||For more than a decade there has been controversy in oceanography regarding the metabolic state of the oligotrophic gyres of the open sea. Here we review background on this controversy, commenting on several issues to set the context for a moderated debate between two groups of scientists. In a companion paper, Williams et al (2013) take the view that the oligotrophic subtropical gyres of the global ocean exhibit a state of net autotrophy, that is, the gross primary production (GPP) exceeds community respiration (R), when averaged over some suitably extensive region and over a long duration. Duarte et al (2013) take the opposite view, that the oligotrophic subtropical gyres are net heterotrophic, with R exceeding the GPP. This idea - that large, remote areas of the upper ocean could be net heterotrophic raises of host of fundamental scientific questions about the metabolic processes of photosynthesis and respiration that underlie ocean ecology and global biogeochemistry. The question remains unresolved, in part, because the net state is finely balanced between large opposing fluxes and most current measurements have large uncertainties. This challenging question must be studied against the background of large, anthropogenically-driven changes in ocean ecology and biogeochemistry Current trends of anthropogenic change make it an urgent problem to solve and also greatly complicate finding that solution. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Marine Science Volume 5 is December 5, 2012. Please see http://www.annualreviews.org/catalog/pubdates.aspx for revised estimates.