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Climate Change 'Sceptics' Exploit Weaknesses in Journal Review Processes

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Self-proclaimed climate change 'sceptics' place great weight on those very occasional journal papers that they claim justify the rejection of mainstream research about the causes and consequences of global warming.

However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that these papers, which usually contain fundamental flaws and errors, only find their way into the scientific literature by exploiting weaknesses in the review processes operated by some journals. But after publication, other authors point out the acute shortcomings in these papers, usually leading to a retraction or other remedial action.

So it was perhaps not surprising to learn last week that Wolfgang Wagner had resigned as Editor-in-Chief of Remote Sensing after his journal published a controversial paper by Roy Spencer and Danny Braswell, which purported to show that climate models make wrong assumptions about the amount of energy that escapes from the Earth's atmosphere.

In an extraordinary resignation statement, Wagner admitted that the journal had "unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors". He accepted that the reviewers of the paper had failed to acknowledge that Spencer and Braswell had simply ignored published research which refuted their findings. Wagner declared that the paper "should therefore not have been published" and announced that he was stepping down as a result.

Wagner also expressed concern about the way in which the paper had been misrepresented by climate change 'sceptics' and some parts of the media. In the days following its publication, the quality and significance of the paper were exaggerated on blogs and in news reports, creating an 'echo chamber' effect.

Wagner's is not the first editorial resignation that has been prompted by the publication of a paper celebrated by climate change 'sceptics'. In 2003, Hans von Storch stepped down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Climate Research after it published a paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas which concluded that "the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium."

In his resignation statement, von Storch stated that the review process for the paper had "utterly failed" and that its publication was "an error".

However, not every editor has accepted responsibility for the publication of a flawed paper, even when it has been retracted. Earlier this year, Stanley Azen, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Computational Statistics and Data Analysis, requested the retraction of a paper by Yasmin Said, Edward Wegman and co-authors which had been published in January 2008.

The paper by Said and co-authors presented a 'social network analysis' of work by Michael Mann and other palaeoclimatologists who had published studies of the 'hockey stick' graph, showing that the recent rise in global average temperature is unprecedented over the last 2,000 years.

The retracted paper concluded that the work of the 'hockey stick' authors had been "refereed with a positive, less-than-critical bias" by authors within a social network of palaeoclimatologists. It claimed that the "entrepreneurial style" of co-authorship between the palaeoclimatologists "could potentially lead to peer review abuse".

The retraction stated that parts of the paper had been plagiarised from the work of others. However, questions have been raised about the quality of the paper itself, and about whether it could have received a proper review in just six days between its submission and acceptance for publication by Azen.

Of course, some journals refuse to accept any wrongdoing for the publication of a bad paper promoting climate change 'scepticism'. In 2008, Economic Analysis and Policy, the official journal of the Queensland branch of the Economic Society of Australia, published a paper by Bob Carter apparently refuting the main scientific conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But the article contained numerous serious errors, as I pointed out in a rebuttal last year in the same journal. Even though Carter's paper about the science of climate change had not been subject to review, and contained demonstrable inaccuracies, the editors attempted to justify its publication in their economics journal on the grounds that "our objective is to publish controversies on current topics that are interesting to economists and a more general readership".

Climate change 'sceptics' often complain that researchers and editors conspire to use the journal review system to keep their work out of the scientific literature. But it is increasingly apparent that 'sceptics' have actually been able to exploit weaknesses in the review processes of journals in order to publish their work, even when it contains blatant mistakes.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

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