Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Why Publish Research?

By Hugh Possingham

Why publish research when what we are after is conservation outcomes? Here’s why.

It has been suggested by some that Environmental Decisions Group researchers should focus more on “outcomes, communication and engagement” rather than peer-reviewed publication. As these conversations progress we have discovered that there is a great deal of confusion about research and research communication.

We argue that the process of publication is not separate to outcomes but an essential part of achieving them (and this is an argument that is relevant to any “applied” science). Publishing increases the magnitude and chance of biodiversity conservation outcomes by ensuring that the best advice is provided based on evidence that has been judged to be meeting certain standards. To argue against peer-reviewed publication jeopardises the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity by diminishing the role of the scientific process.

At least three broad categories of research help to achieve biodiversity conservation:

  • applied ecology;
  • social-economic aspects of conservation; and
  • policy design.

Research in applied ecology provides evidence for designing conservation interventions. Social-economic research provides information about public preferences for conservation outcomes that can inform the design of socially acceptable and cost-effective conservation interventions. Policy research brings together these outputs to ensure that policies are designed to achieve their intended outcomes in a cost-effective manner that meets public demands.

Peer review is the process by which research is validated. It involves research being submitted for publication to be scrutinised and tested by a researcher’s peers, other reputable researchers working in the same area of science or social science. It’s not perfect, but peer review is currently the best system we have for ensuring the transparency, communication, veracity and replicability of social and biophysical science.

Why is peer-reviewed publication essential? Here are a few reasons:

  1. Replicability. Research that is not freely available to be scrutinised and replicated by people anywhere in the world is more likely to be false and hard to argue against. By publishing our methods and results they can be replicated and either refuted or supported. Replicability is a fundamental pillar of the scientific process and distinguishes it from many other forms of knowledge.
  2. Quality assurance. Peer review provides a measure to the government or other funding body for both the quality of recommendations they receive as well as the value for money they are spending on the science behind these recommendations.
  3. A basis for evidence-based policy. Peer review increases the quality of evidence but doesn’t purport to provide bullet-proof fact. Peer review also provides a public record of the science behind decisions so that policy-makers and the public alike can judge the evidence for themselves.
  4. International communication. Australia has a role in contributing to global knowledge; we especially have a role in assisting managers and policy-makers in our region. The peer-reviewed literature still remains the best way of communicating science findings and the outcomes of conservation so that there is an enduring record.
  5. Develops early career researchers. Publication in the peer-reviewed literature is essential for a career in research, whether that research be for government, the NGO sector, industry or a university. Arguing against peer-reviewed publication cripples our early-career researchers and degrades our national research capacity.

When people ask if we could focus more on “outcomes”rather than publication, they frame our activity as an either/or situation. Surely the more relevant question is whether the research has been designed to deliver information that delivers outcomes? Producing peer-reviewed research does not in itself mean that the research is arcane or detracts from time spent on other activities contributing to conservation outcomes. Indeed the reverse is true. Peer review is an essential component for researchers to contribute to conservation outcomes.

A more critical issue is to ensure that the research questions being answered are relevant to the conservation issues at hand. This is not a trivial matter as it requires researchers to collaborate with policy-makers, conservation organisations, managers and other stakeholders to design useful research questions.

Because the peer review process is so slow, and preparing papers for submission to world-class journals is also time-consuming, we will often need to communicate our discoveries to end-users before they are peer-reviewed and published. This pre-publication communication can take many forms: a conversation, a seminar, a public lecture, a conference presentation, a YouTube video or even a tweet!

However, regardless of the communication strategy, publication must be part of the process for all the reasons outlined above. All too often we find that ecological and conservation myths spread because of a lack of careful analysis and scrutiny.

Hugh Possingham and Vanessa Adams are members of the Environmental Decisions Group. They are based at the University of Queensland.