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Why I Resigned from the Editorial Board of Climate over its Akasofu Publication

Posted on 4 September 2013 by Chris Brierley

Guest post from Dr Chris Brierley, University College London

My name is Dr Chris Brierley and I lead the Climate Change MSc program at University College London. I have recently resigned from the editorial board of the journal Climate launched by the publisher MDPI this summer. This action was prompted by the inclusion of a paper entitled “On the present halting of global warming” in their first issue. I do not believe that the paper is of sufficient quality for publication and have decided that I do not want to be associated with a journal with such lapses of judgment.

The scientific method is self-correcting - results influence subsequent thinking that is then tested by experiments. If a theory does not successfully explain the facts, it is either improved upon or it is ignored and a new theory devised. The same process works on the scientific literature, with erroneous papers being either ignored or proved wrong. It can take years for this process to fade papers away though, in which time their mistakes may permeate through to the general public. As this paper also states that humans have little influence on climate change (which is of interest beyond the scientific community), I would like to openly state why I feel this paper should not have reached publication in its present form. I, personally, do not find the paper of sufficient rigour to be considered as scientifically valid. I would like to stress that I level these criticisms at this particular paper - not at the hypothesis being proposed, nor at the author (Prof. Akasofu has deserved reputation as a leading researcher into the aurora).

To summarise the paper, it concludes that the recent hiatus in global warming can be ascribed to natural variability (which it calls the internal “multi-decadal oscillation”) masking the upward trend. There is merit in this suggestion – for example Katsman & van Oldenborgh (2011) compute a chance of 25-30% for natural variability to mask the upper-ocean warming for an 8 year period up to 2020 (note the correction they published about this though). Despite my suspecting the paper’s conclusion about natural variability contributing to the hiatus to be true, I do not feel the evidence provided in the paper comes close to justifying it.

The paper also states that the upward trend is solely a recovery from the Little Ice Age, rather than having a strong anthropogenic component. This assertion was not tested in the paper and would have been falsified if it had been. A response shall be published in the same journal doing just that. The reason I resigned from the editorial board was not this false assertion, but rather the poor application of the scientific method in the paper (i.e. not testing the proposed hypotheses).

There are no agreed criteria to judge the worth of peer-reviewed papers. Instead I will use a lower standard against which to judge the paper - the marking guidelines for our MSc dissertations at University College London. These state that an “outstanding dissertation (90-100%) should approach professional standards of research and could be publishable virtually without revision as a journal paper”. It is so rare that any work falls into that category that the guidelines only explain the criteria for a distinction (a grade above 70%, with my emphasis):

Originality displayed in construction of main research aims and questions and interpretation of evidence presented. Impressive critical ability and deep understanding of subject area. Substantial original fieldwork or other independent research. High ability in the application of appropriate research techniques and critical commentary on research design and methodology. Extensive reading and thorough understanding of literature consulted. Logical, coherent structure and clear, cogent and persuasive writing style. Excellent presentation with impeccable referencing and bibliography. No or only very minor errors of spelling, punctuation or grammar.”

The publisher deals with the presentation, bibliography and type-setting. MDPI is a professional publisher, so these criteria should and are being met. The papers also has a good writing style, so onto the other factors…

  • Extensive reading: The topic of the paper (the recent hiatus in global temperatures) has attracted a lot of attention both from scientists and the media (e.g. Guemas et al., Watanabe et al., and a nice summary in Nature News). Skeptical Science has a fair few posts on it (e.g. here, here and here). Some authors even apportion some of it to natural variability (such as Katsman & van Oldenborgh, 2011), which could have been used to support the discussion of an internal oscillation. This paper only mentions two articles discussing the recent hiatus – and one of those states the heat is just entering the ocean instead. There is no set number of references for a good paper – you just to need to cite the relevant prior work. However, there is quite a lot of relevant work, such as above, that has been missed in this paper, so it does not count as extensive reading. (Although, Watanabe et al. was published after this paper, so is missing legitimately).
  • Critical ability: This criterion relates to being able to understand the potential errors introduced by your own and others’ techniques and analyses. In fact, the MSc students must include an Auto-critique in their dissertation specifically to address the applicability of their research approach. It should have been easy to spot those potential errors, as Skeptical Science had already done it from an earlier article over a year before the paper was submitted. However, the paper still contains neither an acknowledgement of these issues, nor any response to them.
  • Research techniques: There is little evidence that any of the statements drawn from the time series have actually been statistically tested. This is a very basic research technique, as the mind can ascribe connections where there are none (and the reverse). For example, it is stated that the multi-decadal oscillation in the global time series “is closely related” to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation index. The conventional research techniques to show this would be to look at the statistical significance of the correlation coefficient, to perform regression or to refer to more detailed studies. Rather than just by eyeballing them, as appears to have been done here. This paper therefore does not pass the criteria of “high ability in the application of appropriate research techniques”.
  • Substantial Work: In fact, the paper does not give the impression that any of the actual data have been analysed. A great tool for doing simple climate analysis is Climate Explorer, run by KNMI in Holland. For example, I was able to calculate the correlation coefficient between the 10 year smoothed, detrended PDO and 10 year smoothed, detrended temperatures in under two minutes (a screen capture video is here - I didn’t find a significant relationship at the p<0.05 level, but this may not be precisely the comparison you would want perform as detrending the PDO may be inappropriate). If the paper has neglected two minutes of effort to prove one of its fundamental conclusions, you have to wonder whether the analysis that actually has gone into it counts as substantial. This feeling is increased when one notices that every single figure has been either taken from a website or made by others (a Dr Kramm is acknowledged for his efforts in “improving … and providing” two of the figures).
  • Originality: Assessing whether a potential paper brings something new to science is a tricky task. It could bring new data, model, method, analysis, ideas or even old data to a new problem. This paper does none of these things. It does not contain new data - even in graphic form as the figures have come from elsewhere. It does not contain a new model - as that was presented in an earlier paper in Natural Science. There is no new method and the analysis appears sadly lacking (see previous two points). The idea of the hiatus being caused by natural variability is not new. It has appeared several times before, such as in Katsman and van Oldenborgh (2011) mentioned above. This paper’s similarity with the author’s previous work means that it has not addressed a new problem either.

One must therefore conclude that this paper does not pass five of the criteria for a distinction at the MSc level, and is therefore logically not of sufficient quality to deserve publication. It appears that neither the three reviewers nor the handling editor of Climate reached the same conclusion. This has made me realize that the journal does not hold the standards that I feel should be strived for in science, leading to my resignation from the editorial board.

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Comments 1 to 15:

  1. (Can a moderator remove the first version of my comment with all the link errors)

    I was afraid this would happen, but am surprised it happened that fast.

    Some time ago, I came across the article A Multidisciplinary, Science-Based Approach to the Economics of Climate Change by Alan Carlin.

    This paper should never have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. It is a collection of weird figures taken off of climate ostrich blogs.

    Furthermore Mr. Carlin (a well-known climate "sceptic") was guest editor of the special issue in which his paper was published in record time. Thus I asked the published IJERPH how they handle such cases. How they make sure that the reviews are independent and a reviewer can be sure that his anonymity is kept. And I asked who selected Alan Carlin to be guest editor?

    I got no real answer from the managing editor Dr. Ophelia Han, just empty words about their great peer-review. I found this very unsatisfactory and made a note never to publish with MDPI.

    The publisher has more issues.

    The second scandal is another erroneous climate paper in the journal Remote Sensing by Roy Spencer and Danny Braswell, which led to resignation of the editor.

    Furthermore, A paper in the journal Life solving the puzzle of the origin and evolution of cellular life in the universe led several editors to resign, but not to its retraction. That such a paper can be published is unbelievable. I do encourage people to read this article, it is great fun.

    I can only conclude that I will never risk my reputation by publishing in a MDPI journal and that I will advice my colleagues not to publish anything in the new journal Climate.

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  2. Well I have published in Sustainability (a MDPI journal). The reviewer were good. But I did trust the editorial staff because I knew many of them by reputation.

    The problem those days is that some «open access» journals tend to accept anything. But, MDPI is far from beeign the worst case.

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  3. Chris

    I am a professor in Physics and Electrical Engineering in Northumbria and have been heavily involved in MSc programmes (for a time programme director postgraduate) and your dissertation/project criteria are similar to ours and indeed are I suspect very similar to most good universities in the UK and Ireland.

    We have an 80%+ category (the externs complain about us not using a full range of marks) for work of sufficient quality it is publishable in a reputable international journal and indeed provide the option for the best students to write a paper rather than a dissertation.

    I am an astroparticle physicist by training and know how difficult real science is. I have great regard for my climate change colleagues and am bewildered by why scientists trained in other fields think they know the subject and can possibly use reputation to get amaturish work published.

    I have not published in the area of climate science but was periferally involved with the Sloan and Wolfendale rebuttal of "causal link between cosmic rays and cloud cover" (T Sloan and A W Wolfendale 2008 Environ. Res. Lett. 3 024001). Shame Sir Arnold Wolfendale, (former astronomer royal) is now in his 80's as he is a grat science commnicaor and a passionate believer in truth, but is slowing sown a lot. Anyway I digreess.

    Congratulations on a principled decision. Like most working academics I regularly peer review papers in my area and with the upcomin REF have soft pressure put on me to become a member of an editorial board (though these days if it not in Q1 of Thomson Reuter's Web of knowledge not considered best quality)

    You have made the right decision


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  4. Dr. Brierley,

    Thank you for sharing.  It is a pity that it had to come to this, but you made a principled and very courageous decision.  In my opinion, you also made the correct decision.

    All of the best.


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  5. "Page not found" when clicking on "Katsman & van Oldenborgh (2011)" and "correction". Thank you for correcting!

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] The links worked for me just now.

  6. @Albatross and @StBarnabas - thank you for the support.

    @Ferran R. Vilar - I've fixed the links now. Sorry about that.

    @VictorVenema - It's interesting that similar things have happened before with the publisher. I wasn't aware of any of that previous history. I wonder if I would have come across those instances if I'd spent more time looking into the publisher's reputation at the outset. I would point out though that publishers are at the mercy of their journals' editors - so they may sometimes by unwitting victims. Publishers don't (and shouldn't) make editorial decisions. Their main input is to select the editors in the first place. Although consulting with me or others members of the board earlier could have prevented this farce. I've not been involved with enough other publishers enough to known how much blame should be placed at MDPI for this, but it looks like this isn't an isolated incident from your comment. 


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  7. I see that the Editor-in-Chief (Nicole Molders) is a colleague of Akasofu's at UAF and given the timing of her arrival there I suspect may have been hired by him.  She has co-authored a number of papers with Kramm (possibly also hired by Akasofu?), who himself has a bit of a reputation.

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  8. I'm really fascinated by this.  It strikes me as strange that someone, like Akasofu, whom I gather has the capacity to do substantial, original research, would think that it's okay to not do similar work related to climate change?

    Surely he understands this paper was not truly up to snuff.  What would be his motivation?  

    Could there be an element that he doesn't want to push any deeper into the material because it might actually challenge the conclusions he prefers to believe?

    Could he be knowingly publishing bad research counter to AGW for ideological reasons?

    People like Pat Michaels and the Idso's, I think I get those guys.  For them climate denial is a lucrative gig.  They are, essentially, working for the FF industry and will present conclusions the industry needs.  Their pay depends on producing contradictory claims, accurate or not.

    It's these second tier researchers who don't seem (as far as I know) derive any direct income from the FF industry that I don't get. 

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  9. Kramm had a run-in with SoD last year.  See the comment stream.

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  10. We can only speculate what was the reason for this instance of peer review failure (vested  interest or pal review or something else), we won't know.

    We have to admit that peer review process, as climate science itself, is not bullet-proof. Mishaps as such will happen. We need to put it in perspective: how many climate science publications are beeing produced annualy? In tens of thousands. Peer review works resonably well in all those cases. Just this one case being an only notable failure in the entire process is not that bad.

    And most important, the science will eventualy win when the failure case is exposed: Chris' resignation is just a start, the rebutals will follow and eventual correction will be forced, or the author will be disgraced.

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  11. Chriskoz: "the rebutals will follow and eventual correction will be forced, or the author will be disgraced."

    Yah, but disgrace is apparently not the final stage. Witness Mörner and Soon. In reality, the rebuttals follow, but the authors just develop their own journals and sciencey organizations.  This is a public issue: the general public can't tell the difference between Nature and Energy & Environment, and policy-makers are not motivated to do so.  A simulacrum of climate science is emerging, an internally incoherent copy that is nevertheless given life by the ignorance (not stupidity) of the general public and the unwillingness of policy-makers to think and act independent of their effective constituencies (not the people).  The engineers of the simulacrum either know what they're doing and have committed themselves (Mörner and Soon) or they're like Watts, who doesn't really understand the science and probably wakes up every morning hoping new information will vindicate him.  

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  12. chriskoz,

    Eventually the strength of the science will win out. However, this issue needs action now, not eventually. Those wishing to delay the reduction of their personal opportunity to get more benefit for themselves desperately need to be able to maintain support for their delay tactics, and claiming "a peer-reviewed paper said..." is highly sought. Their target audience is unlikely to ever learn about any eventual rebuittal.

    Scientific research is constantly identifying problems being created by "profitable activities". Very coordinated political public relations deceptive marketing programs are abused by the profiteers as long as they can get away with them. The wealthier the profiteers are the more deceptive marketing they can create. Governments pursuing tax revenue have also joined in the deliberately deceptive marketing campaigns. And in this case, the need to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, they have an audience that is easy to impress. Many people desire more personal profit, pleasure, comfort and convenience any way they can justify getting away with.

    The politics of this issue makes it desirable for "unsubstantiated claims" to be able to be published in "peer-reviewed journals". That is probably why some new "peer-reviewed journals" have popped up. They may be part of the deliberate deception action plan trying to delay changes that would genuinely lead to sustainable human activity.

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  13. Chris Brierley wrote: "I would point out though that publishers are at the mercy of their journals' editors - so they may sometimes by unwitting victims. Publishers don't (and shouldn't) make editorial decisions. Their main input is to select the editors in the first place."

    A publisher cannot avoid all problems, but don't they set the rules? Shouldn't they have rules for who is the editor of a paper if the official (guest-)editor submits a paper himself? You need such rules so that the author cannot select his own reviewers and would know their names. You cannot expect good reviews without such rules.

    One of the problems was a paper that had ended up in the wrong journal. They did promise to transfer the article, but up to now did not do so. Makes the impression they do not care about quality.

    I am afraid, SkS will have to write something about this new journal more often.


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  14. StBarnabas wrote: "I am an astroparticle physicist by training and know how difficult real science is. I have great regard for my climate change colleagues and am bewildered by why scientists trained in other fields think they know the subject and can possibly use reputation to get amaturish work published."

    Do you mean perhaps people like astrophysicist Dr. James Hansen? Or perhaps the Chairman of the IPCC, the economist Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri.

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  15. Doug,

    Your post is typical of deniers who slander working scientists.  Dr. Hansen received his PhD working on the atmosphere of Venus.  Perhaps you can suggest how to learn better about atmospheres than to study atmospheres?

    Dr. Pachauri has also been involved in Climate Change study at the top levels of science for decades.  Both of these men have dedicated decades to working on Climate Change and have long lists of published papers on the topic.  You will be better received on WUWT where they believe BS like your post.

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