Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Grey Literature: IPCC Insiders Speak Candidly

In February 2008 Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), addressed a committee of the North Carolina legislature. He declared to these assembled law-makers (as he has in many other contexts before and since), that:

…we carry out an assessment of climate change based on peer-reviewed literature, so everything that we look at and take into account in our assessments has to carry [the] credibility of peer-reviewed publications, we don’t settle for anything less than that. [bold added]

Someone needs to tell the committee it was seriously misled. Last April a citizen audit coordinated by yours truly found that nearly one-third of the references in the IPCC’s 2007 report cite non-peer-reviewed sources (often referred to as “grey literature”).

More recently, I’ve been examining the answers IPCC insiders provided to a questionnaire distributed by an InterAcademy Council committee that investigated the IPCC last year. These answers make it abundantly clear numerous individuals knew that Pachauri’s public statements were at odds with the facts.

The quotes below are drawn from this three-megabyte 678-page PDF. The names of those who provided these remarks were removed prior to the document being made public. All bolding has been added by me.

Non-peer-reviewed literature should obviously be minimized but cannot be totally avoided. (page 2)

…the length of the [IPCC report] was constrained, so the number of citations was constrained. Hence, reviews (including those in the “grey” literature) were strongly favored if those reviews cited the primary literature. (p. 7)

In some fields non-peer reviewed is the way the science is done. It just has to be carefully used and identified clearly. (p. 22)

There cannot be any assessment of impacts and possible response strategies to climate change on peer-reviewed literature only. (p. 48)

My WG III chapter depended heavily on non-peer reviewed literature and I have yet to hear a complaint about its quality. (p. 52)

Governments want the chapter to cover questions of current relevance for which there [is] often “grey literature” but little peer reviewed literature. (p. 68)

…to address some of the policy topics it is necessary to use non-peer-reviewed literature. (p. 69)

Working Groups 2 and 3 make more reference to non-peer reviewed literature…The IPCC assessments are very inclusive and include a comprehensive analysis of all existing literature… (p. 74)

Some of the most policy relevant information does not appear in peer reviewed literature. Without it the IPCC could become irrelevant. (p. 119)

If I take it that the role of IPCC is to sift available knowledge on climate-related to help policymakers then the use of grey literature is unavoidable as, especially in the [Working Group 2 and 3] domains, there is a great deal of relevant insight outside the peer-reviewed academic literature. It would be a ducking of responsibility to omit this literature… (p. 123)

Some grey literature is essential as there is nothing else… (p. 128)

Adaptation is increasingly occurring on the ground and being reported in non-journal-based literature. If [Working Group 2] cannot assess this broad range of literature, its assessment will not be at the cutting-edge. (p. 148)

I agree that references to non-journal materials are necessary. Especially for regional impacts and adaptation most of useful materials are in technical reports issued by national research institutes…Without using those materials it is difficult to produce a useful report. (p. 219)

Considering the evolving nature of the science, the assessments would be lacking if alternative sources to peer-reviewed literature were not considered. (p. 225)

…it is necessary to draw on the grey literature, to capture (for example) engineering knowledge, or information from regions for which there is little journal-published literature. (p. 229)

…there are vast amounts of information and data that are not published in scientific papers, some of which is also reviewed as strongly as peer-review papers, and without which the assessments of the IPCC would not be possible. Adaptation, much of which is done autonomously, or by agencies of all sorts, may never be published, and yet it is critical for a correct assessment. (p. 241)

The issue of non-peer reviewed literature has been a point of ongoing debate in IPCC. For a number of areas of IPCC work non-peer reviewed literature is absolutely essential, because the peer reviewed literature does not cover enough relevant information. (p. 257)

Academic work is not enough to cover all places and all sectors, which inevitably needs “non-peer-reviewed (Grey) literature”. (p. 264)

As to the [Working Group 2], those Grey literature play a huge role to cover local findings. (p. 264)

I think the inclusion of grey literature should continue… (p. 284)

I think there is a need to consider more non-peer reviewed literature (sometimes called grey literature), as this often reflects recent developments… (p. 293)

Particularly for [Working Groups 2 and 3], it is important to go beyond the peer-reviewed journal literature. This is the case for several reasons…Even in [Working Group 1], much of the actual data on observations appears in tables and reports rather than in the peer-reviewed literature… (p. 313)

Thus, I think IPCC has to continue to be open to using information and ideas from outside the peer-reviewed journals… (p. 314)

Grey literature is unavoidable in some areas… (p. 378)

In my area, policy, non-peer-reviewed literature is essential for latest information and comprehensive review of state of the art. (p. 405)

The use of non-peer-reviewed literature is necessary… (p. 408)

Many emerging topics eg. on technologies require extensive use of reports and non-peer-reviewed literature. (p. 423)

Non peer reviewed literature must be taken into account, in particular where local impacts are evaluated. (p. 458)

Non-peer-reviewed literature should be avoided whenever possible. But there [are] many cases where such literature has to be taken into account. (p. 469)

Some chapters rely heavily on gray literature while ignoring peer-reviewed literature on the same matter (e.g., Ch 7 WG2). (p. 543)

The pressure from [developing countries] to use publications in [developing countries] and/or grey literature is high and effective. This lowers the scientific quality of the report. (p. 555)

The use of grey literature is unavoidable…Authors should not be plagued by unnecessary rules on the use or non-use of literature… (p. 622)

[G]rey literature is of absolute importance, given e.g. the fast development of some technologies. (p. 632)

The use of gray literature cannot be avoided in [Working Groups 2 and 3], as many of the sources are not peer-reviewed, but still high quality (e.g. reports of EEA). (p.643)

…especially for the policy literature reviewed in [Working Group 3], there is a substantial body of research papers and government-sponsored reports that are not represented in the journal literature. (p. 664)

In [Working Group 3, for the 2001 and 2007 reports], the procedure was to leave the selection of relevant gray literature to the writing team…No particular precedence was accorded to peer-reviewed and gray literature… (p. 664)

The preponderance of important so-called “grey literature” simply cannot be ignored by the IPCC. The information it holds is more current than that in journals and it captures non-English knowledge more effectively. (p. 671)

In the words of those quoted above, the use of grey literature is essential, necessary, and unavoidable in the preparation of IPCC reports. According to these people, the IPCC has relied on grey literature extensively for some time.

This means that the chairman of the IPCC has systematically misrepresented the process by which his organization produces reports. His declaration that the IPCC does not settle for anything less than peer-reviewed sources is a steaming pile of manure.

Equally troubling is that hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people involved in the IPCC process have clearly been aware that Pachauri’s claims are false. Yet the average journalist – and the average member of the public – remains in the dark.

There have been many open letters, many organized public declarations by climate scientists over the years. Why has no effort been made – not even a dozen people signing a letter-to-the-editor of Nature or Science – to set the record straight?

We’re often told we should believe in dangerous human-caused global warming because science academies from around the world endorse the idea. So why have those same academies remained silent with regard to this matter?

Does no one care that the IPCC’s leadership has been dead wrong about something this simple and straightforward? I mean, IPCC reports are only among the world’s most important documents.

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