Climate contrarian backlash - a difficult lesson for scientific journals to learn

Scientific journals have had a bumpy road trying to learn how to deal with climate contrarians. Poor decisions by journal staff in dealing with contrarians have often led to editors resigning and a damaged reputation in the academic community.

The latest such example is the journal Frontiers and its response to bullying by contrarians over a paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues. The paper analyzed the conspiratorial psychology of contrarian comments made on public blogs. As I previously documented, Frontiers received a number of complaints from contrarians that this analysis of their public comments was libelous or defamatory, and the journal ultimately caved and decided to retract the paper.

In its investigation, Frontiers had found no academic or ethical problems with the paper, but was concerned about legal liabilities. The journal and paper authors contractually agreed to a retraction statement saying as much. However, perhaps in the face of criticism from the academic community for failing to support academically and ethically sound research, Frontiers later revised its statement to depart from the contractually agreed statement and shift all the blame to the authors, contradicting the contractually agreed upon statement.

This final move backfired and led to the resignation of three of the journal's editors, Ugo Bardi, Björn Brembs, and Colin Davis. Brembs' comments were particularly scathing,

"It is quite clear, why the content of the paper may feel painful to those cited in it, but as long as "conspiracist ideation" is not an official mental disorder, I cannot see any defamation. If you don't want to be labeled a conspiracy theorist, don't behave like one publicly on the internet. Therefore, after reading the paper, in my opinion, Frontiers ought to have supported their authors just as their home institution (UWA) is supporting them as their employees."

Robert Brulle, Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science at Drexel University has also informed me that as a result of the Recursive Fury incident, he has declined to write an article that Frontiers requested, and will no longer write or review for any Frontiers publications. The journal's reputation has undoubtedly taken a serious hit in the academic community for failing to stand behind sound research, and then trying to shift the blame to the authors of that research.

The Frontiers debacle is just the latest in a long history of interactions between contrarians and scientific journals that have not ended well for the latter. Unlike the Lewandowsky case, the previous examples involve the publication of contrarian research that's generally fundamentally flawed in peer-reviewed scientific journals, through one of the four approaches illustrated in the graphic below.

Ways contrarians get papers published in peer-reviewed journals Four ways in which flawed research gets published.

The first approach is a common one in which a fundamentally flawed paper makes it through the peer-review process into a credible journal. In a paper published by John Abraham, myself, and colleagues last week in Cosmopolis, we examined several examples of flawed contrarian research that simply hasn't withstood scientific scrutiny or the test of time. This first approach isn't necessarily problematic – the peer-review process is necessary but imperfect, and in fact contrary hypotheses are often useful scientific contributions. However, it's important that we recognize and accept when these hypotheses have been disproved.

In the second approach, contrarians will often publish a flawed paper in an off-topic journal where it's less likely to be subjected to peer-review by experts in the applicable scientific field. This approach is often taken after a paper has failed to withstand expert peer-review in an appropriate topical journal. We documented several examples of this approach in our Cosmopolis paper as well, including several papers published in off-topic journals by Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen. In fact, an editor of the journal Remote Sensing resigned after the publication of a flawed Spencer paper, because he felt the journal had failed in its task of ensuring the paper was reviewed by qualified and unbiased experts.

"The editorial team unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors ...The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extent also in the literature, a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers."

In the third approach, a friendly editor gets a position at a journal where he can ensure that contrarian papers are given "pal reviews." The infamous example of this approach happened at the journal Climate Research between 1997 and 2003. During that six year period, editor Chris de Freitas published 14 separate papers from a select group of 14 climate contrarians including Willie Soon, John Christy, and Pat Michaels.

The publication of a particularly bad paper by Soon and the journal's refusal to retract it led to the resignation of five of the journal's editors, including recently-appointed editor-in-chief Hans von Storch, who explained the reason for his resignation:

"...the reason was that I as newly appointed Editor-in-Chief wanted to make public that the publication of the Soon & Baliunas article was an error, and that the review process at Climate Research would be changed in order to avoid similar failures. The review process had utterly failed; important questions have not been asked ... It was not the first time that the process had failed, but it was the most severe case"

In another possible example, a new journal called Climate published a fundamentally flawed paper by Syun-Ichi Akasofu that used unphysical magical thinking to try and blame global warming on natural causes. Fortunately the journal soon thereafter published a rebuttal by myself, John Abraham, and colleagues detailing the clear errors in Akasofu's paper. In the meantime, editor Chris Brierley resigned from the journal in frustration, explaining his decision,

"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 ... 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."

In the fourth approach, contrarians simply form their own journal in which they can publish whatever flawed research they like. This approach was exemplified in the short-lived journal Pattern Recognition in Physics. The journal's editors-in-chief were Nils-Axel Mörner, who denies that sea level is rising and believes in dowsing, and Sid-Ali Ouadfeul, a geophysicist at the Algerian Petroleum Institute. In one of its first issues, the journal published several papers that tried to blame global warming on various astronomical cycles. It had been published by the reputable Copernicus Publishing, but Copernicus quickly terminated the journal, explaining,

"...the initiators asserted that the aim of the journal was to publish articles about patterns recognized in the full spectrum of physical disciplines rather than to focus on climate-research-related topics ... In addition [to violating this understanding], the editors selected the referees on a nepotistic basis, which we regard as malpractice in scientific publishing and not in accordance with our publication ethics we expect to be followed by the editors.

Therefore, we at Copernicus Publications wish to distance ourselves from the apparent misuse of the originally agreed aims & scope of the journal as well as the malpractice regarding the review process, and decided on 17 January 2014 to cease the publication of PRP."

It's important to reiterate that research questioning accepted and established science is important and often a useful scientific contribution. However, it's also critical that this contrary research be subjected to proper expert peer-review. Bypassing this standard process undermines the credibility of the research and the journal in which it's published, and often leads to backlash against the journal, for example through the resignations of frustrated editors, and lost academic credibility. Outlandish hypotheses often have more in common with Bozo the Clown than Albert Einstein.

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Posted by dana1981 on Monday, 14 April, 2014

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