Most conservation science not available to conservationists

Does anyone have $51 million lying around? Asking for a friend.

Well, a whole lot of friends actually—all the thousands and thousands of people around the world who are actively engaged in some branch of applied conservation science, from saving the whales to reforesting Indonesia. It turns out that $51 million might be enough to get all those conservationists access to the research and science they need to do good work; access many of them currently lack.

A couple of weeks ago in this space we discussed a study on how important it is for conservation practitioners—people engaged in protecting against bird predation, in this particular case—to actually lay their eyes on the evidence and research underlying what they do. A new paper in the same journal, Conservation Biology, now takes a broader, bird’s-eye view of this issue, and examines just how much conservation research is actually available to the public. The picture isn’t particularly pretty.

“Unlike the pure sciences, whose raison d’être is to discover how the world works, the applied environmental sciences attempt to influence how Earth’s resources are managed by people,” write authors Richard Fuller, Jasmine Lee, and James Watson. They looked through a group of 20 scientific journals, from Biological Invasions to Insect Conservation and Diversity, that publish research of immediate practical use for conservation practitioners. By manually scanning each issue of these journals between 2000 and 2013, they determined how much of that useful research is available through open access options.

Of a total of 19,207 papers published in that period, fewer than nine percent of them (1,667 total papers) are freely downloadable. Even fewer (938 papers, or 4.88 percent) meet the stricter criteria for “open access,” which means the content can be reused if attribution is given. If I told you I wanted to save the rainforests, but I only knew five percent of how to do it, you probably wouldn’t hand me the conservation keys.

The authors then compared those numbers to another discipline, evolutionary biology. They chose this field since it can be considered somewhat related, but it is a field “that is focused largely on discovering how the world works rather than trying to influence how it is managed.” In a group of 20 evolutionary biology journals, almost 32 percent of the papers were freely downloadable and 7.49 precent were open access.

All those conservation papers that are not available for free are instead available for boatloads of money. Individual papers cost more than $30, and subscriptions to each of the journals in the study would cost more than $26,000 per year for small institutions. Adding up the various ways to access all that material, the study authors found that a tidy sum of $51,258,370 would cover the costs of making every bit of conservation science published between 2000 and 2013 in those journals available to all.

The conflict between corporate interests and scientific interests is at times overt: Wiley, one of the big three of scientific publishing had revenue of $1.775 billion last fiscal year; Wiley publishes Conservation Biology, in whose pages these study authors decry the publishing model. (Elsevier, the biggest of the big three, had profits of more than $2.8 billion.)

The study authors call this state of affairs “unfortunate and ironic, given that conservation science is an applied science with an urgent deadline.” The results here, taken along with the earlier study on how easily conservation practitioners might change practices if they simply saw the evidence in their field, highlights how immediate and direct a concern this is. Without access, we don’t conserve as well; and generally speaking, we don’t have access.

The authors note a few possibilities for improving the situation, including an increased role for professional societies in granting access to journals and the idea of a “lagged embargo” where research becomes available after, say, two years. No matter what the solution, though, it is clear that something needs to be done. “Conservation is one of the few scientific disciplines that depend on practitioners for success. It makes sense to provide those who undertake the practice of conservation access to everything we know.” - Dave Levitan | September 2, 2014

Source: Fuller RA, Lee JR, Watson JEM (2014). Achieving open access to conservation science, Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12346

Image: Shutterstock.com, petrmalinak

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