Toward best practice framing of uncertainty in scientific publications: A review of Water Resources Research abstracts

Joseph H.A. Guillaume*, Casey Helgeson, Sondoss ElSawah, Anthony J. Jakeman, Matti Kummu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
116 Downloads (Pure)

Abstract

Uncertainty is recognized as a key issue in water resources research, among other sciences. Discussions of uncertainty typically focus on tools and techniques applied within an analysis, e.g., uncertainty quantification and model validation. But uncertainty is also addressed outside the analysis, in writing scientific publications. The language that authors use conveys their perspective of the role of uncertainty when interpreting a claim—what we call here “framing” the uncertainty. This article promotes awareness of uncertainty framing in four ways. (1) It proposes a typology of eighteen uncertainty frames, addressing five questions about uncertainty. (2) It describes the context in which uncertainty framing occurs. This is an interdisciplinary topic, involving philosophy of science, science studies, linguistics, rhetoric, and argumentation. (3) We analyze the use of uncertainty frames in a sample of 177 abstracts from the Water Resources Research journal in 2015. This helped develop and tentatively verify the typology, and provides a snapshot of current practice. (4) We make provocative recommendations to achieve a more influential, dynamic science. Current practice in uncertainty framing might be described as carefully considered incremental science. In addition to uncertainty quantification and degree of belief (present in ∼5% of abstracts), uncertainty is addressed by a combination of limiting scope, deferring to further work (∼25%) and indicating evidence is sufficient (∼40%)—or uncertainty is completely ignored (∼8%). There is a need for public debate within our discipline to decide in what context different uncertainty frames are appropriate. Uncertainty framing cannot remain a hidden practice evaluated only by lone reviewers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6744-6762
Number of pages19
JournalWater Resources Research
Volume53
Issue number8
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2017
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

Keywords

  • argumentation
  • rhetoric
  • scientific writing
  • textual analysis
  • uncertainty
  • uncertainty framing

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  • Projects

    WASCO: Global Water Scarcity Atlas: understanding resource pressure, causes, consequences, and opportunities

    Guillaume, J., Kummu, M. & Munia, H.

    01/10/201631/10/2018

    Project: Academy of Finland: Other research funding

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