02 September 2011

Retraction, Remote Sensing and Due Process

[UPDATE 9/6: Gavin Schmidt explains that "Wagner's resignation is a recognition that he should have done a better job to prevent that [i.e., "the politicisation of the situation"].  There in a nutshell is the disease that afflicts climate science -- the view that scientific work in the peer review process should be evaluated according to expectations of political impact.]

[UPDATE 9/4: A reader writes in to remind me of my own related posts here and here and here.]

[UPDATE 9/4: Pielke Sr. has some thoughtful comments here.]

[UPDATE 9/3: The circus continues:
Kevin Trenberth received a personal note of apology from both the editor-in-chief and the publisher of Remote Sensing.
Why in the world would Trenberth need to be apologized to? Simply bizarre.]

The blogosphere is all atwitter over the news that the editor of the journal Remote Sensing has resigned to atone for what he believes to be a failure of his oversight of the journal by allowing what he asserts is a fatally flawed paper by climate skeptics to pass peer review and to be published.

The editor explains in an editorial published today that the paper in question "is most likely problematic" with respect to "fundamental methodological errors" and "false claims" and consequently "should therefore not have been published."

I am in no position to evaluate the substantive claims of errors and false claims in the paper, but I do agree with the folks over at RetractionWatch who call the resignation "curious" and ask if the editor feels as he does, "why not simply retract it?" In fact, if a paper has "errors" and "false claims" then a journal editor has an obligation to retract a paper (while of course giving the authors proper due process). In this case, the fact that the editor is unwilling or unable to retract the paper suggests that his resignation is probably the best course of action.

It is important for the new editor and editorial board of remote sensing to initiate retraction proceedings for the paper in question -- in other words the charges levied by the resigning editor need to be properly adjudicated. This is both in fairness to the authors (and the rest of us observers) but also good for science.

If the charges of "error" and "false claims" are upheld the paper should certainly be retracted.  If the charges are not upheld then the authors have every right to have such a judgment announced publicly.

Absent such an adjudication we are left with climate science played out as political theater in the media and on blogs -- with each side claiming the righteousness of their views, while everyone else just sees the peer review process in climate science getting another black eye.