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 .



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.



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.


  1. John Bruno · September 25, 2014

    Thank you Chris for publishing this. Ive experienced this from Conservation Journals numerous times, particularly Conservation Biology and Ecological Applications. For example, about two weeks ago we got this reject without review decision from Cons Bio:

    Thank you for submitting your manuscript “Fishing ban promotes recovery of parrotfish populations on coral reefs” (14-705) to Conservation Biology.The work described in the manuscript is interesting and worthwhile. Unfortunately, however, Conservation Biology is not a good fit for the manuscript. We prioritize for publication manuscripts with relevance to conservation that transcends the particular ecosystem or situation described. We typically do not publish work on a single ecological context, even one that is a focus of conservation attention, unless the methods or inferences are novel and highly transferable and the transferability is an emphasis of the manuscript. In this case, the work is focused on the impacts of fishing exclusions on a subset of reef fishes in a single ecological context. The results are critically important for understanding and managing this area, but the specifics are difficult to extrapolate to other areas or contexts, except in the most general terms. The more general message that fishing bans have been effective in leading to recruitment and population growth, is well made but this phenomenon is reasonably well established in the literature. Thus, the results are unlikely to interest many among the journal’s wide international readership.Accordingly, I am declining the manuscript without sending it for review. The work is valuable and nicely executed and I suggest you consider sending the manuscript to a journal with a focus on animal conservation or protected areas management. Thanks again. Best of luck in publishing your work and in using your insights to inform the practice of conservation.

    Sincerely, Mark Burgman
    Editor in Chief, Conservation Biology

    A quick gander at the journal reveals terrestrial science is not held to nearly the same standard, e.g., numerous papers on forest “corridors”, cheetah genetic diversity, etc. In both terrestrial and aquatic systems, some conservation science is by necessity species specific. That doesn’t mean it is any less “transferrable” or “interesting” than mapping studies or habitat conservation.

    PS, I dont think revealing what journal told you this is “naming names”. And it would be very helpful to us all, in the case we are making to these journals for the inclusion of marine conservation if you would reveal the journal identity. This isn’t personal and I believe the suppression of ocean conservation science by the world’s leading academic conservation organization is a critical issue and has been for decades. Journals and their editors are receptive to ideas and pressure from the community. We should work constructively to make a change. We’ve been complaining about this to each other, e.g., over beers and haggis, since at least the mid 1990s and Ive seen zero change so far.

    Thanks again.

  2. Daniel Palacios (@danielequs) · September 25, 2014

    Since you draw from the similar bias experienced by marine ecology articles to make your point, I thought I’d mention that there is an additional twist in this story. Major journals like Nature or Science (no idea if these are among your mystery journals) do publish articles in marine ecology of a certain breed. These are biological oceanographic articles that implicitly or explicitly deal with global biogeochemical cycling, i.e., those that involve microbes or phytoplankton. These articles are usually categorized under ‘Earth Science’ but if you ask anyone in this field they will tell you that biological oceanography = marine ecology. To some extent, I suspect this bias is a left-over from decades past when the emphasis was on understanding ocean ecology structure through nutrient cycling, as driven by physics, microbes and plankton. Everything else was considered ‘decoration’ (i.e., ‘we don’t think other taxa are important or we don’t have a good handle on their processes, so we’ll just ignore them’). A seminal review paper from 1985 by Mackas et al. illustrates the priorities of that era:

    ‘The development and persistence of biological spatial pattern in the ocean is dependent on the existence of spatial gradients in the local rate of population increase or decrease. The approximate proportionality between spatial extent and temporal persistence of physical features in the ocean provides a basis for estimating the relative effectiveness of the biological rates (competition coefficients, population growth rates, motility) responsible for patch generation.’ (Mackas et al. 1985).

    Clearly the physical-biological connection at the lower trophic levels is very important, but we’re also beginning to gain a better understanding of the non-negligible ecological role of upper level taxa, as exemplified by the concept of ‘whales as marine ecosystem engineers’ (Roman et al. 2014), which demonstrates that large marine organisms (i.e., the vilified ‘charismatic megafauna’ of decades past) play a significant role in nutrient cycling (see also Lavery et al. 2010, Roman et al. 2010, Lavery et al. 2012) and even as buffers of climate change (Pershing et al. 2010, Micheli et al. 2012). But there is also a growing appreciation for ecosystem services, and the emphasis appears to be shifting toward a better understanding (and managing) of social-ecological systems (Lubchenco 1998, Pikitch et al. 2004, Foley et al. 2010). Thus, one can only hope that editors will actively carve space for articles advancing these issues in their journals, and place less emphasis on the generality and transferability of research findings.


    Foley MM, Halpern BS, Micheli F, Armsby MH, Caldwell MR, Crain CM, Prahler E, Rohr N, Sivas D, Beck MW, Carr MH, Crowder LB, Duffy JE, Hacker SD, McLeod KL, Palumbi SR, Peterson CH, Regan HM, Ruckelshaus MH, Sandifer PA, Steneck RS (2010) Guiding ecological principles for marine spatial planning. Marine Policy:1–12

    Lavery TJ, Roudnew B, Gill P, Seymour J, Seuront L, Johnson G, Mitchell JG, Smetacek V (2010) Iron defecation by sperm whales stimulates carbon export in the Southern Ocean. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 277:3527–3521

    Lavery TJ, Ben Roudnew, Seymour J, Mitchell JG, Jeffries T (2012) High Nutrient Transport and Cycling Potential Revealed in the Microbial Metagenome of Australian Sea Lion (Neophoca cinerea) Faeces. PLoS ONE 7:e36478

    Lubchenco J (1998) Entering the century of the environment: a new social contract for science. Science 279:491–497

    Mackas DL, Denman KL, Abbott MR (1985) Plankton patchiness: biology in the physical vernacular. Bulletin of Marine Science 37:652–674

    Micheli F, Saenz-Arroyo A, Greenley A, Vazquez L, Espinoza Montes JA, Rossetto M, De Leo GA (2012) Evidence That Marine Reserves Enhance Resilience to Climatic Impacts. PLoS ONE 7:e40832

    Pershing A, Christensen L, Record N, Sherwood GD, Stetson PB (2010) The Impact of Whaling on the Ocean Carbon Cycle: Why Bigger Was Better. PLoS ONE 5:e12444

    Pikitch E, Santora EA, Babcock A, Bakun A, Bonfil R, Conover DO, Dayton PAO, Doukakis P, Fluharty D, Heheman B (2004) Ecosystem-based fishery management. Science 305:346–347

    Roman J, McCarthy JJ (2010) The whale pump: marine mammals enhance primary productivity in a coastal basin. PLoS ONE 5:e13255

    Roman J, Estes JA, Morissette L, Smith C, Costa D, McCarthy J, Nation JB, Nicol S, Pershing A, Smetacek V (2014) Whales as marine ecosystem engineers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment:140703070154008

  3. Chris Parsons · September 27, 2014

    I deja that vu John – I was rejected by Conservation Biology for a paper on sonar impact on whales (which subsequently was used in several policy documents including for international treaty organisations, as evidence in several court cases including documents read by the Supreme Court , and has subsequently been very highly cited) that was rejected because it was deemed too narrow a focus (dealing with a “single species” although it dealt with an entire mammalian order) and of limited interest/impact for conservation. In the most current issue at the time there were numerous single species papers that had little relevance to wider conservation, including a paper on a non endangered small terrestrial mammal species, that was basic life history/ecology with no real conservation implications. To be fair that was before the current editor, and they have introduced a “marine” associate editor subsequently (the journal I was referring to was not Conservation Biology BTW).

    Looking at this year’s issues of Conservation Biology, the marine content is 11% (or 10.4% if you don’t count the paper I co-lead-authored). So the proportion of marine papers hasn’t changed since Kochin and Levin’s study.

  4. Chris Parsons · September 27, 2014

    PS. The past year for Conservation Letters is a similar percentage 10.9%

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