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The role of journals in supporting the socially responsible use of conservation technology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2023

Chris Sandbrook
Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
Martin Fisher
Fauna & Flora International, Cambridge, UK
Graeme S. Cumming
Conservation Letters
Karl L. Evans
Animal Conservation
Jenny Anne Glikman
Human Dimensions of Wildlife
Brendan J. Godley
Endangered Species Research
Frith Jarrad
Conservation Biology
Nicholas Polunin
Environmental Conservation
Carolina Murcia
Conservation Science & Practice
Angel Pérez-Ruzafa
Journal for Nature Conservation
Judit K. Szabo
Avian Conservation and Ecology


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Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BY
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Fauna & Flora International

Conservation and ecological research has been transformed by the emergence of digital technologies. Hardware such as camera traps, drones, miniaturized tracking devices and mobile phones, and the accompanying software and data infrastructure, have facilitated the collection of vast volumes of novel data. These are generating new insights that can be used for conservation management (e.g. Graham et al., Reference Graham, Adams and Kahiro2012; Hahn et al., Reference Hahn, Mwakatobe, Konuche, Souza, Keyyu and Goss2017; Hegerl et al., Reference Hegerl, Burgess, Nielsen, Martin, Ciolli and Rovero2017), monitoring (e.g. Hu et al., Reference Hu, Wu and Dai2020; Oliveira-da-Costa et al., Reference Oliveira-da-Costa, Marmontel, da-Rosa, Coelho, Wich, Mosquera-Guerra and Trujillo2020), surveying (e.g. Kaizer et al., Reference Kaizer, Alvim, Novaes, McDevitt and Young2022; Pereira et al., Reference Pereira, Varela, Scarpa, Frutos, Fracassi, Lartigau and Piña2022) and detection of rare species (e.g. Arvind et al., Reference Arvind, Joshi, Charif, Jeganathan and Robin2022), contributing to law enforcement (e.g. Sintov et al., Reference Sintov, Seyranian and Lyet2019), and providing novel opportunities for public engagement (e.g. Green, Reference Green2018).

Although the value of digital technology for conservation and ecological research is clear, there are potential risks and concerns (Adams, Reference Adams2018). Most research on this topic addresses risks to biodiversity through direct disturbance (e.g. Duporge et al., Reference Duporge, Spiegel, Thomson, Chapman, Lamberth and Pond2021) or increased risk of being targeted for illegal wildlife trade (e.g. Lennox et al., Reference Lennox, Harcourt, Bennett, Davies, Ford and Frey2020). A growing body of work is addressing impacts on people, either through targeted collection of data (e.g. on identity or movement) or through inadvertent collection of such data (Sandbrook et al., Reference Sandbrook, Luque-Lora and Adams2018). The various ways in which data on people can be collected as part of conservation and ecological research have been referred to as ecosurveillance (Young et al., Reference Young, Roche, Lennox, Bennett and Cooke2022).

Ecosurveillance can be beneficial to people, for example where local residents are able to collect data that enable them to protect their lands and resources from the advances of extractive industries (e.g. Vargas-Ramírez & Paneque-Gálvez, Reference Vargas-Ramírez and Paneque-Gálvez2019). However, there are multiple ways in which ecosurveillance can be harmful to people, including invasion of privacy, the creation of a landscape of fear (Simlai & Sandbrook, Reference Simlai, Sandbrook, Wich and Piel2021), and the chilling effects that overt surveillance can have in constraining even legitimate, legal behaviours (Young et al., Reference Young, Roche, Lennox, Bennett and Cooke2022). These social impacts matter because human rights and well-being are important, and because long-term conservation success often depends on positive relationships between conservationists and local residents.

To address these concerns, researchers have suggested ways to encourage socially responsible use of digital technology for conservation and ecological research. Sharma et al. (Reference Sharma, Fiechter, George, Young, Alexander and Bijoor2020) proposed an ethical code of conduct for the use of camera traps, Sandbrook et al. (Reference Sandbrook, Clark, Toivonen, Simlai, O'Donnell, Cobbe and Adams2021) proposed principles for the socially responsible use of conservation monitoring technology and data, Di Minin et al. (Reference Di Minin, Fink, Hausmann, Kremer and Kulkarni2021) addressed data privacy concerns when using social media data and Young et al. (Reference Young, Roche, Lennox, Bennett and Cooke2022) drew on insights from surveillance studies to encourage ethical ecosurveillance. These complementary articles offer guidance and frameworks for the users of digital technology. Based on extensive engagement with users of devices, they are intended to support and facilitate high-quality research rather than to act as unnecessary impediments to progress.

Guidelines and principles are of no value unless they are adopted by their target audience—in this case researchers and practitioners who use digital technology for conservation and ecology. There are several potential pathways to uptake. Users can voluntarily adopt principles, or can be compelled to adopt them by the requirements set by funders and ethical review boards or by government regulations and the publication policies of journals.

Journals play a crucial role as curators of the peer-reviewed literature, which for many researchers is essential for sharing results and advancing careers. As such, journals have a role in shaping the conduct of research by establishing guidelines regarding what they will and will not accept for publication. All journals contain some form of instructions for authors, and these typically include guidance on the ethical conduct of research. For example, conservation and ecology journals usually include guidance on minimizing ecological risks associated with research (such as through sample collection) and ensuring the ethical conduct of social research (such as through interviews). However, until now conservation and ecology journals have not tended to include specific guidance on the use of digital technologies and the potential social impacts of ecosurveillance. Given the importance of this issue and the influence of journals on the research community, this creates an opportunity for journals to play a leading role in driving change.

To address this issue, the Editor of Oryx, working with the authors of Sandbrook et al. (Reference Sandbrook, Clark, Toivonen, Simlai, O'Donnell, Cobbe and Adams2021), developed a new guideline for the journal's instructions to authors:

Where research involves the use of monitoring devices that could collect data on people (e.g. drones, camera traps, audio recorders or other devices), or the use of data on people's behaviour or opinions derived from social media or other technologies, steps should be taken to ensure that the research is conducted in a socially responsible manner that does not violate privacy or cause other unnecessary harm. This applies whether or not collecting data on people is a deliberate intention of the research. Researchers are encouraged to adopt existing guidelines as a framework for professional procedure, following Sandbrook et al. (Reference Sandbrook, Clark, Toivonen, Simlai, O'Donnell, Cobbe and Adams2021), Sharma et al. (Reference Sharma, Fiechter, George, Young, Alexander and Bijoor2020), Di Minin et al. (Reference Di Minin, Fink, Hausmann, Kremer and Kulkarni2021) and Young et al. (Reference Young, Roche, Lennox, Bennett and Cooke2022).

This guideline, or a version of it, has now been adopted by 10 leading conservation and ecology journals. As editors of these journals, we confirm our commitment to promoting the socially responsible use of conservation technology by rigorously applying the guideline. This does not mean we will not publish research that includes data about people collected using digital technologies; where recommendations on best practice have been followed such research can be both valuable for conservation and socially responsible. However, we commit to declining to publish work that does not demonstrate due consideration (and where appropriate, mitigation) of potential social concerns. Demonstrating this could take a number of different forms, as not all researchers have access to ethics committees.

Journals play an important role in the research process but have limited influence when acting in isolation. We call on other journals to adopt the guideline above. We also call on donors, ethical review boards, government regulators and other relevant bodies to take steps to incorporate the guideline into their own policies and procedures, and on instructors to incorporate the guideline into curricula. Finally, we call on researchers to embrace the importance of considering impacts on people through their work with conservation surveillance and other digital technologies, and how these could be mitigated. We hope that such actions will contribute to what we see as a general and ongoing shift in the culture of conservation research, towards a future in which social implications are considered, reviewed and mitigated as a matter of course.


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