The Success—and Challenges—of Conservation Biology


The June 2006 issue of Conservation Biology celebrated 20 years of existence of this journal. In a special section devoted to the past two decades, we offered a retrospective of where we have been and where we might go. We called upon many of the leaders of this field to assess the past, speculate on the future, and suggest how we might proceed. That series of papers highlighted the many successes of this journal and our science, and the enormous challenges ahead in having real influences on the world at large. With that landmark collection behind us, I now focus on more mundane but no less important “nuts and bolts” issues about the immediate future of this journal and its impact on SCB's mission as we embark on our next decade.

Conservation Biology's success comes at a price that could influence how well we are able to quickly and efficiently publish the best and most relevant conservation science that the global community of conservation professionals has to offer. The growth of interest in publishing in Conservation Biology continues unabated, while the outlet size remains more-or-less constant. Growth is certainly good to a point but ultimately can become overwhelming and detrimental, just like a population of bacteria in a culture or humans on our planet. We are, frankly, increasingly inundated by manuscripts. Measured since 1993, the average annual rate of increase of papers submitted to this journal has been 13.2%. By comparison, the U.S. stock market returned an average of 12.0% over that same period, even with 5 consecutive years of growth in the 20 to nearly 40% range. If this journal were a financial investment, it would be more attractive and lucrative than the U.S. stock market!

In the late 1990s, we received 500–600 manuscripts per year (up from the 400–500 range in the middle of that decade). Then we went to 600–700, followed by 700–800. We are now surging past 800 manuscripts received per year, headed toward 900. Such expansion of interest in publishing here is quite gratifying and one measure of our success. Clearly, many people would like to publish in this journal, and more attempt to do so at an increasing rate. As manuscripts flow into the editorial office, we suffer an embarrassment of riches, and many fields of endeavor would be jealous. There are increasingly more manuscripts from which to choose and presumably the output quality improves as a result. This is a positive trend in many respects, but there are costs involved as well. Here is the math: we publish about 150 papers per year in the categories “Contributed Papers,”“Essays,”“Reviews,”“Conservation in Practice,” and “Research Notes.” Those 150 come from a pool that formerly was in the 400–500 range and now is in the 800–900 range. That can only mean the rejection rate has steadily increased along with the submittal rate. What used to be a rejection rate in the 60% range now well exceeds 80% and is increasing. That is the reality of growth and success, and it can be painful for authors.

This increase in submissions in itself is a pleasant enough challenge to face, but the downside is that many of the manuscripts submitted do not meet the criteria for this journal and are much more appropriate for other outlets. After an initial reading, I am now rejecting nearly 50% of manuscripts without sending them for full review; this number was about 25% 8 years ago.

What to do? A more realistic assessment by authors of the relevance of their papers for Conservation Biology would help address this issue, would reduce the time it takes to get a paper published, and would streamline publication of the journal. In an effort to more clearly inform prospective authors of the types of papers that are and especially are not appropriate for this journal, I offer the following.

Most importantly, I look for at least three things in a publishable manuscript. (1) Outstanding science: The science behind all papers sent for review must be solid, defensible, repeatable, statistically sound, and well designed. If the science is weak, the paper cannot be considered. (2) Novelty: We seek to publish creative, interesting, and practical work that tests new ideas and extends the frontiers of conservation science. (3) Broad interest: All papers should transcend species and location and potentially be of interest to Conservation Biology's geographically diverse readers, who study many different taxa and systems. If a paper is primarily of interest to geographic or taxonomic specialists, it is unlikely to be competitive.

What types of papers specifically are not of interest to this journal at this time? There are many, but most have one thing in common: they are studies that are or could be done on any of hundreds of species in hundreds of places around the world. In other words, they are commonly done studies that are unique solely because of their location and/or species of choice. Specifically, papers of the following types are, unfortunately, routinely rejected without full review.

  • 1Status and trends reports: Papers that report on status and trends of species or ecosystems, including declines of endangered species and loss of rare habitats, are not appropriate and belong in more regional or specialized journals. This is not because these are unimportant; they are in fact critical studies. They are not, however, of wide enough appeal to our broad, international conservation science audience. There are other potential outlets for this work, such as internationally recognized regional journals, taxonomically oriented journals, or other international conservation journals. Authors should, of course, read each of their guidelines before submitting to be certain that they are appropriate outlets.
  • 2Autecological studies: Papers that report on some aspects of a species' ecology—diet, behavior, dispersal, response to predators or disease, and other such subjects—cannot be considered for the same reasoning as above. These are more appropriate for taxonomically oriented journals that focus on mammals, fishes, insects, and so forth, or discipline-oriented journals that report on animal behavior, physiology, ecology, or other relevant topics.
  • 3Descriptive genetic studies: Papers solely describing population genetic structures of given species have not, for many years now, been published in this journal. Hundreds of such studies are completed each year. They are important but should, once again, go to taxonomically or discipline-oriented journals that publish on such topics (again, read their publication guidelines). To be published in Conservation Biology genetic studies must go well beyond descriptive analyses to explore novel applications of genetics that further the goals of conservation science in general.
  • 4Standard population viability analyses: As for status and trends reports, standard PVAs that assess the viability of a given species are important for those species but must be submitted elsewhere because they have limited appeal to Conservation Biology's broad readership.
  • 5Descriptive restoration studies: Restoration is a tricky subject for this journal. Clearly restoration is an important part of conservation biology, but it is also a distinct and robust field with its own journals. Restoration papers suitable for Conservation Biology should be novel and broadly relevant. Papers that strictly describe the process and outcome of a restoration project should go to restoration journals.
  • 6Specialized technique/methodological papers: Papers that focus primarily on specialized field methods (e.g., tracking, diet studies, sampling techniques) are more appropriate for specialized journals, where their practitioners will be anxious to learn about new breakthroughs.
  • 7Reporting of environmental insults/impacts from various human activities: As critical, heartbreaking, and of interest such reports are, they occur, unfortunately, by the thousands and do not advance conservation science per se. They are more appropriately news items and need to go to other outlets.

Two other points regarding appropriate manuscripts should be kept in mind. First, being on an endangered species does not, by itself, make a paper appropriate for Conservation Biology. There must be more to the work than endangerment, and building up knowledge on the endangered species should typically be accomplished in specialty journals. Second, conducting a common type of study in a new habitat does not qualify it as novel for this journal. For example, arguing that your fragmentation study on birds in Missouri is novel because it has never before been done there is not enough to distinguish such a study from similar fragmentation studies in Alabama or the Amazon. Novelty must go beyond place or species.

This is not an exhaustive list of inappropriate manuscript categories, but it should give prospective authors a good sense of what is and is not encouraged. Before submitting any paper, all authors should ask themselves a series of questions and answer them honestly: Is this solid science? Is it novel and cutting edge? Does it transcend species and/or location to be of general interest to a broad diversity of international readers? Does it truly advance conservation science or practice in a broad sense and does it not focus just on advancing knowledge of one location or taxon? Affirmative responses to all questions means the paper would likely receive a welcome reception at this journal; negative responses would likely lead to rejection without full review.

Another reality of the growth and success of this field is that the publication standards bar at Conservation Biology is consistently being raised. What was cutting edge 5 years ago is, in many cases, now commonplace. Among the toughest calls to make are on papers that are good in every respect but are simply incremental improvements over previous work. They just are not that exciting or novel, even though they are competent and effective.

Finally, to help better accommodate the proliferation of good and important research in conservation science, papers must be shorter so that more may be published. Effective immediately, I am decreasing the maximum size of “Contributed Papers” and “Essays” from 7000 to 6000 words. This should have the benefit of allowing publication of more papers each year and will encourage authors to be more succinct. The consistently best papers we receive (and most enjoyable to read) are concise, crisp, and clearly focused on the take-home messages. Decreasing the maximum permitted size should help authors achieve these goals.

Much-improved author culling of papers before submittal, and submittal of shorter, more succinct papers should help everyone. Authors can devote their time to manuscript preparation for more appropriate journals, editors and overburdened reviewers can focus their efforts on those papers that have a realistic likelihood of making it into print, and readers can enjoy the best and most exciting conservation science in a more concise format. At least that is the ideal I would like to promote. It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved, and it depends entirely on authors paying attention to journal requirements and being more realistic about outlets for their work. Ultimately this must occur as we all grapple with the challenges of success and growth in this exciting and popular field.