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How did a deeply flawed paper, which contradicts mainstream science on climate change, pass peer review?
That is what three editorial board members tried to figure out after the journal, Global and Planetary Change, faced heavy criticism for publishing the controversial paper last year. The board members published their findings earlier this month in a commentary.
Martin Grosjean, the corresponding author on the editorial, told Retraction Watch that the editors and publisher, Elsevier, share the same interest:
… keeping the good reputation of the journal and let[ting] the community know with full transparency what has happened.
Despite calls to retract the paper, the journal has chosen not to, as “no unethical action has been found in its publication,” according to the board members’ editorial.
In the 2017 paper, which proposed an alternative model for understanding why atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen so substantially over the past 60 years, author Hermann Harde concluded that experts have grossly overestimated the extent to which humans are responsible for this change.
According to Grosjean, shortly after the paper appeared online, researchers—including members of the journal’s own editorial board—expressed concern about how such a flawed analysis was accepted for publication. Last September, the journal published a comment by a group of climate experts critical of the 2017 paper. The critics, led by Peter Köhler, based at the Alfred Wegener Institut in Bremerhaven, Germany, explained that Harde’s analysis was based on invalid assumptions and led to flawed results; they asked the paper be withdrawn.
Harde told us he stands by his analysis and has posted a response to the situation on his blog.
Earlier this month, three of the journal’s editorial board members—Grosjean, Joel Guiot, and Zicheng Yu—published a commentary, acknowledging that “the implementation of the peer review of this paper had failed” in this instance. The editorial authors wrote:
The acceptance of this paper has exposed potential weaknesses in the implementation of the peer review system, and quality control mechanisms have failed in this particular case…
According to the commentary, the editorial board members investigated the matter. The investigation revealed that Harde, a professor of experimental physics at Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, had suggested five potential reviewers when he submitted the paper, “Scrutinizing the Carbon Cycle and CO2 Residence Time in the Atmosphere.” The editor in charge had invited all five to review; the two who accepted raised no concerns about the paper’s scientific content and the editor accepted the paper.
But, during its investigation, the journal found that none of the reviewers Harde suggested could “be considered an expert or authority” on the research or related fields.
According to the editorial, the journal asked three additional experts to review Köhler’s critical commentary; all three “supported the fundamental concerns raised,” noting that the 2017 paper “contains many mistakes, misconceptions and omissions and ignores a vast body of scholarly literature on the subject.” The experts also recommended the paper be withdrawn.
Ultimately, the journal decided not to retract the paper, and instead:
… let it remain to stimulate further discussion about such a highly charged and contentious topic. It was also felt that although the implementation of the peer review of this paper had failed, no unethical action has been found in its publication.
The editorial explains that the journal has taken “proactive steps to ensure a more robust approach to peer review in the future,” which includes no longer allowing authors to suggest peer reviewers and providing the name of the editor responsible for accepting a paper to help “increase a sense of accountability.”
The publisher told us that the editor who handled this paper is “no longer associated with the journal,” but declined to elaborate further.
When we asked Köhler if he agreed with the journal’s decision not to retract, he said it is somewhat “disappointing how little we achieved by our comment.”
Grosjean said he hopes that the editorial will encourage more transparency in these matters:
it is now clear and open to the public why the peer-review process has failed in this case.
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