Conservation publications and their provisions to protect research participants

Stephanie Brittain and Harriet Ibbett

Conservation is challenging and often highly complex. Researchers are increasingly required to understand the motivations and drivers of a growing diversity of damaging behaviours, in order to determine how to most effectively steer the public, governments and businesses towards more sustainable behaviours. In response, conservation researchers are increasingly drawing upon methods from the social sciences to collect data from and about people.

 

When executed well, these approaches allow researchers to work with and incorporate local voices into conservation, which can make for more sustainable and effective practices. However, the conservation sector has also received criticism for inadequate ethical rigour when research involves people. Research of this nature presents a unique set of methodological and ethical challenges which, if inadequately considered, can result in poor quality data, and may negatively affect participants and researcher themselves.

 

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Hunting is an important livelihood activity for many people across the tropics. © Axel Fassio/CIFOR, 2017

 

When reading articles to inform the design of our research, we identified that measures implemented to protect participants during research that interviewed local people about hunting activity were rarely reported in peer-reviewed published articles. This is concerning because hunting is often an illegal behaviour, thus asking people about their behaviour requires them to potentially incriminate themselves. Researchers, particularly those early in their careers, often look to published peer-reviewed literature to inform their research strategies. Yet, if the ethical considerations employed to protect participants are not identified, they cannot be emulated.

 

We conducted a systematic review to determine the extent of the issue. In doing so we aimed to 1) identify what requirements journals have of authors when submitting manuscripts; 2) describe the different provisions described to protect participants during research, and finally 3) determine the prevalence of ethics reporting in conservation articles.

 

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In total, we reviewed 185 articles published in 57 different conservation, ecological and zoological journals. We restricted our search a priori to studies that investigated the hunting activities of local communities in countries situated in south and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central and South America because these are areas of high biodiversity and thus where most research on the threats posed by hunting are concentrated.

 

Of the journals reviewed, 47% had an ethics policy when research involved animals, but only 37% had one for research that involved people. We found a disconnect between journals ethical reporting requirements, and what was actually reported; 21 of the 57 journals required authors to document ethical safeguards, which accounted for 122 articles. Yet only 58% of these articles actually included information about human research ethics.

 

We measured each article on whether it included any of the four following criteria:  1) research was approved by an Ethical Review Board, 2) research obtained consent from participants, 3) participants were assured anonymity and/or confidentiality, and 4) research followed an ethical code of conduct. Only one article met all four criteria, and 9% of articles met at least three criteria. Ethics were not mentioned in 45% of all articles reviewed.

 

While our findings do not suggest that conservation researchers are failing to conduct ethical research, they do show that they are not properly reporting the measures to protect participants.

 

We argue that as a crucial part of the research methodology, ethics should always be reported in manuscripts. We call for journals to make space for ethical reporting in their word limits, and to revise their ethics policies and review the instructions they issue to authors. Journals must provide researchers with fair, equitable, and explicit best practices guidelines outlining the minimum requirements research must meet in order to be published. Further, journal editorial boards must be composed of those with adequate expertise to properly review social science research. Those who review research must adhere to the guidelines of the journal, and ensure manuscripts adequately document ethical considerations. If ethical protocols aren’t set out in the paper, this should be highlighted in the reviewers comments and the paper should not be accepted for publication until the manuscript is amended accordingly.  Only research that meets highquality, ethical standards should be published.

 

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As a discipline, conservation science should strive to develop a code of ethics for human research, that promotes good ethical practice and provides guidance to researchers on how to navigate the complex contexts in which conservation research is conducted. Adhering to rigorous ethical standards should be viewed as an investment that not only strengthens research practice and integrity, but also secures greater engagement and buyin of participants.

 

The paper has been published in Conservation Biology and is available with open access.