Shhh! The story that ‘sceptics’ don’t want you to read

Posted on 8 Jul 2011 in

It is the story that self-proclaimed climate change ‘sceptics’ have been hoping to keep quiet.

A journal paper that purported to prove that some climate scientists had abused the peer review process has sensationally been retracted following allegations of plagiarism.

The article ‘Social networks of author-coauthor relationships’, by Yasmin Said, Edward Wegman, Walid Sharabati and John Rigsby, was published in the journal ‘Computational Statistics & Data Analysis’ in August 2007.

It presented a ‘social network analysis’ of papers by Prof 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 paper by Said and co-authors 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 paper by Said and co-authors was based on a report, led by Wegman, produced at the request of a Republican Congressman, Joe Barton, who headed the Committee on Energy and Commerce in the United States House of Representatives.

Barton had asked Wegman to investigate the work of Michael Mann in 2005 when energy legislation was being considered by Congress.

The Wegman report, published in July 2006, was extremely critical of the statistical methods used by Mann, and alleged that the authors of major palaeoclimate studies relied on peer review “which was not necessarily independent”.

The report has been portrayed by self-proclaimed ‘sceptics’ as a vindication of their claims that climate change science is flawed. It was cited, for instance by some ‘sceptics’, including Lord Lawson, who gave evidence last year to the inquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee into the unauthorised release of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

It has also been featured in books by ‘sceptics’ attacking the work of Prof Mann and his co-authors, including ‘The Hockey Stick Illusion’ by Andrew Montford.

But the article has now been retracted by the journal’s publisher, Elsevier, at the request of the editor, Professor Stanley Azen.

The retraction states: “This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief and co-Editors, as it contains portions of other authors’ writings on the same topic in other publications, without sufficient attribution to these earlier works being given.”

It also states: “The scientific community takes a strong view on this matter and apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.”

However, the retraction is unlikely to end the controversy over the paper. Dan Vergano, a reporter for ‘USA Today’ newspaper, has discovered that George Mason University is carrying out an investigation into the claims of plagiarism, which Prof Wegman denies.

Doubts have also been raised about other aspects of the paper’s publication. For instance, it was accepted by the journal just six days after it was submitted, a startlingly short period by academic standards.

Professor Azen told Vergano that the paper had been thoroughly reviewed, but that the referees’ reports had been lost. However, emails obtained by Vergano under freedom of information laws appear to show that the paper was given only a cursory review by the journal’s editor.

In addition, an expert on social network analysis, Dr Kathleen Carley, who was contacted by Vergano described the paper by Said and co-authors as “more of an opinion piece”.

Dr Carley told Vergano: “The authors speculate that the entrepreneurial style leads to peer review abuse. No data is provided to support this argument.”

Critics of the Wegman report also point out that its critique of the statistics used by Prof Mann has not been published in an academic journal, and that the analysis upon which it is based has not been made public.

But what is very clear is that the credibility of the Wegman report, still widely promoted by ‘sceptics’, has now been fatally undermined.