The Chronicle Review

Editor's Ouster Revealed a Split in the Discipline

Erica Fleishman, an ecologist at the U. of California at Davis, was pushed out of the top job at the journal "Conservation Biology."
November 11, 2013

About halfway through a discursive take on the history of environmental ethics, J. Baird Callicott, a philosopher and professor at the University of North Texas, paused on the phone, and then asked a question: "Has anyone been informing you about the crisis in Conservation Biology?"

It got limited news coverage at the time, but last year the premier journal of conservation biology found itself in turmoil. After less than three years on the job, its editor, Erica Fleishman, had been ungracefully deposed, for nebulous cause, by the governing board, prompting a third to half of the members of the journal's editorial board to resign, according to several estimates. The journal, published by the Society for Conservation Biology, has been building itself back up since then, but for many researchers, it has lost some of its institutional credibility.

The dispute that cost Fleishman her side job—by day she's a researcher and ecologist at the University of California at Davis—was partly about power dynamics between her and the board, Fleishman said earlier this year. But it was about much more than that, according to others, including Callicott. It was about a science grappling with its identity.

"It's fundamentally a philosophical conflict, a generational conflict," Callicott said.

Fleishman has devoted her career to chasing butterflies and birds around Nevada's Great Basin, a hard, arid territory. It's beautiful land, she said, "but not a lot is known ecologically, and it's fairly remote." Sprouting between north-south mountain ranges with names like Shoshone, Toiyabe, and Toquima, invasive grasses are slowly overtaking native desert scrub, and Fleishman has advised the passel of government agencies who run the land on how to manage it for varied ecological ends.

Adviser—that's a role Fleishman thinks scientists must inhabit. And so, when she became editor of Conservation Biology, in 2009, she was concerned to see that some papers contained what she considered to be advocacy, with scientists spelling out the desired policy implications of their research. There weren't many—a small minority—and she made a habit of asking that those lines be tweaked, sometimes even after the manuscripts had been accepted. She never threatened to halt a paper's publication over such a concern, though, she added.

"This was not a widespread problem," Fleishman said. "I believe what that boiled down to was a relatively small group of people who wanted to use the journal as a means to an end to which a professional scientific journal is not well suited."

What ended up doing Fleishman in, it seems, was a battle over bylaws. Several members of the Society for Conservation Biology's governing board proposed a rule that would have required Fleischman to publish their policy statements without peer review. (No one interviewed would identify Fleishman's primary antagonists at the society, beyond hinting that they were longtime members of influence.) Fleishman hated that idea—she thought everything appearing in the journal should face peer review—and so when the changes went out to the society's 5,000-plus members for approval, she wrote to the editorial board to highlight the bylaw shifts. "Many people were strongly opposed to the changes and made the governing board aware of that," Fleishman said. In the end, those bylaws failed.

That victory may have cost Fleishman her job, however. The governing board voted not to renew her contract last year, effectively firing her in June. A large minority of the editorial board then resigned in anger, including David Ehrenfeld, of Rutgers University, who founded the journal in the late 1980s. It was a hard, painful period, said Paul Beier, the society's president at the time and a professor at Northern Arizona University, who was left mediating the sour relationship between the governing board and Fleishman, a personal friend.

It was a rough year. Recriminations flew—two associate editors also left with Fleishman—and emails circulated about how embedded values should be expressed. The rank and file, Callicott said, wanted "to preserve the purity of the science." Some of the debate was simplistic from his point of view, almost 1930s logical-positivism stuff. "All science is value-laden," he said. "It's just a question of whether the values are stated or widely shared, so they go unnoticed like the air you breathe." But it was indicative of the way the field has progressed, away from its explicit advocacy and toward scientific norms of impartiality.

Debates about advocacy are nothing new in science. But the move toward "objective" norms is especially painful for conservation biology, given its origins. "It was born with this in its DNA," said Curt Meine, a senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

In late March, Mark Burgman, a professor of environmental science at the University of Melbourne, began as Conservation Biology's new editor in chief. He will lead a process proposing how policy implications are handled in the future.

According to Beier, policy statements by the board will probably appear occasionally in the journal, without peer review. They will be clearly labeled, however, to prevent confusion with the scientific publications.

The Society for Conservation Biology is still a few decades young, and these struggles could be natural growing pains. Tension over its mission will never leave the society, Beier said. "It's something that, I think, will forever be subject to discussion from people of good will." He hopes it won't get so personal next time, though.

As for Fleishman, she's left the episode behind—though there is one point that continues to nag at her, one that might not be expected. She really wishes something could be done about the journal's name.

"Conservation Biology, calling it that as a journal, is really a historical artifact," she said. "It's really conservation science at this point."—Paul Voosen