Research remand

While mulling over ideas for a group project in a graduate-level class in community ecology in 2007, PhD student Ryan O’Donnell recalled a question that had been nagging him for years.

Jan 1, 2010
Elie Dolgin
 
 

While mulling over ideas for a group project in a graduate-level class in community ecology in 2007, PhD student Ryan O’Donnell recalled a question that had been nagging him for years. It was about a 2002 paper that examined how long it took for original scientific findings to get published in peer-reviewed literature, which showed that the lag time from submission to publication—the so-called “publication delay”—was several months longer for conservation and applied ecology journals than for three other biological subdisciplines (Nature, 420:15; 2002). But O’Donnell, who was studying the genetics of leopard frogs at Utah State University in Logan, figured that was only half the story.

Well before a paper passed into the hands of a journal editor, O’Donnell figured, there could be a lengthy hold up between when researchers completed a project and when they first submitted their manuscript. Yet no one had ever systematically investigated this additional potential setback.

O’Donnell teamed up with two other students, Sarah Supp and Stephanie Cobbold, and together they examined more than 2,000 articles published in 2007 in 14 journals from the same subdisciplines that the 2002 Nature paper had covered: conservation, taxonomy, behavior, and evolution. They emailed all the corresponding authors (including the author of this story, who had an article in the journal Evolution) to learn the last dates of data collection and the day the paper was submitted. They then calculated the difference, what they dubbed the “submission delay.”

“[Authors would] give us a whole list of excuses. Oh, I was graduating, and then I got married. Or I had a baby,” says Supp. Other rationales for long delays included a major spat between colleagues, a coauthor died, or Hurricane Katrina destroyed batches of data.

Why are conservation biologists so slow to publish?

The students tallied the responses, and once again they found that papers submitted to conservation journals experienced the longest submission delay—by a wide margin. The three conservation and applied-ecology journals they studied had a median lag time of 696 days from final data collection to submission, compared to just 189 days for the four evolution journals. Conservation papers also experienced the longest publication delay, typically taking longer than a year. So rather than working to expedite their analyses in order to compensate for the delay they experience after submission, conservation biologists remained the slowest of the bunch, even after testing for confounding factors, including the number of study authors and time spent being rejected from other journals.

Such delays imperil a field in which environmental decisions need to be made on the most sound and up-to-date data, cautions Cobbold. “Identifying and rectifying the causes of the delay should be a high priority,” she says.

There could be a few reasons underlying conservation’s poor pace. The authors speculate that conservation biologists might be slower to write up their results because they often receive less funding or face less competition than researchers in other subdisciplines. But more likely, say the authors, since conservation scientists tend to work at government agencies, not academic institutions, they place a lower priority on publishing and securing tenure than, for example, making management decisions and writing internal reports.

Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy in Seattle, Wash., and the author of the 2002 study first reporting the publication delay, was impressed by the students’ clever add-on to his original paper. Including the submission delay “was really pretty innovative,” he says. “I didn’t think of doing that.”

Considering the students’ results, Kareiva says it’s high time for conservation biologists to start getting their messages out more expeditiously. “It’s somewhat hypocritical for our field to always tell stories about impending extinctions and biodiversity crises and then be among the slowest to get that out into the scientific literature,” he says.

The graduate students, who received an A on their class project, report their findings an upcoming issue of the journal Conservation Biology. Their own submission delay was 90 days—faster than 99 percent of the conservation papers included in their study. “We’re pretty happy with it,” says O’Donnell.