06 August 2009

Common Decency Goes a Long Way

Here is another tone-deaf incident involving the activist wing of the climate science community that has the effect of making the entire enterprise look corrupt. The short story is that a professor from Ohio State found an error in a paper on Antarctic temperature trends in Nature. He published his analysis of the error on the blog Climate Audit and sent a gracious note to the authors letting them know of his discovery.

What did the authors do? They turned around and submitted the correction to Nature as their own work, and then had it published under their own names without so much as an acknowledgment to the Ohio State professor who actually did the work and made the discovery of the error. In academia this sort of behavior is called plagiarism, pure and simple.

Knowing some of the authors, I sincerely doubt that they intended to plagiarize, but rather they could not bring themselves to rise above their pride to even acknowledge one of their "enemies." When will these guys learn that a little common decency goes a long way, even when extended to people that you disagree with? It is not the Ohio State professor whose reputation will be damaged by these events. It is the reputations of these scientists that will take a small hit in many academic circles, no doubt. More troubling for the climate science community, is that it colors the entire enterprise negatively, which is a shame because the field is populated by hard-working and decent folks.

Here is a copy of the letter from Professor Huston McCulloch of Ohio State to Nature complaining about the appropriation of his work and subsequent publication, without attribution:

Date: Thu, 06 Aug 2009 10:50:11 -0400
To: nature@nature.com
From: Hu McCulloch
Subject: Fwd: Comment on serial correlation in Steig et al 2009

August 7, 2009

Dr. Philip Campbell, Editor in Chief
Dr. Karl Ziemelis, Chief Physical Science Editor
c/o nature@nature.com

Dear Drs. Campbell and Ziemelis:

On Feb. 26, 2009, I informally published, in a well-known and closely watched
climate blog, a comment on the Jan. 22, 2009 Nature letter by Eric J. Steig et al.,
"Warming of the Antarctic ice-sheet…" (vol. 456, pp. 459-62). In my
comment, I pointed out that the confidence intervals they published
made no compensation for serial correlation, and that
when this is done, the results are substantially weaker than they
reported, albeit not by enough to overturn them in the key case of West
Antarctica. On Feb. 28, 2009, I called the authors' attention to my findings
in the e-mail copied below.

In yesterday's issue of Nature, Steig et al. published a Corrigendum
replicating my findings, with essentially the same results. However,
they make no mention of my prior, well-distributed results, of which
I had made them aware. Instead, they present my prior discovery as if it
were their own.

According to your Editorial Policies, "Plagiarism is when an author attempts to
pass off someone else's work as his or her own." There is no submission
date published with the Corrigendum, but if it this was after Feb. 28, I would
submit that this Corrigendum constitutes plagiarism as you define it.

I therefore request that you retract the Steig et al. Corrigendum and
replace it with my e-mail to them, copied below. The e-mail provides
the URL to my Feb. 26 Climate Audit post, "Steig 2009's Non-Correction
for Serial Correlation."

Since your policy on corrections and comments is to publish them
"if and only if the author provides compelling evidence that a major
claim of the original paper was incorrect," and this error did not
in itself overturn their key result, I did not submit my comment to Nature,
and only published it informally instead. But since you have
now published Steig et al.'s replication of my findings, they
evidently are important enough for at least a mention in Nature.

Thank you in advance for your careful consideration.

Sincerely yours,

J. Huston McCulloch
Professor of Economics and Finance
Ohio State University

Date: Sat, 28 Feb 2009 15:51:44 -0500
To: steig@ess.washington.edu, dschneid@ucar.edu, srutherford@fox.rwu.edu,mann@psu.edu, josefino.c.comiso@nasa.gov,Drew.T.Shindell@nasa.gov
From: Hu McCulloch
Subject: Comment on serial correlation in Steig et al 2009

Dear Dr. Steig and co-authors,
FYI, I have recently posted a comment on your 2009 paper in Nature
on Climate Audit, at http://www.climateaudit.org/?p=5341 .
While I was able to replicate or virtually replicate the 1957-2006 trends you report
on p 460 for the three regions and the continent as a whole, the 95% Confidence
Intervals you report appear to have taken no account of serial correlation
in the regression errors. When this is done, the CI's are substantially wider
than you report.
Any reactions, by comments there or by e-mail, would be welcome!
— Hu McCulloch

J. Huston McCulloch mcculloch.2@osu.edu
Economics Dept. voice (614) 292-0382
Ohio State Univ. FAX (614) 292-3906, attn. J.H. McCulloch
1945 N. High St.
Columbus, OH 43210
URL: http://econ.ohio-state.edu/jhm/jhm.html