The best way to Publish a Excessive-Profile Local weather Change Analysis Paper • Watts Up With That?
[In addition to the article I noted earlier today in The Free Press by Patrick Brown, Brown also wrote a post on his blog about his story~cr]
Regular readers of Watts Up With That have noticed that there aren’t many articles in high-profile journals that suggest there are any issues with the narrative that climate change impacts are pervasive and catastrophic. On his blog, Patrick T. Brown explains that “There is a formula for publishing climate change impacts research in the most prestigious and widely-read scientific journals. Following it brings professional success, but it comes at a cost to society.” His formula explains part of the reason we see so little skeptical research in those journals.
Patrick T. Brown is a Ph.D. climate scientist. He is a Co-Director of the Climate and Energy Team at The Breakthrough Institute and is an adjunct faculty member (lecturer) in the Energy Policy and Climate Program at Johns Hopkins University.
This month, he published a lead-author research paper in Nature on changes in extreme wildfire behavior under climate change. This is his third publication in Nature to go along with another in Nature’s climate-focused journal Nature Climate Change. He notes that “because Nature is one of the world’s most prestigious and visible scientific journals, getting published there is highly competitive, and it can significantly advance a researcher’s career.”
His article is based on this publication experience, as well as through various failures to get research published in these journals. He explains:
I have learned that there is a formula for success which I enumerate below in a four-item checklist. Unfortunately, the formula is more about shaping your research in specific ways to support pre-approved narratives than it is about generating useful knowledge for society.
Formula for Publishing Climate Changes Impact Research
Before describing his approach to get research published, he describes what is needed for useful scientific research. He says:
It should prize curiosity, dispassionate objectivity, commitment to uncovering the truth, and practicality. However, scientific research is carried out by people, and people tend to subconsciously prioritize more immediate personal goals tied to meaning, status, and professional advancement. Aligning the personal incentives that researchers face with the production of the most valuable information for society is critical for the public to get what it deserves from the research that they largely fund, but the current reality falls far short of this ideal.
Brown explains that the “publish or perish” mentality in academic research is necessary. In addition, it also matters “which journals you publish in”. It turns out a “researcher’s career depends on their work being widely known and perceived as important.” Because there is so much competition now it has become more important to publish in the highly regarded journals” “while there has always been a tremendous premium placed on publishing in the most high-profile scientific journals – namely Nature and its rival Science – this has never been more true.” As a result, “savvy researchers will tailor their studies to maximize their likelihood of being accepted.” In his article he explains just how he did it.
First, he offers general advice:
My overarching advice for getting climate change impacts research published in a high-profile journal is to make sure that it supports the mainstream narrative that climate change impacts are pervasive and catastrophic, and the primary way to deal with them is not through practical adaptation measures but through policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, the paper should try to check at least four boxes.
The first box to hit is that it is that “climate change impacts something of value is usually sufficient, and it is not typically necessary to show that the impact is large compared to other relevant influences.” In order to do this there are tradeoffs:
In my recent Nature paper, we focused on the influence of climate change on extreme wildfire behavior but did not bother to quantify the influence of other obviously relevant factors like changes in human ignitions or the effect of poor forest management. I knew that considering these factors would make for a more realistic and useful analysis, but I also knew that it would muddy the waters and thus make the research more difficult to publish.
This type of framing, where the influence of climate change is unrealistically considered in isolation, is the norm for high-profile research papers. For example, in another recent influential Nature paper, they calculated that the two largest climate change impacts on society are deaths related to extreme heat and damage to agriculture. However, that paper does not mention that climate change is not the dominant driver for either one of these impacts: temperature-related deaths have been declining, and agricultural yields have been increasing for decades despite climate change.
The second box is to avoid discussion of anything that could reduce the impact of climate change:
This brings me to the second component of the formula, which is to ignore or at least downplay near-term practical actions that can negate the impact of climate change. If deaths related to outdoor temperatures are decreasing and agricultural yields are increasing, then it stands to reason that we can overcome some major negative effects of climate change. It is then valuable to study how we have been able to achieve success so that we can facilitate more of it. However, there is a strong taboo against studying or even mentioning successes since they are thought to undermine the motivation for emissions reductions. Identifying and focusing on problems rather than studying the effectiveness of solutions makes for more compelling abstracts that can be turned into headlines, but it is a major reason why high-profile research is not as useful to society as it could be.
His third component is to focus the presentation on alarm:
A third element of a high-profile climate change research paper is to focus on metrics that are not necessarily the most illuminating or relevant but rather are specifically designed to generate impressive numbers. In the case of our paper, we followed the common convention of focusing on changes in the risk of extreme wildfire events rather than simpler and more intuitive metrics like changes in the amount of acres burned. The sacrifice of clarity for the sake of more impressive numbers was probably necessary for it to get into Nature.
Another related convention, which we also followed in our paper, is to report results corresponding to time periods that are not necessarily relevant to society but, again, get you the large numbers that justify the importance of your research. For example, it is standard practice to report societal climate change impacts associated with how much warming has occurred since the industrial revolution but to ignore or “hold constant” societal changes over that time. This makes little sense from a practical standpoint since societal changes have been much larger than climate changes since the 1800s. Similarly, it is conventional to report projections associated with distant future warming scenarios now thought to be implausible while ignoring potential changes in technology and resilience.
The good news is that Brown has transitioned out of a tenure-track academic position to one that does not require high-impact publications. He explains a better approach than what is necessary to publish there:
A much more useful analysis for informing adaptation decisions would focus on changes in climate from the recent past that living people have actually experienced to the foreseeable future – the next several decades – while accounting for changes in technology and resilience. In the case of my recent Nature paper, this would mean considering the impact of climate change in conjunction with proposed reforms to forest management practices over the next several decades (research we are conducting now). This more practical kind of analysis is discouraged, however, because looking at changes in impacts over shorter time periods and in the context of other relevant factors reduces the calculated magnitude of the impact of climate change, and thus it appears to weaken the case for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
The final key to publication is presentation:
The final and perhaps most insidious element of producing a high-profile scientific research paper has to do with the clean, concise format of the presentation. These papers are required to be short, with only a few graphics, and thus there is little room for discussion of complicating factors or contradictory evidence. Furthermore, such discussions will weaken the argument that the findings deserve the high-profile venue. This incentivizes researchers to assemble and promote only the strongest evidence in favor of the case they are making. The data may be messy and contradictory, but that messiness has to be downplayed and the data shoehorned into a neat compelling story. This encouragement of confirmation bias is, of course, completely contradictory to the spirit of objective truth-seeking that many imagine animates the scientific enterprise.
Brown explains that despite the allowances he had to make to get it his work published there still is value in it:
All this is not to say that I think my recent Nature paper is useless. On the contrary, I do think it advances our understanding of climate change’s role in day-to-day wildfire behavior. It’s just that the process of customizing the research for a high-profile journal caused it to be less useful than it could have been. I am now conducting the version of this research that I believe adds much more practical value for real-world decisions. This entails using more straightforward metrics over more relevant timeframes to quantify the impact of climate change on wildfire behavior in the context of other important influences like changes in human ignition patterns and changes in forest management practices.
Brown explains his motivations and his new plans:
But why did I follow the formula for producing a high-profile scientific research paper if I don’t believe it creates the most useful knowledge for society? I did it because I began this research as a new assistant professor facing pressure to establish myself in a new field and to maximize my prospects of securing respect from my peers, future funding, tenure, and ultimately a successful career. When I had previously attempted to deviate from the formula I outlined here, my papers were promptly rejected out of hand by the editors of high-profile journals without even going to peer review. Thus, I sacrificed value added for society in order to for the research to be compatible with the preferred narratives of the editors.
I have now transitioned out of a tenure-track academic position, and I feel liberated to direct my research toward questions that I think are more useful for society, even if they won’t make for clean stories that are published in high-profile venues. Stepping outside of the academy also removes the reservations I had to call out the perverse incentives facing scientific researchers because I no longer have to worry about the possibility of burning bridges and ruining my chances of ever publishing in a Nature journal again.
So what can shift the research landscape towards a more honest and useful treatment of climate change impacts? A good place to start would be for the editors of high-profile scientific journals to widen the scope of what is eligible for their stamp of approval and embrace their ostensible policies that encourage out-of-the-box thinking that challenges conventional wisdom. If they can open the door to research that places the impacts of climate change in the appropriate context, uses the most relevant metrics, gives serious treatment to societal changes in resilience, and is more honest about contradictory evidence, a wider array of valuable research will be published, and the career goals of researchers will be better aligned with the production of the most useful decision support for society.
Roger Caiazza blogs on New York energy and environmental issues at Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York. This represents his opinion and not the opinion of any of his previous employers or any other company with which he has been associated.