Research waste in ecology: urgent call for action

Data management
© Janneke Staaks

Research waste in ecology: urgent call for action


Climate change, pollution and the decline of pollinators are urgent global challenges that ecology is addressing. But while ecological research produces a wealth of valuable scientific knowledge, evidence is emerging that much of the research effort ultimately goes to waste. In many cases, only a fraction of the information is made available to other researchers, policymakers or the general public. So how much is lost? And what can we do about it?

A research team from Croatia's Ruđer Bošković Institute (RBI), led by NIOO honorary fellow Antica Čulina, has studied the amount of research waste in ecology.  "I was inspired by a similar paper published about medicine in 2009, which is the only other estimate of research waste for any field", explains Čulina. "That paper prompted a series of changes in medical research, so I hope our paper will do something similar for ecology."

Researchers Tin Klanjšček, Antica Čulina and Marija Purgar

Up to 89% lost

The researchers have just published their findings in Nature Ecology and Evolution. They found that, when it comes to ecological research, between 82% and 89% of the information collected during the research process is ultimately lost. To arrive at these findings,  the RBI team 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 These meta-studies were themselves based on a large corpus of published and unpublished papers in ecology.

The biggest waste of information, 67%, occurs at the very beginning of the research lifecycle. Causes are suboptimal planning and research implementation, including lack of control in experimental design and use of inappropriate statistical analysis. A further loss of information occurs because 45% of the studies are never officially published in the form of a scientific paper, while up to 41% of the published studies do not present their results in full.

(Text continues below the illustration)

Čulina et al.,  Nature Ecology and Evolution

Costly and avoidable

"Ignorance is expensive", says Čulina. "Ecological research has already helped modern society immensely, despite the enormous waste of information we detected in our study. Just imagine how much more it could help us if there were no such losses!''. And the problem is avoidable, she argues, as much of the blame lies with the way the current system operates.

"We don't want to say that researchers are doing a bad job! I believe most researchers begin their scientific work out of curiosity, and a sincere desire to contribute to the global pool of knowledge. But unfortunately, the current scientific system impedes reaching that goal." She specifically points at the incentive structure in the sciences. "The current scientific system evaluates researchers almost exclusively by the number of their scientific publications. Not by the rigour and openness of their scientific work."

Strong incentive

Quantifying the problem and making a concrete estimate, says Čulina, should serve as a strong incentive to change the standards for research evaluation, science funding and the publishing system. NIOO, where she is an honorary fellow, is already working to support and promote meta-research and the open sharing of scientific data.

"We hope that our call will shake up everyone involved and push funders and institutions to think carefully about where they put their money. If we want to avoid such waste and optimise the scientific process,  we need 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."

  • Dr Antica Čulina is a senior researcher at the Ruđer Bošković Institute (RBI), and an honorary fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW).  She is a co-founder and executive committee member of SPI-Birds 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. With her knowledge of various modeling approaches and Open Science, she aims to study the scientific process itself – what is called meta-science - and enable ecological research to reach its full potential.