Apr 28, 2010

IPCC Falls for Press Release Masquerade

Those with an informed view of journalism know that some news articles are simply press releases in disguise. A reporter in a hurry will snip a little here, reorganize a little there - and presto! they have a story to file.

Such activities bear little relation to the romantic notion of the hard-nosed journalist who, much like a detective, begins with an open mind, digs deep, and then tenaciously pursues the story wherever it leads. In the real world few journalists behave that way, only the rarest of publications reward such behaviour, and readers with busy lives and short attention spans often just want the basics.

Which brings me to The Forestry Chronicle, published by the Canadian Institute of Forestry. Part trade magazine and part scholarly journal, it keeps readers abreast of new developments. Pages 8 to 15 of the January-February 2004 edition were devoted to "National News" and one of the items appearing there was titled: "Government of Canada and Canadian Pulp and Paper Industry Agree on Blueprint for Climate Change Action."

Those involved in preparing this news item had no way of anticipating that, three years later, it would get cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But that is what happened. In the references at the end of Chapter 7 of the report written by the IPCC's Working Group 2, the news item is listed like this:
Anon, 2004: Government of Canada and Canadian pulp and paper industry agree on blueprint for climate change action. Forest. Chronic., 80, 9. [bold added]
SIDEBAR: Allow me to digress for a moment. A number of the citizen auditors who helped examine all 18,531 references in the climate bible commented on the poor quality of many of these references. It's almost as if the IPCC went out of its way to obscure publication names, to throw up barriers against the uninitiated.

Take a look at the bolded part of the reference above. Both words have been abbreviated even though this accomplished little. The first word - Forestry - normally has eight characters. In its abbreviated form it contains seven (because a period must be inserted). The same goes for the second word. Chronicle - if fully spelled out so that there's no mystery - contains nine characters. But the IPCC chose to abbreviate it to eight.

Whatever rationale explains this, the end result is that readers trying to follow the conversation must first play hide and seek with many of the references on which the IPCC bases its arguments. Step one is figuring out what the full publication name actually is. (Had the IPCC provided a list of abbreviations and then used them consistently throughout the report, that would be another matter. But it did not.)

And since we're on the subject of reference formatting, it is standard practice in academic circles that journal names are italicized. Science and Nature on down demand this as a matter of course from their authors. Italics provide a visual cue so that readers may quickly determine the source of a citation. Although we hear a great deal about the high-quality of the IPCC's scholarship, it's worth noting that it can't be bothered to follow this simple convention.

Apr. 30 UPDATE: I am embarrassed to report that I'm mistaken regarding this last point. In the online version of the references, journal names are, in fact, italicized. Because formatting depends on a style sheet internal to the IPCC's website, however, when one cuts-and-pastes the references into a new document (as I did in order to send the list of chapter references to citizen auditors) the italics disappear. My apologies to the IPCC and to readers.

But let us return to the news item. The eagle eye of a citizen auditor noticed that it bears the same title as a 2003 government of Canada press release. Was this, in fact, merely a reprint? Had the IPCC inadvertently based its analysis on yet another media release?

Answering these questions required that we examine the article that appeared in The Forestry Chronicle. But that content is behind an online paywall and although several of our citizen auditors were academics with electronic access to an array of journals, no one seemed to have the keys to this specific publication.

I therefore sent an e-mail to the appropriate IPCC technical support unit (there's one for each working group) which began: "I'm hoping you can help me. I would like to read [the] full text of this article, cited in Chapter 7 of the Working Group 2 report..." [mea culpa, I left out the "the" in my e-mail]

The next day, the IPCC replied (kudos to them for their prompt response), regretting that they couldn't be of assistance:

Unfortunately, we are unable to provide subscription access to online journals cited in IPCC Assessment Reports. Perhaps you might check your local library as they frequently have thousands of subscriptions to online journals such as The Forestry Chronicles. [sic, bold added]
Sigh. I wrote back, asking them to please re-check their records. Since the article in question appeared to be a non-peer-reviewed news item I argued it was surely covered by the policies described on page 14 of this IPCC document. According to the IPCC's own policies and procedures, the news article should have been collected prior to the first round of IPCC expert reviews - so that it could be provided to any reviewers wishing to read it for themselves.

I quoted from the first paragraph at the top of page 14 which explains that those policies:
...have been designed to make all references used in IPCC Reports easily accessible and to ensure that the IPCC process remains open and transparent. [bold added]
Well, what do you know? After I cited chapter and verse the IPCC replied with an e-mail that read, in its entirety:
Here is the complete text of the article you requested. You will find it on page 9 of the attached document.
A PDF of the entire news section from the relevant edition of The Forestry Chronicle accompanied this e-mail. See pages 8-9 here.

Inch by inch, row by row, I now had my answer. The IPCC had, indeed, based its arguments on yet another press release. This time, though, the press release had masqueraded as a news item.
The original press release is 700 words long. The news item published in The Forestry Chronicle is 480 words. The Chronicle cut four paragraphs from the press release and re-wrote the release’s first five words. In every other respect, the text is identical. A press release was transformed into a news article that was later cited as evidence by the IPCC's climate bible - a document on which governments around the world base multi-billion-dollar decisions.

This story, however, does not end here. There's a whole second chapter. Stayed tuned.


>> What the IPCC learned from press releases
>> The Stern Review scandal
>> IPCC reliance on grey literature 30 times greater than UK threshold
>> What's left if we disregard non-peer-reviewed claims?