Photo: Kristian Bell

Word games to help scientists save animals from extinction

A Canberra researcher is developing a way for scientists to keep up with the ever-increasing number of academic papers.

‘The rate of publication of scientific articles and other information sources makes it impossible for scientists to be fully aware of developments in their field,’ says Dr Martin Westgate, a post-doctoral researcher at the Australian National University.

‘This applies particularly in my field of biodiversity conservation where we are urgently trying to save species from extinction.’

Scientific publisher Springer Nature estimates that there are more than 4,000 academic papers published every day.

‘There is far too much research on biodiversity loss for anyone to be able to sensibly distil that information. Additionally, researchers sometimes use words in different ways, making it even more difficult to locate relevant data’ says Dr Westgate.

‘I am taking language tools designed to classify documents and applying them to conservation biology. We hope that this “text mining” will help scientists track the published literature in their field and remove some of the sub-conscious biases that we often have.’

‘Although text mining has been around for some time, it is not routinely used to locate information that can help save species. This is a shame, because without substantial improvements in the tools that help us locate and synthesise scientific information, there is a real risk of wasting effort by duplicating research, and of failing to capitalise on existing investments in environmental science.’

‘My goal now is to work collaboratively with the scientific community to check that these classification tools can provide the information that we want.’

‘I will use an online word association game to collect data on how ecologists classify peer-reviewed articles. This approach is quick and provides a rigorous experimental test of whether expert judgments about article content match those provided by standard text mining approaches.’

‘These methods are already available. They quickly identify topics within research papers. Now we just need to ensure the results are accurate. Then scientists can be confident that our new software will help them find the information that they need to do their work.’

Dr Westgate recently received the 2017 Wiley Next Generation Ecologist Award for his work, which includes a $3000 professional development grant.