by Judith Curry
A recent series of posts by Climate Brief has some interesting answers and raises some important questions.
What are the most influential climate change papers of all time?
Carbon Brief asked lead authors and review editors of the IPCC AR5: What was the most influential climate change paper of all time? Here’s what they said [link]:
Winner: Manabe & Wetherald ( 1967) “Thermal Equilibrium of the Atmosphere with a Given Distribution of Relative Humidity”, the work was the first to represent the fundamental elements of the Earth’s climate in a computer model, and to explore what doubling carbon dioxide (CO2) would do to global temperature.
Joint second: Keeling, C.D et al. ( 1976) “Atmospheric carbon dioxide variations at Mauna Loa observatory,”
Also in joint second place: Held, I.M. & Soden, B.J. (2006) “Robust Responses of the Hydrological Cycle to Global Warming“.
Read the original article for other papers that ranked highly.
No surprises here; these papers are certainly plausible choices for most influential papers. Standing the test time, and continuing to be regarded as important, is something that few scientific papers manage to accomplish.
The most prolific and cited climate change authors
Carbon Brief then followed up with another post: The most cited climate change papers. Their methodology was to search Scopus for the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ in the title or abstract. Here is the distribution of papers that appeared by field:
It seems that Earth and Planetary Sciences, which is presumably where the field of climate dynamics lives (e.g WG1 topics), is the source of only a small fraction of papers using ‘climate change’ in their titles or abstracts.
The list of most prolific authors:
- Phillippe Ciais
- Richard Tol
- Josep Penuelas
- Gerald Meehl
- Seppo Kellomaki
- John Smol
- Nils Christian Stenseth
- Pete Smith
- Phil Jones
I am familiar with the work of 3 scientists on this list, and have vaguely heard of a few others. I suspect that most climate dynamics papers don’t have ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ in the title/abstract and hence wouldn’t be counted. In any event, climate dynamics authors may not be as prolific as authors writing in these ancillary subfields (covered by WG2 and WG3), particularly agricultural and biologic sciences.
Carbon Brief recognizes that the number of publications does not equate to impact, hence they look at citations:
The top paper, with 3,305 citations, is ” A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems”, by Camille Parmesan and Gary Yohe.
In runners-up spot is an Ecological Modelling paper from 2000, ” Predictive habitat distribution models in ecology”, with 2,746 citations by Antoine Guisan, and Niklaus Zimmerman .
And coming in third is ” Extinction risk from climate change”, with 2,562 citations by Chris Thomas et al..
I have read none of these papers (although I have heard of the paper by Parmesan and Yohe).
There seems to be an enormous cottage industry of scientists in ancillary subfields writing a lot of papers about climate change impacts, that dominate the climate change literature (and probably the funding, if it was tracked). Will any of these papers stand the test of time like the Manabe and Wetherald paper has? I suspect that nearly all these papers from the ancillary subfields implicitly assume (97% and all that) that recent climate change is attributed to humans (without having any first order understanding of climate dynamics and climate change attribution). Especially if humans turn out not to be the dominant cause of recent climate change and particularly extreme events, these publications will not stand the test of time and and the cottage industry of climate impacts will shrivel. We shall see.
The climate change papers most featured in the media
The third article in this series by Carbon Brief is The climate change papers most featured in the media. Articles since July 2011 were tracked using altmetrics that measure mainstream and social media attention.
The article coming out on top is “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature” by lead author John Cook.
Coming in second, with a score of 1,733, is ” The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to two degrees” by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins.
Third place goes to Projected increases in lightning strikes in the United States due to global warming, by David Romps.
Fourth is “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought, by lead author Colin Kelley
Fifth is James Hansen’s paper Assessing ‘dangerous climate change’: Required reduction of carbon emissions to protect young people, future generations and nature.
Sixth place: Matthew England, Recent identification of wind-driven circulation in the Pacific and the ongoing warming hiatus.
Seventh place: Jim Hansen, Public perception of climate change and the new climate dice.
Eighth place: Aaron Davis, The impact of climate change on indigenous Arabica coffee: predicting future trends and identifying priorities.
Ninth place: Byron Steinman, Michael Mann et al., Atlantic and Pacific multidecadal oscillations and Northern Hemisphere temperatures
Tenth place: Ben Marzeion, Attribution of global glacier loss
This list makes me want to tear my hair out. I’ve read four of these papers, and have read about another 4 (haven’t previously heard of 2). At least half of these papers have been debunked either in the blogosphere or in the journals (the turn around time to get a comment actually published is quite slow, and the author of the original paper has lots of opportunity to slow down the process).
More than 25% of the top 100 papers were published by Nature Climate Change. Nature Climate Change is clearly going for the headlines/altmetrics, with the unfortunate result that a substantial fraction of their highest profile papers don’t even survive their press release.
I find Carbon Brief’s analyses to be pretty insightful, particularly when considered together.
As a research scientist, I aspire to have published a handful of papers that continue to be cited 20 years after the date of publication – I would define that to indicate ‘standing the test of time.’ If a paper stands the test of time AND garners a significant number of citations in terms of influencing the direction of a line of research, well I would call that genuine scientific impact.
University faculty members are evaluated on the impact of their publications. Obviously publications by young scientists can’t easily be evaluated for genuine impact (since by definition they haven’t stood the test of time). I suspect that the ‘flash’ associated with media attention may be becoming a substitute for genuine impact, especially at the second tier of research universities (below say the top 20). I also suspect that research funding success is not uncorrelated to ‘flash’ media attention. If my suspicions are correct, then the message that we are giving young researchers as to how to ‘succeed’ is not commensurate with producing papers of genuine importance and lasting impact.
So, should the success of a scientist rely on issuing a press release and being savvy about social media? Scientists are encouraged to communicate their research to the public (I certainly applaud this), but media hits should not be a desired end in itself for scientists. However, scientists with a high public profile in the media often receive substantial professional recognition and prestigious appointments. Sometimes a high public profile is associated with substantial contributions; but too often it is associated with dubious science, advocacy and tribal leadership. Junk science can ‘pay’.
This is a disturbing situation for climate science, and I hope to see more analyses along these lines to shine a light and better understand the dynamics of scientific publishing in the field of climate science.