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Climate change research and credibility: balancing tensions across professional, personal, and public domains

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For research to positively impact society, it must be scientifically credible. The researcher plays a key role in establishing and maintaining credibility, particularly in the climate change field. This paper provides a structure for relating the credibility of researchers themselves to that of research outputs, analysing ‘researcher credibility’ with reference to three overlapping domains: personal, professional, and public. The researcher’s role in each domain is considered in a reflexive way, examining the research process and the researcher’s actions. Varied definitions of researcher credibility and possible means to achieve it in each domain are discussed, drawing on relevant cross-disciplinary literature. We argue that, in certain contexts, the actions of researchers can have a direct impact on the credibility of their research. There is scope for broadening researcher credibility to include more public-oriented behaviours. This, however, may be contentious and problematic: potential conflicts exist between public action and professional credibility, with the latter usually taking precedence. By contrast, though personal action/inaction rarely affects professional credibility, researchers’ personal behaviours may influence public perceptions of research credibility and the importance of addressing climate change.

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  1. Including mitigation and adaptation work across physical, natural, and social sciences.

  2. We focus on ‘Western’ research norms.

  3. Methodologies, samples, and question phrasings vary; treat findings cautiously.

  4. This applies across political divides: scholarship by ‘climate sceptics’ has been criticised by non-‘sceptical’ academics as influenced by authors’ political biases (Lewandowsky, 2011), and researchers with political loyalties (backed by well-resourced industry/political actors with media acumen) have attacked/misrepresented research accepted by their peers (Oreskes & Conway, 2010).


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The discussions inspiring this paper took place at the Tyndall Researchers’ Network meeting, Newcastle University, September 2011; we thank those who made the meeting possible. We also thank John Turnpenny, Martin Mahony, Maria Sharmina, Lauren Roffey, Caroline Stuiver, Kevin Anderson, and the UEA 3S Reading Group who participated in early discussions and/or offered helpful comments on earlier drafts.

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Correspondence to Stella Nordhagen.

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Nordhagen, S., Calverley, D., Foulds, C. et al. Climate change research and credibility: balancing tensions across professional, personal, and public domains. Climatic Change 125, 149–162 (2014).

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