Journal editor resigns after publishing questionable paper

Wolfgang Wagner, editor of the online scientific journal Remote Sensing, has resigned after criticism for publishing a paper about climate models that was outside the journal’s normal subject area and drew criticism from a number of scientists.

Wagner wrote in an editorial published yesterday, “Peer-reviewed journals are a pillar of modern science. Their aim is to achieve highest scientific standards by carrying out a rigorous peer review that is, as a minimum requirement, supposed to be able to identify fundamental methodological errors or false claims. Unfortunately, as many climate researchers and engaged observers of the climate change debate pointed out in various internet discussion fora, the paper by Spencer and Braswell that was recently published in Remote Sensing is most likely problematic in both aspects and should therefore not have been published. After having become aware of the situation, and studying the various pro and contra arguments, I agree with the critics of the paper. Therefore, I would like to take the responsibility for this editorial decision and, as a result, step down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Remote Sensing.”

A BBC report provides more background, explaining that the paper in question was not about remote sensing as such but rather climate models, and noting that

Publishing in “off-topic” journals “is generally frowned on in scientific circles, partly because editors may lack the specialist knowledge and contacts needed to run a thorough peer review process.

In essence, Dr Wagner, a professor of remote sensing at Vienna University of Technology, is blaming himself for this failing.

But he also blames the researchers themselves for not referencing all the relevant research in their manuscript.

“The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted…, a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers.

“In other words, the problem I see with the paper… is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents.

“This latter point was missed in the review process, explaining why I perceive this paper to be fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal.”

The BBC quotes Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, in support of Wagner’s decision: “It was a mistake, he’s owned up to it and taken an honourable course, and I think he’s to be commended for it.”

Creationists and other scientists at odds with the scientific mainstream often submit papers to off-topic journals. Ward told the BBC, “Those who recognise that their ideas are weak but seek to get them into the literature by finding weaknesses in the peer review system are taking a thoroughly disreputable approach.”

One of the authors of the paper in question, Roy Spencer, is a professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and part of a team that is engaged in remote sensing, specifically satellite measurements of the Earth’s temperature. The BBC notes that Spencer “is also on the board of directors of the George C Marshall Institute, a right-wing thinktank critical of mainstream climate science, and an advisor to the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, an evangelical Christian organisation that claims policies to curb climate change ‘would destroy jobs and impose trillions of dollars in costs’ and ‘could be implemented only by enormous and dangerous expansion of government control over private life’.” His religious and political opinions do not, of course, mean that Dr. Spencer is necessarily mistaken in his conclusions, but on the other hand they might suggest a possible influence on them independent of the actual science.

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