Are poor countries destined to struggle with conservation?

Conservation is a human endeavor. It seems like an obvious statement, but too often it seems we forget that scientific pursuits are inextricably linked to the nuances of human behavior and cognition, whether conspicuous or veiled. Humans are biased creatures, and if we don’t pay attention to those biases we risk losing out on possible conservation gains.

Perhaps that’s why University of Queensland and People and Nature Consulting International researcher Erik Meijaard and his colleagues ran the numbers to see whether there were geographic biases in how conservation-related research gets cited by other researchers. The ultimate goal of conservation research is usually to affect management practices, but Meijaard argues that “citations of the research are still important because they indicate the impact of research within the research community,” which can arguably be linked to broader societal impact. They point out that high citation rates allow researchers’ own profiles to become elevated, which is then critical when making a case for funding conservation projects. It’s all very wonky, but it’s also probably true. “To understand the impact of conservation science, it is important to understand the factors that influence citation rates and to identify systematic biases,” he writes.

What might those biases look like? Citations rates could be highest for studies that focus on areas of the world with high biodiversity or with the most pressing conservation problems, like the tropics. Or the opposite could be true: citation rates might be lowest for the tropics if both motivation and funding for conservation are lower there. Or, there could be no pattern at all – perhaps due to lack of bias, or because conservation efforts and research are truly uniformly distributed across the globe.

To expose any hidden patterns, the researchers first quantified the conservation “importance” of a country simply by identifying the number of threatened bird and mammal species according to the IUCN’s 2008 red list, though they controlled for country area (larger countries are likely to have higher biodiversity in the first place).

Then, for 231 countries, they searched Google Scholar for conservation-related papers. After applying a measure of quality control to the search results, they were left with the 1000 most cited papers for each country.

They discovered that citation rates increased with a country’s conservation importance – the more threatened species, the more research conducted there was cited. But that didn’t explain all the geographic variation they discovered. Additional factors that were associated with increased citation rates were population size, wealth (GDP per capita), and the quality of governance structures.

“These results are not surprising,” says Meijaard. Countries with bigger populations tend to have more research institutions and more scientists. They simply put out a larger volume of scientific work, and even if not all the work were of high quality, the mean citations per country would still be likely to increase with greater output. Countries with high GDP and strong governance are more likely to spend money on science and have more deeply embedded scientific infrastructure. But wealth is not everything – governance structure actually explained more of the variation than GDP, suggesting that good governance itself is associated with scientific investment.

Perhaps it is most instructive to consider the outliers. Countries that produce research of higher impact than other countries in their region, after conservation importance, population, wealth, and governance were accounted for, included places of high biodiversity and are politically stable, but are also accessible to international researchers, like Brazil and South Africa. Likewise, countries with lower biodiversity but strong scientific traditions were also outliers, like the Netherlands and UK. There were some surprises too: high citation rates (after accounting for all the other variables) were found for Libya, Eritrea, and Tunisia as well. Surprisingly, the UAE, which has been described as an “emerging scientific nation” (along with Tunisia), was a negative outlier, with lower citation rates than expected. That could be because their scientific investment is too recent to be evident yet in citation rates.

This is all important for researchers to simply be aware of as they consider their own research efforts but currently and in the future, but it could also have important implications for conservation on the ground. “Will the poor citation record of research from a country influence the likelihood of international researchers initiating projects there,” asks Meijaard, “or of local researchers working in their home countries rather than seeking opportunities abroad?” While researchers probably don’t make career-related decisions strictly by citation rates, nor would they necessarily know that papers written about research conducted in Thailand are five times less likely to be cited than those written about US-based conservation research, the reduced impact of research from any particular country may be part of a negative feedback loop.

As most researchers would agree, past success begets future success, and the chances of receiving funding in the future are best predicted by a strong history of receiving funding. The friction required to get a new project off the ground in a country without that momentum could be discouraging enough to young researchers to send them off in search of opportunities elsewhere. Academic life is already challenging enough, after all.

How can researchers be proactive about addressing this problem, or heading it off before it becomes one? Funding mechanisms and publication venues could be instituted that are specifically aimed at research conducted in countries that have urgent conservation needs but which have fallen behind in building scientific momentum or infrastructure, or collaborations could be encouraged between researchers in those countries and researchers in other countries which themselves have a strong international research effort. “Assuming high research impact has at least some conservation influence, the research community should consider ways to address the entrenched disadvantages some countries face,” concludes Meijaard. Ultimately, he adds, research efforts ought to “more closely [reflect] conservation need and biological interest, rather than size, wealth, quality of governance, or history.” – Jason G. Goldman | 03 April 2015

Source: Meijaard E., Cardillo M., Meijaard E.M., & Possingham H.P. (2015). Geographic bias in citation rates of conservation research. Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12489.

Header image: Scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), a critically endangered species native to Tunisia, via shutterstock.com

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