Sharing is caring —or is it really?
The risks and benefits of publishing biodiversity data
“Do not publish,” a great article printed in the journal Science last year, discussed the dangers of publishing critical data concerning the location of endangered species.
Authors David Lindenmayer and Ben Scheele argued that poachers trawl through scientific papers, searching for information on the location and habits of new and rare species. Such data accessibility, they claimed, created a significant threat to animals with small geographic ranges and specialized habitats that could be easily pinpointed.
Unfortunately, poachers aren’t the only ones using such information. Wildlife enthusiasts are increasingly scanning scientific papers, wildlife atlases, and government and NGO reports to track down unusual species to photograph or handle.
As Lindenmayer and Scheele said:
“For the most part, the move towards making research freely available is positive; encouraging collaboration and driving new discoveries. But legal or academic requirements to publish location data may be dangerously out of step with real-life risks.
Biologists have a centuries-old tradition of publishing information on rare and endangered species. For much of this history it was an innocuous practice, but as the world changes, scientists must rethink old norms.”
A follow-up article, published last month in the scientific journal Nature, tried to assess the risks and benefits of publishing biodiversity data by using a decision tree.
The team, led by scientists from the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland, supported the claim that publishing the locations of species can be dangerous, particularly for those at risk of exploitation. Yet they argued that ignoring the benefits of sharing such data could unnecessarily obstruct conservation efforts for species and locations with low risks of exploitation.
Effective conservation relies on accurate knowledge of the location of species to assist with their management. Yet, even today, one in six International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)-listed species cannot be assessed for risk because they are considered “data deficient.” .
When it comes to sharing such delicate information, it is really a matter of trade-offs, considering all risks and benefits regarding each approach.
On the one hand, open data could help local communities fight to protect a habitat when development is threatening a particular species. Sharing data could also help increase conservation actions in known locations by improving information on species’ population size or distribution.
For example, occurrence data shared by researchers in publicly available databases and within the scientific literature were critical to recent re-assessments of extinction risk for endemic birds in Bolivia and Australia. Sharing data allowed for accurate assessments of extinction status of up to two-thirds of the examined species that otherwise would have been uncertain.
Figure 1: Yellow-breasted Chatby Megumi Aita Figure 2: Black honeyeater by Lindsay Hansch
On the other hand, there is evidence that open data sources could benefit those who aren’t great advocates of conservation efforts, to say the least. Poaching has caused population declines and, in some cases, even extinctions for some species, such as the Chinese cave gecko in Vietnam. This reptile became locally extinct shortly after its discovery was published, partially due to poaching for the pet trade.
Figure 3: Chinese cave gecko by Carola Jucknies
In addition, increasing human access to habitats has affected species’ ability to persist in their environment by causing individual lifespan shortening, changes in wildlife behavior, reductions in reproductive rates and habitat disturbances caused most frequentlyby forestry and farming.
Furthermore, cultural, social or economic reasons — rather than conservation objectives — may lead some to decide not to share biodiversity data. As the paper explained: “Many resource managers view their knowledge as private intellectual property and feel that sharing it with others may put them at an economic and social disadvantage”.
Accordingly, the team carefully planned a decision-tree protocol to help scientists assess the impacts of publishing biodiversity data, ensuring that they do not overlook potential conservation opportunities and that conservation mistakes do not occur through inappropriate release or restriction of data. The protocol also aims to enhance conservation opportunities, promote community engagement and reduce duplication of survey efforts.
“Our protocol considers all relevant threats to the species, and whether conservation mechanisms are either already in place or could be put in place to mitigate or avoid these.”
Figure 4: A decision tree for assessing the risks and benefits of publishing biodiversity data: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0608-1/figures/1
From my point of view, we are all aware that data and information are widely available nowadays for the public to use. The increased accessibility, though beneficial for some, may truly harm others. There should be a healthy balance, considering all valuable aspects when deciding what should or shouldn’t be published, especially when wildlife conservation is on the line.