Editors Resign From Frontiers Journal Over Retracted Paper That Upset Climate Science Deniers

Read time: 4 mins

Three university professors are resigning as editors at a scientific publisher in protest at its decision to retract research linking climate change scepticism to conspiratorial thinking.

Professors Ugo Bardi, of the University of Florence, Italy and Björn Brembs, of the University of Regensburg, Germany, launched scathing attacks on the Switzerland-based publisher Frontiers. Professor Colin Davis, of the University of Bristol, has also resigned in protest.

The academics said the journal should have stood by the authors of the research, with one saying the publishers had caved in to pressure from “delusionals.”

Frontiers staff and the three research authors, led by cognitive psychology professor Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol, had signed agreements preventing them from discussing the nature of the complaints, but DeSmogBlog revealed sceptics had claimed the research was defamatory.

Frontiers last year formed a partnership with the publishers of the high-profile Nature journal.

Brembs described Frontiers' retraction decision as “an outrageous act of a scientific journal caving in to pressure from delusionals” who, he said, were “demanding the science about their publicly displayed delusions be hidden from the world.”

Brembs, an associate editor at Frontiers, wrote on his blog: “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.”

Bardi, a chief specialty editor at Frontiers, said he had resigned because the journal “has shown no respect for authors nor for their own appointed referees and editors.”

He said the retraction was another example of the intimidation of scientists working on the climate change issue.

Davis confirmed to DeSmogBlog he had resigned from his associate editor role at Frontiers in Cognitive Science (a specialty journal under the Frontiers in Psychology umbrella). He said: “My resignation was in response to Frontiers' handling of the retraction of the paper by Lewandowsky et al. The retraction itself was very disappointing.”

The research paper, Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation, was carried out while Lewandowsky was at the University of Western Australia. 

Despite the apparent concerns from Frontiers, the Perth-based university has agreed to host the paper on its own web server

The research analysed public comments, mostly by climate science sceptics, made on blogs and then categorized the comments as showing various attributes such as “nefarious intent” and “unreflexive counterfactual thinking.”

The categorized comments were in response to the publication of a previous paper that found a link between climate science denial and the acceptance of conspiracy theories, such as NASA faking the Apollo moon landings.

In a retraction statement, Frontiers said a “detailed investigation” had not identified “any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.”

In the wake of media coverage, Frontiers published a second statement claiming it had not been threatened and that they had not “caved in to threats.” 

Professor Davis told DeSmogBlog he found the second statement “hard to fathom, to put it mildly.”

Frontiers editorial director Costanza Zucca has told Retraction Watch there was “no contradiction between the two statements.”

Frontiers said it “must uphold the rights and privacy of the subjects” named in research, even though the “subjects” were public statements.

DeSmogBlog also revealed that Canadian climate sceptic blogger and mining industry veteran Stephen McIntyre had used quotes illegally hacked from a private internet forum to try and back his complaints.  There is no indication McIntyre was involved in the hack.

The private forum was hosted by the website Skeptical Science, founded by University of Queensland academic John Cook, a co-author of the Recursive study. None of the hacked comments cited by McIntyre were made by any of the authors of the Recursive paper.

Lewandowsky said: “Are public statements by people who knowingly made them in public, subject to scholarly analysis? Or is it only stolen correspondence by third parties made in the expectation of privacy that can be used to allege malice on the part of someone who never said anything malicious himself?”

DeSmogBlog has twice approached Frontiers for comment but has not yet had any response.

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The latest from the Editor in cheif at Frontiers;

Rights of Human Subjects in Scientific Papers

“The retracted Recursive Fury paper has created quite a blogger and twitter storm. A sensational storm indeed, with hints to conspiracy theories, claims of legal threats and perceived contradictions. It has been fury – one of the strongest human emotions – that has (perhaps understandably at first sight) guided the discussion around this retraction. Not surprisingly though, the truth is not as sensational and much simpler.

The studied subjects were explicitly identified in the paper without their consent. It is well acknowledged and accepted that in order to protect a subject’s rights and avoid a potentially defamatory outcome, one must obtain the subject’s consent if they can be identified in a scientific paper. The mistake was detected after publication, and the authors and Frontiers worked hard together for several months to try to find a solution. In the end, those efforts were not successful. The identity of the subjects could not be protected and the paper had to be retracted. Frontiers then worked closely with the authors on a mutually agreed and measured retraction statement to avoid the retraction itself being misused. From the storm this has created, it would seem we did not succeed.

For Frontiers, publishing the identities of human subjects without consent cannot be justified in a scientific paper. Some have argued that the subjects and their statements were in the public domain and hence it was acceptable to identify them in a scientific paper, but accepting this will set a dangerous precedent. With so much information of each of us in the public domain, think of a situation where scientists use, for example, machine learning to cluster your public statements and attribute to you personality characteristics, and then name you on the cluster and publish it as a scientific fact in a reputable journal. While the subjects and their statements were public, they did not give their consent to a public psychological diagnosis in a scientific study. Science cannot be abused to specifically label and point out individuals in the public domain.

It is most unfortunate that this particular incident was around climate change, because climate change is a very serious threat for human civilization. But the importance of the subject matter does not justify abandoning our principles.

Frontiers’ core mission is to improve peer review. One principle that we follow is that scientific publishing should sit in the hands of scientists. Frontiers implements this principle by supporting scientists to operate the peer-review process from the beginning to the end. Frontiers remains faithful to this mission, despite the risks that comes with it. We will stay the course because we 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. After publication, the community is engaged and a post-publication review naturally follows. Post-publication review is facilitated by the Frontiers’ commenting and social networking platforms. This process may reveal fundamental errors or issues that go against principles of scholarly publishing. Like all other journals, Frontiers seriously investigates any well-founded complaints or allegations, and retraction only happens in cases of absolute necessity and only after extensive analysis. For the paper in question, the issue was clear, the analysis was exhaustive, all efforts were made to work with the authors to find a solution and we even worked on the retraction statement with the authors. But there was no moral dilemma from the start – we do not support scientific publications where human subjects can be identified without their consent.
Henry Markram
Editor-in-Chief, Frontiers”

For instance, I've studied you Chas.  I find it interesting that you try to go after children and accuse them of being manipulated.


“Chas Rasper

While I think this is an important message that all concerned citizens should heed, I really don't like to see kids used in this way.

He is clearly reading from a script prepared by an adult environmental activist. The message would have been much stronger if it was in his own words!”

What does that kind of post say about you Chas? How can you conclude something without any evidence what so ever Chas?  Were you spying on this kid? What kind of school did you go to?  How well did you do?

(Both my kids a little younger, and are on the honor roll Chas.  I personally turned down honors math, and honors chemistry.  And you?  Good marks?)

Personally Chas, I think you're a troll, and nothing more.

As well as PZ Myers' “Pharyngula” site.

It's time these people were taken to task for this harassment. Michael Mann has started the process, and is currently suing Watt, the National Review, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heartland Institute for defamation. He's probably going to win, too.

They've been trying to shut me up for five years. I'm still here and I'm gonna be.

Mann is suing Tim ball for his Garbage;


But for some real entertainment you should up on Tim's 2 week diploma lawyer (Degree earned after law suit began);


According to Mann, as of Feb 2014 the lawsuit is still moving forward.


(What do you wanna bet Tim ball is just stretching it out as long as he can before dropping it…)

Since when is Michael Mann suing Anthony Watt? I would appreciate any link you have to an official law suit.


My bad, either he's been dropped from the amended lawsuit, or I misread an article. It's Mark Steyn who's being sued (along with another guy whose name I forget), and the two institutes.