The art of scientific scribing – why papers and journals are so important in conservation

For a moment I thought I was trapped in an old joke – an Irishman, two Englishmen, a Chinese, a Burmese, a Cambodian, four Indonesians and two Filipinos walk into a room …

In reality it was a motley group of keen conservationists attending a workshop held in Singapore by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) on writing – scientific writing – to be precise.

The workshop was made possible due to funds generated through an exhibition by renowned artist Janet Laurence, based on camera trap photographs from an FFI project in Sumatra.

Storytelling for science

Dr Matt Linkie gathered together the group of FFI Asia-Pacific Programme conservationists at our FFI Singapore office. Under the training and guidance of Matt, Dr Neil Furey and me, the various project team members took information from their work to build, through the rather strict form of a scientific paper, a story about their work that will inform conservation practitioners worldwide.

Fauna & Flora International staff learn about the finer points of scientific writing. Credit: Stephen Browne/FFI

Fauna & Flora International staff learn about the finer points of scientific writing. Credit: Stephen Browne/FFI

With conservation needing so much action in the field to deal with the many challenges that biodiversity faces, it might be prudent to ask, why is it important to publish a scientific paper? The reasons for doing so are numerous, but for me – and many other conservationists – the key thing is that no matter how good your work is, if it isn’t published and made widely available, it doesn’t exist.

I also believe that unless those that actually do conservation work on the ground inform others about findings and recommendations, then much of the information out there will remain a purely academic exercise, and the broader benefits to conservation will be lost.

Publishing a scientific paper may be prescriptive and time consuming but the importance of publishing findings is huge, with many conservationists agreeing that if it isn’t published and made widely available, it doesn’t exist. Credit: Stephen Browne/FFI

Publishing a scientific paper may be prescriptive and time consuming but the importance of publishing findings is huge, with many conservationists agreeing that if it isn’t published and made widely available, it doesn’t exist. Credit: Stephen Browne/FFI

Sharing knowledge across all cultures

Unfortunately the very prescriptive and time consuming nature of publishing a scientific paper, means that those that have a wealth of knowledge to share, but don’t have English as a first language, the time, or writing experience are put off doing so. This was put into context by a paper published in Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation, titled Do we need to develop a more relevant conservation literature? written by three staff from FFI and other leading conservationists, which states that:

We believe that the mismatch between science and practice is a serious constraint to effective conservation. We also feel that the continuing lack of capacity in developing countries to access the scientific literature, either as readers or as authors, is both inequitable and a lost opportunity for global science.

That’s why training – such as this workshop – is essential.

So, what will this workshop in Singapore tell us?  If things work out as planned then we hope to see the results of FFI’s work across Asia being made available to all. Papers being prepared will tell us about:

  • The status of two threatened Hoolock Gibbon species in Myanmar, providing their first population estimates, and critical information on their threats and conservation needs.
  • Understanding biodiversity conservation priorities in Leyte, Philippines, to identify conservation actions and areas
  • First island-wide assessment of the Critically Endangered Javan Leopard
  • Comparative analysis of bat assemblages in peat swamp and lowland forests of West Kalimantan, to establish a baseline for measuring the sustainability of future land-uses at these sites
  • Explaining how to rescue a Critically Endangered magnolia, endemic to China, through comprehensive conservation actions
  • Assessing the role of community-based peatland management in safeguarding forests and avoiding carbon emissions
  • Assessing the conservation status of the Critically Endangered Cebu cinnamon, establishing its current and probable distribution and prioritising areas for future surveys
  • Evaluating community-based law enforcement effectiveness in protecting the biodiversity of an internationally important wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia
  • Providing a new population estimate for the Critically Endangered Sumatran tiger to inform protected area management and the Global Tiger Initiative

So, what on the face of it may sound rather dull, a scientific writing workshop, is actually incredibly important in helping those that focus on some of FFI’s flagship species and initiatives (e.g. Global Trees Campaign), spread their knowledge to as wide an international audience as possible, hopefully in Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation.