A geographic analysis of the published aquatic biodiversity research in relation to the ecological footprint of the country where the work was done
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- Moustakas, A. & Karakassis, I. Stoch Environ Res Risk Assess (2009) 23: 737. doi:10.1007/s00477-008-0254-2
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The use of the term “biodiversity” in the aquatic literature has expanded rapidly during the last years. In this paper, we address the influence of the geographic, social and economic characteristics of a country in the published effort as it appears in the bibliography from the corresponding author of each publication. Social and geographic characteristics are expressed by coast length, population, the population living a maximum of 100 km from the coast, population density, total fish catches, and continental shelf surface. Economic characteristics are expressed by gross national product, gross national product per capita, footprint and ecological deficit. Our results showed that the majority of the published aquatic biodiversity research was in aquatic ecology journals. The number of publications referring to marine biodiversity per country of origin of the corresponding author was significantly correlated to the length of coastline, fisheries production, gross national product, population density and other economic, social and geographic characteristics of the country. Most of the highly publishing countries are developed countries with an ecologically harmful lifestyle. The research per country carried out in non-adjacent to the country sea zones remains low.
KeywordsMarineBibliographic analysisHuman geographyPolitical ecologyEcological economicsSocial ecology
In practical terms, ecology became the study of that part of nature that does not include humans (Costanza 1996). From the very beginnings of the science of ecology, however, there have been several attempts to link ecology with humans and social sciences (e.g., Odum 1971; Walters 1986). While these attempts were influential, the majority of ecologists continue to ignore humans in their day-to-day research (Costanza 1996). Likewise, there have been attempts to study the natural world with humans as part of it in economics and social sciences; however, the dominant tendency is to exclude humans from the laws that apply to plants and animals and to study human affairs in isolation from each other (Costanza 1996). Thus, in order to achieve a more sustainable way of development, cross-scale interdisciplinary research is needed (Common and Perrings 1992; Costanza 1996). After the Rio Summit in June 1992 and the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB 1992) the term “biodiversity” has become a component of research policy in many countries, international bodies and initiatives (Moustakas and Karakassis 2005). However, as with most other issues in ecology and evolution, the paradigms dominating the study of biodiversity on both a global and regional scale come mainly from the terrestrial environment despite the marked distinctive features of marine biodiversity and the fact that the aquatic environment occupies more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface (Vanaverbeke et al. 1997; Gessner et al. 2004).
Marine organisms play a crucial role in many biogeochemical processes that sustain the biosphere and provide a variety of products and functions which are essential to mankind’s well-being, including the production of food and natural substances, the assimilation of waste and the regulation of the world’s climate. The rate and efficiency of any of the processes that marine organisms mediate, as well as the range of goods and services that they provide, are determined by interactions between organisms, and interactions between organisms and their environment, and therefore by biodiversity (Gaston and Spicer 1998; Gaston 1996). Marine biodiversity does not necessarily comply with terrestrial paradigms, and our understanding of its role and regulation lags far behind that of terrestrial biodiversity (Heip et al. 1998; Gessner et al. 2004).
Our perception of biodiversity depends mainly on the published research focusing on a specific area or on specific biota. Therefore, the measures taken for the conservation of biodiversity of an area depends on its ecological, economic and social importance. As a result, political decisions taken for the conservation of an area are mainly based on the scientific study of that area, as this study can be quantified from the published research. There are several cases where species of virtually no commercial value become extinct almost unnoticed (Casey and Myers 1998). Furthermore, vast areas such as the Arctic and Antarctic Polar as well as North Pacific Ocean regions are still scientifically unexplored (Moustakas and Karakassis 2005).
While more equality in the access and use of material resources is needed in the world’s welfare geographic distribution, it is well known that developed countries are mainly located in the Northern Hemisphere (FAO 2000). Usually these countries have a heavy industry and therefore release more pollutants into the environment (even though a few developed countries develop sophisticated recycling techniques or design environmentally friendly products). However, there are examples of heavily populated developing countries such as China and Singapore where heavy pollution is often reported (e.g., Ren et al. 2006; Wang et al. 2008). It is also known that developed countries usually have a higher funding budget for scientific research which is related to published scientific output (Man et al. 2004). While there are attempts to optimize funding criteria (Roberts and Weitzman 1981), the question of how much ecologically harmful activity is needed to have published results on ecology research has not yet been posed. In addition, it is unknown if published output on marine biodiversity depends on funding exclusively or if a country’s geographic morphology and lifestyle play a key role in the scientific focus on marine biodiversity.
What are the social, economic and geographic characteristics correlated with and therefore likely to influence the published scientific effort on aquatic biodiversity?
Do countries with high published scientific output have an ecologically sustainable lifestyle?
Do countries study ocean zones other than the ones contiguous to the country’s coastline?
2 Materials and methods
We used the ASFA (Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Abstracts database), which contains the abstracts of all the published papers on aquatic ecosystems in books, proceedings and journals. From the database, we downloaded the abstracts that contained the terms “biodiversity” or “biological diversity” (henceforward referred to as “biodiversity”) from 1973, when the terms first appeared in the database, until the end of December 2001. That resulted in 1897 publications. We sequentially read the abstracts and classified them according to the ecosystems that were being studied (marine and/or freshwater). There were 1,193 publications using at least one of the two terms (“biodiversity” or “biological diversity”) studying marine ecosystems. From each abstract we downloaded the country of the corresponding author. There was a time delay in the update of the database from 2000 due to the amount of time it takes from submitting a paper to having it published. We decided not to cut off our data at year 2000, since this would affect cumulative statistics, and to include all abstracts until 2001. We categorized means of publication in books, (mainstream) ecology journals, aquatic (marine and freshwater) ecology journals, and other means of publication (e.g., proceedings, reports etc.). Throughout the search terms and the text in this paper, the term “aquatic” was used for publications referring to both marine and freshwater ecosystems, “marine” for sea ecosystems exclusively, and “freshwater” for freshwater ecosystems.
For the publications that referred to marine ecosystems exclusively, we also downloaded the respective ocean zones that the publications were referring to, if any. In this paper we focused on countries studying ocean zones other than the ones directly approximate to their coastline. Clustering is not mutually exclusive; therefore a publication referring to marine biodiversity of more than one ocean zone would be counted under all respective ocean zones. A publication about biodiversity that did not focus on any specific ocean zone was not categorized. To obtain a more detailed spatial distribution of the research, we used 14 ocean zones including the Atlantic (Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest), the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Pacific (Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest), the Antarctic (Eastward, Westward) and the Arctic (Eastward, Westward). The 14 ocean zones used here are the ones also listed in the ASFA database.
We then correlated the geographic, economic and social characteristics for each country which we derived from FAO (2000) and Wackernagel et al. (1999). The physical, social and economic characteristics per country used in the analyses are coast length (Coastlength) in km, total fish catches in metric tons (fish_total), marine fish catches in metric tons (fish_mar), percentage of the population of the country living at a maximum distance of 100 km from the coast (Pop100), actual population of the country living at a maximum distance of 100 km from the coast (Pop100tot) and the continental shelf surface belonging to the country (Shelfarea) in km2. We used these physical and social characteristics, because we assumed that they could reflect the connections that the citizens of the country have with the sea and water in general. In particular, most of the marine fishing activity is carried out in the continental shelf water. Our intention was to investigate whether countries that have stronger links with the sea and freshwater tend to study and publish more about aquatic or marine biodiversity than other countries. Since the population of a country can be a factor that biases the results, we normalized the number of publications per country and the number of publications referring to marine ecosystems by dividing them by the population of the country. Furthermore, we used in our analysis the population of each country, the Gross National Product (GNP), and the GNP per capita (GNPpc) of each country to test possible correlation with the published aquatic biodiversity research. In addition, we correlated the footprint (Footprint), the available capacity (Capacity), the ecological deficit (Deficit), the total footprint (TotFP) and the total available capacity (Totavacap) with the published research per country. The footprint (Wackernagel et al. 1999) is an index of the environmental cost and lifestyle of the average citizen of a country. The footprint of a country is a number expressed in land surface per capita, for example, hectares/capita (ha/cap), and is calculated by adding the average consuming habits and energy requirements, etc. and subtracting recycled goods. The footprint expresses the mean land size that the average citizen of that country needs to sustain his everyday life (Wackernagel et al. 1999). The available capacity (ha/cap) is the surface of the country divided by the population of the country and shows the mean land size that corresponds to each citizen of the country. Ecological deficit (ha/cap), surplus if it is negative, is an index of the land that the country is missing per capita in order to reach the land size necessary to sustain its average citizen’s needs. Total footprint (km2) is the total land size that the country should have in order to sustain its average citizen’s needs. Lastly, total available capacity (km2) is the total surface area of the country. In this way, we can see the economic influence on published effort of aquatic biodiversity research (Wackernagel et al. 1999).
Economic and social characteristics of countries used in the analysis that are given by FAO 2000 and Wackernagel et al. 1999 are listed in Appendix 1. Geographic characteristics and fishing effort (available by FAO 2000) and the number of publications per country, as it appeared on our analysis from the ASFA database are listed in “Appendix 2”.
Sequentially, we applied multiple stepwise regressions to (1) the number of total publications (freshwater and marine) and (2) the number of marine publications with the physical, social and economic characteristics listed above. We used base 10 logarithm transformations on all the physical, social and economic characteristics that did not match the magnitude of the total (aquatic) as well as the marine only number of publications. Specifically, we applied log10 transformations at all characteristics whose range exceeded a factor of 106. Prior to conducting the regression analysis, we tested all the independent variables for potential correlation between independent variables. From all the independent variables listed in “Appendix 1” and “Appendix 2”, only the ones that were not significantly correlated among each other were used. The multiple R2 values were adjusted for multiple comparisons.
Multiple stepwise regression of the number of publications on total aquatic and marine biodiversity (dependent variables) against the most significant, non-correlated among each other physical social and economic characteristics (independent variables)
Log (GNP per capita)
Multiple R2 = 0.596
Adjusted multiple R2 = 0.568
Log (GNP per capita)
Multiple R2 = 0.606
Adjusted multiple R2 = 0.579
Total available capacity
Multiple R2 = 0.677
Adjusted multiple R2 = 0.647
Log (total fish catches)
Log (continental shelf surface)
Total available capacity
Multiple R2 = 0.504
Adjusted multiple R2 = 0.470
The results of multiple stepwise regressions on the number of publications and the physical, social and economic characteristics provide some additional information: for constant values of GNP and footprint of a country, a further increase of the GNP per capita results in a decrease of the total number of publications (Table 1). This result is also consistent when the variable to be predicted is the number of publications referring to marine ecosystems only. When the number of publications per country divided by the population of the country is the variable to be predicted, given a value of the GNP per capita and continental shelf surface, a further increase of the total fish catches decreases the number of publications normalized by the population of the country (Table 1). This also applies when the publications referring to marine ecosystems only are to be predicted (Table 1).
Number of publications per country studying neighbouring (non-local), non-neighbouring and Polar ocean zones
Neighbouring ocean zones
Non-neighbouring ocean zones
Most published aquatic biodiversity research comes from a few developed countries mainly located in the Northern hemisphere, and focuses on relatively few specific regions and few taxa (Moustakas and Karakassis 2005). This limits our perception of the world’s aquatic biodiversity. Consequently, we do not have sufficient information about biodiversity in most places on earth. Even though biodiversity declines from the equator to the poles in terrestrial ecosystems (Rosenzweig 1995), this is still a hypothesis to be tested in aquatic and especially marine ecosystems, where causes of this phenomenon are unclear (Clarke 1992; Rohde 1998). In marine ecosystems particularly, there are several well-stated cases where diversity in higher latitudes actually increases (Gray 2002; Valdovinos et al. 2003). These sources of bias are likely to affect the overall quality of the available information as a means for assessing the state of global aquatic biodiversity.
We are aware of the fact that there is a bias in the analysis described. Many taxonomic papers do not specifically refer to “biodiversity”. However, it is not an easy task: in fact there are several different meanings regarding the use of the term “biodiversity” even within the scientific community. For instance, biodiversity as defined in CBD is the diversity of species, genes and ecosystems. In this context none of these levels alone captures biodiversity as a whole and one could conclude that any paper referring to species diversity only is not actually referring to biodiversity. On the other hand there is the problem of scale: Margalef (1997) makes an interesting distinction between biodiversity (the dictionary of life) and eco-diversity (i.e., the diversity that could be found in any number of samples at a small spatial scale). Furthermore, Gray (2000) has also made an interesting point: biodiversity has evolved over the geological time scale and therefore it cannot be adequately assessed through ecological sampling of small scales. However, the ASFA database is an international database with abstracts indexing a huge amount of relevant information and the year to year changes are very likely to reflect the trends and characteristics of biodiversity research. We understand that there exist other sources of information that are also relevant to biodiversity and not necessarily addressed as such. In this context probably all ecology research is at least indirectly related to biodiversity. But in this paper we have focused on the use of the term in the scientific literature as an indicator of the choice of the authors to participate in the biodiversity research stream. Also the number of papers published by several countries (e.g., China, Indonesia) is certainly underestimated, because they are published in the native language in national journals. The weight of English speaking developed countries is certainly largely overestimated using the criteria of publications in international journals. While this does not mean that there is no marine biodiversity published output from such countries, the impact of this published work is probably limited only to a local scale due to language limitations. Furthermore, the absence of Canada and Russia from the list of countries carrying out research on polar biodiversity (Table 2) may raise questions about the accuracy of the methodology. Possible causes for the absence of Canada and Russia from that list may be either the fact that the ocean zone (in this case the Polar zone) was not mentioned in the abstract or keywords, or the authors listed the species in the abstract but not the word “biodiversity” or “biological diversity” itself. On the other hand, when a paper fails to refer to the word biodiversity explicitly, that could also imply that the authors are focusing on specific species and/or abiotic factors and thus not addressing ecosystem functioning or the diversity of life and thus biodiversity.
Social, economic and geographic factors used in the analysis were found to be significant or highly significant (Table 1). The fact that the total number of publications is significantly correlated with the GNP of the country, the GNP per capita, and the footprint, means that countries that have a large economy and wealthy citizens with ecologically harmful lifestyle publish a lot. Geographic characteristics such as the coast length and the continental shelf surface of a country were found to be important factors influencing the published research effort of both aquatic and marine biodiversity. The finding that the available capacity is the most important factor from the ones analyzed when the publications were standardized by the population of the country that derived from, means that countries with low population density tend to publish more compared to their population. The result that the total fish catches and the continental shelf surface are also related to the number of publications standardized by the population implies that scientists who work in countries with high numbers of fish landings and geographic characteristics beneficial for fishing, tend to publish more about aquatic biodiversity (Table 1).
The published research of a country divided by the country’s population is related to mainly two factors: the available capacity (which is mean land size that corresponds to each citizen of the country) and the GNP per capita. That means that developed and sparsely populated countries contribute proportionally more to biodiversity research than other countries. However, contrary to what one would expect, when comparing countries with similar economic activity (GNP) and consuming behaviour (footprint), the higher the income per capita (GNPpc), the lower the publications in that country. Thus, developed countries with unevenly distributed wealth publish more than countries with more equal wealth distribution. This could result from the fact that usually the economy of countries with both high values of GNP and GNP per capita is based more on sophisticated technology and industry rather than in fishing and agriculture. While high GNP values are needed for a country to carry out large published scientific outputs, when the income of a significant part of the population is based in fisheries and agriculture (and thus it will be lower than the country’s mean), there is a higher motive in aquatic biodiversity research. Another possible explanation for this result is that when the GNP is constant and the GNP per capita increases, then the population declines, and maybe that has something to do with the decrease in the publication rate. Furthermore, wealthy countries (high GNP) with similar continental shelf surface (the area where most marine fishing activity is carried out) and available capacity (the mean land size that corresponds to each citizen of the country), publish less as the total fish catches increase. This finding may imply that although both marine (continental shelf surface) and terrestrial (available capacity) geographic characteristics of a country are important determinants of the number of publications standardized by the population of the country, when fish landings are high there is less scientific effort dedicated to biodiversity.
Our results support that the published scientific production in aquatic or marine biodiversity is related to the economic, social and physical characteristics of the country with which the authors are affiliated. Specifically, the number of publications is linked with the total economic activity of the country, the consuming behaviour and lifestyle but also with the relationship of the citizen with the sea and its resources. Given that published research and funding are correlated, the fact that funding is higher in wealthy countries, and that most researchers study areas near their affiliation institute, our perception of aquatic biodiversity today is biased. Our understanding of aquatic biodiversity is more the biodiversity of the developed countries. Countries that publish more on aquatic biodiversity research, apart from being developed, also usually have a high footprint value. That means that they publish about biodiversity but their lifestyle is usually not very ecologically friendly. Furthermore, developed countries have large land surface needs to maintain their lifestyle and research activities. Usually the abovementioned surface needs are larger than their country’s surface (ecological deficit). Biodiversity is often an input into industry (Wilson 1986) and therefore biodiversity is used as a mean of creating surplus. It is also well cited that there is a reliance of northern economies on southern biodiversity (Swanson 1996). Therefore, most published effort derives from countries that have an ecologically unfriendly lifestyle and exploit the biodiversity of developing countries. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), poverty and corruption are also among the main drivers of change for biodiversity. Even though it clearly exists, we are unable to quantify this sort of ecologically harmful behaviour as it usually occurs in countries that have a low published output. Climatic changes are also accelerating in several cases species loss and thus causing a decline in biodiversity (Thomas et al. 2004) with possible consequences to human health as well (Tamerius et al. 2007).
According to our results, it seems that countries with high GNP (e.g., USA, UK) or with higher GNP in comparison with the GNP of their neighbouring countries (e.g., South Africa) investigate more ocean zones neighbouring to the ocean zone of the country. It could also be noted that countries which dominate the publication list in Table 2 tend to be ones with larges distant-water fleets, such as Spain, or have major overseas fisheries interests, like France. Other (non neighbouring ocean zones and polar zones) are mainly explored by countries with high GNP. Countries carrying out biodiversity work in polar regions with two exceptions (Italy and Poland) are either closely-located (S. Africa, Chile, Argentina, Norway), or have a long tradition of polar exploration (UK, Norway), or in the case of Germany, a long tradition of polar marine research at the Wegener Institute and a highly specialised research platform for this kind of work.
Despite the increased emphasis given in scientifically-documented environmental policy (e.g., Batabyal 2007), it is well accepted that there is inadequate information flow between scientists and policy makers (Sutherland et al. 2006). While policy makers usually address broad issues, scientists often tend to answer specific questions (Sutherland et al. 2006). Thus, the influence of the publications of highly-publishing countries, and therefore according to our results ecologically unfriendly countries, on society is also questionable. The necessity for bringing together politics and ecology is widely recognised (Walker 2005). Furthermore, even though biogeographic data are harder to obtain for marine systems and biogeographic boundaries are harder to define, the necessity for regional and global reviews is stated and methods are proposed (Lourie and Vincent 2004).
While the crisis in the world’s oceans is receiving much attention (Baum et al. 2003; Myers and Worm 2003), there is reason to believe that funding is still largely biased towards terrestrial ecosystem research (e.g., Levin and Kochin 2004). It is more or less normal to expect that humans will emphasise more the habitat where they live, however the bias is large: in a survey by Levin and Kochin where 144 projects funded by the National Science Foundation (USA) were reviewed in Conservation and Restoration Ecology, only 9.7% of the funds were directed to marine systems. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that aquatic and marine topics receive little attention (<10%) in mainstream ecology journals (Ormerod 2003; Levin and Kochin 2004). According to our results, the vast majority of aquatic biodiversity research is published in aquatic ecology journals. It therefore seems that aquatic biodiversity research is getting too dry in terms of access to mainstream, high impact factor ecology journals.
Concluding, it seems that as a general rule developed countries publish more. However, after a certain threshold of access to material resources has been generally met on a national level, further increase of fish catches and evenly distributed wealth does not seem to boost publication effort. Nevertheless, published ecological activity is mainly taking place in countries with ecologically harmful behaviour. The research carried out in sea zones non-adjacent to a country remains low. Is it really true that the more polluting countries tend to support biodiversity research, or is this just an artefact of the fact that pollution is the price of prosperity? Our results show clearly that the more polluting countries (high footprint values) are also the wealthiest ones (high GNP and GNPpc values) and support the majority of the published aquatic biodiversity research. We are unable to quantify if pollution is the price of prosperity, that is, if there is a sustainable way of prosperity. However, on a country-based analysis, highly publishing North American countries (Canada, USA) as well as Australia have a level of development which is unsustainable and ecologically harmful given their footprint values. On the contrary, there are scientifically very active Central European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands which have a more sustainable lifestyle given their population densities and the volumes of their economies. There are also examples of countries where neither the volume of economy is among the highest, nor the published output particularly high, but their development is particularly harmful and unsustainable such as Singapore. Clearly though, countries with low footprint values and thus sustainable lifestyle, are not contributing significantly to the published aquatic biodiversity research (e.g., Bangladesh, Pakistan). Another explanation is that wealthy countries have suffered historically higher loss of biodiversity than developing ones and thus there is a higher necessity of species conservation.
The comments of two anonymous referees improved significantly an earlier version of this manuscript. The comments of SERRA’s Associate Editor and the Editor-in-chief, George Christakos are appreciated.