Co-author of retracted conspiracy ideation-climate skepticism paper addresses apparent contradictions


We — and others — have been scratching our heads about the real reasons for the formal retraction on March 21 of a Frontiers in Psychology paper since the journal issued a statement on the subject on Friday that seemed to contradict the retraction notice and that certainly differed from accounts on some blogs. Today, we learned a few more details about what happened in the year between when the paper was provisionally removed and then formally retracted from a post by Stephan Lewandowsky, one of the co-authors of the paper.

The March 21 statement, writes Lewandowsky,

was the result of negotiations between the lawyer for Frontiers and a legal representative of the authors in the U.K., and it formed part of a formal retraction agreement signed by both parties. Although we disagreed with the journal’s decision, we were provided with sufficient information to understand it. Our position on the decision was shared by officers of the Australian Psychological Society and other organizations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Lewandowsky has remained involved with the journal, as co-editor of an upcoming issue, reviewer, as author of a paper in press. But the statement released by the journal on Friday gave him pause:

…the journal seemed to imply that the paper was retracted because it “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects.” This stands in contrast to 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.” It also sits uneasily with public statements by Frontiers’ lawyer, such as “Frontiers is concerned about solid science and it’s obviously a regret when you have to retract an article that is scientifically and ethically sound…

Second, in its recent statement Frontiers also stated that it had received no (presumably legal) threats. This claim sits uneasily with the public statement of at least one individual who explicitly stated that he had threatened the journal. Moreover, another complainant publicly alleged defamation, and asserted that the journal’s apparent concern with “defamation liability” was justified: Details were provided by Graham Readfearn earlier. The journal’s recent claim also sits uneasily with the contractually-agreed retraction statement, which ascribed the retraction to an “insufficiently clear” legal context. I pointed out earlier that 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.

Third, the journal 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.”

Lewandowsky summarizes the events of the past year “to resolve those discrepancies between retraction-related statements.” On June 14, 2013, the journal told him

…they had decided that there were no academic or ethical grounds for a retraction of Recursive Fury, but that changes might have to be made to the paper to safeguard against the legal risk of defamation.

The journal then told him on August 28 that the risk — under English libel laws — “was too great” and that the article would have to be retracted, but that he and his co-authors could “submit a replacement article that dealt with the issues identified in the various reviews and assessments.” They did so on January 1 of this year, “by which time English libel laws had changed significantly.” The new version of the paper, says Lewandowsky, was quite different, but the journal rejected it, “claiming that it failed to deal adequately with the defamation issue.”

Lewandowsky concludes:

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.

We’ve contacted Frontiers — who handled the original withdrawal clumsily — for comment, and will update with anything we learn.

Update, 9:30 p.m. Eastern, 4/7/14: Steve McIntyre has posted the requests for ethics approval for the study.

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86 thoughts on “Co-author of retracted conspiracy ideation-climate skepticism paper addresses apparent contradictions”

  1. “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”

    Despite Lewandowsky’s skepticism I think he has hit on the correct explanation. It appears that Frontiers received legal advice that there was a high risk of a successful libel action. Everyone seems to be assuming that Frontiers would want to carry a potentially libelous paper if there was no risk of a successful legal action.

    It appears the possibility that a journal might be unwilling to be associated with a potentially defamatory article regardless of the legal risk appears to escaped everyone.

    1. I think you are right, and I think the journal made a key initial mistake of trying to weasel out of explaining the true reason. If they had just said that from the first, without trying to find a formula to make everyone happy, I think it would have avoided a lot of bother.

      I think they tried to keep the authors happy by saying (but not meaning) that they had found no objections to the work. They tried to smooth everything over by saying they felt no legal pressure, when clearly there is significant pressure. It’s better just to tell the truth.

    2. Well, you can look at the ethics approval for “Fury” in a new post here:

      Consider whether that sufficiently protects the rights of the studies subjects. Particularly as “Fury” states that the researchers were also publishing to the blogosphere, and not passively monitoring as described in the approval request.
      “The names of the “skeptic” bloggers became publicly available on 10 September
      2012, on a blog post by the fi rst author of LOG12…”

      1. Interesting. If Steve McIntyre’s timeline is correct, research for Fury began (August 28) before ethics approval was obtained (September 14), and that in itself “may be misconduct.” It certainly raises an ethical question.

        I am not a psychologist, but it seems to me that the method by which the ethics approval was obtained — artfully misrepresenting the work to be done, as to “summarize and provide a timeline of the public’s response” — is somewhat dubious in its own right. This was new research with a different methodology.

      1. climate audit is respected… Steve McIntyre’s statitical acumen is acknowledged even by Gavin Schmidt (see Climategate emails)

      2. “WUWT is widely read by both sides of the debate and has been the subject of national television interviews, international print and web media stories, as well as the impetus for some congressional investigations into irregularities in climate science. While the audience is primarily of the climate skeptic nature, suffice it to say that WUWT is read by those who both embrace it and those who hate it due to its wide reach.

        The reason for my compliant is that Dr. Lewandowsky, his co-authors, and his assistant excluded WUWT from the LOG paper data sampling process, and by doing so, created a situation that created a result that confirmed their expectations. This is not a case of hurt feelings or concerns of being left out, quite the contrary, my concern one of data gathering accuracy as it relates to the LOG paper. It seems that they created a confirmation bias by the procedure chosen.

        While the LOG team members contacted five pro-AGW and skeptical blogs via an indirect contact method using Dr. Lewandowsky’s assistant, Charles Hanich, with the intent of asking participation in their survey for the purpose of data gathering, the most visited and most widely read climate blog, WUWT, was excluded from the sampling. Neither I nor any of my blog volunteer moderators received any invitation from any of the people associated with the LOG paper.”

      3. Can you provide examples to support your assertion that Climate Audit and WUWT are not respected?

      4. In the ‘climate-skeptic sphere,’ Climate Audit is almost certainly its most respected blog.

      5. Every skeptical source I have ever seen has great respect for climateaudit, and McIntyre gets grudging respect from pro-AGW sites as well behind the scenes – along with a whole lot of vilification out loud. See for references to a bunch of quotes from Skeptical Science scientists on how very effective McIntyre has been in refuting some of their people – their view, not mine – and how they therefore consider him a major threat and problem.

      6. Don’t give up your day job and go into comedy, unless that is you like sleeping under a bridge and eating out of bins . And that is good advice .

      7. “Neither of those are respected blogs…” might be true for some values of “respected”.

        Peer-reviewed study says both are near the center of the skeptical blogosphere.

        “A network of 171 individual blogs is identified, with three blogs in particular found to be the most central: Climate Audit, JoNova and Watts Up With That. These blogs predominantly focus on the scientific element of the climate debate, providing either a direct scientifically-based challenge to mainstream climate science, or a critique of the conduct of the climate science system.

        This overt scientific framing, as opposed to explicitly highlighting differences in values, politics, or ideological worldview, appears to be an important contributory factor in the positioning of the most central blogs.”

  2. I’m amazed. Someone of Lewandowsky’s experience knows the paper should never have been written, submitted, reviewed, published. You just cannot identify people and call them nuts.

    The journal, realizing that they are as much to blame for this mess as the authors, offered an ambiguous way out. But then Lewandowsky’s cronies attacked the journal, so it struck back. And now Lewandowsky is attacking the journal.

    Does he really think he can singlehandedly and retrospectively change the code of conduct that governs papers like this?

    1. Of course you can identify people and call them nuts – indeed I suspect all of the people called ‘nuts’ have themselves done just that many times.

      At least Lewandowsky had the evidence to back it up.

      Whether you can make such accusations in a paper (as opposed to a blog) is another matter, perhaps, but Frontiers clearly thought it was acceptable, which is why they published it.

      1. No, NeuroSkeptic, you can’t, not in a psychology journal.

        If the person in question is your patient, she is protected by patient-doctor confidentiality.

        If the person in question is not your patient, you are not supposed to diagnose her. And diagnosing someone on selected remarks on the internet is not quite state of the art.

        1. Richard – under the right conditions, including prior and free consent on the part of the subjects, I do not see why such a study would not be doable in a psychology journal.

          One thing for certain is though that ‘conspiracy ideation’ could possibly be interpreted by the journal’s readers as a ‘diagnosis’. The expression is obviously pejorative and even Wikipedia says that “in some case [it] has been associated with paranoia and schizotypy”.

          If the Recursive Fury authors had no intention to diagnose their subjects, they ought better have said so explicitly.

        2. Richard, this is way outside of my area. Does this sound implausibly bad for valid research plan that protects the rights of the subjects:

          I would have a) gone through the *full* IRB approval process. b) There would have been a clause in the procedure for how subjects were identified based on public statements. In an ideal universe, phone interviews with the subjects would be conducted. Alternatively, in keeping more with the tenor of this study, the subject would be informed of the diagnostic outcomes and given an opportunity to respond. c) In the event of a conflict between the researchers conclusions and the subject, a conflict resolution mechanism would have been in place, where a disinterested third party would act as jury to determine whether the psychological diagnostics had been adequately applied.

          I’ve found the easiest way to figure out what a person is really thinking is to ask them. And if somebody really things a conspiracy is afoot, they usually aren’t shy to tell you. Getting them to shut up is the problem there.

          1. Asking people their real opinion seems to be too a flawed method. Their opinion keeps getting in the way of their opinion. Much better to trick them into a throw away remark where their real opinions can be determined without any clutter like knowing anything about their mood, actual intention, distractions or even sense of humour at the time of commenting.

        3. I haven’t read the paper in question. Are diagnoses actually being made or are the authors limiting their actions to linking two sorts of behavior? If two sorts of behavior are merely being linked without any sort of judgment on said behavior, your argument may not be valid. Again, I haven’t read this thing.

        4. None of those QUOTED were patients. They were publishing their statements as public statements (not private emails or such) which they had signed their name to. Does this mean that you cannot write something like

          Tol and Anthoff (2012) reach conclusions diametrically opposed from the rest of the field. . . .

          1. One can certainly make a factual statement such as that one. What one can’t do is say something like “Rabett (2014) exhibits symptoms of ….” in a psychology journal.

            If you were to write “HaroldW is clearly nuts” in a blog comment, it wouldn’t have the same problem. Context matters.

          2. Section 6 of the Libel Act 1843 allows the proven truth of the allegation to be used as a valid defense in criminal libel cases, but only if the defendant also demonstrated that publication was for the “Public Benefit”. So Lew may have to prove not only that Lucia is an ‘alleged’ nutter, but that it a public good that he courageously outed her as an ‘alleged’ nutter.
            The problem is, that the potential libel isn’t direct, people who wish to identify Lew’s subjects that he has identified as being suffering from a range of psychological delusional conditions can do so using a little work, but the naming and shaming isn’t direct. So he give enough for their identifies to be know, but not enough for the “Public Benefit”.
            A jury in England would be presented with the lovely Lucia and Lew’s analysis of her ‘alleged’ delusional mind and Lew would have to explain how he was able to identify she was as ‘allegedly’ nutty as squirrel droppings and why they benefit from his drawing attention to her ‘alleged’ mental issues.

      2. At least Lewandowsky had the evidence to back it up.

        Actual one of his ‘other ‘ problems is that he did not have ‘the evidence to back it up’ , its not just poor ethics that make this a bad paper , its rotten all the way through . Based on speculation and prejudiced of its authors, it would be failed as undergraduates essay. But then its climate ‘science’ whose standard are so low you need a very deep lift indeed to get down to them.

  3. The problem with this statement is that essentially none of it is independently verifiable. The one reference to a threat from fox goose is simply very misleading as this had been resolved long before the retraction notice.

    Another very odd turn of phrase is to say that the new statement is “in conflict” with the negotiated retraction statement. That tells us nothing other than that a negotiated statement between the authors and the journal reflects a compromise. The later journal statement may in fact be the truth. So, if the statement is untrue, why doesn’t Lew say so? It is very odd.

    1. Presumably the agreed statement was agreed on because both sides, while they might have wanted to say more about the topic, could agree on certain things.

      When you have an agreement like that, it is odd to later deviate from it.

      1. It is difficult to see how someone using an alias could be defamed. How does it affect him in his usual day to day life?

        1. Ken, if you’re talking about the people who were defamed, that includes Jeff Condon, who was identified by name. Were you thinking specifically of foxglove?

          That does raise an interesting and somewhat hairy question. For many of us, what we do on the internet is part of our day-to-day life. Does defamation to an aliased persona imply harm done to that person?

          I have no idea, but the fact that I can even ask the question is symptomatic that there were problems with this paper. From my perspective, even asking legal questions about whether the harm I’ve caused to other people is actionable, is a signal I’ve gone way past the line I should have stopped at.

        2. Defaming someone who using an alias has two obvious results: It directly affects the reputation of the alias, and if the alias is unmasked later then it applies to the true identity as well. Several examples of authors writing under a nom de plume occur to me, but here’s a collection from which to build straw men:

          If you’ve looked at the links already provided to discussions about the methodology of the studies under discussion, you’re aware that the surveys were sent out through an unknown name so as to prevent the researcher’s name from affecting the survey. At least some anonymity was considered.

      2. From my perspective, Lewandowsky and his co-authors did. Dana Nuccitelli had written his Guardian article the day before the announcement by the journal was made. Clearly the authors did discuss privately with third parties, likely with the intent of side-stepping the agreement they had made with the journal. You can’t beach a contract then still expect the other side to uphold their end.

        I think Lewandowsky should publish the agreement. More transparency and a little less “he said, he said” here would be nice.

      3. I think we can all agree there are many odd things happening.

        It’s odd for a person involved in the agreement (i.e. Lewandowsky) to get a jumpstart and publish the statement on in an ‘unofficial’ venue (his personal blog) 6 or 7 days before the formal agreement is published by the party who is officially making the statement (i.e. Fronteirs). It’s odd for the person (i.e. Lewandowsky) to accompany his unofficial publication with additional interpretation explaining what the agreed on statement means. Even more odd for one of the parties who negotiated the agreed on statement to state

        “We understand the journal’s position even though we do not agree with it.”

    2. David Young:

      The later journal statement may in fact be the truth. So, if the statement is untrue, why doesn’t Lew say so?

      The absence of such a claim is striking. Those of us watching want to know the truth. We understand that compromises are made in any agreed statement; we also have experience of the fact whistleblowers have sometimes made prior commitments that they later feel they must break. Never praiseworthy but commonplace. The question remains: what is true?

      1. In the previous thread Dana Nuccitelli said Skiphil was “assuming Frontiers is being honest and accurate” and signaled we were going to get the other side of the story – presumably, Lewandosky’s reply that is the subject of this post.

        Am not sure if Dana or anybody else is now convinced that Frontiers has been not-honest and not-accurate.

  4. Can someone explain to me how the (admittedly, somewhat crazy) UK libel laws are relevant for a publisher who appears to operate out of Switzerland?

    1. I think we, the scientific community, many of whom are NOT lawyers, or even fluent in legal issues, need to know the following:
      a) Are blogs and scientific papers treated equally when it comes to public statements (i.e., does there need to be a formal or defined format in order for a statement to be considered “public?)?
      b) I agree with Bernd, why are UK libel laws applicable to a Swiss-based publisher? In this case, we need some indicators of web-sites or information that show how libel laws in one country apply internationally, and if so, to which countries.
      c) If someone calls another (including an institution or organization) nuts, fraudulent or criminal, based only on personal interpretation, and not necessarily facts (for example, surely it would be impossible to judge someone as “nuts”, psychologically speaking, unless after psychoanalysis), how legal/illegal is this in the context of a blog or journal paper?
      d) How would the interpretation in c) differ depending on the level (impact factor) or geographic location of the authors/journals.

      A dizzying amount of information has been listed above and the decision by Frontiers is, if I may say, a set back for “free speech”, within a blog or within published papers, and thus for whistle-blowers who want to show the problems with papers in the literature. If we show duplications, for example, of scientists ABC, who is in institute XYZ, but they are then somehow able to twist the facts to say that whistle-blowers are harassers, or making false accusations of fraud, or something similar, then we are going to see a very negative trend in the correction of the literature as a new fear, and uncertainty, set in. That fear would be the fear of making public comments, public accusations, or public critiques.

      In my mind, trying to understand this from a more grass-roots level, and trying to keep the legals out of this, is if I critiqued someone in public, or in a paper, and felt that the critique was sufficiently supported by the facts, or proof that I had presented, then surely the correct freedom-of-speech way to address the critiques would be to either offer a rebuttal as a Letter to the editor, or to establish a counter blog. When laws and legals are brought into the equation, science publishing becomes intimidating and thus opinions begin to take a step back and advances begin to retreat. Once again, I feel that there is a stark gap in understanding and knowledge between the scientific base, between the publishing administration and management, and the legal teams.

      1. Richard Tol’s statement above summarizes the situation succinctly. With what do you disagree and on what basis?

      2. Actually, I ask these questions because some of the language used by Beall concerns me, as I feel that it is not validated. Allow me to give some examples of some Beall excerpts that would certainly fall within the realm of discussion related to language related to secondary or terciary parties in publishing:
        “Jordanian Publisher Cleverly Lifts Title” and “The IBIMA impostor”
        “one of the worst scholarly publishers ever” and “this dangerous publisher”
        “Greedy Indian Publisher”
        “The latest bogus scholarly metric” and “I suspect none of this is true. The site was likely set up by a single man with dreams of easy money.” and “This bogus company is based somewhere in India”
        “A very low quality and even ridiculous publisher” and “Together, the three journals rank among the dumbest I’ve seen.” and “So it is likely the publisher is from India. This publisher is a total joke, and I recommend against submitting papers to the three journals. Let’s hope it dries up and goes away.”
        “I am concerned that this new publisher is trying to steal the name of the established (and legitimate) publisher Q Science, based in Qatar.”
        “Have I Discovered the Source of the Hijacked Journals?” and “I may have found the single source of all the hijacked journals I’ve reported here, and it was right under my nose all along.” and “What convinces me that this publisher must be the source of the hijacked journals is that the “look and feel” of their journal home pages matches the look and feel of the hijacked journals’ home pages.” and “How could so much malevolence originate from a small, remote, and seemingly idyllic Indian Ocean island?” and “It’s likely that hundreds of honest researchers have been scammed by this outfit.” and then, ironically, in the comments section: “I am not 100% sure that Tomas Publishing is the hijacker”

        And, related to the protection of bloggers’ privacy:
        “Right, and speaking of scams, your name is not really David Gill.”

        Allow me to give my dumbed-down interpretation (for myself). What I am trying to say is that some psychologists publishd a paper in a journal that underwent peer review. Apparently, some people were called “nuts” in that paper, and the rivals really disliked this issue. So, fearing claims of libel, the publisher retracted the paper. The word or concept “nuts” is as common as water and I assume that many native English speakers use it in a lax way, maybe even in psychology papers? But, a public document is a public document. In that sense, a blog is as public, if not more, than a scientific paper, isn’t it? Using this logic, if the authors and publishers agreed to retract the paper, then why wouldn’t Beall retract his blog stories assuming that he has no hard evidence to prove theft, greed, lies, bogus stature, unscholarly stature, and hijacking? Of even greater concern is the moderation of commenters who counter his personal views.

        This case in Frontiers only serves to highlight issues that now affect all whistle-blowers, critics, blogs and academic publishers. I sense one very messy melange of issues being mixed and confused, and ultimately eroding the rights of what can or can’t be said, and by whom, either because such information depends on individual laws, is subject to costly legal processes, or because, as is most likely, most scientists haven’t started to think about these issues.

        Just yesterday, on Japanese TV, I was witnessing a veritable battle as a discussion panel (including a lawyer) discussed the STAP stem cell issue, and it dawned upon me that the issue of retractions is now ushering in an age of a whole bunch of issues that scientists had not thought about before, most likely because there was almost never any need to.

        1. It varies in different countries, but in the UK, truth is generally a defence against a libel claim. You can say anything you want (X is a murderer), so long as you can back it up (i.e. X is a murderer). This applies to blog postings (available in the UK), just as to journal articles.

          If you had diagnoses from a clinical psychiatrist about named individuals, appropriate permission to publish them, i dare say it would be appropriate to make a public statement about this (e.g. X is nuts/ suffering from conspiracy ideation). If you don’t have that information, and you make such a statement, you may be at legal risk for defamation suits in each of the countries that the journal appears (depending on local laws).

          This isn’t really the point here, as you know. Psychological research has ethical standards, involving e.g. not trying to harm the participants and not identifying people in the context of psychopathological disorders. The journal has made clear that you do not breach those ethical standards.

      3. At least one of the people quoted is British, moreover Frontiers is owned by the Nature Media Group. It is likely that any legal action by the authors and Frontiers would have to be in Switzerland, but that does not constrain others.

      4. The paper did not diagnose anyone. It was an investigation of how ideas form (“ideation”) and no one was called nuts. In many ways this reminds Eli of an old joke where a psychiatrist was showing inkblots to a patient, who for each one said that it reminded him of sex. When at the end the psychiatrist remarked that the patient had a problem, the patient retorted, no doc, you’re the one showing me the dirty pictures.

        Those who hate this paper are trying to shift the goal posts.

        From the paper
        Given this broad agreement on the fundamentals of climate science, what cognitive mechanism underlie people’s dissent from the consensus? At least two major variables have been identified. The primary variable involves people’s worldview or ideology”; that is, a person’s basic beliefs about how society should be organized. In particular, people who embrace a laissez-faire version of the free market are less likely to accept that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet than people with an egalitarian-communitarian outlook (Dunlap & McCright, 2008; Feygina, Jost, & Goldsmith, 2010; Hamilton, 2011; Heath & Gi ord, 2006; Kahan, 2010; Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011; Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, 2013; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Oberauer, 2013; McCright & Dunlap, 2011a, 2011b). Personal ideology has been found to trump self-reported knowledge of climate science (Hamilton, 2011) and
        science literacy and numeracy (Kahan et al., 2012).

        A second variable, which is at the focus of this article, is conspiracist ideation; that is, a person’s propensity to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009). The involvement of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of scientific propositions is widespread (Diethelm & McKee, 2009; Goertzel, 2010; Kalichman, 2009; McKee & Diethelm, 2010) and not altogether surprising: if a person rejects an overwhelming scientific consensus, such as the one for climate science (cf. Cook et al., 2013), then that person also needs to reject the possibility that the consensus emerged as the result of researchers converging independently on the same evidence-based view. Rejection of the scienti c consensus thus calls for an alternative explanation of the very existence of that consensus, and the ideation of a conspiracy can provide that alternative (Diethelm & McKee, 2009; McKee & Diethelm, 2010; Smith & Leiserowitz, 2012). . . . .

        1. 1. Nobody is qualified to establish if the paper contained or didn’t contain medical diagnoses apart from Lewandosky and the Frontiers editors. Everybody else, including the other authors, is simply not a trained psychologist. Perhaps a definite statement by Lewandosky could settle this matter once and for all.

          2. OTOH everybody is qualified to establish if those COULD BE REASONABLY interpreted as medical diagnoses. There is enough material on the internet to respond in the affirmative IMHO. Others may have a different opinion, however it is pretty much impossible to establish that such an interpretation were totally unreasonable.

          Hence the paper could have medical aspects and human subjects, and therefore it should have gone through all the checks and processes compatible with the Declaration of Helsinki. AFAIK it did not. This alone is a very good case for retraction.

          1. “Nobody is qualified to establish if the paper contained or didn’t contain medical diagnoses apart from Lewandosky and the Frontiers editors”

            I believe you will find that juries are not only capable of establishing if this is the case, but may be called upon to do so in the future, the administrative personnel at Frontiers appear to understand this.

      1. Okay, now I’ve looked a bit more into the matter. Serving a suit in a UK court to a Swiss company is subject to the Lugano convention:

        In particular, a suit or judgement cannot be served if there is an existing ruling in a Swiss court in favor of the Swiss company. I am not too familiar with Swiss civil laws, but it appears that such a ruling can be obtained in the form of a preliminary injuction.

        So, if someone files a suit in England, the Swiss company can counter sue in Switzerland and the claimant has to first lift the Swiss injunction before he can collect any damages that might get awarded by the English court.

        Of course, IANAL, but it seems to me that the fear of English libel law is largely ungrounded.

  5. It appears that the lead author is misrepresenting easily verifiable events, as pointed out in the comment below.

    Retraction Watch itself confirms these events, published, complaints addressed, then republished (with different reviewer!) more complaints by different people (me included, then removed again (for a year)

    “That study was published in Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences. But yesterday, that paper — or at least everything but the abstract – disappeared. It turns out this is the second time that’s happened. The paper was first removed on February 6, just days after it was accepted and published, because of complaints from a blogger named Jeff Condon, and since reposted — at least until yesterday.”

    Further Retraction Watch articles here:
    Brandon Shollenberger at 12:10 PM on 7 April, 2014:
    This article makes many claims readers cannot check, but it makes at least one claim we can check. This claim is grossly misleading:

    This claim sits uneasily with the public statement of at least one individual who explicitly stated that he had threatened the journal.

    If one checks the reference provided for this claim, we see the person who said he threatened the journal also says:

    Shortly after my complaint the offending passage was removed from the paper, presumably because the institutions concerned realised that my allegation was true.

    This ended the matter personally, as far as I was concerned – although I continued to draw attention the the blatant fraud and malpractice in both papers.

    Trying to resurrect my long resolved complaint and brandish it as “threat” which caused the paper to be withdrawn a year later just makes you look even more of a down than usual.

    The reality is the paper was taken down twice. The first time, the journal required the paper be amended to address the concerns of two individuals (Jeff Condon and the user Foxgoose). After these changes were made, the paper was republished by the journal.

    It was later taken down a second time. This second withdrawal was what led to the paper being placed in limbo and to everything else described in this post. By the time it happened, Foxgoose’s complaint had already been dealt with. His threat had no influence on the second removal of the paper.

    It is highly deceptive to pretend a threat which had no relevance to the events described in this post contradicts a statement the journal made about the events described in this post.

  6. An interesting point here is that Lewandowsky and his co-authors and their lawyers were heavily involved in the discussions that have taken place over the last year. In contrast, those of us who complained about the paper were not consulted at all after the complaints were submitted a year ago. In fact, the journal did not even have the courtesy to write to me to inform me of the outcome.

    1. Same here..
      they seem to have investigated with out further contacting the complainants (just like UWA) and in the first statement bend over backwards to protect the authors, who then went to make claims of complainants threats, bullying and vexatious behaviour.. Frontiers appears only to have said anything because the authors threatened Frontier reputation.

        1. The Wegman report wasn’t instigated over the complaints of Mann nor McIntyre, but at the request of the senate for an independent inquiry. I’m pretty sure that in all fields bar climate and climopathology, when complaints are made, it’s SOP to actually discus the matter with those making the complaints.

  7. In the experience of RW how common is it for authors to be involved in writing the retraction notices to their own papers and for lawyers to be involved?

    1. It’s not uncommon for authors to draft a retraction notice eg
      or many entries in our Doing The Right Thing category
      Hard to say exactly how often lawyers are involved, but we certainly hear of such cases, and it’s not unusual at all for a publisher’s general counsel to at least be aware of retractions before they happen.

      1. Thank you Ivan. I hope some of those lawyer-involved documents in this case can be shared in whatever retracted form necessary, otherwise the situation will remain impossible to understand.

      2. As I mentioned on the Frontiers website, somebody pointed this link out to me:

        Some selected quotes:

        “Retraction is a mechanism for correcting the literature and alerting readers to publications that contain such seriously flawed or erroneous data that their findings and conclusions cannot be relied upon. Unreliable data may result from honest error or from research misconduct.”

        “The main purpose of retractions is to correct the literature and ensure its integrity rather than to punish authors who misbehave.”

        “Retraction should usually be reserved for publications that are so seriously flawed (for whatever reason) that their findings or conclusions should not be relied upon.”

        “Journals’ instructions for authors should explain the retraction procedure and describe the circumstances under which articles might be retracted. This information should be incorporated (e.g. by references) into any publishing agreements and brought to the authors’ attention. However, even if the publishing agreement or journal instructions do not set out specific conditions for retraction, authors usually would not have grounds for taking legal action against a journal over the act of retraction if it follows a suitable investigation and proper procedures.”

        “However, legal advice may be helpful to determine appropriate wording for a notice of retraction or expression of concern to ensure that these are not defamatory or libellous. Nevertheless, retraction notices should always mention the reason(s) for retraction to distinguish honest error from misconduct.”

        “Whenever possible, editors should negotiate with authors and attempt to agree a form of wording that is clear and informative to readers and acceptable to all parties. If authors consent to the wording of a retraction statement, this provides defence against a libel claim.”

        1. One follow up comment:

          Lewandowsky’s paper seems unusual in that it was withdrawn (apparently) due to issues with the protection of the humans subjects involved. The fact that many dispute the accuracy of the article and its specific conclusions about those were were specifically named, does not seem to be in play in the journal’s decision in this case.

          1. In reality journals all publish rubbish from time to time , the idea that all published research is good is an illusion that academia likes the public to have to keep scientists ‘status ‘ high . Poor practice , lying and self serving interest are seen again and again with ‘peer review support ‘

        2. Carrick, this is a very pertinent observation. One thing that I have rarely seen is the feedback of authors whose papers have been retracted. At least related to the wording of the retraction notice. I have the sense that the whole process takes place somewhat under a state of duress. Duress because the publishers, and their legal teams, may be taking advantage of the psychological weaknesses of scientists, and their ignorance of such leagl issues, to force the retraction, and its wording. At least, this is my perception. When a scientists who may of may not have committed an act of misconduct gets approached by an editor and publisher to retract their paper and they are “encouraged” to agree to the retraction notice, then surely this is a form of duress, isn’t it? Think about it, and compare the language in the retraction notices in many top-tier publishers. The language is almost identical, not unlike self-plagiarism in fact, suggesting that a “template” wording is offered to the authors to accept. The agreement alone seems to only give protection against defamation charges, but the wording, has it theoretically not been forcefully imposed upon authors, perhaps with a couple of tweaks here and there? We need two meta-analyses urgently: a) one that exmaines the exact wording of retraction notices to date; b) a survey from authors whose papers were rtetracted to understand the full background about how they were contacted, by whom, under what conditions, and how the wording of a retraction notice eveolved. Of course, analysis a) will be easier to achieve than b). It’s just a thought, and an option worth examining and discussing. I think no-one is trying to defend misconduct, evidently, but one also needs to examine the conditions under which retractions and retraction notices take place. Could this ultimately be the limiting condition for publishers NOT retracting more papers?
          * “In jurisprudence, duress or coercion refers to a situation whereby a person performs an act as a result of violence, threat or other pressure against the person. Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed.) defines duress as “any unlawful threat or coercion used… to induce another to act [or not act] in a manner [they] otherwise would not [or would]”. Duress is pressure exerted upon a person to coerce that person to perform an act that he or she ordinarily would not perform. The notion of duress must be distinguished both from undue influence in the civil law and from necessity.”

          It is pertinent because some retraction notices often indicate that one or more authors did not consent to the wording, or to the decision, yet they are also included, by association, in the retraction. The same site above also indicates the following, which makes this issue all the more pertnent: “Duress has two aspects. One is that it negates the person’s consent to an act, such as sexual activity or the entering into a contract; or, secondly, as a possible legal defense or justification to an otherwise unlawful act.[1] A defendant utilizing the duress defense admits to breaking the law, but claims that he/she is not liable because, even though the act broke the law, it was only performed because of extreme unlawful pressure.[2] In criminal law, a duress defense is similar to a plea of guilty, admitting partial culpability, so that if the defense is not accepted then the criminal act is admitted.”

          Of course, it is impossible to draw paralleles between sexual assault and authors’ rights, but this is a very grey zone for which I have seen little discussion, if any at all.

          1. I agree that when you have a very junior faculty the power differential might correspond to duress. This isn’t that different to being brought in before the head of your department and asked about student complaints. (I’ve had this happen to me.) It very much depends on the personality of the person being grilled for what transpires afterwards.

            But I think the two sides have much more equal power in a case like Lewandowsky’s. In part, the review editor typically identifies more strongly with his colleague than he does his journal. And because the research institute that the researcher works at does not want a stain on its reputation.

            Even in extreme cases, like that of Anil Potti:


            all that happened was he returned to private practice in the state of North Carolina. As far as I know, no further disciplinary action occurred, beyond what would happen if somebody decided to leave a department for other pursuits.

            So I think it’s unlikely that your example applies here. Indeed for a small journal and a large, power institution, the balance of power almost certainly rests with the institute. But in any case, these types of situation much more idiosyncratic IMO than you are suggesting.

  8. @neuroskeptic

    “at least Lewandowsky had the evidence to back it up.”

    Lewandowsky won’t release his data, so we have no idea how many people, or what side of the climate debate they are on when answering the question about the moon landing being faked.

  9. On his blog, Lewandowsky clarified an important point that didn’t make it to the blog post here.

    We submitted a replacement article on 1/1/14, by which time English libel laws had changed significantly. It is worth considering this replacement article in some detail because it went beyond the initial Recursive Fury in the following ways:

    *Our narrative analysis was independently verified and further refined by a philosopher and a historian of science.

    *We conducted two behavioral studies with naïve and blind subjects who were not aware of the background or purpose of the study, and who responded to anonymized web content. Those studies (a) confirmed the classification of hypotheses reported in Recursive Fury and (b) showed that naïve observers rated the web content extremely high (i.e., modal response was the top end of the scale) on dimensions related to conspiracist thinking but not on an attribute relating to the quality of scholarly critique.

    *Our narrative analysis was anonymized (by paraphrasing verbatim public statements until they no longer yielded hits in Google) to prevent identification of individuals while retaining the integrity of the study.

    Frontiers rejected this replacement paper on 12 February, claiming that it failed to deal adequately with the defamation issue. Our (English) legal advice clarifies that defamation cannot arise if individuals cannot be identified in the minds of a “reasonable reader.” It must also be noted that the laws in England changed significantly on 1/1/14 to now include explicit provision for the protection of peer-reviewed science … Frontiers rejected an anonymized replacement paper on the basis that non-identifiable parties might feel defamed.

    1. the defamation really issue is a red herring..

      I was defamed as Prof Richard Betts is (UK Met Office, IPCC lead author) we both appear in the data set.
      Big laughs…

      Frontiers must have taken a look at the copious examples of the authors being utterly conflicted in researching sceptics., both ethically and with conflicts of interest.

      just one example, Michael Marriott writing on his personal blog “Watching the Deniers” blog before after and during the research period, that I and Anthony Watts are Deniers, Disinformers, [part of ] Denial machine, writing Verified Bullshit and suffering form a psychological defect Dunning – Kruger – would give any psychology journal slight pause for thought, perhaps..

      especially as co-author Marriot has ZERO psychology qualifications.. he has also been attacking Jo Nova (named in the paper) and her husband David Evans for years (including a particulary nasty, conspiracy theory and anti-Semitic set of innuendoes:

      look at his about page – his affiliation for the paper – Climate Realities Research appear to be purely a vanity creation, no records of a company institution to be found.

      my point to Frontiers was, publish it…I’m helping you here, you’ve been blindsided by activists using psychology to attack their critics and oppoenents.

      you will be laughed at.. if you publish it with the actions of those utterly conflicted authors having been brought to your attention.

      ie the numerous very public articles written by three of the authors attacking people named in the first paper..

    2. the Fury paper described quotes like

      “doesn’t look like Lewandowsky tried very hard to contact sceptics blogs”

      into, an example of conspiracy ideation as

      ‘Lewandowsky did NOT contact sceptic blog” under SkS conspiracies

      which is ridiculous

  10. Dana,
    Only the third bullet point seems to touch on Frontiers stated concerns. If changes of the sort you describe were made in response to the journals direction, it appears likely the journal did express the reservations they described in their clarification about the retraction. So at least we all agree the journal does seem to have communicated reservations about this precise type of ethical issue.

    Other than that,we are where we were yesterday: You seem to believe that the authors successfully addressed the issues. Frontiers appears to disagree. The only thing that’s changed is now we know that Lewandowsky, like you, thinks he successfully addressed the issues. What remains unchanged: It’s impossible for third parties without close connections to the authors to know whose opinion has better foundation because we don’t have access to the revised draft.

    Interestingly, the fact that the paper was rewritten to address the precise ethical issue the later clarification suggest that even if Frontiers didn’t “identify” ethical issues to the point of establishing any actionable behavior existed, they found ethical issues of some concern. It also suggests these concerns over issues were communicated to the authors, who claim to understand they existed and who claim to have responded to the concerns in the first and second versions of the paper each of which briefly appeared at Frontiers.

    It also throws into question the truth of this statement:

    the journal found no academic or ethical problems with Recursive Fury

    Were you aware that the journal had communicated its concerns that Recursive Fury characterized individuals in terms of psychopathology when you wrote that statement reported at The Guardian? Were you aware that Lewandowsky understood those specific concerns sufficiently to have rewritten the paper in an attempt to de-identify individuals so as to address those specific concerns?

    1. “…the fact that the paper was rewritten to address the precise ethical issue…”

      That confuses legal concerns with ethical concerns.

      It’s impossible for third parties without close connections to the authors to know whose opinion has better foundation because we don’t have access to the revised draft.

      Nearly all the third parties commenting here seem convinced that Frontiers’ opinion has better foundation.

      In any case, it’s hard to see how making the data completely anonymous wouldn’t address all concerns involved.

      1. “In any case, it’s hard to see how making the data completely anonymous wouldn’t address all concerns involved.”

        Which prompts the question, why wasn’t that done in the first place? I thought it was the norm for research papers in psychology to preserve the anonymity of the subjects. Why did Lewandowsky jettison this common practice?

        1. Coming to think of it, anonymising potentially defamatory interpretations is worse than plainly stating them. It would appear to the originator of the comments as though the authors were trying to evade responsibility for their interpretation.

          The authors’ initial assessment was that since the harvested comments were public material, they could do anything they wanted with them. They felt those who made the comments should be able to carry the burden of psychologic interpretations their own words might engender, in the hands such researchers as themselves.

      2. Dana: “That confuses legal concerns with ethical concerns.”

        Can you think of many legal issues that aren’t also ethical issues?

        1. Tons, involving arbitrary choices such as the dates that taxes have to be filed. The administrative law (which is what clogs the courts are full of them). Also the other way, as in the statement “there ought to be a law”

      3. Dana, do you know if the people at Frontiers had had the ability to review the documents released by the UWA with respect to this paper, before they issued their first statement, where they appeared to be untroubled by the ethics of the work?

        Do you not also think that the communications between the UWA Ethics office and Lewandowsky, that came to light thanks to FOI requests, would make most reasonable people to reconsider their view on the ethical basis of the work?

        1. I would assume Frontiers knew that Lewandowsky got ethics approval for his research. I believe that’s standard practice in this field.

          1. Recursive Fury was never subjected to a formal institutional review board (IRB) exam. The news has been out since Nov ’13. Steve McIntyre has posted what little ethics application there was.

            Dana, you are a principal at the Skepticalscience website, where the Recursive Fury and Moon Hoax work was carried out. You claim not to be aware of details surrounding the ethics review for this paper. But the question is important since you argued in your Guardian article that only ‘legal threats’ caused the retraction and no ethical issues were present. The cursory ethics process was discussed in detail here: The Lewandowsky Recursive Fury Ethics ‘Approval’ and the documents were made available by Simon Turnhill here in Aug ’13.

          2. Dana
            I have it on record that (a) people at Skepticalscience followed the progress of Recursive Fury with interest (b) people at Skepticalscience were moderators on (c) these moderators assisted in comment selection for the Fury Study.

            Additionally, it is on record in the Moon Hoax paper that (a) the survey was posted at Skepticalscience (b) the comments at Skepticalscience was analysed to estimate the exposure of the survey to skeptics.

            The latter is under significant dispute, i.e., whether the survey was posted at Skepticalscience. Nevertheless, it is Lewandowsky and Cook’s official line that the survey was posted.

            The point however is that Recursive Fury was not subjected to a formal ethics process, and you seem to be unaware of it.

      4. Dana,

        That confuses legal concerns with ethical concerns.

        No. De-identification is both a legal and ethical issue. It is, indeed potentially an issue of lible.

        But deanonymizing participants is an ethical concern under Australia’s “National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research”. People are participants if the researchers “access to their information (in individually identifiable, re-identifiable or non-identifiable form) as part of an existing published or unpublished source or database.”

        Lew and Crew accessed my blog comments as part of a published source. That makes me a participant. They quoted in a way where I was clearly identifiable. They did so in a way that potentially could result in “harm” which includes

        That which adversely affects the interests or welfare of an individual or
        a group. Harm includes physical harm, anxiety, pain, psychological disturbance,
        devaluation of personal worth and social disadvantage.

        So, it’s an ethical issue even if there is no legal issue.

          1. This seems to be missing the point. Someone took those comments and made disparaging remarks about them, remarks that had implications about the people involved, _in a scientific journal_. There are ethics rules about using people in scientific studies, and concern for the effects on the subjects is chief among them.

  11. On Sunday Oct 14 10:12; FOIT,36, Lewandowsky wrote to the UWA research Ethics Office administrators Robyn Owens and Mark Dixon of the Ethics Office

    Hi Mark, just in case it saves you some time, I’ve enclosed the FOI release which contains all ethics correspondence for this study: see folio 13 and then folio 27 onward.
    Based on my experience with this individual [McIntyre] and others of his ilk, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that his actions are not motivated by concerns about research ethics. In particular, my experience compels me to advise against responding to his concerns either directly or indirectly with anything but the briefest note that “the research was conducted in accordance with UWA ethics procedures.” (Which it most definitely was).
    I can assure you that anything beyond that (e. g., an explanation of why the amendments were appropriate) would simply provide traction for interminable further rounds of dissections, complaints, and allegations. Please do not assume that those individuals are guided by the same ethical standards to which we subscribe.
    l must hasten to add that I have no intention to interfere with your intended actions, so please feel free to dismiss my comments. However, equally, I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t alert you to the nature of the situation and the characters involved as best I can.
    Regards Steve

    On Monday Oct 15 14:48; FOIT, 10, Mark Dixon sent Lewandowsky this draft:

    Hi Stephan, I have wording for Robyn Owens to prepare a letter, as follows:

    The research protocol followed by Professor Lewendowsky with results published in Lewendowsky et al … was submitted for review to the University of Western Australia’s Human Research Ethics Office where it was assessed against the principles and definitions of Australia’s national guide to research involving people: The National statement on ethical conduct in human research (2007, updated 2009). Both the original research, and each amendment to it, were determined to be “low risk” and approved according to the requirements of that code of practice.

    Robyn Owens would like to include a list of those publications, because she understands there may be several and we can cover all of them with the one statement avoiding, “oh, but what about … ” inquiries. What do you think? Do you have such a list you can send me?
    Cheers, Mark Dixon

    30 minutes later, (Oct 15 15:18; FOIT, 9), Lewandowsky sent a revision. (I have bolded his additions)

    The research protocol followed by Professor Lewendowsky with results published in Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac (in press, Psychological Science) was submitted for review to the University of Western Australia’s Human Research Ethics Office where it was assessed against the principles and definitions of Australia’s national guide to research involving people: The National statement on ethical conduct in human research (2007, updated 2009). Both the original research, and each amendment to it, were determined to be “low risk” and approved according to the requirements of that code of practice. We have considered the issues raised by [^- Mr. McIntyre] in his letter to the [^ – editor of Psychological Science] dated 12 October and found them to be baseless. The research reported in the above paper was conducted in compliance with all applicable ethical guidelines.

    I personally find it hard to believe that the Human Research Ethics Office of the UWA could conduct a review of all the issues raised by the subjects that Lewandowsky wrote about in his paper between Sunday Oct 14 10:12 and Oct 15 15:18.

    If they were able to do this within this time frame I can only gasp in awe at the speed at which the Research Ethics Office are able to work together as a team, on a Sunday and Monday.

    1. A retraction tends not to look good on ones c.v., but if the retraction was the result of something extrinsic to the paper, bullying libel threats, one can wear it as a badge of pride as a scientific warrior.
      The second statement by Frontiers rather undercuts the ‘I was fighting against a hoard of science deniers’ defense.

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