Published 2021-01-21

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InsectGapMap: identifying research gaps in biodiversity

A great deal is known about why insect populations are declining and what needs to be done to reverse this trend. Nevertheless, research on how to fund and implement conservation measures and gain broad social and political support for them is limited. This is shown by the InsectGapMap project, in which a new systematic identification method has been used. A report on this method and results to date is now available.

Globally, insect populations are subject to multiple threats: loss and degradation of habitats; invasive species; pollutants and pesticides; and climate change. At the same time, insects play a crucial role for significant ecosystem services and biodiversity. Many scientific studies have addressed the reasons why insect populations are dwindling and means of turning this trend around. However, knowledge of how to implement insect conservation actions, and how to obtain broad social and political backing for such work, is lacking.

Neal Haddaway, Senior Research Fellow, SEI.

Within Mistra’s process for new research investments, continuous analysis is under way — to find knowledge gaps where research funding can make a difference — of global trends and developments in the environmental sphere. As part of this analysis of the area concerned, biodiversity and measures to reverse habitat loss, scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and Eliza Grames, a PhD student at the University of Connecticut, used systematic mapping of literature reviews to identify research gaps in conservation actions for insect populations.

‘We wanted to get a rough idea of which areas may be worth researching further. So we developed a prototype that, using semi-automated data science tools, enabled us to quickly find areas that are underrepresented in academic literature. We showed that the tools can identify gaps with respect to insect species, biomes, regions and types of action,” relates Neal Haddaway, Senior Research Fellow at SEI.

Dictionary of conservation actions

Using algorithms for text analysis, the researchers identified some 50,000 potentially relevant documents. More than 11,000 of these were classified according to where they where conducted and which biomes, insect species and conservation measures were investigated.

‘To make the method work, we needed to tell the algorithms what to look for. The biggest challenge was to guarantee that we were using the right dictionary and terms to ensure that all the ways in which researchers describe actions, insects, regions and biomes were captured. Dictionaries like this are known as “ontologies” and we were able to use some existing ones in the area, but for the conservation actions we had to create our own from scratch. The work called for a great deal of thinking, planning and key inputs from some 40 entomologists, who very generously gave their time to join a workshop and compile the ontology.’

The ontology developed by Neal Haddaway and Eliza Grames in InsectGapMap comprises more than 800 individual actions from 9,000 literature reviews and other sources. Haddaway says the results tally with what many subject experts suspected about the literature: in many cases, there is substantial scientific evidence of effectiveness for individual actions. On the broader theories of change that involve institutional, political and social contexts that affect the impact of the measures in various contexts, however, the research is limited.

As stated in the report, the authors’ map ‘revealed large gaps in all areas of the ontology related to human dimensions of insect conservation: habitat protection, education and awareness, law and policy, and livelihood, economic and other incentives.’ . . . This highlights the greater need for integration of social science in conservation research to test whether actions that work in theory can also work in the “real world”,’ — a human context, in all its complexity.

‘Some words insulted experts’

Haddaway declares that he and his colleagues have ample confidence that the tools they designed in InsectGapMap can be used in several situations where the aim is to know more about gaps in the scientific literature.

Was there anything that surprised you during the project?

‘I always think it’s interesting to meet people with a different background. Our experts’ workshop made us realise that some of the words we were using to describe conservation actions in Europe, such as “intervention”, have extremely negative connotations in Australia and may even be perceived by some as insulting and off-putting. Similarly, we found that measures described in the Global North were completely intelligible to experts from Africa or Oceania. Managing the various terms was a true challenge when we were reviewing the literature, and it called for meticulous planning.’


The report InsectGapMap: A project to semi-automate research gap identification may be downloaded here. The project has resulted in an interactive platform that allows users to explore the results in greater depth. Read more here.

Webinar February 11th

Neal Haddaway and Eliza Grames have applied computational tools and semi-automatic methods to identify research gaps in the field of biodiversity and insect conservation. Welcome to this Mistra Dialogue-webinar in which these novel methods are presented and the report’s insights into the field of biodiversity and insect populations are discussed.    

Read more and sign on here!


The InsectGapMap project is part of Mistra’s ongoing analysis in the area of biodiversity.

To learn more, contact:

Linda Bell, Programmes Director at Mistra,

Thomas Nilsson, Programmes Director at Mistra,