Tag Archives: Frontiers Journal

Fisking Henry Markram's Comment About "Recursive Fury" and the Frontiers Retraction

Henry Markram
Henry Markram
Henry Markram, a chief editor at Frontiers, the journal that recently retracted (resulting in multiple resignations of editors from that journal), inappropriately, an important paper on climate change denialism, just made the following comment on a post on that journal’s blog.

My own personal opinion: The authors of the retracted paper and their followers are doing the climate change crisis a tragic disservice by attacking people personally and saying that it is ethically ok to identify them in a scientific study. They made a monumental mistake, refused to fix it and that rightfully disqualified the study. The planet is headed for a cliff and the scientific evidence for climate change is way past a debate, in my opinion. Why even debate this with contrarians? If scientists think there is a debate, then why not debate this scientifically? Why help the ostriches of society (always are) keep their heads in the sand? Why not focus even more on the science of climate change? Why not develop potential scenarios so that society can get prepared? Is that not what scientists do? Does anyone really believe that a public lynching will help advance anything? Who comes off as the biggest nutter? Activism that abuses science as a weapon is just not helpful at a time of crisis.

Shall we Fisk?

My own personal opinion:

I’m not sure if this being his own personal opinion gets him out of trouble here. As an assistant field chief editor that is.

The authors of the retracted paper

Please avoid the passive voice. “As the authors of the paper I supervised the undue retraction of.” There, I fixed that for you.

and their followers

Oh, I see, you think is a cult or something. Interesting.

are doing

Actually, I think it is you who is doing something here. They just wrote a paper in their field of expertise, published it in a peer reviewed journal, etc.

the climate change crisis a tragic disservice

No, this research is important in understanding the astonishing and critically important fact that there is a virtually 100% consensus among scientists that climate change is real, human caused, and important in contrast to something closer to a 50-50 distribution of belief among the general public that it is even a thing. This discordance is one of the most important facts of our age, because a) climate change is one of the most important things happening on this planet right now and b) humanity seems entirely unable to address it. There are reasons for this and one of those reasons is the behavior, strategy, and tactics of the denialist community. Recursive Fury was a scholarly study of an important aspect of that. Which you published. Then, the denialist community pressured you into retracting it. That, good sir, is a tragic disservice. You are the perpetrator of a tragic disservice.

by attacking people personally and saying that it is ethically ok to identify them in a scientific study.

Writing about and analyzing public comments without referring to the source is unethical. You have this backwards, It is generally accepted by the research and publishing community that you have this wrong.

They made a monumental mistake,

Well, you got that right. They should have picked a different journal. Generally, I think it would be a good idea henceforth for people to pick a different journal.

refused to fix it

Even though the paper is fine the way it is they did not “refuse to fix it” but rather worked with the editors of Frontiers (perhaps you should meet them some time!) to follow one or more paths to addressing this issue. So, that’s just a lie, apparently.

and that rightfully disqualified the study.

Disqualified the study? That you published?

The planet is headed for a cliff and the scientific evidence for climate change is way past a debate, in my opinion. Why even debate this with contrarians?

Since you are acting as a hobgoblin of the climate science denialists, I’m a little surprised to see that you accept the reality of climate change so readily. But that’s good, good for you. As to why there should be an academic study of denialism, there are two answers to that. a) academics traditionally study whatever they want, and b) see above.

If scientists think there is a debate,

They don’t, yet there is one and that debate is hampering our efforts to do something about it. This is worthy of study and investigation. Somebody should do that!

then why not debate this scientifically?

There isn’t a valid debate, but there is a debate nonetheless. THAT issue is worthy of scientific study. Lewandowsky et al. did that. You have repressed the study.

Why help the ostriches of society (always are) keep their heads in the sand?

Exactly. Let’s address this faux debate. In this case, we need to understand it better. Academic study of the debate is a good thing. Which the authors did. Which you agreed to, published, then under pressure from the denialists, retracted.

Why not focus even more on the science of climate change?

This is a very interesting question. Lewandowsky is not a climate scientist. Others involved both in this paper and other projects are also not climate scientists. For that matter the vast majority of denialists are not climate scientists either. But the issue of climate change has many aspects, including denialism, which was the subject of an academic study that your journal accepted, published, then under pressure from science denialists, retracted.

Why not develop potential scenarios so that society can get prepared?

Get prepared? Oh, I see. You actually ARE a denialist! There are many kinds of denailists, including those who think there is nothing we can do about climate change. This statement seems to suggest that this is your position. That is very interesting. This may be the most important statement I’ve seen coming out of Frontiers. This could explain the whole retraction thing. Huh.

Is that not what scientists do?

What scientists do is they study stuff and write papers and put the papers in peer reviewed journals, and part of that is the process of editorial oversight and review. That is what Lewandowsky et al did. They did what scientists did. You, and Frontiers, did something else, something that editors should not do about the science in their journals. Repress it.

Does anyone really believe that a public lynching will help advance anything?

Most people believe that study of denialism is important. Most people believe that public lynching of scientists who study climate change or climate science denialism does not help advance anything. Did I answer your question correctly? 🙂

Who comes off as the biggest nutter? Activism that abuses science as a weapon is just not helpful at a time of crisis.

Did you just call the authors of the paper you repressed nutters? Wow.

Björn Brembs Resigns Editorship At Frontiers Journal Over Recursive Fury Fiasco

Yesterday, Ugo Bardi resigned his editorship at Frontiers Journal over the Recursive Fury Fiasco. Today, a second editor has done so as well.

You should go read the original post, but here’s a key part of it:

Frontiers retracted a perfectly fine (according to their own investigation) psychology paper due to financial risks for themselves. It can only be seen as at best a rather lame excuse or at worst rather patronizing, if Frontiers were to claim to be protecting their authors from lawsuits by removing the ‘offending’ article. This is absolutely no way to “empower researchers in their daily work“. In the coming days I will send resignation letters to the Frontiers journals to which I have donated my free time for a range of editorial duties.

And now, on a completely unrelated note, for your amusement:

Frontiers Editor Ugo Bardi Resigns Over Recursive Fury Botch Job

Ugo Bardi is a scientist who until a few moments ago served as Chief Specialty Editor at the journal Frontiers. As you know, Frontiers has recently retracted a perfectly good paper, initially indicating that the retraction was due to pressure from the climate science denialist community, who did not like the paper because it was about them. Later, Frontiers changed its tune and claimed that the paper was retracted because of ethical violations of the authors, even though the journal had earlier clearly stated that there were no issues, ethical or otherwise, with the paper. I talk about this here.

Bardi has resigned over this kerfuffle. Bardi mentions the contrasting positions by Frontiers on this paper, and also points to recent trouble foisted on Lawrence Torcello by the science denialist community. Bardi then states:

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.

Ugo is being very brave here, because now that he has taken this action he may well be next on the list for the climate science denialists to go after. Of course, I have a feeling he’s been in that position before because he is a strong and articulate spokesperson for climate science.

Bardi also notes something that I’ve also been concerned about. He and I are big supporters of OpenAccess journals. Frontiers is a major player in that area, and I saw their acquisition a while back by Nature Publishing Group as an excellent move in the direction of increased OpenAccess publication. I don’t assume that there is a connection between being OpenAccess and BoneHeaded. But this, as Bardi says, may be a bit of a setback for this important movement.

Ugo, thank you for your service and your bravery.

A Conspiracy And Dunces? Journal Frontiers Tosses Authors Under Bus.

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.

Professor of Psychology Stephan Lewandowsky.
Professor of Psychology Stephan Lewandowsky.
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.