Conservation science in a world of poaching – what steps can researchers take to protect vulnerable species from harm?

Research on vulnerable species has been instrumental in protecting habitats and wildlife. But the same research can also be negatively used for illegal poaching activities. In this guest post, Georgina Cronin, Research Support Librarian at the University of Cambridge, argues that in this connected age, people access research in many ways and for many reasons. Relying on paywalls and closed systems to protect research from undesirable access is simply not realistic. Rather, all researchers should take steps to ensure data related to vulnerable species is safe for release.

Discovering a new thing and then being able to publish about it is probably the dream for most researchers, especially if that new thing is a rare species. But as with any great power, sharing science and knowledge comes with great responsibility. Publishing about a rare species can increase the risk of said species being tracked down by poachers and sold into the illegal wildlife trade. This is not a new problem but certainly, one that has become more pronounced in the era of online publishing and fast sharing of data.

Recently on Twitter, mostly in response to some recent articles in Science (see here and here), some commentators have been associating the disturbing trend of poachers using scientific research for harm with the push to publish and share through open access and its associated models. In fact, some comments have occasionally inextricably linked the rise in open access with the rise in poachers using and abusing scientific literature. However, it is not that simple and open access as an ideal is certainly not at fault here.

The primary ethos behind movements like open access is to make research open and accessible by all, regardless of whether they are a researcher in a privileged position of having access to a library that subscribes to everything they need, or they are a member of the public trying to find out more about their local environment in an attempt to develop a grassroots conservation project. Knowledge is there for all to use, especially if that knowledge is publicly funded.

The benefits of open access are infinite but in the context of conservation, by being able to share knowledge of new species, researchers are not only able to protect existing species but are able to help others do the same within the ecosystem that they’re working in. The trade-off of exposing a species’ existence can be worthwhile depending on the vulnerability of said species, but this is very much on a case by case basis.

This fight to share openly opens up many opportunities for collaboration within and outside the scientific community. Something as simple as working with local inhabitants of an environment that is home to a rare species can do wonders. Educating and empowering them to protect and take pride in the wildlife around them is critical to setting up local systems where poachers are deterred from encroaching and taking advantage of a situation. Also, working closely with local conservation groups is equally important as having some form of warning that a paper is about to be published could help establish protection systems to counteract the potential fallout of exposing the species to the wider world.

But this is all hearts-and-minds stuff. What does this mean for researchers wanting to publish in open access publications but fearing that doing so will spell disaster for the rare frog they just discovered? It all comes down to how the research is shared and presented. There are many layers to this and I will try to tackle a few of them. But before I do that, I want to address the elephant in the room with this topic.

People can access information in a multitude of different ways and often established systems such as publisher paywalls are not going to stop that from happening. So rather than putting the blame on open science practices exposing research in a bad way, should we not be looking at platforms such as SciHub which strips out any control and puts everything online without any measures in place? Now this is not the place for a discussion about the ethics of closed publishing and whether SciHub is a saviour or a scoundrel, but it demonstrates my argument that people will get at research in many legal and illegal ways so relying on closed systems to protect research from undesirable access is simply not realistic in our connected age.

This brings me to how people can share and publish responsibly. Most importantly, regardless of whether you are planning on publishing in an open way or not, assume that your published data will be accessed at some point by someone you were not expecting. Servers get hacked, things get put online that are sensitive, it happens all the time. Once this idea has been accepted as a very real and present threat, you are then able to process your data in a way that makes it safer for release. Any research published about human populations, especially small and easily identifiable ones, have a huge amount of rules and ethical guidance and wildlife is no different.

Steps for researchers to consider when dealing with vulnerable species:

  • Strip out GPS data and other identifiable information are crucial first steps. This includes stripping out data from photographs and other types of data such as tweets or anything else that might indicate where you were when that information was captured.
  • If a government body or publisher requires that information at the expense of the safety of a species or population, push back and provide your reasoning.
  • Work with existing repositories, such as institutional ones, to ensure that data is stored in a dark archive format will allow that original data to be kept safe while the edited data is released in a more manageable format. Such repositories can also help facilitate access through methods such as giving a data set a DOI which can then be attached to an open publication.

There are many other solutions that need to be worked out with how we share science widely but in ways that do not put any of our study areas at unnecessary risk and this is where open access, and open science, comes into its own. Whole communities have built momentum around the ideas behind practising open science methods for all. It is these communities that are developing and campaigning for new initiatives that will help others. So, whether it’s a dedicated data platform or a new set of guidance principles to push publishers to do better at helping scientists protect their work, the open community can make it happen through collaboration and shared challenges.