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5 ways to get your conservation message to where it’s needed (and avoid colonial science)

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

Nancy and Chris have worked in Indian Ocean Island conservation for the last 20 years, and April for the last 10 years; Nancy overseeing research and conservation at the two World Heritage sites of Seychelles, Chris running long-term research projects on plant-animal interactions and conservation, and April as the science coordinator of Aldabra Atoll and now PhD student at the University of Oxford

This post applies to those working in the field with or using data/samples from organisations/researchers/practitioners in especially low- and middle-income countries, and/or to research that aims to improve conservation.

The research station on Aldabra Atoll UNESCO World Heritage Site, where a team of around 15, mainly Seychellois, are stationed year-round to enforce the atoll's protection, to conduct longterm monitoring programmes, and carry out additional research projects in collaboration with academics worldwide.

How can we ensure that the knowledge we generate in our research actually gets to the right people and is used to inform conservation actions (or, how do we bridge the ‘knowledge-implementation space’ as it is known in the literature), rather than just adding another paper to the pile that only academics read? The hotly debated gap between academic research and conservation practice might leave you wondering how you can increase the chances of your own work crossing this void and having an impact.

Although our ultimate aims are often the same, the demands, short-term goals and indeed the worlds of most academic scientists and most conservation practitioners are so fundamentally different it is no surprise that this gap can appear chasm-like at times. We believe that, as researchers, we could make more of a difference and substantially increase the impact of our work if a few steps were to become more routine. The recommendations below are drawn from our combined crossover experience between the realms of academia and conservation practice.

1. Find your ‘application audience’

Working with sites of high conservation value, we often come across papers by chance, that focus on or discuss the sites or endemic species we work with, but which we were not previously aware of. The authors haven’t done their background research to find out who manages the site/species, or reached out to them. They may not realise that their research on a remote atoll or endemic palm forest might be useful (yet unavailable) to site managers, but is there really an excuse for not making sure? Ironically there are often references to conservation implications or management in the paper itself, yet without an attempt to get this advice to where it’s needed, why include implications at all?

The answer is to educate yourself on who might be in a position to directly apply your results – this may be a much narrower (or broader) audience than those who might be interested in reading your paper, normally called the ‘target audience’. It is the audience who are in a position to potentially apply your findings, so let’s call it the ‘application audience’ (not the same as the stakeholders). Where and who your results could be relevant to should be obvious, or you might think that the paper will reach them, but this audience is very frequently not considered.

Find your application audience and ideally make yourself familiar with and to them. We, as practitioners, need to know who you are and what you are researching that could be useful for us.

2. Be inclusive with authorship – represent your application audience if possible

A conservation science paper needs to have different authorship criteria to other fields: it is imperative to recognise conservation organisations on the ground. The academic lead authors may feel that they’ve done the hard grind of data collection, analysis and writing, but very often an organisation has set up or assisted with field work or logistics/administration and/or supported applications for research permits that made the entire project possible. A lot of work often goes on behind the scenes, and before the research happens, to facilitate it. This may get an acknowledgement, but co-authorship may in many cases be justified and would reflect this crucial role played by partners on the ground. Excluding local or field co-authors is a main driver of colonial science and it is felt keenly.

"A lot of work often goes on behind the scenes, and before the research happens, to facilitate it."

As well as reflecting these organisations’ contributions, being generous with co-authorship, extends ‘ownership’ of the results where it matters most, which can facilitate uptake of findings and recommendations. It also shows respect to partners, which can be of huge help in building trust and creating goodwill for future research and long-term partnerships, not necessarily for only your personal or group research but for researchers in general.

Ideally, propose an author list early on in the process and ensure that all partners are happy with it, but do allow some flexibility in author order according to contribution.

In line with this, treat your co-authors seriously and respectfully by giving them plenty of time and opportunity to review your paper draft. Your partners may not be academics, but they are valuable co-authors and will have experience and advice to provide. They can also contribute substantially to both the general accessibility of the paper (e.g. by pointing out language that is difficult to digest) and the implications and recommendations sections, so take their feedback on board and ensure that they are happy with the message of the paper, ideally working with you on the recommendations to ensure that these can be implemented (see Adame 2021 for an excellent recent article and advice on the importance of avoiding helicopter science). Keep in mind that co-authorship and close collaboration in the writing process also promotes accountability of partners for taking action (see also Fuoco 2021, for advice on involving partners/stakeholders in your communication strategy).

Ultimately, this approach (perhaps combined with conservation journals doing more to scrutinise projects for their inclusiveness and good practice) will help to increase inclusivity and turn the tide against colonial science in its various forms.

3. Think beyond impact factor

Impact factor obviously remains an important criteria for academic publishing, while conservation practitioners are admittedly not usually judged by journal publications for promotions and funding. But Open Access publications are incredibly important for conservation practitioners, most of whom have no access to papers via their institutions and cannot get full papers online. Many are not aware of online sources of papers, or of being able to contact authors to get the full paper, so a huge amount of literature remains out of reach.

So do consider making a conservation science paper as accessible and visible as possible in its original form, and be willing to either compromise on impact factor where you can to improve accessibility, or secure the funding to publish open access in high impact journals (e.g. by including publication costs in grant applications or using open access funds of your institution). Don’t expect local partners to be able to cover this or contribute, even if they are co-authors. Accessibility may not be the deciding factor in every case, but bear it in mind, as it is one of the main barriers preventing getting your message to where it is needed.

4. Translate

Translation is an obvious way to expand the reach of your paper, but it is often not done, especially when it comes to the application audience. Do ensure that you consider the main language(s) of your application audience and use whatever resources you can to translate the paper professionally (doing this professionally is worth it), or at the very least the abstract and synopsis (see #5), plus all outreach and visibility materials (e.g. press release, presentation, social media posts). As with open access publication costs, necessary funds for translation should be included in budgets. The extra effort is not only more likely to lead to better uptake and understanding of your message but also appreciation that you haven’t assumed your application audience will be able to read everything in a foreign language.

5. Never view publication as the endpoint of your research – write a synopsis!

This is the step most likely to boost impact, yet is the one most frequently overlooked. Even if you’ve identified your application audience, included several local co-authors, published your paper open access and had it all translated, there could still be a lot of this audience and other potentially influential people who never see it, or who might not read or understand it even if they do come across it (see Pullin et al. 2004). Even co-authors may not understand the details of a paper, and partners can feel intimidated by the publication’s technical jargon and density, or simply lack the time to read them.

This is where clear follow-up communication comes in. When you’ve published a paper that has relevance or recommendations for others, write a simply worded synopsis highlighting the main findings and especially the recommendations in a few lines, and circulate this with a friendly fyi message and the paper itself, to all stakeholders, your application audience, partners and co-authors. This synopsis is not the same as your paper’s abstract, which is often pretty technical, so simply copying the abstract into an email doesn’t do the job. Such follow-up synopses are rarely done but they can be highly effective, often being circulated well beyond the original email group, influencing policy and certainly reaching more people in the right places than the paper would otherwise reach.

"It’s a no-compromise, win-win step, and synopses are so appreciated and effective that they should be standard practice and required by conservation journals"

Almost everyone has time to read a few lines of an email and they are more likely to understand and remember this and the take-home message of your paper, plus support future research, if you do this. It’s a no-compromise, win-win step, and synopses are so appreciated and effective that they should be standard practice and required by conservation journals, along with the intended list of recipients, available for reviewers to comment on. Adopting this would encourage more conservation scientists to boost the impacts of their work and get their message to where it is needed most.

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Coincidentally, Conservation Letters recently announced a policy of compulsory inclusion of host country authors for studies in low/middle income countries, which fits nicely with your messaging in this blog.

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