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

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…

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.

Posted by Chris Brierley on Wednesday, 4 September, 2013

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