Author’s note: I have been a book nerd for as long as I can remember.  My reading habits drove my parents crazy. I was always in trouble for reading past bedtime, reading instead of completing chores or reading while also attempting to do everyday activities like walking, eating or showering (yes, really). It should be no surprise that my appetite for literature followed me through school and into my career. 

One of the things that did surprise me after I left college was just how hard it became to access the journal articles that had become a regular part of my life. All of the sudden journals required subscriptions – paid subscriptions! The local library didn’t subscribe to the International Journal of Wildland Fire, Rangeland Ecology & Management, or Natural Hazards. Yet, the knowledge contained within those pages helped me do my job. Researchers had wrestled with questions like what motivates residents to act or how best to communicate during crises and had published their findings…but I couldn’t access their lessons. This blog post is designed to help practitioners access the science, research, and peer-reviewed literature so vital to our understanding of fire, people, and landscapes so that we can do more to change our places and help more communities become fire adapted.

A woman sits at a computer

Exploring the online world of journal access, webinars, and science exchanges can expand your work and practice. Photo courtesy of Michael Sturgeon.

Knowledge is Power

The wildfire issues we tackle in our communities are significant, complicated, and difficult. There are a multitude of facets involved and the science is both social and biophysical. As a result, community wildfire practitioners need to make the best use of every tool available in order to achieve better fire outcomes. Research, and the insights it yields, is an important tool in our toolbox and something that underpins all our work. While not every community will have access to specific, place-based research that answers their exact questions in their exact place, there is still a wealth of knowledge that can help inform our actions. From a summary of research results from the wildland-urban interface to a better understanding of the environmental justice implications of hazardous fuel management, the work of scientists and researchers can help us do our work better. When it comes to wildfire, it is as important for us as practitioners to have access to current and accurate social science as it is for us to have access to biophysical risk information.

It’s been heartening to see an increased emphasis on the connection between researchers and practitioners. The idea of getting the latest and most practical fire science into the hands of those working on the ground has seen a recent uptick.  This includes the recognition of experiential knowledge among wildfire practitioners, legitimate co-production of research, and the ability of practitioners to access the latest science in their field. There is a wealth of wildfire research – social, biological, ecological – but it isn’t always easy to find, especially since we already are so busy doing our daily jobs. This blog is focused on giving you some tools to find the latest research and science necessary to do our work.

Resources to Access Research

The resources provided below assume a) practitioners do not have access to journal subscriptions through an educational institution and b) practitioners are looking for free resources. If you have the budget for subscriptions, that obviously makes things a bit easier!  Support the work that matters to you by purchasing a subscription. If you can’t afford multiple subscriptions, read on for research access tips!

Journal Access

While some journals are open access (Fire Management Today and Fire), meaning that articles are free for readers, most do require a subscription or purchase to read. One way to stay current without having a paid subscription is to subscribe to the journal alert for those publications you wish to follow.  Publishers like CSIRO (home of the International Journal of Wildland Fire), Springer and Oxford Academic (home of the Journal of Forestry) all have free email alert systems you can sign-up for to receive table of contents alerts when new publications are released. While these alerts will not provide you with the full-text of an article, they will usually provide the abstract and author information. Occasionally, an article is released as full-text (or “open access” meaning free!) so you can read without a subscription! However, if the abstract appeals to you but the article is not open access, there are other techniques to help source the entire work.

Best for: Practitioners who want to stay current on general wildfire-related research but are not seeking a specific journal article or reference.

Tip: Many of the publishers enable you to select the type and frequency of email notification. I find that my inbox can be overwhelmed with these alerts…so think about how often you want this information before you check boxes!

The cover of the Journal of Forestry

The January 2021 Cover of the Journal of Forestry, accessible through a paid subscription to Oxford Academic, but the Table of Contents and abstracts are free to access.

Search Engines

Articles that are written or published by employees of the USDA Forest Service are available at Treesearch. This gives you access to research by those working at or with any of the USDA Forest Service Research Stations or Laboratories. While there can be a slight lag between the publishing date and an article’s availability on Treesearch, it’s still is a great place for frustration-free searching. All of the results generated through the search are full-text and free.

Screenshot of the search menu for Treesearch

The search form on Treesearch – there are over 55,000 full text articles for free!

Google Scholar is a simple search hosted by Google which focuses on scholarly journals and articles.   The results can be sorted by relevance or date. If the article is available in full-text, a link appears on the right-hand side of the screen. Articles available on University websites or research hubs like ResearchGate are also included. Note that this search engine will generate results that are not automatically open-access.

Screenshot of results on Google Scholar

Google Scholar Search Results for “wildfire” – full text articles appear on the right.

Best for:  Practitioners with a specific article, author, or topic in mind.

Tip: Determining which term to search is a critical step in getting good results from your initial query!  Searching the term “wildfire” returns 335,000 results. If you search the term “wildfire urban interface” your results are reduced significantly (30,900 results) but are still overwhelming! Using additional topical terms like “communication” or “behavior” can help continue to narrow your results. Focusing on the questions that drive your work (How do I better reach part-time residents? What information should be communicated in evacuation warnings? Who does my community trust?) can help guide your search terms.

 

Networking Platforms

Screenshot of drawing from Research GateResearchGate is a free platform that helps facilitate research-based connections. Profiles are free. After creating a username and password, you can search for researchers or articles. Following a researcher provides notification when they publish a new article. If an article is not currently available in full-text, you are able to request it from the author.

Best for: People who like to follow specific researchers or topics, or who like to trace threads of research (people who publish together or collaborate).

Tips: ResearchGate profiles offer opportunities to highlight your professional experience and areas of interest. As practitioners, we often discount the considerable knowledge gained through experience over time. Don’t be afraid to highlight the work you are undertaking!

 

Newsletters and Blogs

While not exclusively research-driven, newsletters can be a good place to start. Newsletters like the FLN Networker and Stanford Social Innovation Review or blogs like FAC Net’s often highlight researchers, webinar opportunities, or workshops. You can also sign-up for the Joint Fire Science Program’s Friday Flash eNews and look at past issues here.

Webinars

Webinar series can be a great place to hear directly from researchers in a format that is approachable and easily digested. FAC Net recently hosted a Research You Can Use panel and the video presentations are available here. The Rocky Mountain Research Station also has a fantastic webinar series.  The Fire Science Exchange Network and their fifteen regional science consortiums often host topical webinars and post research publications. Locate the fire consortium near you (along the left-hand side of this page) for specific regional opportunities!

 

Other Practitioners

Here at FAC Net, we believe in the power of connection! If you have questions about how to do your work more effectively, or how to better understand your community, consider calling another community wildfire practitioner in your area. They may have insights, or a copy of a particularly relevant article, to help you find your way.

 

Understanding What You Find

Once you have sourced a full-text article, sifting through the methods and statistical analyses can be daunting. Research summaries and science bulletins are great places to begin if you find yourself frustrated; they are often written in plain-text and provide excellent “take-aways.”

As you begin sifting through a full-text journal article, just remember that most articles have fairly predictable patterns: a short abstract to preview what you will be reading about, an Graphic of the layout of a scientific journal article introduction to explain the central questions the research sought to answer, a central section with methods and results (often where the statistics come into play) and a discussion where the authors summarize findings, draw conclusions and/or note future research needs.  One of the best parts of any good article (for those who enjoy the research hunt at least) is the Literature Cited section: a treasure trove of articles cited by the authors that informed their thinking and work – this often sends you down another fascinating road to learn more!

One important caveat!  With any search for information, it is important to evaluate what you have found. Is the article from a peer reviewed journal?  Do you know the authors?  Do they have any conflicts of interest (sometimes it helps to know how the research was funded when evaluating this question)?   Did the paper explain how the authors collected information and do those methods seem sound?  While practitioners often feel unqualified to evaluate research methodology, practitioners know their field.  Does the logic the authors used to answer the questions they posed make sense to you?  The more research you read, the more comfortable you will become evaluating what you find.

Regardless of which tools you select to access research, the important thing is to remember that the questions you have about how to better do your work in your place may have been tackled before. Don’t be afraid to go looking because knowledge is power and inspiration may lie in others who have walked this path before.

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