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Research Waste in Ecology Calls for Urgent Action

Only about 11 to 18 percent of conducted ecological research reaches its full informative value. The ignorance of the problem is expensive. The responsibility to solve the problem lies with funders, publishers, research institutions, and researchers themselves.
Jul 21st 2022
Research Waste in Ecology Calls for Urgent Action

Tin Klanjšček, Marija Purgar i Antica Čulina

Climate change, pollution, and the lack of pollinators are just a few of the many challenges we face, both locally and globally. Ecology plays a key role in addressing these challenges. While ecological research produces a wealth of valuable scientific knowledge, emerging evidence suggests that much of the research effort is wasted, and a large fraction of information is not available to users - other researchers, policymakers, or the general public. But how much of the information value is being lost to us? How urgently do we need to act?

A research team from the Ruđer Bošković Institute (RBI) has quantified the research waste in ecology. Their findings, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, are shocking. Between 82% and 89% of research is wasted due to study design and implementation issues, study publication, and result reporting. This means we urgently need to act to facilitate a more severe and coordinated drive toward changing research and publishing practices. In this way, we can drastically reduce the unused potential of ecological research, for the benefit of nature and society.

Much research in ecology is avoidably wasted

The research team led by Dr Antica Čulina, including doctoral student Marija Purgar and Dr Tin Klanjšček, collected and quantitatively combined published estimates of losses at different stages of the research lifecycle. These meta-studies were themselves based on a large corpus of published or unpublished papers in ecology. The RBI team found that the biggest waste, 67%, occurs at the very beginning of the research lifecycle, due to suboptimal planning and research implementation such as lack of control in experimental design, or the use of inappropriate statistical analysis. Further loss of information occurs because 45 % of the studies are never officially published in the form of a scientific paper, while as many as 41 % of the published studies do not fully present their results.

Ignorance is expensive

Dr Čulina pointed out that the team wanted to quantify research waste in ecological research, as this estimate can serve as a strong incentive for change.

"If we want to avoid such waste and optimize the scientific process, we need to take urgent action to change the standards for research evaluation, science funding, and publishing system. The responsibility lies with funders, publishers, research institutions, and researchers themselves. We hope that our call will shake up everyone involved because ignorance is expensive," the authors explain.

Credit: Čulina et al., Nature Ecology and Evolution

Credit: Čulina et al., Nature Ecology and Evolution

"I believe that most researchers began their scientific work out of curiosity and a sincere desire to contribute to the global pool of knowledge. This knowledge can then be used for various positive actions and for the benefit of our society. Unfortunately, the current scientific system impedes reaching the goal because it evaluates researchers almost exclusively by the number of their scientific publications rather than by the rigor and openness of their scientific work. Therefore, we need to get together, find solutions, and implement them urgently. Ecological research has already immensely helped modern society, despite the enormous waste of information that we detected in our study. Just imagine how much more it could help us if there were no such losses!'' concludes Dr Antica Čulina.

Dr Antica Čulina is a senior researcher at the Ruđer Bošković Institute, and an honorary fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). Her research lies on the interface between ecology, open science, and meta-science. She is a co-founder and executive committee member of SPI-Birds (www.spibirds.org) and SORTEE and on the advisory board of the FAIRsFAIR project and Open Knowledge maps. Her expertise includes the evolutionary ecology of bonding, life-history trade-offs, evidence synthesis, and data and code standards. She strives to apply her knowledge of various modelling approaches and Open Science to study and optimize the scientific process itself – what is called meta-science - and to enable ecological research to reach its full potential.

The preprint is available here.

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