Conservation research rarely equals conservation

21 07 2010

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

I am currently attending the 2010 International Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Sanur, Bali (Indonesia). As I did a few weeks ago at the ICCB in Canada, I’m tweeting and blogging my way through.

Yesterday I attended a talk by my good friend Trish Shanley (formerly of CIFOR) where she highlighted the disconnect between conservation research and actual conservation. I’ve posted about this before (see Out of touch, impractical and irrelevantMake your conservation PhD relevant), but this was a sobering reminder of how conservation research can be a self-perpetuating phenomenon and often not touch the people who need it most.

Presenting the highlights of her paper published earlier this year in Biotropica entitled Out of the loop: why research rarely reaches policy makers and the public and what can be done, one comment she made during the talk that really caught my attention was the following (I’m paraphrasing, of course).

Most of the world’s poor living off the land are unconcerned about biodiversity per se. As conservationists we should not therefore adopt the typical preamble that biodiversity (e.g., forests) represent the “lungs of our planet” – what people (and especially women) need to know is how biodiversity loss affects “food for my children”.

The paper itself was an interview 268 researchers from 29 countries (of which I was one) about their views on the relevance of their work. Not surprisingly (but amazingly that we were so honest), most respondents stated that their principal target was other scientists, with policy makers and other marginalised groups/local people holding a distant second place. Corporate targets were also pretty rare – I guess we feel as a group that that’s generallly a lost cause.
Neither a surprise was that we generally view peer-reviewed scientific publications as the main vehicle for the dissemination of our results. What was a bit of a surprise though is that we fully admit papers aren’t the best way to trickle down the information (again, more of that brutal honesty); apparently we mainly believe ‘stakeholder meetings’
are more effective (I have my doubts).
Now, I’d be one of the first to defend the notion that scientific peer review is a critical component of what we do. And Trish agrees:
“Ensuring rigor and scientific validity of unpublished research by independent, qualified experts through the peer-review process has crucial benefits as a means to guarantee scientific quality and is a foundation of modern science”.
Anyone following climate change denialists’ excellent displays of stupidity know full well that good, solid empirical
evidence is the only way to make an idiot irrelevant.

Trish goes on to discuss a lot of the subtleties of publishing and why the culture among scientists is what it is, but I won’t dwell on that here (I recommend you actually read the paper). However, they do provide some excellent suggestions for better information dissemination for a range of groups that should be repeated. Here they are:

Research and academic institutions

  • Restructure institutional incentive structures to take into account actual ‘impact’ rather than solely ‘high impact’ journals. Create incentives to invest in dissemination and an expanded range of research products.
  • Expand use of nonacademic partnerships and channels to reach target audiences.
  • Raise awareness and encourage within the organization social change agents, knowledge brokers and linkage mechanisms.
  • In hiring, balance consideration of publication record with capabilities such as originality, creativity, commitment, depth of field experience and impact orientation.

Scientists and students

  • Interact with stakeholders at various levels to ensure relevance of research questions and outputs at multiple scales. Identify uptake pathways as part of project design.
  • Design projects to support the coproduction of knowledge to meet end users needs and aspirations. Integrate knowledge from the traditional, ecological and social sciences.
  • Pay attention to socio-cultural context during the research process and in the content and packaging of research messages.
  • Identify innovative partners and means of communication from technological to traditional
  • Share and publish experiences regarding how research results have been ‘translated’ or used for a nonscientific audience
  • Masters and Doctoral students can consider describing this process in one chapter of their dissertations

Journal editors and publishing organizations

  • Challenge researchers to propose ways to evaluate the real impact of their work on the lives of their public, using a systemic evaluation process.
  • Provide incentive to scientists to publish practitioner-oriented results and science of relevance to civil society.
  • Publish special issues, sections and/or case studies highlighting interdisciplinary work. Break the language barrier by publishing ‘mirror’ papers: translations of the complete paper to the language where the research was undertaken.


  • Recognize that sustainable change is a long-term process. Support longer term project time frames (4–10 yr) in which sufficient dialogue occurs at the initiation of projects.
  • Expand proposal requirements to include the sharing of relevant research results in an accessible format to appropriate audiences.
  • Verify that proposals designate sufficient funds for translation, printing, mailing costs and communication.
  • Remember that originality often occurs at the fringes. Identify and support small but innovative, locally driven initiatives.

While I wouldn’t necessarily agree with all of these points, there is no doubt there are some pearls of wisdom within this list. Something to contemplate as you expand your research career.

I just want to leave you with one other morsel from Trish. Show a man the value of all the bushmeat he collected around tree of species x, and then compare that to the concession he’d receive for that tree from a logging company, it’ll be quite clear to him that the tree is worth more alive than dead (and by quite a bit too).

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgShanley, P., & López, C. (2009). Out of the Loop: Why Research Rarely Reaches Policy Makers and the Public and What Can be Done Biotropica, 41 (5), 535-544 DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2009.00561.x

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30 responses

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[…] aware of the reasons why so much science goes by the usefulness wayside in conservation (see here for a discussion of some of the main challenges). In my case, many of my earliest models have […]


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[…] how we manage landscapes and species to the overall betterment of biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these claims are hollow (or just plain bullshit) because the results are either: (i) never read by people who actually make conservation decisions, […]


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2 04 2014
Claire W

Hi Mark, I know I’m late to the thread but have you tried emailing lead authors for papers? I know it’s a pain in the a**** but when I can’t get a paper I need I have about a 90% success rate just asking. Also it’s great to see someone in ecotourism reading primary research, where are you based if you don’t mind me asking?


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18 03 2011
Alex Diment

Here’s a list of key readings that I put together for the SCB meeting on this topic in Beijing 2008. Hope it is useful to you all.
Any additions or updates welcome.


30 09 2010
daryl suen

From first hand experience and hearing from others that have experienced the same, conservation ngos seem to lose direction and get caught up in doing research and the result is the disconnect talked about in the article. I would like to see conservation ngos starting to follow the successful model of our biggest adversaries – corporations. I think someone needs to be hired and paid the big bucks (money has a way of attracting the heavy-hitters) to keep the organization focused on results and to figure out the best way to get results and, just like in corportations, directors that don’t produce get fired.

I have never worked within the managment team of a big corporation but I imagine that the stress is high, the pace furious, and the work day is all about 100% intensity trying to meet the demands for results. Compare that with the environment inside many conservation ngos where work is being done, sure, but you just don’t see much intensity, in fact, the atmosphere is often relaxed and even sleepy.

I think that if a conservation ngo director shows the employees how to get results, the original passion of the employees will be re-kindled and ngos will be a much stronger influence on policy, industry and society.


13 09 2010
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27 07 2010
Julián Velasco

It´s great this discussion in this blog. Recently I participated in a course in OTS ( ) about global change in tropical ecosystems in Costa Rica, and I can perceived that some or many tropical scientists are only interested in publishing their results for others scientists, in the most important journals (high journal impact) and many of them are neglected to disseminate their results in the language of the country where they do research (honestly for me that was some offensive). I agree with Cagan in that one part of the problem is the language barrier and the technical jargon in the technical papers, and the only way to overcome this is spending time with stakeholders, young conservation scientists, students, children, farmers,… explaining the basis of a good conservation science and importance of this to have good results and then can implement it, and also to teach about how they can use this method easily themselves. Probably breaking this lgap between academia and rural people-farmers we can to have more impact that the impact of publishing in a high impact journal (I don´t deny that it is important too)


27 07 2010
Ecology Project International

Thanks for the post. It’s encouraging to see the scientific community recognizing the need to disseminate information beyond academia and research institutions and out to policy makers and the public.

We’ve been partnering field researchers with local students (and US-groups) for the past ten years and it’s amazing to watch how a community can become engaged in the local conservation work by simply being exposed to it (ie. getting out and measuring a sea turtle carapace, assisting with snorkeling as echinoderm data collection…etc). It seems that this kind of outreach coupled with some policy-targeted P.R. could do a lot to overcome the science communication gap.


26 07 2010

correction- my first line should just read “peer-reviewed science”, I’m obviously criticising the publishing bit!


26 07 2010

I’m not sure anyone here criticised peer-reviewed science publishing in any way so I’m not clear how that topic came up.
My point was that the general public are largely denied access to (often publicly-funded) research through paywalls. The occasional open access journal is appreciated but when you are trying to read around a topic and only one out of the twenty or so papers you need to read is accessible then its nowhere near enough. And I don’t have much faith in the internet sorting it out: quite the opposite. Paywalls are ever increasing in sophistication and the prices charged for files are spiralling- single articles sometimes cost close to what a years subscription used to! I suspect the publishers will be looking closely at the online music model where DRM means digital music carries restrictions which were impossible back when we just bought the CD and that was it. A parallel literature is already developing in the blogosphere and elsewhere on the net but when we can’t see the ‘real thing’ that it draws on then it really has no greater authority in the eyes of the public than any of the rest of the claims on internet.
This is a serious matter. Its not just about lone nerds like me being gouged when I try to access obscure biodiversity info: this locking-up of empirical data and knowledge has had a large role to play in the unfolding disaster of the public views on issues like climate change and on vaccination. The broad masses can’t access the info themselves, instead its all filtered through intermediaries so its very easy for pernicious activists to just undermine those intermediaries with slander and fill the resulting vacuum in public knowledge with twisted half-truths and blatant lies.
Until something drastic changes on this then don’t expect great strides in public engagement or trust in science.


26 07 2010

Mark – thanks for the comments. I can’t get into a long response yet (still travelling, I’m afraid), but I will say that few people these days avail themselves of a quick email to a paper’s corresponding author for copies of the work. Nearly all papers indicate the email address of the author, and a quick request will see a rapid response and a free PDF copy returned. I know it’s not quite as convenient as a single URL click, but it beats the hell out of no access at all. Want any of my papers? Just say which and I’ll send you the PDFs free of charge.


25 07 2010
Cagan Sekercioglu

I read the other comments and it is funny that how this turned into a discussion about open access publishing. Sure it is important that people have access to scientific papers but most people would still not read a word of a conservation biology paper even if you put it in front of them. First, there is the language issue. Most of the world does not speak English in which most conservation biology is published. Second, and even more important, scientific literature is highly specialized so even in one’s native language, the average person is not interested or able to read it.

You have to make it accessible, short, simple and accurate, but that also takes time and effort. Working with journalists also has its risks because journalists can distort your points, sometimes intentionally so to get more readers. I spend a fair amount of time writing natural history and conservation articles in Turkish and English and also disseminating the results of our conservation work to the media in regular press releases. See and

However, this is also on my own time and there is no academic credit for this. It is basically a sacrifice because of its opportunity cost in time that is very scarce in academia. So some of the most important things for successful conservation, like long-term, basic conservation work with local communities, public outreach, environmental education, popular articles, new media and other ways to disseminate conservation information get practically no credit from the universities where many conservation biologists work. So you have to always ask yourself “Do I want to risk getting tenure by spending time on things besides papers and grants?” It may be easier for tenured conservation biologists, but by the time they get there, most of them have the “papers and grants” mindset and are too set in their ways to turn into grassroots conservationists. I hope more do.


25 07 2010
Cagan Sekercioglu

Corey, this is the biggest problem in conservation biology. Most conservation biologists are not practicing what they preach. We have to be a lot more involved. Clearly, publishing more papers has not improved the state of the environment.
There are many places where publishing another paper is not going to make much difference, but getting in there and working with local communities (or politicians) will turn things around. Just talking to people and explaining them basic conservation issues and how their livelihoods depend on a healthy environment convinces many people. Most of humanity is not aware of very basic conservation principles that are second nature to conservation biologists.

To do my share, I lead a dual existence as a regularly publishing Stanford conservation scientist and head of an environmental organization in eastern Turkey.

See (also in English).

It is a lot of work and I guess that’s why I know few actively publishing scientists that also actively run an environmental organization, but we need many more. It takes enormous amounts of time and I cannot imagine having a family, but I know I am doing the right thing.

My scientific background gives me essential credibility with decision-makers and local people and we have become the main environmental organization in eastern Turkey. By simply explaining to the provincial governor that creating an island in a lake would provide safe nesting sites for birds, I convinced him to give as bulldozers and trucks to destroy a road bisecting the lake and create an island out of it. The same government branch that normally builds dams and drains wetlands paid for all of it.

Nevertheless, this is enormously difficult work that takes a lot of persistence. I’ve been at the same place since 2003 and we are making progress, like getting Lake Kuyucuk declared eastern Turkey’s first Ramsar wetland and building Turkey’s first island created for wildlife. However, we cannot take our eye of the ball and for 2 steps forward it is one step back. It is enormously rewarding and every conservation scientist should be involved in grassroots conservation even if it is something small. Otherwise, we risk being hypocrites, telling other people to do this and that but not getting involved actively ourselves.

The biggest problem and frustration is that in academia, solid conservation achievements get little credit and not much more beyond lip service. What the universities want are papers and even better, grant overhead. I had my university turn down a major grant for my conservation work in eastern Turkey because they did not think the 10% overhead they were getting was worth their accounting effort, even though I was doing the accounting for them too!

There is a lot of hypocrisy out there and as long as conservation biologists get tenure based on papers and grants to the university and their actual conservation achievements mean little, the status quo will remain. For more on this issue see:

Click to access 2009%20Sekercioglu%20CURBIO.7774%20Interview.pdf


24 07 2010
Corri Baker

What a great article with some insightful suggestions. I too am of the view that we can’t do without the peer-review process to ensure the integrity of scientific research. But there needs to be parallel of publishing in a broader sphere. I’m sure we are on the tipping point of a revolution thanks to new media, and it will only be a matter of time before science videos showcasing and communicating research will have their own “impact factor”. That’s Mike Seyfangs dream anyway ;) But I think it has so much potential, and I hope he’s right about it.


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22 07 2010
Clem Weidenbenner

BTW, I just checked Conservation Letters (out of curiosity) and found that Wiley has made even the current issue’s papers available as .pdf files. Kudos to Wiley and all associated with Conservation Letters for this effort.

Corey – this openess may also assist with the future impact for the journal (see previous blog on CL’s ISI impact estimates).


23 07 2010

Agreed – this is both a combination of marketing to get people interested, and conservation relevance to make them freely available. Originally the plan was to make only years 2008 & 2009 free, and charge thereafter. That was extended to 2010. I’m not sure if 2011 will remain free too, but I hope so.


22 07 2010
Clem Weidenbenner

Mark brings up an excellent point. And there certainly are significant arguments on both sides of the open access issue. Journals have costs they need to recoup, but other stakeholders have significant investments as well. My personal feeling is that an effort be made to go open access as much as possible. There is certainly much more available to the public today then was the case 10 years ago. Perhaps we are “evolving” toward greater and greater access.

Peer reviewed should continue to be the ‘coin of the realm’ within the research community. But there are many suggestions on Trish’s list that deserve some attention. Blogging to a general audience makes sense. But I suspect most science related blog readers are scientists themselves.

Stakeholder meetings will have some value. But like Corey I’m not convinced their value always matches or exceeds their direct and indirect costs. And if you would Corey – please share your specific doubts on this matter.

Outreach to the general public is not for the faint of heart. It draws on an entirely different set of skills than most scientists posses. And done poorly is perhaps worse than not done at all.

So what to do? The one suggestion in Trish’s list that resonates with me is that graduate students be asked to consider describing their work to a lay audience. They are still closer to this audience in the sense they have spent less time inculcating the ‘lingua franca’ of their discipline and it may serve them well to appreciate that they are headed into a world that is less transparent to the common man. Yet the common man is ultimately one stakeholder that must be embraced.

At the opposite end of the academic spectrum, tenured profs could serve their discipline well by trying to develop relationships outside the typical academic circles. I’ll give junior faculty a pass as they have enough on their plate… but even along the tenure road a good administrator can create opportunities (with reward) to developing faculty that network beyond the ivory towers. All this needn’t be considered altruism either. Higher education is constantly being watched by politicians keen to carve away a dollar here and a dollar there. Sharing research results with the general public and specific private sector stakeholders demonstrates the value of their investment.

Thanks Mark – you made a great point!


21 07 2010

Conservation research isn’t ignored by those outside of academia- for the most part we don’t even get the choice of wether to ignore it or not! We can’t even access your papers due to the paywalls around most academic journals!
I am a business owner in the ecotourism industry. My business is committed to best practice in protected areas but again and again we discover that we can’t access the research we need to do our job properly unless we fork out an exorbitant fee to some online publisher or other- its just not practical to pay these ransom demands (my most recent experience of this was a fee of $70 to CSIRO to view a pdf of a 20 year old paper which may or may not be of use to me) so instead we just have to muddle along with what little we can source for free. Considering most of this work is the product of publically-subsidised institutions I think its pretty cheeky that I’m expected to pay twice for knowledge which is supposedly being produced for the greater good. You want conservation research to be more widely understood? Make it free to read!
Your blog does a good job of communicating the basics of current research Corey but you do hyperlink to locked-up papers a lot- bear in mind the likes of me can’t get into them.


22 07 2010
Brendan Locke

You certainly bring up a good point, Mark. And this is why many scientists (and future scientists like myself) overwhelmingly support Open Access. Open Access allows just that, open access to papers for purposes of distributing, reuse, reprinting, etc.

The link below is for the Public Library of Science (PLoS) where you can access all types of biological research papers. Hopefully you can find something in their that helps!


21 07 2010
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