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Is Conservation Research Happening in the Right Places?

Not remotely, a team of biologists argue.
Madagascar. (Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak/Flickr)

Madagascar. (Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak/Flickr)

Biodiversity is important for all manner of reasons. Perhaps most of all, biodiversity matters because it ensures we have robust ecosystems that can withstand everything from forest fires to human encroachment. Basically, the more species you have, the more resilient life on our planet will be in the face of disaster. But our understanding of global biodiversity is limited, according to a report out today in PLoS Biology—and unfortunately the places with the greatest biodiversity are also the least studied.

"Biodiversity and the threats to its persistence are not uniformly distributed across the globe and therefore some areas demand comparatively greater scientific attention," write Kerrie Wilson, an associate professor of biology at the University of Queensland, and colleagues from the Czech Republic, Germany, and Indonesia. But that doesn't mean biologists are paying enough attention to those places in greatest need: "The countries for which knowledge is sparse coincide with where research is most urgently needed."

Scientists are not focusing on the places most in need of our understanding.

Wilson and her colleagues reached that conclusion based on a review of 10,036 research papers they found by searching Thomson Reuters Zoological Records and the Web of Science Core Collection for the term "conservation." For 7,593 of those, the group identified at least one country where the study was conducted. They next ranked each country using two measures of conservation importance—one based on mammals only, and another that incorporates certain plants and species unique to the country in question. The question, then, is whether the publication counts matched up with conservation priorities.

They did not. "The top five countries, ranked according to relative importance for mammal conservation (i.e, Indonesia, Madagascar, Peru, Mexico, and Australia), were represented in 11.9% of the publications," the team writes. "However, our determination, based on relative importance for investment in mammal conservation, was that these countries should be represented in 37.2% of the publications."

By comparison, the United States is grossly—if unsurprisingly—overrepresented. According to their scheme, U.S. biodiversity should really only account for one in every 200 papers, but, in fact, 17.8 percent of all conservation papers focus on America. Though the numbers differ using the second method of setting conservation priorities, the conclusion is the same: As a group, scientists are not focusing on the places most in need of our understanding.

In addition, few papers are published through open-access journals (such as the PLoS journals, Scientific Reports, or Science Advances), ultimately limiting the dissemination of conservation knowledge. The researchers also found that the vast majority of papers on high-conservation-priority countries were written by researchers from outside the country. For example, Indonesia-based authors led only 23 percent of the studies written about Indonesian conservation issues.

Remedying such biases will require a variety of tactics, including more open-access publications, but the biggest opportunity may lie in promoting in-country research and funding. "Ultimately, the onus rests on governments, the private sector, and donors to bolster in-country funding in conservation research where it is most needed," the researchers write.


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