14 August 2009

Real Climate Responds - Updated

UPDATE: Eric Steig writes to let me know that Prof. Huston McCulloch has withdrawn his accusation of plagiarism and has asked me to announce this here, which I am happy to do. Steig says that a test of my integrity is whether I will mention this prominently here. I offered to Steig to post his complete email to me under its own thread. Haven't heard back, but hopefully that will pass the test.

McCulloch is a bit incredulous, as he explains here. McCulloch writes that Steig indicates that "none of the 6 authors learned of the error from my post" at the time that they submitted the correction to Nature, despite the fact that McCulloch sent them an email at the time. And so there is little point in further debating this issue here, as it has left the realm of the empirical. You either believe Steig et al. or you don't, to which McCulloch says "I can only take him at his word." Accordingly, I'll close comments on this thread.

Real Climate has responded to my criticism that several of its authors had plagiarized Hu McCulloch's identification of an error in a paper about temperature trends in Antarctica. The facts of the matter are not in dispute, specifically, McCulloch's analysis was correct, they were aware that he had publicized it and he was i fact the first to publicly expose the error.

Consequently, their defense rests on three claims:

1. They had already thought of the error.

2. Their error was in the application of statistics, not basic statistical principles.

3. Publication on a blog does not count, and thus presumably, is ripe for appropriation. It is first to the peer reviewed literature that matters.

Here is the Real Climate defense in their words:
In this case, McCulloch’s comment on the paper were perfectly valid, but he chose to avoid the context of normal scientific exchange — instead posting his comments on ClimateAudit.org — and then playing a game of ‘gotcha’ by claiming plagiarism when he wasn’t cited.

McCulloch accuses Steig et al. of appropriating his ‘finding’ that Steig et al. did not account for autocorrelation when calculating the significance of trends. While the published version of the paper didn’t include such a correction, it is obvious that the authors were aware of the need to do so, since in the text of the paper it is stated that this correction was made. The corrected calculations were done using well-known methods, the details of which are available in myriad statistics textbooks and journal articles. There can therefore be no claim on Dr. McCulloch’s part of any originality either for the idea of making such a correction, nor for the methods for doing so, all of which were discussed in the original paper. Had Dr. McCulloch been the first person to make Steig et al. aware of the error in the paper, or had he written directly to Nature at any time prior to the submission of the Corrigendum, it would have been appropriate to acknowledge him and the authors would have been happy to do so. Lest there be any confusion about this, we note that, as discussed in the Corrigendum, the error has no impact on the main conclusions in the paper.

The reply to this is obvious.

1. In academia it is not who thinks of an idea first that matters. It is who publicizes it first, whether in a talk, at a conference, in a draft paper, in a published paper, or yes, on a blog. An approach based only on first to the peer reviewed literature makes a pretty sad statement about the morality of modern academia.

2. This is just a silly claim that adds words but no substance to their defense. McCulloch was not claiming originality in either statistics or the need to apply an autocorrleation adjustment, simply that the authors has done so incorrectly. This is a red herring.

3. Real Climate authors presumably wouldn't steal an idea presented at a departmental seminar, and ideas presented on popular blogs should be treated no differently. I completely reject the implication from Real Climate that stealing ideas from blogs is acceptable because they are not made "context of normal scientific exchange." Sorry guys, it 2009, and blogs are part of the "context of normal scientific exchange."

Overall, a pretty poor set of excuses for not doing the right thing in the first place.