Crisis in a Crisis Discipline


  • Gary K. Meffe

When Michael Soulé called conservation biology a crisis discipline, he meant that ours is a mission-oriented science with pressing timelines. He recognized that we must work quickly to address urgent problems such as habitat destruction, invasive species, overharvest, and the many other factors that threaten biodiversity and the very fabric of life on Earth. Conservation biology does not have the luxury of time to slowly and timidly reveal its scientific contributions to the world. We must act quickly if we are to influence species extinction rates, habitat loss, and the human condition. Although this is a formidable task, we have no choice but to succeed, and to succeed quickly.

I detect a simmering crisis in this crisis discipline, one that could influence how successful we ultimately are at accomplishing our mission. A necessary (though not sufficient) step in our success is publication of rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific information in various journals, including this one. This is the primary means by which good information, through a selective process ensuring a particular level of quality, reaches the light of day. This process of timely, independent, critical review is, I suggest, approaching crisis.

This journal (and, I suspect, others) is experiencing increasing difficulties in obtaining good, critical reviews in a timely way. We always do attain quality reviews before making decisions on papers, but not always fast enough; it is simply taking too long, in many cases, to march through the review process. This is detrimental to a field that must publish results as quickly as possible to make the information available for scientific advancement and for application in decision-making processes leading to policy development and management actions. We must address this growing problem as a professional society.

I have worked hard, as have the two previous editors, to keep “turnaround time” (time between submission and acceptance or rejection) to a minimum. Our excellent board of editors has worked equally hard to achieve rapid review times, and those who have not are no longer associated with this journal. But there is only so much that we as editors can do. In the final analysis it is up to the individual reviewers to responsibly answer the call to serve this field through the process of critical review.

We increasingly are experiencing either prolonged review periods or failure to deliver reviews at all, reviews that were promised to us in a sort of social contract. Each of these inactions lengthens the review process to an unacceptable period of time, delaying publication of potentially important scientific information. We must reverse this trend, lest our papers become outdated documents upon their publication. It is unfair to the authors and to the science to drag out the review process. We need more people willing to provide critical reviews within a short time frame who take seriously their commitment to do so. Those who fail to honor their obligation, especially when they agree in advance to do so, are undermining the publication process and harming the field of conservation biology.

Why are we facing this problem? Do we simply have a subpopulation of lazy or careless people who should be ostracized and shunned? Of course not; virtually everyone I have met in this field is deeply dedicated to the tasks at hand. I know of no finer people anywhere. The problem is that those with talents in and value to this field are seriously overcommitted. They are being swamped with teaching, research, grant writing, student support, book and paper writing, administration, and service activities. In many cases they sacrifice their personal lives in heroic efforts to do good conservation work. Their contributions as reviewers are given on a purely voluntary basis amidst an already overcrowded schedule. Collectively, our professional lives are out of control, and we do too much in a desperate attempt to address the seemingly endless challenges we all face. To berate each other for late reviews is unfair, and to ask for more is uncomfortable.

So what to do? How are we to serve this crisis discipline when so many good and decent people routinely must work in crisis mode just to keep up? How can we maintain a high-quality journal with groundbreaking papers published quickly and efficiently? I do not have ready answers, but I make two suggestions that may help the situation and begin to reverse long-term trends.

First, all readers must take seriously the commitment to review papers. This is your journal, and its quality and timeliness depend largely on you. If you agree to review a paper within a specified period of time, please honor that commitment. If you know you will not realistically have time to deal with a paper, then decline to serve as a reviewer. One of the most frustrating aspects of journal production is dealing with promises that are not kept; our editors would rather receive a polite “no” than an empty promise.

Second, I hope that many devoted readers will be able to elevate peer review to a higher priority in their busy lives. This must occur if we are to reverse the trend toward slower and less efficient peer review. A hint of how to do this is provided by Stephen Covey in his 1989 book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. In that work Covey identifies two factors that define decision making relative to time management: urgency and importance. Any activity can be judged as urgent or not urgent and as important or not important. When placed in a two-by-two matrix, four quadrants result: I, urgent and important; II, not urgent and important; III, urgent and not important; and IV, not urgent and not important. Covey argues that effective people avoid activities in quadrants III and IV as much as possible, minimize activities in quadrant I (the crisis management area), and maximize activities in quadrant II, where good and creative work occurs in a calm and reasoned environment.

I do not presume to lecture readers about to how to conduct their professional lives, manage their time, or set priorities, but I have found Covey's perspective useful. I also believe, based on my own 20-plus years of experience in academia, that our institutions have a keen and relentless ability to pull us into quadrants I, III, and IV, while consistently forcing us to ignore the important but not urgent activities of quadrant II. In my own case, I shudder to think back on all the time utterly wasted on institutionally dictated activities that produced nothing other than files full of papers, that served no larger purpose but robbed time and energy from more pressing efforts, such as conservation. Often these meaningless activities were the result of poor administrative leadership and lack of an institutional vision that included a larger world view, dragging us into increasingly useless vortices of minutia. I eventually learned to ignore and avoid many such wasteful activities as I would a communicable disease so that I could pursue more meaningful work. I suggest that serious scrutiny of institutional demands and setting priorities at the individual level can free more time for important, quadrant II activities, including peer review for journals.

If we are to continue to enjoy a high-quality, timely journal of relevance to conservation we need committed referees who are willing to provide timely, thorough review; consider this a call to arms. The single most effective action needed to reduce turnaround time for submitted manuscripts is in the hands of you, the reviewers. To those many hundreds of scientists who have done this job effectively and earnestly over the last few years, this journal owes a debt. To others who wish to see a faster assessment period, you know what is needed. We require the talents and contributions of many dedicated individuals to achieve our mutual goal of rapid publication of the best, most interesting, and most innovative science. Please answer the call for assistance in peer review as rapidly and professionally as you can. Let us not allow a crisis in communication and unreasonable institutional demands hinder the already formidable tasks facing this crisis discipline of conservation biology.