Scientific papers, important as they are, are really just the tips of icebergs. Under the waterline lie the things that inspired scientists to ask the questions they did, the obstacles and failures on their way to something they could publish, and the often arduous quest for funding. PLOS Biology decided to bring a little of that to the surface, putting out a call for scientists to reveal these in narrative form, and have published them in a collection, “Conservation Stories from the Front Lines,” while still getting the facts checked.
In 2015 many non-scientists got an unusual insight into the challenged of being a scientist when the hashtag #fieldworkfail trended. A group of mostly biologists told the world about the dangerous, hilarious, and embarrassing things that went wrong outside the lab, now collected and illustrated as a book of cartoons.
That of course only covers one side of the story. PLOS Biology says it “Deliberately sought stories of triumphs and tragedies, successes and failures, and invited a diverse group of scientists to submit contributions written in their own voices.”
With a focus on conservation biology, there was always going to be plenty of tragedy. A scientific paper might describe the sudden disappearance of multiple species of frogs from an area on the Panama/Costa Rica border in clinical terms recording the falling numbers and lack of explanation. Professor Karen Lips of the University of Maryland has published many on the topic, but for this series gives voice to the processes of denial and grief she went through as a scientist who had studied the local amphibians for years before disaster struck, and loved them deeply.
Lips' work more than 20 years ago eventually contributed to the identification of the chytrid fungus as the primary cause of frog decline worldwide. “First-hand experiences always make a greater impact, and I have found it hard to communicate just how bad the situation at my sites is to those who haven’t been there,” she writes.
Lips' data helped inspire efforts that saved some of the frog species that would otherwise have gone extinct, but her papers do not convey the anguish that comes with devoting your life to a rich collection of animals, only to see most of them gone in the space of a few years. Conservation Stories from the Front Lines provided her with a chance to do just that.