Scientists have taught us pretty much all that we know about the animal kingdom, but are there times when they are better off keeping their discoveries to themselves? A team of Australian researchers are now calling for some data on the location of endangered species to be withheld from scientific journals, in light of a mounting body of evidence that suggests poachers are using publicly available information to zero in on the animals.

"There are a lot of benefits to open-access online journals including an increased public awareness of science and citizen science participation, but for some species this benefit needs to be weighed against the risk of increased poaching," said Dr Benjamin Scheele from Australia National University and one of the authors of the new paper.

Scheele and lead researcher Professor David Lindenmayer point to the hunting down of the pink-tailed worm lizard, which is listed as "vulnerable," as a recent example. Within days of publishing their research that described its whereabouts, poachers began appearing on private property, apparently in search of the rare, legless Australian lizard.

"It didn't take long before we started getting phone calls from land owners saying they had people digging up the rocky areas where they live," says Professor Lindenmayer.

Writing in The Conversation, the researchers describe the Chinese cave gecko as another victim of easily accessible habitat data. Illegal trade of the creatures began very soon after the animals were first scientifically described in the early 2000's, and the researchers say that this is not an isolated case.

Rather than calling for any hard-and-fast rules around open-access publishing, the researchers say that scientists should be highly selective when it comes to publishing information on specific habitats and locations.

"People are just starting to withhold specific habitat and location information from publications, which is promising," said Scheele. "It shows that it is still possible to publish new scientific descriptions without including the location data. We argue that researchers are best placed to judge the risk to a species, so author self-censorship may currently be the best option to stop this crucial information getting used for the wrong reasons."

The paper was published in the journal Science.

Source: Australian National University