Scripta Varia

Community Authority and the Signals of Science: Next Steps in Furthering the Impact of Biodiversity Conservation Science

Philippa Jane Benson[*]


In a recent editorial in the journal Science Advances (1), Dr. Thomas Lovejoy called attention to the recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) (2). The evidence in the IPBES report draws from a wide range of data and rigorous analyses documenting the status of the planet’s most precious resources: fresh water, clean soils, wood, fiber and most importantly, the full registry of the genetics of biological diversity. The IPBES publication provides substantive, unequivocal evidence that, globally, the health of the planet and the ecosystems on which all species depend are declining at accelerating and unprecedented rates. The grades on the state of planetary health in the IPBES report card are abysmal. Most troubling among them are those that reflect a profound lack of recognition by world leaders of the declining health of the planet. If the planet were an individual human being, she would already be in intensive care with round-the-clock nursing. The current neglect of planetary health begs the question: Why are so many global leaders not paying attention to the screaming signals of science?

The meeting that has prompted this writing, Noah’s Arks for the 21st Century, convened by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, brought together leaders of the world’s greatest research natural history museums, botanical gardens, and zoos. The goal of the gathering was to foster efforts and collective enthusiasm to translate science into public and policy actions that will move forward effective protection of global biodiversity and ecosystem services. Museums, botanical gardens, and zoos are indeed critical venues for public exposure regarding the stark reality of the risks we face today. Our timeline for action is very short and the stakes cannot be higher. Broad, powerful education and outreach must begin in haste, using today’s publishing and information dissemination technologies to connect science to specific actions that anyone can take to move toward the goal of sustainable planetary practices.

Communities of Authority

When human populations are understood to be directly at risk by, for example, highly infectious diseases or extreme weather, leaders do take notice and turn to researchers and technical experts to determine paths forward to avert worse case scenarios. Leaders and policy makers seek out the most authoritative sources to explain the elements of the problems ahead and to outline potential solutions. People deemed to be authorities in the sciences and technology are generally identified by their prowess in specific professional communities and often have achieved top positions in respected institutions of higher learning and research. And, more often than not, these experts get to these leadership positions through achievements in scientific publishing.

Getting published in influential scientific journals is no easy feat. The most impactful scientific journals in the world today publish only a very small proportion (6%-8%) of the work submitted to them. These include journals that are broad and multidisciplinary, such as Science or Nature, and equally selective journals in specialty areas including ones focused on human health and medicine, or advances in chemistry, material sciences, and economics. Few policy makers and other non-specialist readers are able to directly understand the technical analyses published in these journals; instead they trust the editors, reviewers, and publishing process of these journals to select the most impactful work, collaborate with authors to hone the articulation of findings, and then publish final versions that represent, in theory, reliable findings, facts, and conclusions. This process of selection and review of science by editors and peer reviewers creates communities of expertise and it is these discourse communities that determine what findings are, and are not, published (3-6).

Discourse communities can be thought of as groups that sprout from a connection among participants who have common interests, whether the interests are cooking, cars, karaoke, cancer, or climate. To be a viable discourse community, however, groups must share more than common interests. The fundamental glue of a discourse community is a shared set of goals and values, and a stable and agreed upon set of participatory mechanisms for information exchange (7-9). Of equal importance to a true discourse community is that it has a set of core members: the experts. It is this group that shapes the evolving vocabulary that defines the genre and “style” of acceptable conversation and debate among community members. A person new to the community of conversation will not know how to converse in the style of those at the core. Some discourse communities, such as physicians or lawyers, are easy to identify because non-experts are often in need of their specialized knowledge and are exposed to their specialized language. However, although one might be able to recognize doctor or lawyer “speak”, that does not necessarily mean a person can understand or participate in those communities of conversation. Other discourse communities are difficult even to identify, perhaps because they’ve never gone public, or because they never coalesced their language or style, or because they are early in their evolution (7,8).

When you look at scientists in terms of discourse communities, one can see a pattern of timing between the coalition of a community of people with specific scientific interests and the creation of related scientific journals. Examples here are easy to find, starting with the founding of the Royal Society of London in 1660, followed by its first journal, Philosophical Transactions in 1665. Following the model of the Royal Society, groups of professional scientists outside of Europe, whether clinicians or basic researchers, began to coalesce as societies with their corollary journals. In the United States, for example, the American Chemical Society started in 1876 and launched its highly influential Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) in 1879. Similarly, the Ecological Society of America was started in 1915 and by 1917 had established its first journal, the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. The American Association for the Advancement of Science began around 1848; however, it did not have its rise in stature until the organization took on the leadership of Science magazine in 1880.

The creation of a professional society followed by a journal with peer review reflects the coming together of a community of interests, which in turn establishes agreed upon participatory mechanism for the discussion of ideas, and a group’s collective effort to codifying acceptable forms and styles for debate, led by its core expert leaders. The preference and practice of peer review, with all its inherent flaws, remains a central part of how ideas transform from fiction to fact (10-11).

Until relatively recently, journals were the primary mechanism of communication within scientific communities, allowing members to create and control channels for discussion and debate. Today, journals still dominate even amidst the hubbub of social media: to gain real traction, a novel idea must be accepted for assessment in a legitimate journal (ideally one that is already recognized as high impact), scrutinized there through the gauntlet of peer review, and eventually be published for further evaluation in a broader community of readers. Examples abound of outlier ideas moving through publication into mainstream acceptance, from the earliest discoveries in astronomy, evolution, and antibiotics to advances in genetics and space science. Researchers become successful not just by elegantly addressing new research questions, but also by knowing how to successfully negotiate the publishing process as a passage of rite for entering the inner core of influencers (4-6, 11-13).

A Sidebar on Discourse Communities

Figure 20.1 represents a typical cycle of how ideas might pass through different discourse communities in traditional scientific publishing starting at the inevitable beginning point of securing funding. Authors must first write up a plan for their research addressing the funder as reader. During the course of research, there is of course a tremendous amount of written communication but this work does not represent a full, new idea rich with proofs and evidence. However, when a study is complete and authors feel the work is solid enough to withstand further scrutiny, they will select a journal to submit to and then shape their scientific argument to fit the requirements of that journal. At this point, the authors shift their attention to the journal editors as readers, whom they have to please with the form and substance of their arguments. If the work passes muster with the editors as audience and moves to peer review, the authors’ attention shifts yet again to the subset of the discourse community with which they must negotiate. The reviewers, anonymous or not, serve as proxies for a wider discourse community; this wider community is not the public but rather readers who have the same focused interests who want to get into the weeds of detail. When published, the authors see their work out in a broad discourse community, but depending on the journal, that community may still be quite small, specialized, and elite. With luck the work will influence the readers to think differently about a topic, to question former ways of understanding enough to pose new questions and design new studies to explore them. This cycle represents the “traditional” model that scientific ideas must go through to be vetted, to move from a new idea to an accepted idea through cycles of examination and revision led by those considered experts in a specific community.

In short, information published in scientific journals is valued because it has been systematically vetted, through recognized and agreed upon processes, scrutinized through known channels that adhere to accepted genre, styles, and vocabularies and which are led by core expert members.

Establishing a New Field of Science

When looking at the emergence of publishing about biodiversity and conservation science in particular, a pattern emerges similar to that seen in earlier scientific disciplines. 1970 is a reasonable starting point to look more closely at the use of the term biodiversity in scientific literature as it was that year that brought the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Club of Rome, and the first recognized International Earth Day. Norman Myers published The Sinking Ark in 1979 (14) and Tom Lovejoy, referenced earlier, brought the term “biodiversity” squarely into the limelight in the early 1980s (15, 16). The Society of Conservation Biology started in 1985 followed by its flagship journal, Conservation Biology in 1987. In fact, an analysis using a popular citation database (17) shows that relatively few scientific papers used the term “biodiversity” as a keyword until the late 1980s when the term began to show up in scientific literature, aligned with the events above and with the publication of the seminal work Biodiversity led by E.O. Wilson and Frank Peter (18).

The increase in attention to the study of biodiversity and its relationship to planetary health was also reflected in the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the precursor to the IPBES, in 1988. The IPCC was created by two organizations [the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)] to assess the latest science related to climate change, and then to deliver compiled findings in a format digestible to policy makers and the public. The IPCC did not convene as a professional scientific society per se and rather focused on assessing scientific, technical, and socioeconomic information relevant to understanding the risks of human-induced alterations to climate. Unlike traditional scientific societies, the IPCC does not support new research or evaluate or publish new data. Instead, its assessments are grounded in the peer-reviewed scientific and technical literature that is reviewed, published, and curated by others.

In other words, despite the wide recognition of the value and integrity of the IPCC reports, the group is young relative to other authoritative scientific discourse communities. Although it has a scientific focus and some mechanism for communication and debate, it does not represent the scientists whose work it brings into public view. Neither the IPCC nor the IPBES have yet evolved into a recognized, authoritative community of experts on the combined diagnostics of planetary health drawn from biodiversity and related climate science. The result of this is in part the reality that the public does not yet hold scientists in these fields in the same esteem as they do medical doctors, physicists, or engineers. Scientists working in this area are only beginning to hit the public radar as authorities because the symptoms of planetary illness – heat, drought, extreme weather – are becoming extreme and threatening, and therefore getting people’s attention.

It Is All About Metadata

In the same general time frame that the term biodiversity started to become more frequent in scientific literature, there was also an extraordinary proliferation of databases related to biodiversity and geographic information, and biological nomenclature (19). These ranged from early efforts (e.g., 1985 Taxonomic Databases Working Group, 1992 Canabio, 1996 Fishbase) to the now defunct National Biological Information Infrastructure. From those grew the Darwin Core (a standard glossary of terms created and maintained to facilitate the sharing of information about biological diversity), the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and the consortium for the Bar Code of Life, launched in 2004. By 2009, the Darwin Core initiated the first standards for metadata related to biodiversity conservation.

I note the publishing of these biological nomenclature standards as particularly important because the standards used in these databases are different, in part at least, due to those used more generally in scientific publishing. On the one hand scientific publishers have their own very widely used bibliographic data standards, those established by the National Library of Medicine, now referred to as the Journal Article Tag Suite, or JATS (20). These tags not only allow extremely rapid conversion of text format from a document to a variety of digital forms but are used by a variety of powerful tools to make the content digitally findable and therefore easy to be collected and organized by different kinds of search engines. Journal article tags are the tools that allow users to find the information they want as the first step in understanding and use. As the volume of data documenting biodiversity explodes, researchers have recognized the critical importance of aggregating and aligning biodiversity data.

Advancing knowledge of global biodiversity and the implications of its destruction will require strident efforts to integrate biological, geographic, and other data on the informatics level. Researchers and funders will need to make concerted effort to make core literature findable by researchers, policymakers, and the public. Critical among these tools is the Digital Object Identifiers (DOI), which allow librarians and users alike to track and manage intellectual objects from data to figures to journal articles to eBooks and beyond, through persistent, interoperable identifiers for each distinct piece of content (21).

Organizations curating DOIs have made them completely affordable for large and small publishers alike. Unfortunately, many organizations that publish critical biodiversity data and analysis as grey literature, have not yet incorporated this essential step in making their data and analyses available to others (21). In neglecting the affordable tools of modern electronic publishing, these organizations not only diminish the authority of their work, but also are functionally declining to join the movement to make science transparent, open, and reproducible.

It would be ideal if scientists and publishers are all on the same page and working together in a close knit, harmonious discourse community toward the greater good of scientific endeavor, but historically this has not been the case, particularly when it comes to data. Scientists have been brought kicking and screaming into the age of reproducibility, bemoaning journal requirements not just to share data on which a particular piece of research is based, but to actually put the data in perpetuity in an open, public repository (22, 23). Although many scholarly authors support the ideals of transparency and reproducibility in science, more than a few require moderate cajoling to format and deposit their data in a public forum such as Figshare or Github. The issue of furthering reproducibility in biodiversity science is a huge and critical topic (24), but outside this discussion.

What Next?

At the same time, the channels for communication are proliferating: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and in short order, journal may no longer rule. Some believe that is the case already. The list of alternates keeps growing and therefore it is becoming increasingly difficult for readers to distinguish what channels are authoritative and trustworthy and those that are not. To be effective in convincing the public and policymakers that we are already in the time frame of a planetary crisis, all those involved in biodiversity science, from the field research to the heads of museums, zoos, and gardens must work together to establish a recognizable discourse community which will in turn support their recognition as experts in planetary health. Then, as those experts, researchers must focus on collecting and standardizing the data we need to understand the specificity of species and the workings of ecosystems and this standardizing must be done in tandem with publishers and publishing technologies.



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[*] Ph.D. Managing Editor, Science Advances, Washington DC, USA.




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