Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Climate of intimidation: "Frontiers" big blunder on the "Recursive Fury" paper

(reproduced from "Resource Crisis")

After the recent events in the saga of the paper titled "Recursive Fury" by Lewandowsky et al., I am stating my disappointment by resigning from Chief Specialty Editor of the Frontiers journal

You may have followed the story of "Recursive Fury", the paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and others that the journal "Frontiers" had published in 2013. The paper reported the results of a survey that showed that the rejection of climate science was often accompanied by a similar mindset on other scientific areas. So "Climate skeptics" were also found to reject the notion that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus and that smoking causes cancer. A result not at all surprising for those of us who follow the climate debate in detail.

As it might have been expected, after publication, a storm of negative comments was unleashed against both the authors of "Recursive Fury" and the journal. What was unexpected, instead, was the decision to withdraw the paper taken by the editorial board of Frontiers.

I found the behavior of the publisher already highly objectionable at this stage. However, I could at least understand it (if not agree on it). They stated that "[Frontier's] 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." The authors themselves seemed to share my opinion when they said, "The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article"

Unfortunately, now Frontiers has issued a new note where they backtrack from the previous statement and they seem to indicate that they found substantial problems in the paper. The new Frontiers' note is discussed in detail by Lewandowsky himself in a post titled: "revisiting a retraction".

It is not for me, here, to discuss the merits and demerits of this paper, nor the legal issues involved (noting, however, that the University of Western Australia found no problems in hosting it on their site). However, my opinion is that, with their latest statement and their decision to retract the paper, Frontiers has shown no respect for authors nor for their own appointed referees and editors. But the main problem is that we have here another example of the climate of intimidation that is developing around the climate issue.

It is becoming commonplace for scientists to receive personal attacks (including death threats) for having stated their position on the climate problem. This violent reaction often takes the shape of mailing campaigns directed to the institutions of the targeted scientists. There are many examples of this phenomenon; it will suffice, here, to cite the most recent case; that of Professor Lawrence Torcello who recently was the target of an abusive hate campaign, based on the false claim that he had proposed to jail climate skeptics. Fortunately, Torcello's institution (Rochester Institute of Technology) stood for freedom of expression. In other similar cases universities stood by the rights of their faculty members. They did exactly what Frontiers did not do (but should have done) for the paper by Lewandowsky et al.

The climate of intimidation which is developing nowadays risks to do great damage to climate science and to science in general. I believe that the situation risks to deteriorate further if we all don't take a strong stance on this issue. Hence, I am taking the strongest action I can take, that is I am resigning from "Chief Specialty Editor" of Frontiers in protest against the behavior of the journal in the "Recursive Fury" case. I sent to the editors a letter today, stating my intention to resign.

I am not happy about having had to take this decision, because I had been working hard and seriously at the Frontiers' specialy journal titled "Energy Systems and Policy." But I think it was the right thing to do. I also note that this blunder by "Frontiers" is also a blow to the concept of "open access" publishing, which was one of the main characteristic of their series of journals. But I still think that open access publishing it is the way of the future. This is just a temporary setback for a good idea which is moving onward. 

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