Kicking off Peer Review Week 2018, Senior Editor Martin Nuñez reflects on geographical diversity in our own journals, where it’s been limited and what we’re doing to change that. How can we make ecology truly global?

Update (Jan. 2019): you can now read our full Editorial on this topic for free in issue 56:1 of the journal.

A Spanish version of this post is available here.

Today I opened my Facebook page and found people posting news and comments about Rhinoceros being on the path to extinction in Uganda, some very sad videos of oil palm plantations endangering Orangutans in Indonesia, and pictures of some incredibly large-scale planting of trees in Pakistan. What do these three examples have in common? Journal of Applied Ecology did not receive any submissions by authors from these countries in the last few years. That does not mean that data from research carried out in these areas hasn’t been published in the journal, but that we’ve had zero submissions of papers lead by authors from those countries. In fact, seven countries contribute 70% of our papers and twenty-four other countries add up to 99% of our papers. The other 1% of the papers that we publish come from 181 countries. My home country, Argentina is in the lucky set of top 31, but still we (and Latin America as a whole) have a low representation in our journal in comparison to other regions. We are not alone and many other international journals are likely to show similar author distribution patterns.

The absence of papers submitted from the majority of countries is a problem for applied ecology. Mainly because our papers are not necessarily fully representative of what is really happening in the planet, but likely the vision of researchers from a very select set of countries. If we want applied ecology to have a global impact, it needs to be done globally…This is why we at Journal of Applied Ecology are working to change this unevenness.

Bolivia Martin
Martin took this picture of a farmer in Bolivia in 1997. We now publish many papers on the benefits of this type of organic farming for biodiversity conservation.

And why is this unevenness happening? After countless discussions with numerous colleagues that required litres of beer, coffee and yerba mate, I am still not sure. My initial thought on the topic was that perhaps biases could be preventing great papers from the global south being published in our journal. I took a look at the submissions we received and, for the regions that do submit manuscripts, our data, which we will show in more detail in an upcoming editorial in a few months [update Jan. 2019. the Editorial is now available to read here], indicates that some regions have higher chances of getting published (acceptance rates change according to region). There could could be multiple reasons for this, including potential biases, difficulties with communicating research in English, a lack of understanding of the journal’s scope, time to dedicate to paper writing, lack of resources … among many others. However, we have discovered that most of countries just do not submit papers to our journal and rarely publish in any international ecological journal at all. So, claiming that the lack of representation for some countries is due mainly to biases sounds illogical to me, as it is not that authors submit and get rejected, they just don’t submit at all. So, while biases could perhaps partially explain what is happening, other factors play a much bigger role.

Whatever the reason, this lack of international representation is a problem because it reduces communication between researchers. One advantage of publishing in international journals is that researchers can receive precious feedback from people on the other side of the planet. This is clearly good for the advancement of science and, if researchers from certain regions are not engaged in the exchange of ideas that is a problem for us all.

How can we solve this unevenness in the regions from where we publish research? I don’t think I have a final answer to that, but there are things that will help, including several that we are already doing for Journal of Applied Ecology and our fellow British Ecological Society journals. They include having a more diverse editorial board (our journal has run open calls for Associate Editor applications for several years); having a more diverse group of reviewers for a better peer review process – a more diverse editorial board selecting and inviting reviewers can help achieve this; provide training for researchers from underrepresented areas on how to become editors (we run an Associate Editor mentoring programme); making reviewers and editors conscious of potential biases by raising awareness and sharing unconscious bias training resources such as this great video from the Royal Society; and hosting translated abstracts of papers into languages other than English alongside the published article (here’s an example – toggle between the languages by selecting the letter codes to the right of the abstract) and offering space for authors to write multi-lingual blog posts such as this one to reach a wider audience that may attract future authors. However, there are lots other things to do and try. Your ideas are very welcome so please comment below or send us an email.

There are also things clearly beyond our capabilities as a journal, such as lack of research funding in certain regions, lack of well-trained researchers in applied ecology in some parts of the world, and/or lack of regional interest in applied ecology overall. However, I truly think that we can all help solve this issue by just being aware of the problem and by helping where we can. I believe this is a great challenge for us as a scientific community, but I also think that slowly, we are making progress to make ecology truly global to better face the challenges of the Anthropocene.

Look out for more Peer Review Week 2018 posts coming soon across the British Ecological Society journals.