An article in Global Ecology and Biogeography demonstrates how flawed citation practices facilitated an unsubstantiated perception on the state of the ocean.
The article also shows that United Nations took part in that scientific malpractice.
The paper is well worth a read: “Flawed citation practices facilitate the unsubstantiated perception of a global trend toward increased jellyfish blooms” Click here to read the article (Marina Sanz-Martın et. al 2016)
I have picked a few quotes from the article and rearranged them a bit to emphasize how the mis-perception developed. First stage demonstrates how an ambiguous paper gave birth to the meme that jellyfish populations might have been increasing:
Our study confirms that that mis-citation facilitated the perception of rising jellyfish populations.
Examination of the network allows the identification of four stages involved in the development of this perception.
First, the report of Brodeur et al. (1999) of an increase in jellyfish populations for the Bering Sea, followed by the review of Mills (2001), which is by far the most influential paper in this research topic. Despite the author, Claudia Mills, presenting balanced views in her conference talk at the first Jellyfish Blooms Symposium in 1999 and in the associated paper (Mills 2001), the possibility that jellyfish populations may be increasing was raised.
The following gives an idea about how easily the mis-perceptions was formed:
Despite Mills (2001) being a balanced paper, …, she may have been inadvertently responsible for seeding a chain of inappropriate citations since the title posed the question ‘Jellyfish blooms: are populations increasing globally in response to changing ocean conditions?’, which left it up to the readers to draw their own conclusions and provided grounds for selective and inappropriate citations.
The second stage demonstrates how scientists – by scientific malpractice – assumed that jellyfish populations were or might be increasing globally and moved on to identify environmental drivers of purported increases in jellyfish populations:
The second stage involved papers that selectively cited the statements in Mills (2001) to assume that jellyfish populations were or may be increasing globally or across multiple regions and moved on to develop the narrative through reviews aimed at identifying the environmental drivers of purported increases (Purcell et al., 2007; Richardson et al., 2009).
This second stage illustrates how widespread scientific malpractices of:
1. Scientists being selective, uncritical and un-precise in reading and referring to a paper
2. Reviewers letting mis-interpretations and mis-citations pass through review
caused an unsubstantiated perception of rising jellyfish populations:
The dominance of Mills (2001) in the network was evident in that it was the most cited paper (54 citations) but also had the highest mis-cited score (5 66), as 85% of the statements supported by reference to Mills (2001) were inappropriate (Fig. 3, Table 2).
Specifically, Mills was selectively cited 50% of the time, ambiguously cited 9% of the time, unsupported 10% of the time and supported only 15% of the time.
Hence, Mills (2001) was particularly influential in conforming views about jellyfish trends before rigorous, quantitative analyses of the evidence were attempted.
The case of Mills (2001) also reflects the difficulties authors had in correctly assigning conclusions to papers that provide ambiguous conclusions.
This reveals that many so-called scientists lacked a critical sense. This is a severe failure by a scientific community. Science moves forward by it´s two legs: Openness and scrutiny. This story demonstrates that a whole scientific field was lacking at least one leg – this scientific field was – for a long time – unable to clear out misconceptions by the single most important treat for a scientist – scrutiny:
Whereas no papers would have had a basis to state that jellyfish are either increasing or decreasing globally, since the first global analyses were not available until 2012 …, 27% of the papers contained such a statement and all argued for a global rise in jellyfish…
As has been shown, most statements focused on increases and neglected the evidence for equivocal and variable trends … , despite monotonous jellyfish declines being almost as represented as reports of increases…
The story also reveals that it took a decade – where mis-conception about increases in jellyfish populations flourished – before analysis was performed to establish whether increases in jellyfish populations actually were a global phenomenon:
Interestingly, Brotz et al. (2012) and Condon et al. (2013), differ in their conclusions, despite reporting comparable results. Brotz et al. (2012) concluded that evidence for increasing jellyfish blooms was available for 28 of 45 (i.e. 62%) of the large marine ecosystems since 1950, of which 21% showed increases with high certainty. Condon et al. (2013) report that 30% (11 of 31) of the long-term records of jellyfish abundance included in their analysis showed a significant increase in jellyfish abundance since 1970. Brotz et al. (2012) conclude that ‘Jellyfish populations appear to be increasing in the majority of the world’s coastal ecosystems and seas’ whereas Condon et al. (2013) conclude that ‘the perception of a global rise in jellyfish, possibly prompted by more jellyfish blooms in the 1990s, may therefore be best interpreted as part of an oscillation’.
The following three cases illustrates how the perception that jellyfish blooms are rising, developed in absence of quantitative meta-analysis and solid evidence – and formed a bias towards the possibility of increasing jellyfish blooms:
First, Jackson et al. (2001), a highly cited paper in the context of global impacts in the ocean ecosystem (4523 cites according to Google Scholar, January 2016), proposed that oceanic degradation resulted, among other consequences, in outbreaks of jellyfish, providing only anecdotal evidence from a single location and study (Newell, 1988) to support this claim. Jackson (2008) further concluded in the abstract that ‘synergistic effects . . . are transforming complex food webs into . . . simplified . . . ecosystems with boom and bust cycles of . . . jellyfish . . .’ without offering any evidence in the paper to support this statement.
Second, Brodeur et al. (2002) reported a major increase in jellyfish in the Bering Sea, but subsequently reported declines in populations (Brodeur et al., 2008). Numerous papers published after Brodeur et al. (2008), however, continue to cite Brodeur et al. (2002) as an example of a sustained increase in jellyfish and ignore the later paper showing that jellyfish populations in the Bering Sea are variable.
Third, a United Nations Environment Report (Turley & Boot, 2010) and one of the most widely cited reviews on impacts of ocean acidification (Doney et al., 2009; cited 1602 times in GS, accessed January 2016), cited Attrill et al. (2007) to claim a link between ocean acidification and increased jellyfish numbers, but neither papers acknowledged the rebuttal of Attrill et al. (2007) by Haddock (2008), the erratum published by Attrill & Edwards (2008) or the expanded analysis of Attrill et al. (2007) by Richardson & Gibbons (2008) that showed no link between acidification and jellyfish populations.
The paper goes on to indicate how scientific malpractices may have contributed to an overly negative perception on the state of the ocean:
Duarte et al. (2015) have argued that poor citation practices are one of the elements that have perpetuated perceptions on ocean calamities (including rising jellyfish populations) that are contributing to an overly negative perception on the state of the ocean. Our study confirms that that mis-citation facilitated the perception of rising jellyfish populations.
Indeed, the misconceptions resulting from mis-citation are even more dangerous when they are contained in papers published in highly influential journals, which provide a platform for those papers to be highly cited.
The paper identifies a particularly concerning consequence of errors of accuracy in citation:
Errors of accuracy in citation are particularly concerning because they may have considerable influence on the development of perceptions within a discipline if they are persistent and biased in a particular direction…
The problem as I see it is far more serious than considered in the paper.
Scientific malpractices may cause misperceptions about human influence on nature – United Nations is determined to protect the planet from degradation – a misperception about human influence on nature is then likely to cause inappropriate actions from United Nations – in their mission to protect the environment against human influence. Protection of the environment against human influence must necessarily happen by curbing human activity – hence United Nations may end up wasting resources on curbing human activity and by mis-allocating valuable resources to solve a non-existing problem.
United Nations resolution to protect the planet against degradation can be seen here:
Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development:
We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.
What is particularly disturbing is that a United Nations report played a role in spreading the mis-conceptions (Also cited above):
Third, a United Nations Environment Report (Turley & Boot, 2010) … cited Attrill et al. (2007) to claim a link between ocean acidification and increased jellyfish numbers, but neither papers acknowledged the rebuttal of Attrill et al. (2007) by Haddock (2008), the erratum published by Attrill & Edwards (2008) or the expanded analysis of Attrill et al. (2007) by Richardson & Gibbons (2008) that showed no link between acidification and jellyfish populations.
Here is the relevant section in the United Nations Environmental Program report:
“Ocean acidification has also been tentatively linked to increased jellyfish numbers and changes in fish abundance. Jellyfish are key predators in many of the world’s pelagic systems; they can affect the abundance of zooplankton, fish larvae
and eggs, which affects the survival to the adult stage (or recruitment) of fish populations. As jelly fish are rarely the preferred food for other marine animals, any significant increase in their numbers could have major consequences for pelagic ecosystems and fisheries.”
There should be no doubt that United Nations is highly influential, and that this section in a United Nations Environmental Program report have considerable influence on politicians and journalists in the mass media. Remember – United Nations publish such reports exactly to make an impression an influence politicians, journalist and the public in general.
And what about all the other assessments made in the same report – how can United Nations assume that all other considerations made in this report are balanced, accurate and reliable?
Anyhow – there is no doubt that United Nations has taken part in scientific malpractice, and contributed to an overly negative perception on the state of the ocean.
By United nations charter – § 1.3 – United Nations is supposed to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of a cultural character.
It´s an irony – but within science – United Nations has become an international problem of a cultural character – by taking part in a culture of scientific malpractices.