Ensuring applied ecology has impact


The Journal of Applied Ecology’s aim is ‘To drive forward the field of applied ecology by providing a high-quality evidence base for scientists, managers and policymakers’. Key to this aim is ensuring that the research published in our journal has impact. The ultimate goal of the Journal is to provide the evidence that a range of users of research need to improve their practice and to be proactive in defining and then addressing the most topical and important questions to which these users need answers. The Journal has a long and proud history of publishing papers that provide these answers and of reflecting on the ways in which we can improve the impact of applied ecological research (e.g. Ormerod et al. 2002). We endeavour to support authors in improving their real-world impact, by publishing research that represents the best and most important applied ecology worldwide (Memmott et al. 2010) and through promoting papers to the appropriate audiences once published.

Demonstrating the impact of their published research, either in research proposals or in contract reports, is a growing preoccupation for academic and professional ecologists. This editorial addresses why measuring the impact of applied ecological research is challenging, but provides some evidence of how this can be achieved and how publishing in the Journal of Applied Ecology can help.

In contrast to research in some other scientific disciplines, such as medicine, gene development or engineering, the direct economic consequences of applied ecological research are rarely obvious. Instead, the impacts of ecological science are harder to quantify because they are often indirect (e.g. a range of papers in a subject area all contribute to policy change), occur over relatively long-time scales (especially when considered within political cycles) and at a range of institutional and geographical scales or relate to issues that are difficult to fit into standard frameworks of economic well-being. The importance of an increase in corn bunting Emberiza calandra populations (e.g. Perkins et al. 2011) is difficult to quantify in economic terms or link clearly to the sustainability of human existence.

Measuring impact

Academic impact is one valid way in which papers may have a pervasive and long-term effect on the way in which science is done, through engaging scientific peers and stimulating further research. Academic impact may be measured in terms of the number of times a paper is downloaded or number of citations it receives. Impact factor is a crude measure, but at least suggests that peers are reading the paper and building upon the results that it contains. The Journal of Applied Ecology has more than doubled its impact factor over the last decade, from 2·09 in 2000 to 4·97 in 2010, and is one of the top cited journals in its discipline.

Recent papers in the Journal illustrate the range and scale of academic impact that applied ecological research can have. For example, Thomas et al. (2010) is a guide to the highly influential and widely used software ‘Distance’, which was developed to estimate population densities based on sightings along a transect. The paper outlines the theory behind the software, the assumptions required to use it and new directions that the authors plan to take reflecting advances in both statistical theory and survey methods. This paper is already highly cited (62 cites in Web of Knowledge and 129 in Google Scholar as of 30 November 2011). This academic impact is likely to translate into improved assessment of population densities by scientists worldwide and thence to better management decision-making. Most of its management impacts will be indirect, long-term and increasingly hard to trace back to the original publication.

Policy impact involves the work outlined in the paper being used to drive changes in the way in which organizations address applied ecological problems, be it local or national governments, NGOs or multilateral environmental agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. The work published in the Journal of Applied Ecology is being brought to the attention of policymakers on a regular basis, particularly in Europe (Table 1). Measuring policy impact is not straightforward, because a direct link can rarely be made between the findings or recommendations in a published paper and specific policy changes; often, it is an accretion of evidence that leads to shifts in institutional culture.

Table 1. Journal of Applied Ecology articles featured in Science for Environment Policy, a free news and information service published by Directorate-General Environment, European Commission. Science for Environment Policy (SEP) is designed to help policymakers keep up-to-date with the latest environmental research findings needed to design, implement and regulate effective policies. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/research/newsalert/index_en.htm
SEP news itemEdition dateArticle
Narrowing the gap between scientists and policymakersJuly 2006 Sutherland et al. (2006)
Good land management may enhance soil depollutionFebruary 2007 Härdtle et al. (2006)
Informed farmers keep the healthiest streamsJanuary 2008 Rhodes, Closs & Townsend (2007)
Biodiversity fortune-telling: extreme weather and new diseasesMay 2008 Sutherland et al. (2008)
Which habitats are most at risk from invasive species?June 2008 Chytrýet al. (2008).
‘Border control’ for alien species: identifying pathways to invasionJune 2008 Hulme, Bacher & Kenis (2008)
Revealing hidden meanings to resolve environmental conflictSeptember 2008 Webb & Raffaelli (2008).
Priority zones for habitat protectionNovember 2008 Vos et al. (2008).
The bigger picture: GM contamination across the landscapeDecember 2008 Lavigne et al. (2008).
Measuring the success of river restorationMay 2009 Jähnig et al. (2009).
Measuring conservation: comparing valuation methodsMay 2009 Rouquette et al. (2009).
The effect of global warming on eutrophication in lakesJuly 2009 Feuchtmayr et al. (2009)
Marine reserves improve with ageSeptember 2009 Molloy, McLean & Côté (2009)
Wild insects could take over the pollinating role of honeybeesNovember 2009 Rader et al. (2009)
Disused quarries could provide valuable habitat if restored naturallyMarch 2010 Tropek et al. (2010)
Coastal structures change marine ecosystemsApril 2010 Bulleri & Chapman (2010)
European river restoration projects need to widen their scopeJune 2010 Jähnig et al. (2010).
New tool for determining impacts on marine communitiesOctober 2010 Rochet et al. (2010)
Mosquito pesticide causes knock on problems for birdsOctober 2010 Poulin, Lefebvre & Paz (2010)
Local participation translates environmental monitoring into actionJanuary 2011 Danielsen et al. (2010)
Simple re-seeding projects can triple grassland biodiversityJuly 2011 Fritch et al. (2011)
Urban vegetation could be an undervalued carbon sinkOctober 2011 Davies et al. (2011)

The long-term policy impact of research published in the Journal is exemplified, however, by Green et al.’s 2004 paper demonstrating for the first time that the drug diclofenac, widely used in the treatment of inflammation, pain and fever in livestock, was the major driver behind catastrophic vulture declines in south Asia. Vultures feed on livestock carcasses and take up the diclofenac which leads to renal failure. A recent follow-up paper (Cuthbert et al. 2011) evaluates the effectiveness of the policy action that followed Green et al.’s revelations: a ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac, instituted in three countries in 2006. They find that this is likely to have reduced the rate of vulture decline; although as the drug is still being used (albeit at a lower rate), there is still much to be done.

Public opinion can also be changed by the findings of research published in a scientific journal, generally via press coverage of the paper. A number of our recent papers have appealed to the public media. For example, O’Donnell, Webb & Shine (2010) demonstrated that it was possible to condition taste aversion in northern quolls Dasyurus hallucatus, such that they avoided eating toxic cane toads. This led to improved survival of ‘toad-smart’ quolls in an experimental reintroduction. The research described in the paper had direct, clear, local-level management impact, but also garnered wide press coverage for the species from the Australian media, UK broadsheets and the Los Angeles Times, with a taste aversion test even featuring on YouTube.

Change in public opinion is unlikely in itself to lead to mass change in human behaviour, but it can add weight to calls for policy change and can catalyse further funding for conservation and sustainability programmes. A paper’s findings may change the behaviour of resource managers directly, however, particularly when it is aimed at evaluating management options at the local level. This can feed through into both economic impact and improvements in ecological status of an area. For example, Alfaro-Shigueto et al.’s (2011) paper on the magnitude of turtle bycatch in Peru’s small-scale fishery not only highlights the potential major worldwide impact of small-scale fisheries on marine biodiversity, but has also triggered specific measures by local fishery managers to mitigate the effects of their activities on turtles.

Improving the real-world impact of applied ecological research

There has been little evaluation of how authors can best improve the real-world impact of their research (Flashpohler, Bub & Kaplin 2000; Sutherland et al. 2004). A quantitative study into the main predictors of the impact of research published in five conservation journals is one of the very few attempting to investigate this. Campbell (2007) found that 57% of authors believed that their papers have had real-world impact, with 42% of these saying that the paper itself has been a major contributor to that impact. In the developed world, papers authored by individuals without an academic affiliation had more impact, as did papers that were seen as a by-product of answering a management question rather than those that were the main product of a scientific study. There is a clear need for further investigation of how best to ensure that science has real-world impact, but Campbell’s findings echo our perception as Editors that the applied research with the most obvious impact is that which is driven by the needs of implementers, be they managers or policymakers, rather than by the interests of academics. It is no good attempting to retrofit research to management questions, or to disseminate findings to practitioners post hoc in the hope that they will be taken up; these unidirectional approaches, though still prevalent, are by and large doomed to failure.

Adaptive management has been highlighted by many scientists as an important step towards ensuring that science and practice inform one another through ongoing learning about the system (e.g. Grantham et al. 2010). However, despite this, it is rarely applied in practice, partly because of the additional costs and risks involved (Stankey et al. 2003; Keith et al. 2011). Partly, however, we must blame the ongoing divide between research and implementation in which the evidence used by managers does not come from the published scientific literature. For example, Knight et al. (2008) found that two-thirds of conservation assessments in the peer-reviewed scientific literature did not deliver conservation action, primarily because researchers never planned for implementation of their findings. Carmenta et al. (2011) show that many authors examining the question of fire in tropical forests made management recommendations that were not linked to their results. From the other perspective, Pullin et al. (2004) showed that managers do not read the scientific literature – it is inaccessible to many without institutional access, and the papers are couched in terms of academic rather than practical questions. Thus, there is a well-defined gap between those with potentially relevant knowledge and the professionals at the coalface who deliver policy or land management that affects biodiversity. We suggest that to have high impact in the applied ecological sphere researchers need to collaborate closely with the practitioners in their research area and that such relationships must begin at the outset of the research project and be maintained throughout.

Recent initiatives by the Journal of Applied Ecology

In response to this need for academic scientists and practitioners to interact more effectively and earlier in the research process, the Journal of Applied Ecology launched Practitioners’ Perspectives in 2011 (Hulme 2011). This new feature gives practitioners a platform upon which to share their experience and insights into what they require from applied ecological science and to highlight successful examples of the practical application of science to management. For example, Thorpe & Stanley (2011) consider the difficult issue of how to set targets for restoration, based upon their experience with land managers in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, and highlight the importance of collaborative working to test new approaches to restoration. The Practitioner’s Perspective published in this issue (Hill & Arnold 2012) echoes this message, emphasizing the crucial role of academic research in building the evidence base for ecological impact assessment and mitigation. Whilst acknowledging that ecological consultants and researchers have very different approaches and needs, the authors highlight a number of ways in which both can benefit from a more collaborative and integrated approach to tackling applied ecological problems.

As Editors, we are keen to ensure that research published in the Journal has wide impact and reaches out to new audiences, who in time will become the lifeblood of the journal. These audiences include the young generation of applied ecologists who operate through social media, online blogs and forums. The Journal is increasing its presence in these virtual worlds: producing podcasts, online virtual issues and Editor’s Choice commentaries, and an array of other free-to-access material, and promoting the journal on Facebook, Twitter and other social network sites. Our outreach targets also include expanding our focus beyond the ecologists based in well-endowed academic institutions in the rich world and being more inclusive of those working in institutions lacking in the financial, logistical and technical capacity required to access publications such as ours, both as authors and readers. Given that many of the most crucial and far-reaching problems in applied ecology apply to developing countries, it is vital that our journal pays more attention to the issues pertinent to, and science coming out of, emerging economies; this is one of our key strategic goals for 2012.

The Journal of Applied Ecology fills a unique niche, publishing excellent cross-cutting science in all disciplines of applied ecology, from conservation of endangered species through ecosystem restoration, pest management, to biodiversity in managed agricultural landscapes and resource harvesting. We publish modelling, empirical, conceptual, review and policy articles. This richness of subject matter and technique promotes cross-fertilization of approaches and ideas, as evidenced by our Forum articles in which topical and controversial topics are debated (for example the Forum on the conflicts surrounding hen harrier Circus cyaneus control on UK grouse moors; Thompson et al. 2009; Sotherton, Tapper & Smith 2009; Redpath & Thirgood 2009). We also publish succinct and timely reviews that allow practitioners and end-users to rapidly get up to speed in fast developing areas such as agroforestry management (Tscharntke et al. 2011), sustainable nontimber forest product harvests (Schmidt et al. 2011) and weed risk assessment (Hulme 2012). The unifying feature of our broad range of content is its scientific excellence and its potential to make a significant difference to the management of natural and human-modified systems.

Closing remarks

Given the very high number of submissions that we receive, we are in the position where we must reject many solid, interesting and well-conducted studies. As submissions continue to rise, we are increasingly focussed on ensuring that our output has real-world impact. As discussed, impact is multi-faceted, occurs on a range of temporal and spatial scales and can be both direct and indirect. However, articles with the greatest impact are typically the product of long-term engagement with an ecological and social system and often involve both practitioners and academics as authors. We will not publish articles that are likely to have little or no impact, especially those that follow the current trend towards salami-slicing studies into several thin and unsatisfying articles, or articles that present preliminary suggestive findings rather than considered outputs of long-term studies that have made predictions, tested them in real life and then used the findings to enhance their scientific understanding and management practice. In return for submitting their best and most innovative work to us, we as Editors are committed to ensuring that we add value to our authors’ work. We do this in the range of ways outlined earlier, enabling authors to maximize their impact in improving the long-term sustainability of human interactions with the rest of the planet.