Recently, the OpenAccess journal Frontiers retracted a paper written by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, and Michael Marriot Hubble called “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.” The paper discussed conspiracist ideation as implicated in the rejection of scientific work …
A recent study involving visitors to climate blogs found that conspiracist ideation was associated with the rejection of climate science and the rejection of other scientic propositions such as the link between lung cancer and smoking, and between HIV and AIDS (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, in press; LOG12 from here on). This article analyzes the response of the climate blogosphere to the publication of LOG12. We identify and trace the hypotheses that emerged in response to LOG12 and that questioned the validity of the paper’s conclusions. Using established criteria to identify conspiracist ideation, we show that many of the hypotheses exhibited conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking. For example, whereas hypotheses were initially narrowly focused on LOG12, some ultimately grew in scope to include actors beyond the authors of LOG12, such as
university executives, a media organization, and the Australian government. The overall pattern of the blogosphere’s response to LOG12 illustrates the possible role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science, although alternative scholarly interpretations may be advanced in the future.
Since the retraction it has become clear to me that the journal Frontiers has acted inappropriately. One could argue that the journal has been unethical or possibly libelous and left itself open to very legitimate civil action, but I’m not a lawyer. More importantly for the academic community, Frontiers has demonstrated itself to be dangerous. Academics who publish with this journal in any area where there exists, or could emerge, a community of science denialists or other anti-academic activists risk having their hard work ruined (by retraction) and, astonishingly, risk being accused by the journal itself of unethical behavior that they did not commit. For these reasons, I urge members of the academic community to pressure Frontiers to change their policies and issue appropriate apologies or other remediation. Academics considering submitting material to Frontiers should consider not doing so.
Here are the details.
As stated, “Recursive Fury” paper was retracted by the journal in association with this statement:
In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. 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. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.
According to the authors, this statement was the outcome of negotiations between them and Frontiers and was part of a legal agreement. The authors tell us that they did not agree with the decision, and were disappointed with it. The Australian Psychological Society and other organizations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists shared their disappointment with Frontiers’ decision with the authors. Other than that, the authors have had very little to say publicly until now (See: Revisiting a Retraction by Stephan Lewandowsky). In fact, Lewandowsky has continued to serve as a volunteer co-editor for an upcoming issue of the journal, and continues peer reviewing work for them. Furthermore, Lewandowsky and as far as I can tell the other authors have not supported any particular action regarding this screw-up by Frontiers, opting, rather, to let things play out for a period of time.
Then, Frontiers got weird.
The journal released a second, longer, and very different statement about the retraction. When I read the statement I felt it accused the authors of at least two counts of unethical conduct, and the statement indicated that this is why the paper was retracted. So, at this point, Frontiers clearly had lied once or twice (depending on which, if any, of the contradictory statements is true). Also, the assertions made in the second retraction were clearly wrong. As far as I can tell the authors used correct and proper methods for obtaining their data, reporting the data, and reporting the results. Yet, the journal makes an almost explicit statement that the authors acted unethically.
Since the second retraction incorrectly, in my view, accused four well established academics of unethical behavior, the journal had become dangerous. The second retraction statement notes,
Frontiers came to the conclusion that it could not continue to carry the paper, which does not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects. Specifically, the article categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics.
The source data for this paper was information fully available in public view on the Internet. The data was collected using widely available search engines such as Google. From the methods section:
An on-going web search in real time was conducted by two of the authors (J.C. and M.M.) during the period August-October 2012. This daily search used Google Alerts to detect newly published material matching the search term “Stephan Lewandowsky.” If new blog posts were discovered that featured links to other relevant blog posts not yet recorded, these were also included in the analysis. To ensure that the collection of hypotheses pertaining to LOG12 was exhaustive, Google was searched for links to the originating blog posts (i.e., rst instances of a recursive theory), thereby detecting any further references to the original hypothesis any derivatives
The search for data was later narrowed to focus on a subset of highly active internet sites, but still, all public (even if removed, as per the usual methods of finding blog posts and comments using “wayback machine” like technologies).
I’m not sure if an analogy is really needed here, but this is a bit like a peer reviewed paper that studies statements made by Winston Churchill in public contexts during World War II. Except the conspiracy-ideationalizing anti-science internet trolls aren’t Winston Churchill.
The bottom line regarding Frontiers: If you publish there, and some people don’t like the work you did, they may manipulate Frontiers into throwing you under the bus. If you are an editor there or on the board, you may find yourself unwittingly part of an academic scandal that leaves you liable in part, or simply associated with, extremely questionable behavior. Rather than enhancing careers at the same time it enhances knowledge, this particular journal has become radioactive. My suggestion: Run away.
In order to fully document and underscore the problem, Stephan Lewandowsky has posted a full description of what transpired between the authors and the journal. It is posted HERE.
A few bullet points taken from the text and modified slightly (to be bullet points):
- In the second statement, the journal seemed to state that the paper was retracted because it “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects.”
- In the contractually-agreed retraction statement, signed by legal representatives of both parties, that Frontiers “…did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.”
In the second statement the journal said that it had received no (presumably legal) threats.
There exist public statements of individuals who explicitly stated that they had threatened the journal or had launched defamation complaints (see Lewandowsky’s post for links). Also, this claim contradicts the contractually-agreed retraction statement, which ascribed the retraction to an “insufficiently clear” legal context.
This legal context involved English libel laws in force prior to 2014. Those laws were sufficiently notorious for their chilling effect on inconvenient speech for President Obama to sign a law that makes U.K. libel judgments unenforceable in the U.S.
Frontiers revealed the existence of a new paper that we submitted in January 2014 and that according to their latest statement “did not deal adequately with the issues raised by Frontiers.”
In his post, Lewandowsky provides a detailed summary of events behind the scenes. Read his post to get these details. The crux of it is this: Frontiers had told the authors that there were no ethical issues with the paper, but a few changes might be made to reduce legal risks. Further back and forth happened, and during this time the legal liability context changed because of changes in English libel law. A second “replacement” article was produced, apparently going beyond and above what was necessary, but for some reason Frontiers chose not to use it. (They give a reason but the reason seems weak given what we know about the article and about what Frontiers was asking for.)
Lewandowsky sums up as follows:
Throughout the entire period, from March 2013 until February 2014, the only concern voiced by Frontiers related to the presumed defamation risk under English libel laws. While the University of Western Australia offered to host the retracted paper at uwa.edu.au/recursivefury because it did not share those legal concerns, Frontiers rejected an anonymized replacement paper on the basis that non-identifiable parties might feel defamed.
No other cause was ever offered or discussed by Frontiers to justify the retraction of Recursive Fury. We are not aware of a single mention of the claim that our study “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” by Frontiers throughout the past year, although we are aware of their repeated explicit statements, in private and public, that the study was ethically sound.
This brings into focus several possibilities for the reconciliation of Frontier’s contradictory statements concerning the retraction:
First, one could generously propose that the phrase “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” is simply a synonym for “defamation risk” and that the updated statement therefore supports the contractually-agreed statement. This is possible but it puts a considerable strain on the meaning of “synonym.”
Second, one could take the most recent statement by Frontiers at face value. This has two uncomfortable implications: It would imply that the true reason for the retraction was withheld from the authors for a year. It would also imply that the journal entered into a contractual agreement about the retraction statement that misrepresented its actual position.
Third, perhaps the journal only thought of this new angle now and in its haste did not consider that it violates their contractually-agreed position.
Or there are other possibilities that we have not been able to identify.
I just noticed that Frontiers has struck up some sort of arrangement to work with the internationally known and usually (but not always) venerated Nature Publishing Group. I wonder if this means that Nature Publishing Group has lowered its ethical standards, or if Frontiers will be made to make amends to these authors and the rest of the academic community.