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No you’re not paranoid – there is a bias against publishing marine conservation papers

How many times have you submitted a marine conservation paper to a journal only to have it rejected because it is “too marine”, of “too narrow a focus” or “of limited interest to our readers”?  Despite the oceans making up 71% of Earth’s surface and 99% of the know biosphere, it sometimes seems that there’s a bias against marine articles in some of the leading ecology and conservation journals. Well you’d be right.

Kochin and Levin (2003, 2004) noted that marine conservation got short thrift in conservation journals. For example, on average marine papers comprise less than 11% of leading conservation biology journal papers, whereas 61% were terrestrial (Kochin and Levin, 2004). Marine content ranged from less than 3% in Conservation Ecology to 40% in Aquatic Conservation – even though oceans and sea ice make up 97% of the water on the planet, freshwater ecosystems still dominated the aquatic conservation literature even then.

But surely that’s because marine conservation is published in marine–oriented journals? Not so much – Kochin and Levin also found that less than 5% of papers in marine ecology journals dealt with conservation issues, with <7% of fishery journal articles being conservation-oriented. While in some journals marine conservation coverage has got a little better over the past decade, in others it has got worse. Menge et al. (2009) found similar results for coverage of the marine environment in ecological journals, with only 8% of articles in general ecological journals (between 2002 and 2006) being marine, versus 60% being purely terrestrial. Is this because there are fewer marine researchers than terrestrial ones? The answer is no. Stergiou and Browman (2005) looked at the proportion of aquatic ecologists in scientific societies (43%), and found the proportion was close to that of terrestrial ecologists (54%). They also looked at citation frequency in ecological journals (2000-2004) and found no real difference in the number of times that aquatic ecologists were being cited, as compared to terrestrial ecologists, so it is not a case of aquatic papers being simply less cited. In fact, the proportion of highly cited marine articles in some top conservation journals is much higher than would be expected, considering the proportion of marine articles. The impacts and prevalence of marine articles in social media has not been analysed as yet, but I would not be surprised to find that marine articles probably have higher altmetric scores than terrestrial ones due to the large number of marine conservation scientists being active on social media such as Twitter.

After rejection upon rejection from high impact factor journals with comments like those at the beginning of this article, I was starting to feel that there was a bias against marine articles. But I recently discovered that I was not being paranoid after all. In discussions with the staff of a major scientific journal publisher last week, they accidentally let slip that “[high impact factor conservation journal] has a policy of rejecting marine papers as they would reduce its impact factor”.*

One of the problems is, as Menge et al. (2009) found, that aquatic ecologists/conservationists cite widely, referring to papers in a broad range of terrestrial conservation, ecological and fisheries journals. Terrestrial ecologists are more narrow in their citations and rarely cite aquatic papers. In fact Menge et al. (2009) determined that aquatic ecologists cite terrestrial articles 10 times more frequently than terrestrial ecologists cite marine ones. One reason for the diverse citation profile of marine researchers is that terrestrial ecological and conservation concepts are applicable to the oceans. But also many marine conservation issues are inter-, multi- and trans-disciplinary, so marine conservation researchers cite from a diverse base of journals in both the natural and social sciences. Moreover, without a real “home” for marine conservation articles, they are spread widely amongst the scientific literature. I like to also think that marine scientists are better and more widely read than terrestrial ecologists… after all, there’s a lot of dead time to fill when you are floating about in a boat with no internet or phone access.

A field which has a very narrow stable of journals that one gets published in, ultimately ends up having a higher impact factor per journal, than those with a wider publishing base. This is one reason why there was a publishing bias for marine papers as noted above. How do we remedy this? Well, the best way would be for the marine science community to put pressure on journal editors not to be biased against marine papers. As Menge et al. (2009) succinctly put it:

papers deemed “not sufficiently broad in application to other ecosystems” should not be discriminated against by general journals. Thus, for example, reviewer comments that (e.g.) a paper is “too marine” or “relevant only to lakes” are inappropriate. In our view, the primary criterion for acceptance of manuscripts in general journals should be the excellence of the research, and not a subjective assessment of its likely appeal to terrestrial readers.” (p 100).

Biases against publishing marine conservation and ecology papers is not only personally frustrating, but it harms the careers of young marine researchers, making it harder for them to win grants, post-docs and faculty positions and generally diminishing their confidence and morale. But even worse, the environmental situation in the marine environment is pretty dire in many respects, and publishing biases exacerbates the problem – getting good science-based management and decision-making that can alleviate marine environmental problems is made even more difficult if timely publication of essential science is prevented by the biases of journal editors.

 

P.S. Thanks quickly calculating the marine content of the two highest impact factor conservation  journals for the past year we get 10.8% and 10.9%. So in 10 years the proportion of marine papers in conservation journals does not seem to have greatly changed since the studies noted above – they still make up just less than 11%of the articles and are far outnumbered by papers on terrestrial species .

 

Acknowledgments

A huge hanks James Mortimor (@Vit_Sea) for tracking down an article that was invaluable for this blog and kudos to Nick Dulvy (@NickDulvy) for prodding me to write this incident up.

 

References

Kochin, B.F. & Levin, P.S. 2004. Publication of marine conservation papers: is conservation biology too dry? Conservation Biology 18: 1160-1162.

Menge, B.A. et al. 2009. Terrestrial ecologists ignore aquatic literature: Asymmetry in citation breadth in ecological publications and implications for generality and progress in ecology. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 377: 93–100.

Stergiou, K.I. & Browman, H.I. 2005. Imbalances in the reporting and teaching of ecology from limnetic, oceanic and terrestrial domains. Marine Ecology Progress Series 304:292–297.

 

*I’m not going to name names, but I have never personally published in said journal… if you wanted a hint.


Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology for nearly a decade and is currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society and the Society for Marine Mammalogy. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 120 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.


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