We need to make applied ecology truly global to better face the challenges of the Anthropocene

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.

10 thoughts on “We need to make applied ecology truly global to better face the challenges of the Anthropocene

  1. Hello Martin

    Thanks for this blog post, which shows that BES are starting to think about what makes the world of publishing unequal.

    Could you comment on the recent news from Marc Schiltz that European scientists are going to be publishing in exclusively Open Access journals from 2020?

    If BES journals are going to become exclusively Open Access, you will find that any attempt to open up the journal to less privileged societies will be squashed, and this will include Argentinians.

    Many of us are simply not able to pay the fees for Open Access, and if we do it comes from our underfunded research budgets. For us, the BES journals are some of the last beacons of being able to publish in great journals without having a pay wall.

    It would be great to hear from you about how BES plans to move forwards.

    Cheers

    John Measey
    Centre for Invasion Biology
    Stellenbosch University
    South Africa

    Schiltz M (2018) Science Without Publication Paywalls: cOAlition S for the Realisation of Full and Immediate Open Access. Front. Neurosci. 12:656. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00656

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    1. Hi John, this is just my opinion, but I agree with you that the current open access model can create more problems than solutions. This is really problematic for countries like ours in the Global South….

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    2. Thank you John for your comment. While the BES journals all offer the option for authors to publish their work open access under a Creative Commons licence, five of our six journals (including Journal of Applied Ecology) are still funded by a hybrid-subscription model. This means that, unless they choose to make their article open access, authors can publish in our journals without paying an article processing charge. The BES have just launched a new fully open access journal, People and Nature. This journal is funded by article process charges, however the team are conscious of not alienating potential authors and authors from low-income countries are automatically given a waiver if they request one. Other authors can also apply for waivers and which are assessed on a case by case basis.

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  2. “So, while biases could perhaps partially explain what is happening, other factors play a much bigger role.

    Actually I would argue that there may still be biases at play here, just not necessarily restricted to biases within the journal editorial board itself. There could be biases amongst donors /funding organisations, institutions, research teams, etc. that affect opportunities for local researchers to actually conduct and publish their work in their own countries.

    When you’re a local researcher who’s just gotten rejected by an international donor to conduct research that has real-world conservation application in your own country and is desperately needed for that purpose, then you see that very same donor awarding funding to a white European to conduct research in your country that you know isn’t going to make a real difference in applied conservation practice but is being promoted as having conservation application….you can’t help wondering what’s going on here.

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    1. Very good point. Some international donors may have an agenda that is not solely focused on the local problems of a given region… Biases can play a role at any level and they can be super important, but other factors such as lack of funding to do science to solve a local problem can be as important. Again, this is a very complex and important problem…

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  3. I do think it would be interesting if you consider the possibility to publish short notes about events organised elsewhere on ecological approaches. It would be a kind of database that could allow you to see the evolution of researcher experiments.
    We are organising the Ecology Day and this, for example, has created a huge impact not only from the research side but also the public. Last year I wrote a short article to webEcology from EEF. This year I intend to make an evaluation of the impact of all these activities. But again I don ‘t know where to publish.
    Look at our site http://www.speco.pt/iniciativas/ecology-day/

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