Two new papers in Ornithological Applications review multiple ways in which the field of Ornithology systemically excludes researchers and research from Latin America and the Caribbean, despite this region harboring the most bird species on Earth. The papers, signed by 128 ornithologists (including professional scientists, naturalists, park rangers and technicians) from 20 countries, also explain what the field might do to start addressing the problems identified.
A major barrier to advancing ornithology, say the papers, is the marginalization of researchers from the Global South, meaning Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and most of Asia. Latin America and the Caribbean is home to 3700 bird species, across a myriad of habitats from lowland tropical rainforest to deserts of the High Andes. It also includes more than 40 countries and a human population comparable to that of Europe. Yet of the 10 papers published in a recent special feature about ornithology in Latin America and the Caribbean (Advances in Neotropical Ornithology), only three included authors affiliated within the region. Such discrepancies are widespread in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and, the authors argue, they result from a long history of colonialism that scientists continue to sweep under the proverbial rug.
“Colonialism still has profound impacts in our society, whether people feel comfortable with that or not. We (researchers in Latin America and the Caribbean) often enforce the colonialist perspectives ourselves. Field biology has such a strong enforced stereotype of having been pioneered by white European males; disrupting this narrative should be a commitment of everyone in the field,” explains Letícia Soares, one of the authors.
The papers reported that language hegemony, publication costs, and North-biased views of what is novel exclude many excellent ornithologists from publishing in global scope journals and dramatically reduce the extent to which their work is cited.
The authors noted that reviewers and editors rarely ask scholars from Europe, Canada, or the United States to translate, learn, or cite theory and case studies from Latin America or Africa, but they routinely expect scholars from the Global South to frame their work in the context of research from Europe or North America.
The papers argue that such systemic barriers are not only unjust to researchers from the Global South; they are also detrimental to ornithological scholarship and bird conservation. Scientific rigor, the authors point out, is not simply the sum of individually rigorous research articles, but an emergent property of a collection of complementary studies from a diversity of regions and perspectives. For example, patterns of bird sexual behaviour and nest orientation, initially purported to be global, turned out to hold only in the northern hemisphere, when data from Latin America and the Caribbean were eventually included.
The authors noted that the geographical and cultural richness of ornithological knowledge, and conceptualizations of birds, are inherent even in bird names. Indigenous Peoples and other communities in Latin America tend to name birds for their behavior (e.g., in Mupuzungun, “küchag”―which leaves waste after eating), vocalizations (“fio-fio”), or the time of year they are present, reflecting both knowledge of their ecology and an unambiguous method of species identification (calls and songs).
In contrast, their English names, and, increasingly, Spanish derivatives, reflect broad, often ambiguous taxonomic categories, a general geographic location (“Patagonian Sierra Finch”), or the appearance of museum specimens (“White-creasted Elaenia”), which are not always useful and can even be misleading in field identification. The authors argue that ornithologists―in the Global North and South―have set back their own field by suppressing the rich and nuanced ornithological knowledges of Indigenous Peoples and other communities across Latin America and the Caribbean.
The team recognizes that there is no easy recipe to eliminate all of the injustices in science that arise from centuries of colonialism, but they encourage all scientists to notice, question, and interrupt the systems that perpetuate existing hierarchies of class, race, gender, and geography.
To begin addressing the long legacy of colonialism in science, they suggest that researchers worldwide ensure that they read and cite work from the Global South, especially work by Indigenous, Black, and Brown women. They propose that institutions should adopt new policies and assessment criteria that encourage researchers to step back from top-down positions and support collective leadership that includes people outside academia.
The authors urge global-scope journals to maintain or create options for free or low-cost publication, to offer the option of a submission and review process in Spanish, and to ensure that papers about birds in Latin America and the Caribbean include the full participation of authors from the region, from deciding the objectives to interpreting the results. They also propose that global-scope ornithological journals should adjust their criteria for publication with the aim to publish all scientifically robust and ethically rigorous ornithology research submitted by first authors based in Latin America or the Caribbean, including negative results and articles on basic biology.
The groundwork for such change is already in place: ornithology in Latin America and the Caribbean is now underpinned by regional institutions, conservation programs, and a rapidly growing cadre of students, professionals, and non-academics based in this region, who creatively propel the discipline. Today, ornithological research in the Neotropics is made possible by a combination of locally driven and government-funded research, scientific societies, universities, scientific collections, non-governmental organizations, community-science projects, international collaborations, and highly significant contributions from independent naturalists, birding clubs, tour guides, environmental licensing studies, Indigenous communities, and park rangers.
Soares concludes, “My heart simply melts reading this paper one more time and going through all the emails from our collaborators. I’m hopeful for Latin American and Caribbean ornithology and I think so many others are too.”
Soares et al. 2023. Neotropical ornithology: Reckoning with historical assumptions, removing systemic barriers, and reimagining the future. Ornithological Applications. 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: 14 actions for Ornithological Applications, Ornithology, and other global-scope journals. Ornithological Applications. https://doi.org/10.1093/ornithapp/duac047
Ernesto Ruelas Inzunza, Universidad Veracruzana, México. email@example.com
Alejandra Echeverri Ochoa, Stanford University, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
Tomás Ibarra, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile. email@example.com