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


  1. Uh Oh! This is going to generate another blogathon of denial.

    But I agree with you. It is going to reflect badly on the paper's authors.

  2. Denial of what exactly? The corrigendum is still incomplete.

    McCulloch should complain to Nature although, due to the long history of editorial bias, I doubt such a complaint would be fruitful.

  3. Nice article. It will be interesting to see how Nature reacts.

    Jeff Id

  4. What I cannot understand is why Steig and Mann and the other authors behave in this way. McCulloch emailed all the authors and got no replies. Surely they know that this will be all over the skeptic blogs and that their actions just give ammunition to their opponents? It is almost as if they are deliberately trying to discredit themselves.

  5. The "activist wing of the climate science community" and "making the entire enterprise look corrupt"!! Is it you who has decided that the offender in this case is in the activist wing of climate science? Climate Audit? Or does he describe himself that way? And why would his sin reflect on the entire enterprise (whatever that is in this case)? Are you into group guilt?

    Seems to me that you are just spreading the very thing that you are criticizing. If one person did something wrong, that reflects on nobody but himself. At least that's all it should. To suggest otherwise only makes it more likely.

    I also wonder why the aggrieved party decided to out the issue on a political blog and not let the letter to Nature suffice. That action and this post are inflaming an issue more than it needs to be, at least yet. It should be between the two researchers and Nature.

  6. Shouldn't the complaint of prof McColloch been made also to the University where Mr Steig teaches.

    "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.""

    Although, plagiarism can be accidental. This is not the case here. I see little difference between refusing to acknowledge someone because of contrary views and someone who plagiarize for any other reason (other than accidental).

    It is commendable that Steig take the effort to published the corrigendum, but it is reprimand able that he plagiarized while doing so.

    Steig has been on the defensive the moment his paper came out, maybe he simply hang out with the wrong crowds.

  7. I'm sure the original authors feel no obligation to credit Prof McCulloch - as he's only an economist and not a true "climate scientist".

  8. I can't imagine Nature would respond to this. In the first place, as Pielke points out, in such a hot-headed field as climate "science", one doesn't acknowledge one's ideological enemies if at all possible. But fortunately, they'll have an even easier way out. They did what? Published in a ... blog? The dictates of good taste barely allow a serious researcher even to utter the word. I doubt they will even respond to the email.

  9. Given the amount of mud you are slinging, I'm curious how you know the authors were unaware of the error before Professor McCulloch contacted them.

    As for your characterization of this as plagiarism, it would certainly be impolite in a paper not to acknowledge someone who points out an error like an incorrectly calculated CI, but Nature Corrigenda don't usually (ever?) acknowledge the discoverer of the error they are correcting.

  10. "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."

    Yes, it does, doesn't it? What does that tell you? If it it quacks like a duck...

  11. -9-andrewt

    The authors can easily provide information showing that they contacted Nature prior to Feb 28. If such information exists, I'll stand corrected. But maybe they were alerted to the error by a "mystery man" who reads Climate Audit ;-)

  12. And maybe they were alerted by one or more other people before or after Feb. 28, but my point is its surprising you think its OK to make grave charges against other academics without knowing such facts. Most academics I know would be very careful about make such claims.

    And you think all the other authors who have publish corrigenda in Nature without acknowledging the person who pointed out the error have also committed plagiarism?

  13. -12-andrewt

    As I said, if the authors provide evidence that they contacted Nature prior to Feb 28th, I'll stand corrected. Do you have any such evidence?

    Barring the provision of such evidence, to resolve this I suppose that we'll have to await and see what happens with Prof. McCulloch's request to Nature. Meantime, I am perfectly comfortable with the views expressed in this post.

  14. No I don't have any evidence - I'm not the one slinging mud.

    You didn't answer my second question - browsing through Corrigenda at Nature suggests the practice in this journal not to acknowledge the person who pointed out the error - at least I didn't come across a corrigendum that did. Do you think these are also likely incidences of academic plagiarism?

  15. @ PaulM,

    According to McCulloch at Climate Audit, Mann was out of the office at the time the email was sent. Mann's authomated reply said that any emails sent during this time would need to be resubmitted. McCulloch did not do so, so it's plausible that Mann didn't know (at the time at least).

  16. -14-andrewt

    I an unaware of other instances that you describe, but if the circumstance involves (a) an academic who feels that his work has ben plagiarized, and B) a history of appropriation of another's work as their own, than I would feel comfortable characterizing those situations as plagiarism.

    Now my turn: You seem to have a two-part argument here:

    1. Maybe they didn't actually plagiarize
    2. And if they did, it really wasn't plagiarism

    Is this about right? If the facts turn out exactly as described here, am I still "slinging mud"? Or is all fair in love, war and academic publishing?

  17. OK if you want my opinion, you assert "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 but you subequently admit don't know this to be true. This is reckless unprofessional behaviour which reflects poorly on you.

    And even if the circumstances really are as you suppose, you are either naive or deliberately misleading in characterizing omission of such an acknowledgement as academic plagiarism when it seems to be almost universal practice for corrigenda in Nature.

    In venues where acknowledgements of people who point out errors are normally included, omission of such an acknowledgement would be impolite and unprofessional but not plagiarism.

  18. -27-andrewt

    Then you must also think that the Nature policy on plagiarism does not apply to corrigenda, as it says quite clearly:

    "Plagiarism is when an author attempts to
    pass off someone else's work as his or her own."

    I don't see any exceptions there, do you?

    An acknowledgment is the minimum that should have happened in this case. An invitation to co-author the corrigenda would have been the decent thing to do.

    As far as "universal practice" the very first corrigendum I searched on Nature has this at the end:

    "We thank Natalie Cooper for discovering the error in the significance testing."


    Whether or not acknowledgment or co-authorship is deserved depends upon the case. In this case, both would have been well justified.

    You can call it "impolite and unprofessional" -- I've gone a step further. If a student did this sort of thing in my class -- take someone's work off of a blog and submit it without attribution as their own work, they'd fail my class. If they pleaded that such behavior is common practice I'd say tough luck.

  19. A couple of points --

    1. Mann, Schmidt and the others at Real Climate are well aware of everything that gets posted at Climate Audit. McCulloch's e-mails were just a courtesy. Anyone who thinks that the word didn't get to the authors very soon after McCulloch pointed out their error just hasn't been paying attention (or needs to return from whatever fantasy world they live in).

    2. Yes, Dean -- "activist wing of the climate science community". That would be the wing of the climate science community that is aggressively advocating for massive governmental policy changes throughout the world. What would you call it, the "passive wing"?

    And given the shady behavior of so many of those in the activist, alarmist community (and the silence from the rest of that community when disapproval is appropriate), the "entire enterprise looks corrupt". Extremely sloppy science, selective editing, cherry-picking, persistent mischaracterization of the existing science, stonewalling, slander, and a rejection of the scientific method will tend to do that.

  20. -27-andrewt

    Contrary to your assertion, looking through Nature Corrigenda, it appears that with the exception of trivial corrections (e.g, name misspellings, authorship omissions, figure mislabeling) it is fairly common practice to acknowledge the source of substantive errors, e.g., here are two further examples from a quick search:


    "It has been drawn to our attention (by J. A. Fuhrman) that Fig. 2 contains a citation error."


    "We thank A. V. Talyzin for alerting us to this mistake."

  21. Ah but Dr. Pielke, the Corrigenda you quote are not in "climate science"... ;-)

  22. Look, there are only two possibilities:

    1. They copied Prof. McCulloh's work.
    2. Prof. McCulloh copied their work.

    Which one will you choose and why does number two seem absurd?

  23. Nature will not ignore this.

    Although their editorial bias with respect to climate papers is clear, charges of plagiarism can not be ignored and will damage the journal itself if not addressed.

    An acknowledgment of error (quietly compelled by Nature and without further comment) should be sufficient to make this go away.

    It will be interesting to see whether the authors of Steig et al can make such an acknowledgement without taking some sort of additional swipe at Professor McCulloh or their detractors. Based on their past history, I would guess not.

  24. -23-Jason S

    I tend to agree. I suspect a Corrigendum to the Corrigendum is the best outcome for Nature and the Antarctic paper authors. I'd suggest something like:

    "Due to an editing error the following sentence was omitted from the original Corrigendum: Notification of the error was indepndently provided by Huston McCulloch."

    No responsibility taken, plausible deniability preserved.

  25. Your points here are so painfully obvious it is remarkable to me anybody is challenging them. However this will continue as long as parties see themselves as advocates as well as scientists. Even when working with the unvarnished truth egos get in the way of good science. Slap on a little varnish and ...