Why publish research?

When what we are after is outcomes

In the past few months we have been piecing together our Threatened Species Recovery hub. The hub is part of NESP, the National Environmental Science Programme funded by the Australian Government Department of the Environment and innumerable partners. During this process, several people have asked us why we publish in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. We were asked if we could focus more on “outcomes, communication and engagement” rather than publication. The sometimes valid fear that research will rot in academic journals has caused this question to be asked before.

As these conversations progress we have discovered that there is a great deal of confusion about research and research communication. Consequently, we decided to attempt to explain the reason for publishing research in the international peer-reviewed literature.

We argue that the process of publication is not separate to outcomes but an essential part of achieving them for universities. Publishing increases the magnitude and chance of biodiversity conservation outcomes by ensuring the best advice is provided based on evidence that has been judged as meeting certain standards. Indeed, to argue against peer-reviewed publication jeopardises the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity by diminishing the role of the scientific process.

What is research in biodiversity conservation?

There are at least three broad categories of research that helps achieve biodiversity conservation outcomes: 1) applied ecology, 2) social-economic aspects of conservation, 3) policy design.

Research in applied ecology provides evidence for designing conservation interventions – more specifically, most applied ecology is designed to evaluate different kinds of conservation interventions, such as the best way to suppress a weed or feral predator. The results of applied ecological research mean that conservation interventions are more likely to deliver favourable conservation outcomes on the ground.

Social-economic research provides information about public preferences for conservation outcomes that can inform the design of socially acceptable and cost-effective conservation interventions. This means conservation interventions are more likely to be feasible and in turn more likely to be implemented.

Policy research brings together the outputs from applied ecology and social-economic research to ensure that policies are designed to achieve their intended on-ground outcomes in a cost-effective manner that meets public demands. This means that the conservation policies of the government are evidence-based and provide efficiency when spending public money.

What is peer review?

Peer review is the process by which research is validated. As its name suggests, it involves research being submitted for publication to be scrutinized and tested by a researcher’s peers, other reputable researchers working in the same area of science or social science.

The process of publication is not separate to outcomes but an essential part of achieving them.

It’s not perfect, but peer review is currently the best system we have for ensuring the transparency, communication, veracity and replicability of social and biophysical science. And it’s not applied to publications only; peer review has been extended to individual

components behind published scientific results including data sets, computer code and software. Peer review, therefore, provides an important avenue for ensuring the quality of the data and methods used in the research as well as a way of making these items publically available for others to use. Indeed, we believe more government reports, policies and processes should be peer-reviewed.

The government now requires that research outputs such as data sets and software funded through programs such as NESP be made publically available and peer review provides one way of achieving this in a rigorous manner. Publication is a key step in global engagement and communication.

Why is peer-reviewed publication essential?

There are several key reasons why it is important that we continue to make every effort to publish our results in the peer-reviewed literature.

1. Replicability: Research that is not freely available to be scrutinized and replicated by people anywhere in the world is more likely to be false and hard to argue against. By publishing our methods and results they can be replicated and either refuted or supported. Replicability is a fundamental pillar of the scientific process and distinguishes it from many other forms of knowledge.

2. Quality assurance: Peer review is the gold standard method for researchers to demonstrate that the science they are conducting with public funds is of high quality and meets required standards. Therefore, peer review provides a measure to the government or other funding body for both the quality of recommendations they receive as well as the value for money they are spending on the science behind these recommendations. Further, many journals, especially the higher impact journals, will only accept research outputs that deliver substantial advances in knowledge, ideas that are genuinely ground-breaking, not just accurate.

3. A basis for evidence-based policy: All Australian governments (and especially their public servants) pride themselves on providing evidence-based policy. Peer-review increases the quality of evidence – although it does not purport to provide bullet-proof fact. Peer-review also provides a public record of the science behind decisions so that policy makers and the public alike can judge for themselves the evidence. Without peer reviewed, repeatable and publicly accessible information it is hard to transparently justify the decisions government makes with taxpayers funds.

4. International communication: Australia has a role in contributing to global knowledge; we especially have a role assisting managers and policy-makers in our region and in similar megadiverse countries outside of the wealthy north – (eg, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and India). The peer-reviewed literature still remains the best way of communicating science findings and the outcomes of conservation so that there is an enduring record of lessons learnt that can be applied globally. Publishing the science behind conservation policies is therefore a critical component of distributing the knowledge which has been gained through public funding and informed best practice conservation. International peer-reviewed science is becoming increasingly freely available. Australia leads conservation science globally and gains enormously from the global dialogue with our overseas colleagues.

5. Develops early career researchers: One of the most enduring legacies of our past and present research networks is the pool of outstanding scientists we cultivate through training early-career researchers and providing them with the best possible career opportunities. Publication in the peer-reviewed literature is, whether we like it or not, essential for a career in research, whether that research be for government, the NGO sector, CSIRO, industry or a university. Arguing against peer-reviewed publication cripples our early-career researchers and degrades our national research capacity.

Are we doing the right research?

When people ask if we could focus more on ‘outcomes’ rather than publication, they frame our activity as an either/or situation. Surely the more relevant question is – has the research been designed to deliver information that delivers outcomes? All our research is demonstrably applied, and with the new Threatened Species Recovery hub a key question is: how will the results of that research deliver an outcome for threatened species on the ground or via policy?

Producing peer-reviewed research does not in itself mean the research is arcane or detracts from time spent on other activities contributing to conservation outcomes. Indeed the reverse is true. Hopefully the arguments above have convinced you that peer review is an essential component for researchers to contribute to conservation outcomes.

A more critical issue is to ensure the research questions being answered are relevant to the conservation issues at hand. This is not a trivial matter as it requires researchers to collaborate with policy makers, conservation organizations, managers and other stakeholders to design useful research questions.

We need to know what knowledge could change actions and policies – information for information’s sake is not enough. Our research consortium has a long track record of successfully discovering knowledge that is directly relevant to stakeholders in designing and implementing conservation policies that achieve outcomes on the ground.

Must peer-review publication be the first step?

If biodiversity conservation was not a crisis discipline we would say yes, peer review is an essential first step. However, because the peer review process is so slow (but getting faster), and preparing paper submissions to world-class journals is also time-consuming, we will often need to communicate our discoveries to end-users before they are peer-reviewed and published. This pre-publication communication can take many forms: a conversation, a seminar, a public lecture, a conference presentation, briefing notes, advice at meetings, pamphlets, booklets, books, a Decision Point article (although they generally follow or coincide with publication), an article in a variety of social media forums (such as ‘The Conversation’), a YouTube video or even a tweet!

However, regardless of the communication strategy for any synthesis or discovery, publication must be part of the process for all the reasons outlined in the previous sections. All too often we find that, especially in Australia, ecological and conservation myths spread because of a lack of careful analysis and scrutiny (consider the box on foxes and malleefowl). Again, peer-review does not guarantee perfect knowledge; it simply reduces the risks of mistakes. Further, other kinds of knowledge (eg, expert opinion), are increasingly being used in research publications and being integrated with more classical scientific knowledge to provide an evidence base for decisions.

The scientific community is often guilty of inadequately explaining its actions. In this reflection we attempt to redress that problem with respect to the specific issue of ‘why we publish’.

Putting these words together has certainly helped us clarify in our own minds that the peer-reviewed publication process, frustrating though it is, is absolutely fundamental to the business of saving biodiversity. Hopefully this brief, (un-reviewed) essay will help us, and others, understand why we do what we do.

Further reading

Arlettaz R et al (2010). From Publications to Public Actions: When Conservation Biologists Bridge the Gap between Research and Implementation. Bioscience 60: 835-842.


Of foxes and malleefowl

Malleefowl have experienced dramatic declines in distribution in recent decades. Fox baiting has been the main management response. (Photo by Dee Parkhurst)

Malleefowl have experienced dramatic declines in distribution in recent decades. Fox baiting has been the
main management response. (Photo by Dee Parkhurst)

How good are our investments in protecting threatened species? Much of the time we simply don’t know. Repeated audits of investments made through the Natural Heritage Trust, for example, found that decisions regarding the implementation of conservation management actions are seldom critically evaluated for their effectiveness or cost-effectiveness. Without monitoring and evaluation, practitioners can only guess or assume the effectiveness of an action, thereby reducing their ability to make smart management choices in the future.

A point in case is the management of malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata). This icon of the mallee is in trouble. Its distribution across Australia has declined dramatically in past decades due to habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, predation by foxes, grazing by herbivores and frequent, intense fires. Current conservation management actions include predator control, habitat protection and restoration, fencing and community engagement.

The emphasis, however, is on fox baiting because we know that foxes are a threat to the malleefowl through predation of eggs, chicks, juveniles and occasionally adults; and foxes are common in areas occupied by malleefowl. But is our management working?

EDG researchers looked at the data. According to their models, an increase in fox baiting intensity did not significantly decrease the presence of foxes at a monitoring site (Walsh et al, 2012). Indeed, fox presence was positively correlated with the growth of malleefowl populations, which is quite unexpected. Increased investment in fox control did not result in higher malleefowl population growth, suggesting that baiting is generally not a cost-effective management strategy for the recovery of this species.

The bottom line is that without evaluation, the effectiveness of different conservation management actions is unknown. And with very limited resources available to solve enormous challenges (often involving endangered species), that’s simply not acceptable.

Reference

Walsh JC, KA Wilson, J Benshemesh & HP Possingham (2012). Unexpected outcomes of invasive predator control: the importance of evaluating conservation management actions. Animal Conservation 15: 319-328.

NOTE: This is an edited excerpt of story that appeared in Decision Point #63.


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