Local research with a global vision

By Joern Fischer

Not all research is equally interesting to everyone. Some is inherently more “citable”, and therefore is bound to get more attention. However, this can skew what research is being undertaken in the first place. Research that produces global maps seems inherently more likely to end up in the leading multidisciplinary journals than research that focuses on regional, landscape or local scales. Is this fair and reasonable, or unhelpful?

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On the one hand, I think it’s reasonable. If you do a study on something very specific – such as a specific place – that may simply not be very interesting to a broad readership. If a journal has a broad readership (and tries to keep it that way, understandably), it makes good sense that there is a limit for “how local” a given journal is willing to go.

However, I see three problems with this. First, a lot of sustainability problems can be addressed quite effectively at regional, landscape (or even local) scales. Or rather, it would be nice if there was a grand global strategy for all things to be sustainable, but such a strategy does not exist. Hence, it is important to recognize that a lot of progress is possible at smaller scales. Related to the first problem is the second: Unless regional studies also end up in top journals at times, there will be a perceived disincentive to work at regional scales. Put bluntly, a talented postdoc is better off applying her modeling expertise to global datasets than to data she collected somewhere in the field. This is a tragedy for ecology (we risk losing our “culture”, which is heavily place-based – see Lindenmayer and Likens) and for sustainability (because the regional scale is important).

A third problem is that a global focus, on its own, risks proposing panaceas and glossing over vitally important complexities that cannot be avoided at smaller scales. Take the map on yield gaps which we criticized earlier in this blog. It’s nice, but without regional scale studies, it doesn’t go far enough to tell us what actually ought to happen in any given place.

All this said, I think there is a possible solution for this apparent dilemma. That is, regional-scale studies should be framed in such a way that they are relevant to people beyond that region. It is fascinating that social-ecological systems worldwide, at a landscape or regional scale, often face similar problems. Quite possibly, the solutions to some of these problems also will be similar in different places. We need the brightest and best to address these kinds of questions.

And for that to be possible … we need the major journals to (re-?)create spaces for regional studies, if they are well done, and if they have implications beyond the regional scale. Of course, an editor of such a journal might say, that is exactly what the editorial policy is: but I would challenge this. At least in ecology and sustainability, there is a strong bias towards papers with global maps and global “strategies”.

Finally, if this kind of logic is of interest to you, you may want to check out the Program on Ecosystem Changes and Society (PECS), including a recent paper by Steve Carpenter and colleagues.

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2 thoughts on “Local research with a global vision

  1. Pingback: A critical appraisal of a new paper on “big data and the future of ecology” | Ideas for Sustainability

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