies
  • Technical protocols
  • Internal and external peer review
  • Research reports

Implementation and reporting

Research purchasers and providers intending to implement the provisions of these guidelines to ensure the quality of scientific information should develop and maintain implementation plans appropriate to their particular circumstances.

Implementation plans should include:

  • A statement of intention to implement these guidelines to inform management decisions for wild capture fisheries and their impact on the marine environment;
  • Identification of roles and responsibilities within the organisation for implementation of processes relating to requirements under these guidelines;
  • Description of peer review processes that will be implemented, specifying the requirement that scientific information be submitted for peer review and provisions for the manner in which that should occur; and
  • Annual reporting requirements on the implementation of peer review processes to evaluate the quality of scientific information used to inform fisheries management decisions.
  • Public reporting on the details and results of implementation of scientific quality assurance and peer review processes is important for ensuring transparency and increasing government, stakeholder and public trust in the quality of scientific information used to inform fisheries management decisions.

Application

The provisions of these guidelines are intended to apply to all stages of the research process, including aspects of research planning processes and the appropriateness of the proposed methodology, to ensure the reliability and objectivity of resulting scientific information.

The guidelines are non-prescriptive and provide for enough flexibility to ensure they are relevant across the wide range of research activities informing policy and management decisions for Australian wild capture fisheries and their impact on the marine environment.

Processes related to how research related to how research and scientific information is subsequently combined at policy or management level with other sources of information to inform fisheries management decisions, are not within scope of these Guidelines.

Research and Science Information Guidelines for Australian Fisheries and the international review used to inform the development of these guidelines can be downloaded from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation website (frdc.com.au). The FRDC will establish the guidelines to guide and certify all research in which it invests. The guidelines are being considered for implementation by the Australian Fisheries Management Authorities.

FRDC Research Code 2014-009

More information

Fisheries Research and Development Corporation