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Questions Linger After Journal Editor Resigns Over Controversial Climate Change Research


"I imagine I am not alone in finding Wagner’s move worrisome."

Last week, the editor-in-chief of Remote Sensing -- an open access journal -- resigned over research that cast doubt on man-made global warming. Wolfgang Wagner said there were issues with his publication's peer review process and it "therefore should not have been published."

Retraction Watch (via Roger Pielke, Jr.), a blog that tracks retractions from scientific journals, makes the observation that it's "curious"  for Wolfgang Wagner to go as far as resigning:

We are not in a position to critique the claims. But we are curious: If Wagner feels he published the article in error, why not simply retract it? Was it really necessary to fall on his sword to make the point that he now feels he made a mistake in publishing the paper? It’s a noble gesture, and not unprecedented for editors of climate journals, but is it best for science?

The research, published in July by University of Alabama, Huntsville, scientists Roy Spencer and William Braswell essentially stated that it found climate change models used by the United Nations may be overestimating the how much global warming will occur in the future. In his resignation letter (via BBC) published in Remote Sensing online, Wagner said after Internet discussion raised contention over the accuracy of the study and realized there were problems with the review process:

From a purely formal point of view, there were no errors with the review process. But, as the case presents itself now, the editorial team unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors. This selection by itself does not mean that the review process for this paper was wrong.

. . .

The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extend also in the literature (cf. [7]), a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers. In other words, the problem I see with the paper by Spencer and Braswell is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents. This latter point was missed in the review process, explaining why I perceive this paper to be fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal.

Wagner referred to Forbes, Fox News and the University of Alabama, Huntsville, press release as just a few of the publications exaggerating the conclusions of the study:

Unfortunately, their campaign apparently was very successful as witnessed by the over 56,000 downloads of the full paper within only one month after its publication. But trying to refute all scientific insights into the global warming phenomenon just based on the comparison of one particular observational satellite data set with model predictions is strictly impossible.

Forbes contributor William Pentland responded to the Forbes' mention as one of the exaggerators in the resignation letter saying:

I imagine I am not alone in finding Wagner’s move worrisome. Bad papers are published all of the time. Why treat this one differently? Perhaps the political reaction to the paper’s findings had something to do with it. Wagner himself certainly does implies that the politics played at least a partial role in his decision to step down.

Roger Piekle, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote on his blog that it was "simply bizarre" for Wagner to in his resignation letter make an apology to Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. Trenberth strongly contested the research and recently wrote an editorial in The Daily Climate calling Wagner's resignation an "unusual and admirable step."

Piekle's father, Piekle, Sr., on his blog (Climate Science: Roger Piekle, Sr.) delved further into Trenberth's editorial. Piekle, Sr., is a meteorologist who has served as editor-in-chief of the U.S. National Science Report to the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, co-chief editor of the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences and as editor of the Scientific Online Letters on the Atomsphere. Piekle, Sr., notes that Trenberth, like several other publications over the last few months, are discounting Remote Sensing as an appropriate place to publish a climate science paper (Remote Sensing publishes peer reviewed articles about science and application of remote sensing technology):

The claim that a journal on remote sensing, which publishes paper on the climate system “but…does not deal much with atmospheric and climate science”, is not climate science is obviously incorrect.  This trivialization of the journal in this manner illustrates the inappropriately narrow view of the climate system by the authors.

BBC also picked up on the fact that scientists seemed to be questioning the validity of Remote Sensing publishing a study on climate science:

They also commented on the fact that the paper was not published in a journal that routinely deals with climate change. Remote Sensing's core topic is methods for monitoring aspects of the Earth from space.

Publishing in "off-topic" journals is generally frowned on in scientific circles, partly because editors may lack the specialist knowledge and contacts needed to run a thorough peer review process.

Piekle, Sr., goes defend the study authors against Trenberth's editorial attack that they have a "history of making serious technical errors":

The errors in their analysis were all minor and were identified as soon as found. Such corrections are a normal part of the scientific process...

He writes that he has had direct experience with the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and can attest for its rigor to assess and correct analysis.

Spencer wrote on his blog that he still stands by the integrity of the science in his study.

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