THE BLOG
04/18/2014 12:18 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2014

Editors Resign as Retraction Scandal Deepens at Science Journal That Caved in to Intimidation from Climate Deniers

These are dark times for science -- in particular, climate science and related fields of study.

Hate mail, harassment campaigns, accusations of scientific fraud and threats of lawsuits have become the new normal for climate scientists and researchers who study climate change denial. These problematic conditions have a chilling effect on scientific research.

So what happens when a scientific journal becomes part of the problem?

Last month, the journal Frontiers in Psychology retracted a paper, 'Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation', by cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues. It is a narrative analysis of blog posts published by climate deniers in response to Lewandowsky's earlier study in which he and his colleagues found that endorsement of free-market economics and conspiratorial ideation are associated with the rejection of science. Recursive Fury further examined and reaffirmed the link between climate change denial and conspiracy ideation.

As soon as Recursive Fury was published in February 2013, Frontiers received a series of complaints and threats from climate deniers who said they had been "libeled" and "defamed" in the paper. After a year-long investigation into these complaints and threats, Frontiers concluded

This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article.

As a reviewer of this paper, I've shared my own first-hand account of the peer-review process and early negotiations to re-publish the paper, adding that I'd have expected a scientific journal to have more backbone. As you might expect, the journal copped a fair amount of criticism from other academics as well, appalled that a scientific journal would cave in to threats from climate deniers and abandon its responsibility to defend academic freedom.

What has been shocking is the journal's response to academic criticism. In an effort to deflect the growing backlash from scientists and negative media reports, the journal has issued false statements, changed its story on the retraction and exposed the authors of the paper to reputational damage.

First came the journal's statement which included the claim that "Frontiers did not 'cave in to threats'; in fact, Frontiers received no threats." I had to read that sentence twice. Surely Frontiers would not issue a statement that is patently and demonstrably false?

As it happens, a number of these threats are a matter of public record. When environmental journalist Graham Readfearn broke the story days before the paper's retraction, he posted 118 pages of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Readfearn's article even directly quotes one letter from a blogger who made explicit legal threats against the journal:

I have sought legal advice which has confirmed that, as long as a reasonable number of blog readers are aware of my true identity and professional reputation (which is the case), I could potentially have a defamation action against the authors and publishers of this paper for an outright lie that was told about me.

As a reviewer, I was privy to some of the earliest threats sent to the journal following the paper's publication. Email exchanges between the journal's management, legal counsel and editors and reviewers clearly demonstrate that the journal received threats and responded to them as threats.

In one email, the journal's manager warns the journal's legal counsel, "This is not looking good. See doc attached from the blog writer." In the attached document, the blogger threatens to use his bully pulpit to expose the journal's "anti-science position," while his use of the word "libel" implies the threat of legal action:

I have been libeled by Stephan Lewandowsky in his most recent publication in your journal ... I demand that an immediate retraction be made. If I do not receive a reply in two days, I will pursue taking this to the next level ... in addition to pursuit of other action I will use my blog's public influence to explain to my readers your Journal's anti-science position when it suits your agenda.

In a later email (in the same exchange), the journal manager advises editors and reviewers, "We will have to keep this article back until we can establish whether it is libellous or not..." This email exchange culminated in a conference call to enable the journal's manager, legal counsel, editors and reviewers to discuss how the journal should proceed. Let me be perfectly clear: the very reason the journal convened the conference call was to deal with threats that had been received from climate denialists.

So the journal's claim that it "received no threats" is demonstrably false. Not the kind of behavior that instills confidence in the journal's integrity, professionalism and commitment to the truth.

In that same statement, the journal subtly began to change its story about why it had retracted the paper, explaining that its decision had been guided by concerns that the paper "does not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects." With a bit of charity, this might be construed as a mealy-mouthed affirmation that it had bowed to legal threats and retracted an academically and ethically sound paper.

However, a more recent statement on the Frontiers web site by Henry Markram, who identifies himself as "Editor-in-Chief, Frontiers," leaves no doubt that the journal has now adopted the position that the paper was retracted because of academic and ethical issues.

In his statement entitled Rights of Human Subjects in Scientific Papers, Markram argues that the paper should never have been published owing to "fundamental errors or issues that go against principles of scholarly publishing". At the same time, he absolves Frontiers of all responsibility and points the finger squarely at the authors and reviewers: "[W]e fundamentally believe that authors should bear the full responsibility of submitting papers with the highest standards and that scientists should bear the full responsibility of deciding what science is published."

This latest position is rendered all the more suspect in light of the fact that the journal commissioned a report by an independent expert panel to further investigate such ethical issues. This panel concluded:

[B]log posts are regarded as public data and the individuals posting the data are not regarded as participants in the technical sense used by Research Ethics Committees or Institutional Review Boards. This further entails that no consent is required for the use of such data."

In other words, the experts made a clear distinction between a discourse analysis of public statements (on which the paper was based) and a scientific experiment involving human subjects.

So the journal now appears to be creating academic and ethical issues with the paper in order to justify its retraction, while off-loading any blame onto the paper's authors and reviewers. Again, hardly the kind of behavior that inspires the trust of scientists.

It does not help that Markram made some rather intemperate comments below his lengthy statement in which he questions the value of studying climate denial, suggests that the authors of Recursive Fury look like "the biggest nutters" (presumably compared to climate deniers), and clearly implies that the authors of the paper "abused science" to conduct a "public lynching" of climate denialist bloggers.

The whole episode has so far resulted in the resignation of three of the journal's editors in protest.

Professor Colin Davis, Chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol, told environmental journalist Graham Readfearn: "My resignation was in response to Frontiers' handling of the retraction of the paper by Lewandowsky et al. The retraction itself was very disappointing."

Chief Specialty Editor of Frontiers Ugo Bardi, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Florence, said in his resignation announcement that Frontiers had "shown no respect" for the paper's authors and referees, and that the journal's actions reflected a "climate of intimidation" around climate science.

Frontiers Associate Editor Björn Brembs, a professor of neurogenetics at the University of Regensburg, describes the retraction as an "outrageous act" which shows that the editors at Frontiers "are not really on the side of science":

Essentially, this puts large sections of science at risk. Clearly, every geocentrist, flat earther, anti-vaxxer, creationist, homeopath, astrologer, diviner, and any other unpersuadable can now feel encouraged to challenge scientific papers in a court.

Meanwhile, Australian climate scientist Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow at the Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies and a coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says he is now reconsidering his decision to become an associate editor of Frontiers' newly established area of Interdisciplinary Climate Studies. This is because of recent statements by the journal which made him doubt their understanding of research ethics:

I see this behaviour from Frontiers as counterproductive to science in general and climate science in particular ... If the statements made by Editor-in-Chief Henry Markram are representative of Frontiers at large, I can't see how it can be supported by the research community.

It's worth noting that the Frontiers "progressive publishing group" scored a partnership with the prestigious scientific journal Nature because of its stated commitment to provide an innovative platform for open-source publishing "by scientists, for scientists."

That is, unless those scientists dare to study the phenomenon of climate change denial.