Writing for aliens or the general public? You decide.

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In last week’s blog, I focused on the need for scientific publications to be available freely online. No managers are going to pay to access your pay-walled research. While Open Access publications are expensive, and review boards often force young researchers to publish in “top” journals, there are plenty of ways to get your research online for free. More in this topic to come. But in the meantime, we’ll focus on researching and writing with management in mind.

I must say, this isn’t rocket science. If you’re doing research to help conservation, do the research that’s needed by the people managing that resource. I hear countless stories from MPA managers (and others in similar situations) talking about the “fly-and-bye” tendency of academics. That is, they fly in from abroad, do a bunch of research, and then leave. Never to return to talk about their findings. Never even bothering to share their work with the managers, nor ask how it’s helped. Please, don’t be these kinds of people!

MPA News interviewed the former manager of the Bonaire Marine Park back in 2002. In the interview, Kalli De Meyer mentioned that “less than 5% of the research conducted there by external scientists was of value to the MPA.” Yes, 14 years ago managers were complaining about this. And guess what? They still are.

This is why relationships between managers and researchers are so vital. Managers know a great deal about their area they’re managing: enforcement problems, regular visitation rates, what species are found where. Be it Local Ecological Knowledge or just being good at their jobs, managers are a wealth of largely untapped information. In addition, most mangers are not, in fact, wild animals. They may be approached (ideally with a can of beer or a bottle of wine) without fear of bites, stings, or lacerations.

De Meyer has some suggestions for researchers. She listed the following qualities of studies as being beneficial “in terms of both aiding management and steering local governmental response to threats,” with additional commentary from John Davis’ IMCC4 talk:

  • Management-related conclusions were clear. They weren’t filled with scientific jargon and weren’t concerned with esoteric aspects that had no direct connection to management issues or challenges. Now, a lot of managers are trained scientists and have read scientific papers before, but that doesn’t mean they want to read your scientific papers or have time to read your scientific papers – most scientific papers aren’t exactly the most engaging reading.

  • Results were delivered to the park in a timely fashion. Researchers didn’t drop off the face of the earth for years at a time.

  • The science did not necessarily have to be rigorous to be valuable. If a researcher gets some anecdotal evidence that’s perhaps not controlled, perhaps not based on BACI principles, but it’s compelling in terms of its management implications, the manager will want to hear it. Managers don’t need journal-quality science; they want useful information.

  • The park was involved throughout, so that the resulting discussion and presentation had the maximum impact on policy. So there’s MPA involvement from the start, during planning of the research, through the conducting of the research, through the delivery of the results. Think of the IMCC4 plenary with Max Liboiron and how she meets with stakeholders as the first step in her research. She wants to know what their needs are expressly so she can meet those needs. Work with managers to develop goals and to develop metrics for those goals. If you can find a place that already has a published research agenda, which some MPAs or other managed areas already do, that’s all the better. It’s already ready for you. Careful thought has been put into it and all you need to do is plug and play.

What De Meyer and Davis are saying here is that one academic journal article isn’t enough. Journal articles are for your tenure review board.

If you want good conservation to happen, you need to write for your manager and policy-maker audience in mind. These are different groups: they are not the general public. There is no general public. If it exists, it looks like this:


This is the Human Being, Greendale Community College's mascot from the fictional NBC/Yahoo series, Community. The mascot was created to be a "non denominational, ethnic free representation of the Greendale student body" so that it would appeal to all audiences. This is what I think of when I hear someone say their audience is the "general public."

For those of you who are advocacy-adverse, let me be the nth person to tell you that writing for your intended audience is not advocacy. It’s making your marine science matter. Be proactive and send your work to managers/policy-makers who might benefit. Again, don’t just send them a PDF from your academic journal. That’s not useful. Send them concise letters with clear management conclusions. Send them preliminary data with the promise of more to come. Send them stories of the work you’ve been doing; the people you’ve talked to. Send them advice on what to do to better manage a resource. You’ve put a lot of work into your research, so share it, and share it proud.


Editor's note: This is the second blog in our series on "making your marine science matter" — a recent talk MARE gave at the 4th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC4). You may read the other blogs in this series by following the links below.

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