Toward rigorous use of expert knowledge in ecological research


  • Corresponding Editor: D. P. C. Peters.


Practicing ecologists who excel at their work (“experts”) hold a wealth of knowledge. This knowledge offers a wide range of opportunities for application in ecological research and natural resource decision-making. While experts are often consulted ad-hoc, their contributions are not widely acknowledged. These informal applications of expert knowledge lead to concerns about a lack of transparency and repeatability, causing distrust of this knowledge source in the scientific community. Here, we address these concerns with an exploration of the diversity of expert knowledge and of rigorous methods in its use. The effective use of expert knowledge hinges on an awareness of the spectrum of experts and their expertise, which varies by breadth of perspective and critical assessment. Also, experts express their knowledge in different forms depending on the degree of contextualization with other information. Careful matching of experts to application is therefore essential and has to go beyond a simple fitting of the expert to the knowledge domain. The standards for the collection and use of expert knowledge should be as rigorous as for empirical data. This involves knowing when it is appropriate to use expert knowledge and how to identify and select suitable experts. Further, it requires a careful plan for the collection, analysis and validation of the knowledge. The knowledge held by expert practitioners is too valuable to be ignored. But only when thorough methods are applied, can the application of expert knowledge be as valid as the use of empirical data. The responsibility for the effective and rigorous use of expert knowledge lies with the researchers.