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Why publication matters in conservation biology

Calver, M.C.ORCID: 0000-0001-9082-2902 and King, D.R. (2000) Why publication matters in conservation biology. Pacific Conservation Biology, 6 (1). pp. 2-8.


CONSERVATION biologists increasingly follow Soulé (1985) and describe conservation biology as a “crisis discipline”. Crises require quick, comprehensive appraisal of the situation and prompt, firm decisions. These actions can be at odds with peer review and publication, which are often slow processes. Although peer-reviewed journals in the physical sciences may take as little as six to eight weeks between first receipt of a paper and its publication (Daniel 1993), journals in ecology, wildlife science and conservation biology may take much longer. This problem is being exacerbated by a growth in submissions (e.g., Bull 1998).

Given the slow pace of most peer-reviewed publications some important data sets and reports are unlikely ever to be published formally because authors and their employers are not prepared to spend the required time and work. Considerable effort is needed to locate and evaluate the unpublished studies. The detailed methodology for location and use of “grey literature” — data and reports not published in the mainstream peer-reviewed literature — by the Australian Commonwealth Government’s Resources Assessment Commission study of forestry impacts is an excellent recent example (see exposition in Horwitz and Calver 1998, P. 221). In other cases, government departments have funded peer-reviewed publications of their own as a forum for publishing data sets and technical reports likely to be useful to researchers, but too long for mainstream journals (e.g., the journals of the various Australian museums).

Despite such opportunities, emphatic complaints are made about failure to record important work in conservation biology in peer-reviewed publications (Caughley and Gunn 1996). Other authors see ecological work that is not published in the peer-reviewed literature as unfinished or even undone (Maimer 1990; Ratti and Garton 1996). However, some important debates in Australian conservation biology are now making extensive use of unpublished or unreviewed literature. For example, in a recent debate concerning appropriate management practices for conserving hollow-bearing trees in State Forests in southwest Western Australia, Stoneman et al. (1997) cited a large but unpublished report by McComb (1994) and Calver (1997) quoted extensively from the same source. Similarly, Shea et al. (1997) included 22 unreviewed magazine articles in the 71 references they cited in a study of sustainable conservation.

Therefore, it is timely to compare some of the characteristics of unpublished and unreviewed literature with those of peer-reviewed publications, and also to initiate discussion on what role each should play in evaluating and planning conservation research and policy. After outlining our understanding of the different categories of information available, we consider them in relation to:
(i) the speed and accessibility with which information is made available,
(ii) the authority carried by that information,
(iii) the implications of each category for the morale of researchers,
(iv) the potential for distortion or bias in information,
(v) the failure to present results that do not support a favoured hypothesis in conservation biology research, and
(vi) the special case of publications in popular magazines or newspapers.
Overall, the discussion shows that peer-reviewed publications have greater accessibility and authority, but it seems foolish to reject unpublished or unreviewed work out of hand.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology
Publisher: Surrey Beatty & Sons
Copyright: (c) Surrey Beatty & Sons
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