April 29, 2015 | Asit K. Biswas, Professor and President, Third World Centre for Water Management

Why a well-reasoned argument can be key to good editorship

The advice that has guided one editor’s career


Recently the Advisory Board of Water and Wastewater International selected twenty-five leading personalities of the water industry, and then asked their readers, ranging from Australia to United States, to vote for them. I was not even aware that I was one of the twenty-five water experts selected, let alone that the journal’s readers had voted me as the second most influential person in the world in the water industry.

I started editing the Water Resources Development Journal over three decades ago, and I have been its Editor-in-Chief for over a quarter century until Dr. Cecilia Tortajada took over from me in 2012. Taylor & Francis kindly asked me if I would like to share any advice or suggestions for new editors.

In retrospect, I have consistently followed two main pieces of advice. The first was from my parents, who taught me that “If two people agreed on everything, you can be certain that only one of them is doing the thinking.”

In most cases, I find that I would probably agree with 70 to 80 percent of my colleagues’ views but differ on the rest. This is to be expected. The knowledge and experience of people differ depending on their disciplines, sectors in which they work, levels of interest in specific areas throughout life, geographical areas where they have worked and a whole variety of other associated factors. Thus, it is normal to disagree on specific issues some of the time. This is to be expected. I always tell my students that if science and knowledge had advanced by consensus, we would still be in the Dark Ages!

There is nothing wrong with well-reasoned arguments, even when they are heated. We should remember that when we are arguing, it does not mean that we dislike the other person, but simply that we are arguing over issues on which we have very different views for a variety of reasons. Sadly, however, I notice that people are becoming more and more unwilling to argue in recent years, even when they disagree completely, preferring to keep quiet, just in case the other individual takes it personally.

As an advisor to nineteen governments, mostly at the ministerial level, I have never had any problem with telling them when I disagreed with their views, policies, or politics and the reasons why we disagree. True, it does not make one “popular,” but when done with facts, figures, and proper reasoning, it invariably brings respect. All my life I have called a spade a spade, irrespective of what others may think.

The second piece of advice was from Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, who was instrumental in my relocation to the city-state. He once told me “I want to be correct, but not politically correct.” As objective scientists, this should be our motto, but it does have some costs. Many influential people in politics and international organizations may not like to hear the truth, or have their politically correct views challenged with facts and figures. This may make one persona non grata to some people and to a few institutions, as has happened to me a few times. My view is that this should always be worn as a badge of honor and integrity.

Published: April 29, 2015 | Author: Asit K. Biswas, Professor and President, Third World Centre for Water Management | Category: Front page, Managing my journal, News and ideas | Tagged with: