PARIS: In a controversial bid to expose supposed bias in a top journal, a US climate expert shocked fellow scientists by revealing he tailored a wildfire study to emphasise global warming.
While supporters applauded Patrick T. Brown for flagging what he called a one-sided climate “narrative” in academic publishing, his move surprised at least one of his co-authors — and angered the editors of leading journal Nature.
“I left out the full truth to get my climate change paper published,” read the headline to an article signed by Brown in the news site The Free Press on Sept 5.
He said he deliberately focused on the impact from higher temperatures on wildfire risk in a study in the journal, excluding other factors such as land management.
This news agency covered the study in an article on Aug 30 headlined: “Climate change boosts risk of extreme wildfires 25pc”.
“I just got published in Nature because I stuck to a narrative I knew the editors would like,” the article read. “That’s not the way science should work.”
One of the named co-authors of the study, Steven J. Davis, a professor in the earth system science department at the University of California, Irvine, said Brown’s comments took him “by surprise”.
“Patrick may have made decisions that he thought would help the paper be published, but we don’t know whether a different paper would have been rejected,” he said in an email.
“I don’t think he has much evidence to support his strong claims that editors and reviewers are biased.” Brown is co-director of the climate and energy team at the Breakthrough Institute, a private non-profit group that researches technological responses to environmental issues, including boosting nuclear energy.
He did not respond to a request to comment following his Sept 5 revelation but wrote about it in detail on his blog and on X, formerly known as Twitter.
A number of tweets applauded Brown for his “bravery”, “openness” and “transparency”. Others said his move raised ethical questions.
His presentation of the research in the study “is a choice, but to boast about it publicly is next level”, tweeted David Ho, a climate scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks cases of academic papers being withdrawn, said Brown’s move “ends up feeling like a sting operation… of questionable ethics”. “Do scientists clean up the narrative to have a stronger story? Absolutely. Do scientists need to publish in order to keep their jobs? Absolutely,” Oransky said. “It’s just that he got there by a remarkably flawed logic experiment that of course is convincing all of the people who are already convinced that scientists are not rigorous and honest about climate change in particular.”
Nature’s editor-in-chief Magdalena Skipper dismissed Brown’s actions as “irresponsible”, arguing that they reflected “poor research practices”. She stressed that the key issue of other climate variables in the study was discussed during peer-review.
Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2023