Reviewing the Coproduction Literature

Here at CIRC and OCCRI we talk a lot about a thing called coproduction. For us, coproduction often means going out and working with communities to help them adapt to climate change. This process frequently involves hours of meetings between our climate and social scientists and community members during which we produce together, or coproduce, a set of tools that the community members can use to visualize how they might adapt and even prosper under climate change.

Coproduction is at the heart of our two organizations and is the centerpiece of the NOAA Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program, of which CIRC is a team member. Coproduction is also a kind of buzzword in the world of climate adaptation that—along with words like resilience and even adaptation—is frequently ill defined.

Which is why we’ve decided to review a recent paper by Scott Bremer and Simon Meisch in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, on just that: the slippery nature of the word coproduction.

Bremer and Meisch’s paper reviews the academic literature on coproduction related to climate adaptation. (Which, I guess, makes this a review of a review.) Which, admittedly, could be boring for some of our readers. But bear with us. There are some gems in the paper.

The first gem—as we noted above—is that coproduction means lots of different things to lots of different researchers. At the end of their review, the authors offer up their own system for organizing the various definitions. (Don’t worry. We’ll get there.) The second gem in Bremer and Meisch’s paper is that coproduction research appears to be on the rise.

Over the years 1996 to 2016, the years of publications reviewed by Bremer and Meisch, the authors observed a notable upward trend in the number of papers published on coproduction and climate adaptation. The biggest growth, according to the authors, occurred from 2007 to 2016 with the bumper crop year for coproduction/climate adaptation papers being 2015. Bremer and Meisch found 23 papers published on the subject during that year.

Okay, now let’s state the obvious. This review didn’t catch every study published on coproduction/climate adaptation between 2007 and 2016, and the authors admit as much, calling their review of the literature “comprehensive but not complete.” However, Bremer and Meisch did turn up a sizable number, 131 publications to be exact, covering coproduction and climate change in 54 different academic journals and 15 books. Then came the hard—or, more accurately, the tedious—part: they reviewed and categorized the publications. (See, I told you, we’d get there.)

Bremer and Meisch’s categorization essentially breaks down how coproduction is defined on a study-by-study based. The authors created a new system for categorizing the studies they reviewed and then placed each of the studies into one of their new categories. To do this, they used a concept they call lenses.

The idea is that different papers’ authors wore different academic lenses through which they viewed and defined coproduction in their studies. The major lenses that have long defined the coproduction literature are normative and descriptive lenses, according to Bremer and Meisch.

The normative lens, in a nutshell, dictates how coproduction should be done to get the best results. Papers created via this lens include studies covering the NOAA RISA program’s efforts creating climate plans with communities and lessons learned from this process, complete with pointers on how to improve in the future. This really is the how-to of lenses.

The descriptive lens, by contrast, describes how coproduction is done. This includes descriptions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), how it has operated, and how, for instance, it has changed cultural definitions of climate.

If that still doesn’t work for you, try this analogy on for size. The normative lens is the recipe to make a cake while the descriptive lens covers how the cake is made, so, you know, Mark Bittman vs. The Great British Baking Show, soggy bottoms and all. We’re generalizing here, but you get the idea.

However, the normative and description dichotomy—itself the legacy of previous attempts to organize the literature—wasn’t good enough for Bremer and Meisch. So they ground the lenses further, refining their definitions.

Keeping the basic normative/descriptive divide, the researchers further categorized their 131 publications into subsets of normative and descriptive lenses, creating eight subsets, six under the normative umbrella and two under the descriptive. The authors then color-coded each respective subset lens. The result is a colorful pinwheel of coproduction.

Their categorization of the literature, Bremer and Meisch write (not using the word pinwheel), is meant as a kind of heuristic, or shorthand, for viewing the coproduction literature. And they caution that their categorization might not reflect the intentions and views of the authors of all 131 papers they reviewed.

We’re not going to fully describe all eight lenses created by Bremer and Meisch. (That would take a long time.) But suffice it to say, the system created by the two authors makes a kind of intuitive sense. For instance, normative papers covering the RISA program fall under the purple subset lens iterative interaction, which covers how best to create interactions between scientists and community members (or stakeholders, in the literature), while the also aforementioned IPCC papers fall under the descriptive interactional lens, which covers climate adaptation coproduction from a political science and philosophy of science angle and is a pleasant orange in color. That said, we do have a mild critique of Bremer and Meisch’s paper.

Our Opinion:

There were, no doubt, more than 131 papers published on coproduction and climate change between 2007 and 2016. If the authors missed them, it probably has to do with their search parameters. Bremer and Meisch essentially plugged “coproduction” and “climate adaptation” into the scholarly search engines Google Scholar and Web of Science, putting variations of “coproduction”—sometimes with a hyphen, sometimes without—and then tallied the results.

It’s also worth noting that following this initial wide-net search engine search, the authors did review the citations for the studies their web searches turned up, allowing them to find still more publications. Bremer and Meisch’s also undertook a targeted review of just nine journals that seemed to be hotspots for coproduction literature. They were AMBIO, Climatic Change, Climate Policy, Climate Risk Management, Environmental Science and Policy, Global Environmental Change, PNAS, Weather Climate and Society, and Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. And this is how the authors eventually found their 131 publications.

That said, Bremer and Meisch seem to have missed an opportunity to also plug in like and related terms that also cover coproduction. These terms could have included “participatory modeling,” “stakeholder-driven,” “knowledge-to-action-network,” “post-normal science,” and the like. (If you’re unfamiliar with terms and you’re dying to know what they mean, check out this page on the CIRC website.) The authors also kept their search to publications in English, which limited the scope of their review.

While adding related terms might not have fundamentally changed Bremer and Meisch’s lens system, it might have changed how they tallied their numbers. It would be worth knowing, for instance, if adding like terms changed how coproduction publications trended over time. (So, for instance, if 2015 really was the bumper year it appeared to be or if adding “participatory modeling” would change the trend.)

This, at any rate, is a minor critique. For those interested in coproduction (with or without a hyphen), Bremer and Meisch’s review is worth your own review.

Study: Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change

Citation: Bremer, Scott, and Simon Meisch. “Co‐production in climate change research: reviewing different perspectives.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, e482 (2017).

Photo: It’s a picture of a pinwheel. Taken on March 8, 2014. We mentioned a pinwheel in the article and you need images to catch people’s attentions these days. So, there you go. (Photo Credit: Chris Fithall, some rights reserved.)


Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writer. Other Posts by this Author. 

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