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A Walk in the Open Fields: The Best Tools for Wildlife and Habitat Studies
Posted On April 25, 2023
This NewsBreak originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Information Today with the title, “A Walk in the Open Fields: Discovering Open Journals, Data, and Tools for Wildlife and Habitat Studies.”

Spring is finally here, and summer ecology fieldwork projects are already being prepared. Imagine that a volunteer fieldworker springs a question on you, asking about open sources. She is doing a summer study of animal droppings, perhaps. Where do you begin? In this NewsBreak, I offer some starting points for open sources to be used by those undertaking practical work with specific wildlife, plants, or habitats. Such workers may not only be studying or conserving nature, but they also may be expanding it by participating in anything from local re-wilding projects all the way up to vast intercontinental networks helping to restore passage and habitats for migrating birds. These people are increasingly likely to be seekers of information and of tools to process that information.


I focus on open search and discovery of papers, data, and tools, rather than on finding a journal to publish in. For that task, a tutor or the relevant specialist professional body will advise the researcher and perhaps even arrange access to a subscriber-only, full-text discovery resource. But such arrangements can only go so far. It is obvious that payment or university access is still required for too many resources needed for the successful stewardship of Earth. Recent research found that even conservation experts often have trouble with discovery and access. For example, when 2,285 constituents of the International Union for Conservation of Nature were asked, “How easy is it for you currently to obtain the scientific literature you need to carry out your … work?” in a 2020 survey, 49% of them said it is “not easy or not at all easy to access scientific literature” (emphasis in original; the survey results article is titled “Access to Scientific Literature by the Conservation Community”).

Research is difficult to obtain, and there is evidence that ecology students may not be especially well-trained in finding open materials and tools. Even in OA-friendly Norway, research published in PLOS ONE in December 2022 (in “Close to Open—Factors That Hinder and Promote Open Science in Ecology Research and Education”) shows that, based on a survey of 60 participants in a Living Norway Ecological Data Network workshop, “only a minority of respondents reported having encountered [open science] in their formal education” in ecology.

If papers are eventually discovered by researchers, their datasets are often compiled by partially trained students and are of questionable quality. The U.K.’s Royal Society recently surveyed quality papers in the ecology field—and not just those that are OA—in “Slow Improvement to the Archiving Quality of Open Datasets Shared by Researchers in Ecology and Evolution.” The article’s authors “assessed 362 open datasets linked to first- or senior-authored papers published by 100 principal investigators (PIs) in the fields of ecology and evolution over a period of 7 years to identify predictors of data completeness and reusability (data archiving quality). Datasets scored low on these metrics: 56.4% were complete and 45.9% were reusable.” This evidence has worrying implications for data mining, visualization, integration, analysis, and workable policies. For instance, how many beavers are breeding on the Alaskan tundra, and how far are they likely to spread? If we don’t know, then making decisions about trapping permits may be tricky.


If discovery and access are difficult from within a university, imagine the problems for citizen scientists, eco-entrepreneurs, countryside managers, farmers, environment writers, hunters, tribal elders, and policymakers. It was partly for such people that I made my openEco A–Z list of 700 journals published in English. This was then fed into my JURN search tool, which uses Google to search full-text articles. What about data? The Registry of Research Data Repositories has an excellent lookup function and coverage of relevant specialist ecology repositories. But a key open data aggregator to start with is GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), which offers “free and open access to biodiversity data” that provides “anyone, anywhere, open access to data about all types of life on Earth … including everything from museum specimens collected in the 18th and 19th century to DNA barcodes and smartphone photos recorded in recent days and weeks,” according to the What Is GBIF? page.

There are also biodiversity observation networks and research infrastructures that are large-scale platforms based on real boots-on-the-ground observational data. Examples include the Global Invasive Species Database, the Freshwater Information Platform, and OBIS (Ocean Biodiversity Information System). The Belgium Biodiversity Platform’s Biodiversity Research Infrastructures network has an annotated list of 38 infrastructures (tools, networks, digital libraries, etc.) that are freely available. For a deeper dive, see The GEO Handbook on Biodiversity Observation Networks, edited by Michele Walters and Robert J. Scholes, although this 2017 title is likely to be slightly out-of-date for 2023. A key source for historical full-text sources is the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which is supported by The Smithsonian. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (aka Kew Gardens) offers free access to its large and world-spanning bibliographic citation catalog. Many national parks and ocean services also maintain online archives of historical publications and picture libraries, so check individual organizations for links to their collections.

Many nations offer the public their current habitat mapping and species data in a palatable form. In the U.K., we have the NBN Atlas of species and habitats (part of the National Biodiversity Network), while our MAGIC website compiles all data and habitat-map sources from the governmental Natural England organization onto one mega map. In many nations, such systems have gaps, but remote sensing helps fill these. Open journals for remote-sensing, mapping, and visualization are thus increasingly important resources. I maintain a small list of such journals at the end of my openEco list.


Citizen science also helps fill gaps, although there is an urgent need for trusted scrutiny of the free apps for tracking, mapping, and identification. A good starting point is the February 2022 NeoBiota article, “A Review of Invasive Species Reporting Apps for Citizen Science and Opportunities for Innovation.” It states the following:

Invasive alien species (IAS) are a leading contributor to biodiversity loss … and cause annual economic damage in the order of hundreds of billions of US dollars in each of many countries around the world. … The prevailing paradigm for IAS research, monitoring and management is Early Detection and Rapid Response … which calls for coordinated, standardised and verifiable occurrence data across large spatial scales to support monitoring, biosurveillance and risk assessment. …

The rapid growth, development and increasing proliferation of IAS apps has occurred quickly and with little coordination and communication amongst developers. This poses a major risk of development in apps that duplicate effort, result in errors (bugs) and is done in an … isolated environment where developers are unaware of the learning experiences and best practices proposed by others. …


A final thought to keep in mind: As they search for and interpret information from open sources, researchers will become aware of growing overlap with fields such as ethnography and local lore, education and extreme poverty reduction, agriculture and livestock, herding and hunting, geology and soil science, and human uses of water, natural materials, and natural energy (such as wind farms). Even a seemingly straightforward ecological study about the Alaskan beaver population may need to touch on all of these.

David Haden is the editor of Digital Art Live magazine and the curator of the JURN search tool for open discovery of OA arts and humanities content (

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