New PeerJ Collection: Conservation Culturomics

What can be done to drive widespread support for conservation actions? With the UK Parliament declaring a climate emergency and wider efforts around the world ramping up to tackle the risks of climate change on biodiversity, now is the time to grapple with data-driven approaches to this complicated question.

PeerJ has recently published a new collection of papers on Conservation Culturomics. This collection delves into the many different factors driving social and cultural support for conservation action. The application of culturomics – the study of human culture through the quantitative analysis of digital data – to conservation takes advantage of the increasingly widespread access to the internet and other digital infrastructures to study cultural engagements with nature and its components (e.g. species, sites, ecosystems). This promising new field is likely to see important developments in the coming decades as technologies mature and internet access spreads across the world, and its development would greatly benefit from wider discussions and engagement with conservation scientists and practitioners on how its contribution to nature conservation and planetary wellbeing can be maximized.

This collection is curated by Ricardo A. Correia, Ivan Jarić and David L. Roberts and additional papers will be added to it over time. We interviewed the curators to find out more on this rapidly evolving field.

What sparked the idea for a collection on Conservation Culturomics and what is your research background?

Culturomics is a relatively recent field of inquiry and some of the studies taking culturomics approaches do not yet identify themselves as such. Also, there is considerable diversity in approaches to and datasets used in culturomics. As a result, it made sense to compile available studies in a collection to exemplify the range of possible applications for conservation culturomics research.

Our background is in conservation science and we’ve long been interested in the application of technology to conservation (for example, remote sensing, animal tracking, etc.). With the increasing understanding that the success of conservation depends on social factors, it made sense to expand the use of technology to study these aspects as well.

Why is this area of research important and where has this new field emerged from?

The field emerged from developments in data science, namely the emergence of big data approaches, and in natural language processing which allowed the analysis of large bodies of text with unprecedented scale and scope. The original paper introducing this methodology was based on the Google Books project that has digitised approximately 4% of all books ever printed. Since then, the quantitative analysis of text has been applied to other digital sources (e.g. newspapers, websites). More broadly, texts are only a form of cultural expression and we believe that the field can also include other forms of cultural expressions such as imagery (e.g. photographs, paintings and videos).

By looking at the representation of nature and our interaction with it (animals, landscapes, forms of nature recreation, etc.) in cultural products that have been digitized, such as texts or paintings, we can obtain multiple snapshots of what specific cultures value or considered relevant at a given point in time. Furthermore, by looking at how these representations change over time, this area of research also allows the study of cultural trends over time and provides insights on how cultures and societies evolve. This understanding is particularly important for nature conservation given the importance of societal dynamics to the overall success of conservation efforts. There are multiple potential applications of culturomic methods, including the study of human interaction with the environment, to assess and monitor sustainable resource use and the scale and trends of different anthropogenic threats, and even to gain insights into various issues from the field of basic ecology.

How is “the public’s” idea of conservation changing and what do researchers have to gain from engaging with the public about conservation?

This is a very interesting question and at the moment doesn’t have a definite answer. Multiple studies have suggested that the interest of modern societies towards conservation topics is waning whether others suggest it is increasing. There are clear positive signs of the public engaging with conservation topics (such as the climate strikes and the extinction rebellion) but to answer this question in a more definite manner, we probably need to evaluate multiple lines of evidence. As a result, the community involved in conservation culturomics is exploring multiple data sources (webpages, Wikipedia, social media, etc.) and combining them is likely to provide more robust and interesting insights. Unfortunately, most digital datasets are relatively recent and only allow relatively short-term insights at the moment but what is important is that by developing these methods we are improving our capacity to monitor these trends going forward. This will also become more relevant as digital inclusion is likely to increase with time, ensure better representation of different cultures in digital data sources.

Can you share a few highlights from the Collection? What kinds of studies would you like to see more of?

Each of the papers included in the collection represents an interesting study, and together they demonstrate quite nicely the potential of this research field, with different methods and research questions tackled. As highlights of the collection, the paper by Mikula et al. (2018) could be certainly singled out, where the authors used photos posted on the Internet to identify commensalistic–mutualistic associations between African birds and herbivorous mammals. Another highlight of the collection is the paper by Francis et al. (2019), where the trends in body size of marine fish were assessed through the analysis of news headlines. Other notable studies are those by Haas et al. (2015), Correia et al. (2016), Jaric et al. (2016), and McClain (2019). We certainly look forward to seeing what other innovative contributions will emerge in PeerJ!

What impact do you think this collection will have in the field? How do you expect this collection will be used by researchers and how can researchers use this research to inform their own practices?

We hope this collection will raise awareness of the field and get more people to engage with culturomics. By illustrating a range of applications, we also hope this might spur new ideas for researchers not yet aware of the full scope of methods and datasets available.

Why did you choose PeerJ to host this collection?

A lot of merit has to be given to PeerJ as some of the earliest studies explicitly using culturomics applications for conservation were published in the journal. In this sense, the journal was a pioneer in publishing research in this field. Since the journal was established, PeerJ has published several papers that would fit the scope of conservation culturomics and it made sense to compile them in a collection for interested researchers, and thus also to pave the way for the future contributions to the field.

View the Conservation Culturomics Collection here.

View the Conservation and Biology Section here.