This post was contributed by Ernesto Ruelas Inzunza, Editor-in-Chief of The Wilson Journal of Ornithology and coauthor of a recent pair of papers on improving support and recognition for Neotropical ornithologists.
I was born and grew up in Mexico and started studying birds at a young age. I had an interest in watching them and in the possibility of pursuing a career as a biologist specialized in birds. In doing so, I quickly discovered several limitations to fully develop my interests. I had no binoculars, telescope, field guides, or academic training. Field guides that I could use were Robbins et al.’s 1966 “Golden Guide” to the birds of North America and Peterson and Chalif’s 1973 Field Guide to Mexican Birds, whose coverage and usefulness for my aims was somewhat acceptable but written in English, a language I didn’t speak.
The lucky part was that I had some access to scientific literature (including subscriptions to several ornithological journals, including The Wilson Bulletin), a specimen collection, and informal mentoring opportunities at the INIREB, a locally based federal research institute that had Dr. Mario A. Ramos as a head of the Ornithology Project. At that time, there were very few ornithologists in Mexico. Perhaps a dozen or two.
Things started to change by the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a new generation of Mexican ornithologists started publishing the results of their research. I recall Fernando González’s investigations of the Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus), Eduardo Iñigo’s work on Neotropical raptors and Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) contamination, and Romeo Domínguez’s research on Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) winter ecology. I learned a lot about the investigations of another group of young ornithologists in Mexico City’s UNAM when I met them at the IV Neotropical Ornithology Congress in Quito, Ecuador, in 1991. Some of them had freshly minted graduate diplomas, master’s, and doctoral degrees from American or European universities and others had obtained their degrees at UNAM. Very few universities and research institutes outside Mexico City offered opportunities for graduate student training, and fellowships to cover their living expenses and tuition while pursuing their degrees were unheard of or very rare.
The works of these Mexican ornithologists faced substantial barriers to their development. Many of these studies were basic biology and descriptive field ecology investigations that in many cases had to start with bird inventories and first-ever accounts of the biology of their study species. Over time, I noticed the critical importance of international training and collaborations: people who spoke English and had connections with American or European collaborators had better-funded projects—and were more often published in international journals—than those of students trained in the very few Mexican graduate programs or with no graduate training at all. For the latter, the ability to write and publish in English was more limited and took an absurdly long time and effort. Years, not months. Rounds and rounds of translations and revisions. With great frustration, I also knew a lot of the works of both types of researchers remained unpublished because the focus of global-scope publications had moved on to more sophisticated and advanced subjects a while ago and didn’t consider basic research of interest anymore.
It is now 2023, and some things have changed. Others have not. The ornithological community of Mexico (I am including here undergraduate and graduate students investigating birds for their theses, scientists based at federal or state research centers, and university professors) has grown substantially and must have many hundreds of people, maybe one thousand ornithologists. To these, we can add birdwatchers, naturalists, wildlife photographers, park guards, private consultants, and birding tour guides that perhaps double the number of academics. Mexico’s CONACYT—a federal agency similar in scope to the United States’ National Science Foundation—has a directory of more than 2,400 graduate programs in all fields of science and humanities and provide fellowships to finance its students. At least 150 of these master’s and doctoral programs list biology, ecology, biodiversity, evolution, systematics, wildlife, or taxonomy as their areas of interest and many of its students work on birds. The most recent annual or biennial meetings of Mexico’s main ornithological society, CIPAMEX, attracted well over 300 attendants.
Mexico is not an outlier in the Neotropical region. Brazil and Argentina, for example, are two other regional giants with robust and growing scientific communities. Chile and Colombia are remarkable as well. It is safe to say Latin American and Caribbean ornithology has grown dramatically in the most recent two or three decades. It has hundreds of graduate programs, and some countries offer fellowships to fully fund their students. Several world-class groups work on cutting-edge subjects in ecology and evolution using birds as study systems. Its ornithological societies meet regularly to discuss advances in the field. In short, ornithology is a vibrant discipline fueled by a new cohort of young scientists that aim to impact our field with their research.
This growth is reflected in an increasing number of papers published in global-scope journals. It is also manifest in the number of Neotropical region participants in international meetings, ornithological society governing boards, taxonomic authorities, and other positions of leadership in ornithology. However, these apparent gains in Latin American and Caribbean scientific standing and leadership in ornithology are much too modest and do not reflect the true proportion of its recent growth. The contributions of ornithologists from this region are often ignored or set aside as marginal and unworthy of mainstream scientific uptake.
Because science in general and ornithology in particular have been slow to acknowledge their colonial past and remove numerous systemic barriers to the growth and inclusion of knowledge generated in the Neotropics.
These systemic barriers and exclusion of Neotropical ornithologists are the subject of two recent articles written by a group of 128 ornithologists from 90 institutions in 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries just published in Ornithological Applications, the world’s leading ornithology journal, published by the American Ornithological Society.
I am among the authors of these two articles that took us a bit over two years to assemble. There, we posit that ornithology is dominated by scientific paradigms crafted (and many of them jealously guarded) by northern scientists. Acting as peer reviewers and editors, our northern colleagues play a key role in deciding to accept or turn down articles according to their views. Theoretical contributions primarily seen through a northern lens are considered as the yardstick against which contributions from other regions should be measured—but we think this view limits the growth of our field.
Think about this example: in a northern ornithologist’s view, many birds inhabiting lowland habitats in the Neotropics are “sedentary,” and live an unseasonal, “slow” life when compared to Nearctic, highly seasonal, fast-paced birds whose annual cycle often includes a long-distance migration. Many of the investigations aimed to address these dissimilar life histories follow such precept. However, to think of northern bird life histories as the norm limits the scope of our research questions to one side of the story. Shouldn’t sedentary and slow-paced birds also be considered a basal state against which we can compare northern, migratory, fast-paced birds? We think our field would advance more by opening ourselves to more perspectives.
Parachute science is another problem that, we think, limits the development of ornithology. Parachute science is defined as the practice of northern scientists to engage in short visits to research sites in the Global South, make their investigation, collect their specimens or samples, and leave the site without interacting with local ornithologists, ornithological collections, protected area administrators, or other local stakeholders that could benefit from establishing an active collaboration with them. These collaborations could jointly address investigations of local interest or get the insights from local ornithologists that may offer a well-informed perspective of systems they are familiar with. The outcomes of most parachute science investigations are only rarely disseminated locally or published in the local language and are commonly locked behind paywalls.
Language hegemony is another powerful barrier that prevents Latin American and Caribbean ornithologists from having a more active participation in scientific publishing and leadership in ornithology. For historical reasons, the English language is the lingua franca of the sciences. However, very few ornithologists in the Neotropical region are native English speakers. For us, non-native speakers, acquiring an appropriate level of English to speak, attend graduate school, write scientific articles, and become active in the development of ornithology is a difficult task. It takes years of study or is financially off limits for most Latin American and Caribbean ornithologists. While we recognize some of the advantages of having a single language to conduct our business, we advocate for a multi-lingual future for ornithology. This can be done in small, incremental steps: for example, by accepting submissions and reviewing manuscripts in Spanish and translating them upon acceptance.
Our full list of barriers to Neotropical ornithology is much longer, and I encourage you to read our articles. Removing these barriers will be a challenging task, and we don’t offer a roadmap for it (or think it is convenient to have a single roadmap). This is much too complicated, and it requires a more formal process than that of writing a couple of papers. My co-authors and I think we can take several steps to get us closer to removing those barriers, avoid exclusion, and create a new vision for a more inclusive science: increase meaningful collaborations, be open to multiple views to old and new questions, encourage transparency in the practice of ornithology, revise grant guidelines to gain equity in scientific society grantmaking, and support the fragile scientific apparatus under development in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Wilson Ornithological Society and our journal, The Wilson Journal of Ornithology have taken several actions to remove those barriers and move towards a more diverse and inclusive ornithology. Our council is probably the most diverse that I know among ornithological societies, with policies on the works or already implemented to bring more equity to our society and its membership. Our journal has taken deliberate steps to increase its openness to manuscripts from authors from countries outside North America and from non-native English speakers (and the extra work it takes). This is starting to bear fruits: in 2022, about 40% of the articles we published in WJO had a first author based outside North America. The WJO is the first North American ornithological journal that I am aware has appointed a Latino, non-native English speaker as its editor-in-chief (myself). There are lots of changes underway at the WOS and other ornithological societies—but there is also a lot more to do. I look very much forward to a near future with a more inclusive practice of ornithology.
Soares et al. 2023. Neotropical ornithology: Reckoning with historical assumptions, removing systemic barriers, and reimagining the future. Ornithological Applications 125 https://doi.org/10.1093/ornithapp/duac046
Ruelas Inzunza et al. 2023. How to include and recognize the work of ornithologists based in the Neotropics: Fourteen actions for Ornithological Applications, Ornithology, and other global-scope journals. Ornithological Applications 125 https://doi.org/10.1093/ornithapp/duac047