Field work ethics in biological research


Costello et al. 2016. Field work ethics in biological research. Biological Conservation. 203:268-271.


Eilidh McNab

This week’s journal club, whilst focussed on a single article, was also a chance for the group to have a wider discussion around the ethics of field work.

Historically much natural history research has been undertaken through ‘collecting’ specimens – i.e. killing and preserving individuals. The scientific descriptions of most species on the planet come from ‘type’ specimens held in museums; the individual(s) from which the species is defined and named. Early ornithologists went out birding with shotguns, not binoculars. However, in recent decades this view of biological science has been gradually replaced by non-lethal methods (such as camera-trapping, DNA analysis, radio-tracking, etc.) and the use of fatal collecting methods (certainly amongst vertebrates) is growing increasingly rare (aside from e.g. medical research, which I will not discuss here).

In this week’s paper, Costello et al. (all editors of the journal Biological Conservation, in which the paper is published) confront the ongoing issue of articles submitted to the journal that have, in their view, involved the unnecessary lethal collection of vertebrates, and have therefore been rejected for publication. The three recent examples that the authors discuss involved fish; in two instances researchers employed the use of gill-nets (which often lead to mortality of other non-target species as well), and in another there were very high rates of mortality due to tagging in a capture-release study. Importantly, in all instances the papers were not investigating a novel idea; instead they were simply showing well-understood phenomena in a different location. A table presenting a checklist of considerations for respectful conduct during field sampling highlights this as an important point; any negative impacts must be justifiable in terms of the advancement of scientific knowledge. However, as was pointed out in our debate on this paper, often it is not known what the results may be in advance of a study! Even fairly closely-related species can react very differently, and without first carrying out the field research this can’t necessarily be predicted.

Whilst lethal collecting or increased mortality due to methodology are the main topics, the paper discusses a number of other important issues surrounding field research. One of the first sections highlights the “uneven treatment of species”; and whether the relevant authorities (be they university ethics committees, or government officials) are more likely to allow lethal collection of one taxa over another. They ponder whether the case studies discussed involving fish would have been given permission had it been birds, mammals or reptiles involved – most likely not. This led to some discussion in the group about how much we understand about the way fish react to stimuli; a recent study looked at the use of compounds commonly used to euthanise laboratory zebrafish specimens, which was assumed to slowly send them to sleep. This compound was actually shown to drastically alter their behaviour prior to death, forcing the normally shade-seeking fish out into brightly lit areas of the tank. If this is the behavioural response, can we truly understand how the fish are reacting internally? And is it really as humane as was formerly thought?

Another important topic discussed within the paper was the impacts to non-target species that may result from any programme of fieldwork. This could include trampling (of vegetation or of e.g. invertebrates), or the transfer of invasive plant species or diseases (such as the fungus that causes white-nosed syndrome in North American bats, which has wiped out millions of individuals; the disease may have been inadvertently introduced by European-based cavers or bat ecologists).

The paper finished with a number of different solutions to the issues discussed. This included the use of low-impact methods where at all practicable, such as camera-traps, hair and faeces collection, drones, and observations. They also highlighted the importance of applying the ‘precautionary principle’ to research work, and to consider the possible impacts to the whole ecosystem being studied, not necessarily just the target species.

What is not really discussed in the paper is the perspective of different ‘types’ of researcher; for example a virologist may have a different view of lethal collecting to a conservation biologist. Another point that was brought up during our discussions, but is again not mentioned in the paper, is the cultural significance of certain organisms. Whilst a university ethics board may approve the lethal collection of a species, if it is viewed as particularly important, maybe even sacred, to native peoples in the study area, this should certainly be an important consideration for any researcher.

Whilst the paper is only three pages long, it succinctly covers a range of key considerations when planning any programme of field work. We concluded that this is an important paper to remind scientific researchers not just to fully explore all potential sampling methods before resorting to lethal collecting, but also to consider other potentially negative impacts that could be caused by the study. For example disturbance to other non-target organisms and the spreading of invasive species due to researcher movements should be considered prior to any research work. Whilst there were some comments that the paper may be viewed as a little ‘preaching to the converted’, the fact that multiple papers have been submitted to Biological Conservation that do not meet the ethical standards set by the journal highlights that it is still an important topic to discuss. This importance is highlighted by the fact that this article is one of the most downloaded from the journal in the last 90 days.

Join us this Friday when Matt Guy will lead a discussion on a recent paper in PloS ONE by Angell et al. entitled Sexual Segregation and Flexible Mating Patterns in Temperate Bats.

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