Publication, Conformity, Climate Science

Dr Patrick Brown, an American scientist, and co-director of the Breakthrough Institute’s Climate and Energy Team, recently published a paper in the world’s leading academic science journal Nature. Brown’s paper showed that increases in temperature since the industrial revolution are responsible for a 25% increase in the risk of wildfires in California spreading at a rate that is considered “extreme”. 

Six days after publishing the paper Brown published an article in The Free Press. Here he argues that climate science papers are more likely to be accepted by top journals such as Nature and Science if they follow a particular narrative. This narrative, crudely, is: “climate change makes bad thing X happen”. 

More specifically, Brown argues that research is more likely to be published in a top journal if it focuses solely on climate change, and dismisses other non-climate factors. For example, Brown’s paper in Nature focussed specifically on the impact of climate change on wildfires, and does not consider the impact of other factors. A paper with a greater chance of success will tell a “clean” story. It will lack the “mess and nuance” introduced by considering non-climate factors. Brown also argues that research is more likely to be published if it focusses on the negative consequences of climate change, and not on how to mitigate or avoid these negative consequences. 

The fact that Nature and Science are more likely to publish papers which follow this narrative is well understood by climate researchers, Brown argues. Publishing in one of these journals is one of the primary ways to advance an academic career – so researchers pay attention to what gets published, and what does not. There is a strong incentive for researchers to produce work that conforms to the standard narrative. The process is self-reinforcing. The more conforming work gets published, the more visible it is that conforming work offers the best chance of publication, and so the more conforming work gets submitted for publication. 

Crucially, adapting research to the mainstream narrative need not involve (and there is no reason to suppose that in practise it does involve) manipulating or misrepresenting data. In most cases, conformity can be ensured simply by careful selection and framing of the research topic in question. Dr Brown’s paper is a case in point. 

Brown could (he states) have written a paper which outlined the effects of climate change on wildfires together with various important non-climate factors, such as, for instance, population distribution and fire management policies. He could have discussed the relative importance of these factors, and how they interact. He could have made suggestions as to what would help most to minimise the risk of wildfires in the future. However, Brown had already had several such “less clean” papers rejected from top journals. He therefore decided to focus only on the effects of climate change. 

The resultant paper, though it succeeded in getting published, was much less useful than it might have been. To reduce the risk of wildfire, we must understand the relative importance of its various causes – climatic and non-climatic. Policy makers must know which policies, e.g. reducing emissions, better fire management or reducing fuel load, are most effective. Brown’s envisaged “messy” paper would have helped climate scientists and policy makers to understand and compare these causes and policies. His actual, published, paper does not. Researchers across all the climate science disciplines tend, like Brown, to focus their research on what is publishable rather than what is useful. The result is that our understanding of climate change, and climate policy, is impoverished. 

One way to establish whether Brown’s claims are correct would be to review the papers on climate accepted by Nature and Science. Brown is currently working on such a review, and aims to publish in six weeks time. He also reports that since publication of his article in The Free Press many climate academics have contacted him privately to tell him that they agree with his claims. Why they have done so privately is not hard to see. Brown has been heavily abused online and in the climate media. Dr Gavin Schmidt, Director of NASA’s GISS climate laboratory, has smeared Brown’s claims as “monumentally unethical”. Brown has been widely and falsely reported as having lied about or manipulated his data.  

Dr Magdalena Skipper, editor- in- chief of Nature, has offered more substantial criticism of Brown. She claims that “the issue of the lack of inclusion of variables other than climate change was highlighted” during the peer-review of Brown’s paper, “but the authors themselves argued against including it”. Both claims are categorically false. One reviewer did question whether Brown had successfully managed to measure the effects of climate change on wildfires in isolation from non-climate factors, yet at no point in the peer-review process did reviewers suggest that Brown ought to have measured the effects of non-climate factors. In his response, Brown did not argue against the inclusion of non-climate factors, but merely that he had successfully measured the effects of climate change in isolation. The full comments of the reviewers, and Brown’s responses can be found here. Brown’s detailed responses to Skipper’s criticism are here

Brown thinks that the politicisation of climate research is responsible for these pressures on writers and editors. Climate scientists are conscious of the urgency of the need to act on climate change. They fear that any research which does not stress clearly and cleanly the negative effects of climate change may impede the political and public will to act. Papers which tell a nuanced, messy story are politically unwelcome. They are scrutinised more closely than conformist papers, or sometimes rejected automatically. They are less likely to be published in journals such as Nature which are explicitly concerned with having a “high impact”. Brown notes that these problems do not seem to affect fields remote from politics, such as palaeontology or astrophysics. 

Strikingly, many articles criticising Brown mention that his claims have been circulated, in misleading form, by climate-change deniers. Fear of “fuelling denialism” is rife. We should not allow this fear to devour those who are, in fact, trying to improve the quality of climate research.