Effects of publication bias on conservation planning

April 15, 2019

We may be able to see everywhere, but we don’t know everything:  David Macdonald reports on a remarkable study led by WildCRU’s Raffael Hickisch which reveals an all-too-conscious bias in where wildlife is studied. Raffael, an alumnus of WildCRU’s Recanati-Kaplan Centre’s Postgraduate Diploma in International  Wildlife Conservation Practice, has spent years working with a dedicated team to establish Chinko Nature Reserve in Central African Republic. The region is bubbling with biodiversity, little of which had been logged by science. The old adage has it that “out of sight, out of mind”, and Raffael was struck to realise that while the IUCN mapped as many species of freshwater in the Chinko river as there are in the Savannah (which there are 0), while he and his colleagues found even Goliath Tiger fish – a top predator.

Nowadays, satellites transmit imagery from every nook and cranny of the globe, so no blind spots remain on the global retina. Google Earth stitches together high resolution imagery of virtually every place on earth, including the remotest corners of the Central African Republic. The Chinko team could see where they were from space, but nobody knew what was living there alongside them. Scrutinising global maps of species occurrence they saw Chinko was only covered by very broad brush assumptions of where wildlife would roam – unrefined for many years. Could this be true? This mattered because those very same maps were the basis of conservation policy and decision-making, not to mention being grist to the mill of innumerable large-scale ecological analyses. The mismatch between species distribution maps and what Raffael saw running, jumping and slithering before his eyes caused him to realise the peril of distribution maps turning a blind eye to places where scientists don’t go. Why don’t they go (or publish) there? Because of logistics, security or even professional disadvantage or discomfort. Inspired by this thought, Raffael led the WildCRU team to document where published conservation studies occur, characterize the places where they don’t occur, and thereby to understand and to map the knowledge gaps. Their findings are published in Conservation Biology, entitled Effects of publication bias on conservation planning  []

(Map of density of publications of the biodiversity and conservation category in the Web of Science SCI and SSCI catalogues that mention country and province name (recording period: 1993 to 2016), adjusted for the geographic size of the provinces (km2). An interactive version of this map is available at

The team developed a novel method to quantify this publication bias, and provide an heuristic that highlights provinces around the planet where the gaps are most problematic and which surveyors should prioritise.  We are not blind to the perils of straying off the beaten track, nor do we advocate recklessness, but this WildCRU paper offers the prudent explorer a Planet Earth guide to opportunities. But trail-blazing takes more than courage: it requires funds and support; equipped with those essentials, this map might plot a career journey for outward bound young field conservationists.