Revisiting a Retraction

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 7 April 2014

The journal Frontiers retracted our “Recursive Fury” paper on 21 March. Frontiers withdrew Recursive Fury due to legal fears, not academic or ethical reasons. The paper—probably the most widely-read article ever published by Frontiers—can now be found at uwa.edu.au/recursivefury.

The retraction was accompanied by the following statement:

“In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.”

This statement was the result of negotiations between the lawyer for Frontiers and a legal representative of the authors in the U.K., and it formed part of a formal retraction agreement signed by both parties. Although we disagreed with the journal’s decision, we were provided with sufficient information to understand it. Our position on the decision was shared by officers of the Australian Psychological Society and other organizations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Although there has been considerable media attention, the authors have made few public comments since the paper was retracted. I have continued to serve as a co-editor of a forthcoming special issue of Frontiers, I accepted a reviewing assignment for that journal, and I currently have another paper in press with Frontiers. After the retraction, I was approached by several Frontiers editors and authors who were dismayed at the journal’s decision. In all instances I pointed out that I continued to serve as author, reviewer, and co-editor for Frontiers.

A few days ago, the journal released another statement about the retraction on their website. This recent statement raised several points that were new to us and that can be interpreted as a departure from the earlier, contractually-agreed retraction statement. Because of the public interest in this issue I draw attention to three issues that are most in need of disambiguation. (I defer other issues that deserve correction to future posts):

First, in its most recent statement, the journal seemed to imply that the paper was retracted because it “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects.” This stands in contrast to the contractually-agreed retraction statement, signed by legal representatives of both parties, that Frontiers “…did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.” It also sits uneasily with public statements by Frontiers’ lawyer, such as “Frontiers is concerned about solid science and it's obviously a regret when you have to retract an article that is scientifically and ethically sound…

Second, in its recent statement Frontiers also stated that it had received no (presumably legal) threats. This claim sits uneasily with the public statement of at least one individual who explicitly stated that he had threatened the journal. Moreover, another complainant publicly alleged defamation, and asserted that the journal's apparent concern with “defamation liability” was justified: Details were provided by Graham Readfearn earlier. The journal’s recent claim also sits uneasily with the contractually-agreed retraction statement, which ascribed the retraction to an “insufficiently clear” legal context. I pointed out earlier that this legal context involved English libel laws in force prior to 2014. Those laws were sufficiently notorious for their chilling effect on inconvenient speech for President Obama to sign a law that makes U.K. libel judgments unenforceable in the U.S.

Third, the journal revealed the existence of a new paper that we submitted in January 2014 and that according to their latest statement “did not deal adequately with the issues raised by Frontiers.”

To resolve those discrepancies between retraction-related statements requires a brief summary of events.

During a Skype conversation on 14 June 2013, representatives of Frontiers informed me that they had decided that there were no academic or ethical grounds for a retraction of Recursive Fury, but that changes might have to be made to the paper to safeguard against the legal risk of defamation. I agreed that I would “… work towards a constructive solution with you [Frontiers] to get the paper re-posted when it is ready,” even though no such risk of defamation had been identified by the relevant officers of my host institution at the time, the University of Western Australia.

On 28 August 2013 I was informed by Frontiers that their analysis of the defamation risk—under English libel laws—had found the risk to be too great for the journal to carry the article, and that it would have to be retracted. This decision was accompanied by an invitation to submit a replacement article that dealt with the issues identified in the various reviews and assessments.

We submitted a replacement article on 1/1/14, by which time English libel laws had changed significantly. It is worth considering this replacement article in some detail because it went beyond the initial Recursive Fury in the following ways:

  • Our narrative analysis was independently verified and further refined by a philosopher and a historian of science.
  • We conducted two behavioral studies with naïve and blind subjects who were not aware of the background or purpose of the study, and who responded to anonymized web content. Those studies (a) confirmed the classification of hypotheses reported in Recursive Fury and (b) showed that naïve observers rated the web content extremely high (i.e., modal response was the top end of the scale) on dimensions related to conspiracist thinking but not on an attribute relating to the quality of scholarly critique.
  • Our narrative analysis was anonymized (by paraphrasing verbatim public statements until they no longer yielded hits in Google) to prevent identification of individuals while retaining the integrity of the study.

Frontiers rejected this replacement paper on 12 February, claiming that it failed to deal adequately with the defamation issue. Our (English) legal advice clarifies that defamation cannot arise if individuals  cannot be identified in the minds of a “reasonable reader.” It must also be noted that the laws in England changed significantly on 1/1/14 to now include explicit provision for the protection of peer-reviewed science.

To sum up:

Throughout the entire period, from March 2013 until February 2014, the only concern voiced by Frontiers related to the presumed defamation risk under English libel laws. While the University of Western Australia offered to host the retracted paper at uwa.edu.au/recursivefury because it did not share those legal concerns, Frontiers rejected an anonymized replacement paper on the basis that non-identifiable parties might feel defamed.

No other cause was ever offered or discussed by Frontiers to justify the retraction of Recursive Fury. We are not aware of a single mention of the claim that our study “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” by Frontiers throughout the past year, although we are aware of their repeated explicit statements, in private and public, that the study was ethically sound.

This brings into focus several possibilities for the reconciliation of Frontier’s contradictory statements concerning the retraction:

First, one could generously propose that the phrase “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” is simply a synonym for “defamation risk” and that the updated statement therefore supports the contractually-agreed statement. This is possible but it puts a considerable strain on the meaning of “synonym.”

Second, one could take the most recent statement by Frontiers at face value. This has two uncomfortable implications: It would imply that the true reason for the retraction was withheld from the authors for a year. It would also imply that the journal entered into a contractual agreement about the retraction statement that misrepresented its actual position.

Third, perhaps the journal only thought of this new angle now and in its haste did not consider that it violates their contractually-agreed position.

Or there are other possibilities that we have not been able to identify.

Bookmark and Share

158 Comments


Prev  1  2  3  

Comments 101 to 140 out of 140:

  1. To start a new page, Eli recommends that people actually read the paper. The comments printed from the blogs were readings which were evaluated by anonymous panels, who were the subjects.

    So what this study was about was that subjects were given readings from blogs and asked to characterize them. The response of the panels was the data, not the readings. Surprisingly they found confusionist writings to be postulating conspiracies.
  2. BBD

    Please tell me what you do for a living.

    I'm having a hard time imagining what kind of educated adult doesn't understand that people in conflict don't always tell the entire truth. Two words of advice - grow up.

    By the way - you've managed to merge some of my email correspondence with bits from somebody else.

    I think that might be libellous - I'll be calling my lawyers shortly ;-)
  3. And Ugo Bardi resigns (emphasis added):

    The climate of intimidation which is developing nowadays risks to do great damage to climate science and to science in general. I believe that the situation risks to deteriorate further if we all don't take a strong stance on this issue. Hence, I am taking the strongest action I can take, that is I am resigning from "Chief Specialty Editor" of Frontiers in protest against the behavior of the journal in the "Recursive Fury" case. I sent to the editors a letter today, stating my intention to resign.

    I am not happy about having had to take this decision, because I had been working hard and seriously at the Frontiers' specialy journal titled "Energy Systems and Policy." But I think it was the right thing to do. I also note that this blunder by "Frontiers" is also a blow to the concept of "open access" publishing, which was one of the main characteristic of their series of journals. But I still think that open access publishing it is the way of the future. This is just a temporary setback for a good idea which is moving onward.
  4. By the way - you've managed to merge some of my email correspondence with bits from somebody else.


    Be specific.
  5. I'm having a hard time imagining what kind of educated adult doesn't understand that people in conflict don't always tell the entire truth. Two words of advice - grow up.


    You appear to be confirming that yes, you have lied.
  6. Sou - I see you've not changed in the slightest.

    I'll respond to a single comment - you juvenile and ignorant attack about time ... Lewandowsky spent more than two years preparing and compiling his paper. In our case we waited first for the Recursive Fury paper, then for the data from the follow on "Role" paper from Lewandowsky.

    The whole point of my survey was to recreate Lewandowsky's survey with answers from true skeptics and compare with Lewandowsky. For the sole reason to validate whether Lewndowsky's work was reproducible and robust.

    THAT is how the scientific process works.

    If Lewandowsky etal's work is accurate and reproducible they should have zero concern with anyone recreating their work.

    And your excuse that releasing the data would somehow allow personal identification shows your ignorance on the topic. There should be NO personally identifiable data to start. And regardless any request would specifically exclude personally identifiable data.
  7. Nothing to say about Bardi's resignation, A. Scott?

    I'm surprised that you skip over something like that.
  8. @BBD at 06:24 AM on 9 April, 2014

    And Ugo Bardi resigns (emphasis added):


    Thanks for the information, having never heard of Ugo Bardi before,but being quite familiar with Recursive Fury, I was in the position to form an opinion of his judgement based solely on this announcement. In addition to spotting a couple of stark errors of reasoning in it I think this opening part stands out:

    You may have followed the story of "Recursive Fury", the paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and others that the journal "Frontiers" had published in 2013. The paper reported the results of a survey that showed that the rejection of climate science was often accompanied by a similar mindset on other scientific areas.


    You must agree that his description of Recursive Fury is wrong.

    If Bardi isn't sure of the purpose and description of the paper he is protesting the withdrawal of, I'm not why should anyone value his opinion of the "behavior of the journal"?
  9. A.Scott @ #106

    Darrell is labouring under the delusion that possessing the ability to read English qualifies him as a reviewer of equal standing with Elaine McKewon.

    May we safely assume your credentials for undertaking a replication in imitation of Dr. Lewandowskyare similarly threadbare?
  10. tlitb1

    I see no issues with Bardi's statement. It's interesting that your first reaction is to suggest that he is intellectually incompetent though.
  11. Foxgoose writes:
    "I never considered consulting a lawyer about the Fury paper - because I knew the fraudulent use of my quotation was so crass and blatant that, once a responsible adult (i.e. not Lewandowsky or Cook) looked at it it would be taken down, as it was.

    Why on earth would I spend my hard-earned money fighting a legal case, to protect the honour of a pseudonym, against a bunch of people I think of as slightly deranged?"


    However, to Frontiers, he wrote:
    "Although I contribute to blogs under the anonymous username of [redacted] I have sought legal advice which has confirmed that, as long as a reasonable number of blog readers are aware of my true identity and professional reputation (which is the case), I could potentially have a defamation action against the authors and publishers of this paper for an outright lie which was told about me."

    (My emphasis)

    So, he either lied to Frontiers in his letter to them, where he indicates that he sought legal advice; or he is lying to us now when he claims he would never do so over so trivial an issue.
  12. BBD, Ugo Bardi not only describes the paper as a survey, but also provides a more detailed description of the contents, making it clear he has in mind LOG12 rather than "Recursive Fury".
  13. A Scott, no data beyond that already publicly released is required to redo the analysis on LOG12, and hence the suggestion that more data is required to be released is specious.

    Further, you better run your idea that no personally identifying data has been requested past McIntyre, who has requested, among other things, the IP addresses of respondents to the survey - something that clearly qualifies as identifying information.
  14. Tom

    I used to think you were a bright, albeit slightly weird, guy.

    .

    Three things:-

    1. Legal advice is available nowadays from many sources. For many years, If I've had a legal problem in my business - the first thing I do is seek my own advice from the plethora of reputable legal sources available free on the internet. Most people I know do the same.

    In this case, the issue was whether it is possible for someone who has been libelled under an assumed name to sue for redress.

    A couple of hours research soon revealed there is plenty of precedent for this - mainly in cases of authors and entertainers using adopted names. The important legal criterion is whether a reasonable number of recipients of the libellous information are aware of the persons name and reputation.

    I therefore sought, and found, legal advice on which I based my statement to UWA & frontiers.

    I haven't instructed lawyers yet, although you lied above when you claimed I said I would never do so - I never said that and I'm perfectly entitled to change my mind about legal action

    2. You just publicly libelled me by calling me a liar and I'm guessing you don't have UWA's insurers standing behind you like big-mouth Lew.
  15. "I'm perfectly entitled to change my mind about legal action"

    I've been wondering how long it would take someone to point out that this possibility may have been in Frontiers' lawyers' minds, and hence rebut all of the fervent protestations that all possibility of legal threat has been eliminated, and all arguments predicated upon that claim.

    Nice to have it confirmed from the horse's mouth, so to speak.
  16. Lotharsson

    The distinction between "ethical" and "legal" problems with this pseudo-science was always just an artificial face saving gesture anyway.

    A moment's thought makes it clear that the legal risks resulted directly from the ethical failures.

    My personal view is - if Lew had let the retraction stand and rectified the fraudulent data in the first paper he might have salvaged his reputation, or at least his career.
  17. Foxgoose, thanks for additional confirmation that concerns about legal threats had validity. I think we can lay to rest the claim to the contrary.
  18. Lotharsson

    It's all a question of timing old chap.

    One of the awkward things about doing illegal stuff to people is - they get to choose if and when they want to act against you. They're even allowed to change their minds.
  19. Let me just say that I find all this discussion about Foxgoose seeking legal advice amusing. Professor Lewandowsky was fully lawyered up from the beginning in this dispute and if any of you don't think Frontiers viewed that as legally threatening, you are deluding yourselves.
  20. Sometimes even I cannot quite believe my eyes.

    I haven't instructed lawyers yet, although you lied above when you claimed I said I would never do so - I never said that and I'm perfectly entitled to change my mind about legal action

    2. You just publicly libelled me by calling me a liar and I'm guessing you don't have UWA's insurers standing behind you like big-mouth Lew.


    This has been demonstrated here, on this thread and when confronted you admitted your dishonesty openly:

    I'm having a hard time imagining what kind of educated adult doesn't understand that people in conflict don't always tell the entire truth.
    .

    In other words, you lied about this:

    Shortly after my complaint the offending passage was removed from the paper, presumably because the institutions concerned realised that my allegation was true.

    This ended the matter personally, as far as I was concerned - although I continued to draw attention the the blatant fraud and malpractice in both papers.

    Trying to resurrect my long resolved complaint and brandish it as "threat" which caused the paper to be withdrawn a year later just makes you look even more of a down than usual.


    And this:

    I never considered consulting a lawyer about the Fury paper


    And this:

    Why on earth would I spend my hard-earned money fighting a legal case, to protect the honour of a pseudonym, against a bunch of people I think of as slightly deranged?


    There isn't a lawyer in his or her right mind that would touch you with a barge-pole.
  21. Lotharsson

    I've been wondering how long it would take someone to point out that this possibility may have been in Frontiers' lawyers' minds, and hence rebut all of the fervent protestations that all possibility of legal threat has been eliminated, and all arguments predicated upon that claim.


    I did, some time ago.

    Notice the dishonesty here. First the claim is that there was never really any legal threat and so the real problems were academic and ethical, with legal issues merely used as an excuse. When that is pulled apart, FG switches back - without so much as a blush - to reiterating legal threats and admitting that they were made in earnest in the first place.

    This is a grotesque farce.
  22. BBD

    Thanks for the legal advice - I'll bear it in mind.

    I had no idea that lawyers only worked for nice people.
  23. This isn't about being nice, FG, it is about the credibility and you have exactly none. You have shredded it, right here, on this thread, and now permanently on record.

    The frog and the scorpion, every time.
  24. tlitb1

    Ugo Bardi writes:

    Addendum: some people seem to have find a handle to criticize my stance on this issue by saying that I described incorrectly what "Recursive Fury" says. Sorry, but the paper says exactly what I say: that denial of climate science is accompanied by other conspiratorial beliefs. Then, of course, it deals with the reactions to an earlier paper on the same subject, but the focus of the discussion is the same. In any case, this is just the usual trick of shifting the discussion on a marginal point to avoid confronting the main issue which is, in this case, the behavior of "Frontiers".
  25. I wonder if Professor Lewandowsky or any of his apologists on this thread would consider the following an example of conspiracist ideation:

    Empirical Studies

    First, I identified the drivers of newspaper coverage of climate change in Australia and the news sources who accessed the news media to discredit authoritative scientific knowledge about climate change. I found that these news sources have historical, material connections to American think tanks, Australian conservative political parties and economic interests in the fossil fuel, mining and energy industries - all of which oppose policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    I then mapped out the discursive strategies used by these news sources and the ideological basis of the narratives propagated through discourse coalitions that permeate the Field of Power which encompasses the political, economic, academic, media and think tanks social fields.

    Finally, I designed synchronic case studies to examine the representation of scientific knowledge about climate change in newspapers across Australia. My case studies confirmed that ideological and partisan orientation are the main factors that determine a newspaper’s or journalist’s attitude towards the science of climate change.

    In my future research, I plan to build on my PhD study to further investigate how economic interests use think tanks, the news media, social media and social movements to engage in the social production of scientific ignorance in order to manipulate policy debates in the areas of environment, energy and public health.
  26. That's not conspiracist ideation. Those are matters of fact, revealed through research, often journalistic research. Despite the best efforts to conceal these activities from the public (see Donors Trust; dark money; links on previous page - please read the thread) some is known.

    You don't seem to understand what conspiracist ideation actually means.
  27. Professor Lewandowsky has written:

    . . . conspiracist ideation, defined here as the attempt to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations. The presumed conspirators are typically conceived as virtually omnipotent . . .


    Bullseye.
  28. Steve Metzler at 09:05 AM on 10 April, 2014
    pottereaton, as BBD says, you are way out of your depth here. Do you actually imagine that what the likes of the Wall Street Journal and The Australian publish on their editorial pages is *not* influenced by their ideology or political leanings or sources of funding? If so, you are so out of touch with reality that it's beyond belief. In fact, you are just exhibiting the typical dog whistle/knee-jerk reaction to what the serial misogynist Willis Eschenbach recently posted at WUWT. So typical of what we have come to expect from your ilk.
  29. pottereaton

    You still do not acknowledge the difference between conspiracist ideation and matters of fact.

    It is a matter of fact that Donors Trust exists.

    Donors Trust is a secretive funding mechanism used to hide substantial (multi-million dollar) subsidy of climate change denying "think tanks" whose function is to cast doubt on climate science and paralyse public policy. Your further reading here.

    To demonstrate that this is a conspiracy theory, you would have to prove that Donors Trust does not exist.

    When you fail to do that, because it is impossible, then you must acknowledge that you have confused conspiracist ideation with matters of fact.

    Read this comment as many times as it takes to understand it before venturing any response.
  30. When skepticism, or if you prefer, denialism becomes a $100 or $500 billion dollar industry as tainted with corruption, lies, cronyism, and political authoritarianism as the Global Warming industry, get back to me.

    $120 million dollars in legal contributions is peanuts compared to the money you people are raking in. There is much to lose and it has nothing to do with climate and everything to do with the gravy train you all have created out of speculation and fear-mongering based on wholly incomplete and insufficient scientific findings. What's going on now is that the data are starting to prove all the mitigation, regulations, solutions being imposed blatantly expensive in the light of all the uncertainties. That all the money being spent could be spent more effectively combating far more serious problems that are killing people around the world.
  31. I thought you might have a few problems with my previous comment.

    This is conspiracist ideation (bold):

    When skepticism, or if you prefer, denialism becomes a $100 or $500 billion dollar industry as tainted with corruption, lies, cronyism, and political authoritarianism as the Global Warming industry, get back to me.

    $120 million dollars in legal contributions is peanuts compared to the money you people are raking in. There is much to lose and it has nothing to do with climate and everything to do with the gravy train you all have created out of speculation and fear-mongering based on wholly incomplete and insufficient scientific findings.


    This is just the usual bollocks:

    What's going on now is that the data are starting to prove all the mitigation, regulations, solutions being imposed blatantly expensive in the light of all the uncertainties. That all the money being spent could be spent more effectively combating far more serious problems that are killing people around the world.


    These are the matters of fact which you are simply refusing to accept because they are inconvenient truths for you:

    - There is a denial industry

    - It is increasingly funded anonymously because the key players do not wish their activities and identities to become known to the general public (see Donors Trust)

    - Lobby groups pretending to be "think tanks" and "educational charities" are funded to produce reams of pseudoscience and misrepresentations which are then fed into the right-wing media (press, tv) and the blogosphere where they are endlessly propagated by idiots like you

    - The evidence for industrial funding of the denial industry is documented and based on uncontested matters of fact. You have been given links to journalism and academic research demonstrating this. No legal challenges have arisen over these revelations because they are matters of fact and they are verifiable

    - You behave as you do because you are in denial and therefore reject even matters of fact. You are also a conspiracy theorist, as your absurd statement above demonstrates conclusively.
  32. “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
  33. Further absence of substantive response from the rather useless pottereaton.

    Pick on someone your own size, next time.
  34. I responded and it was snipped. Why is it that far more comments get censored at warmist sites than at skeptic sites?

    Enjoy your anger. It's all you've got for comfort as the whole thing unravels.
  35. I responded and it was snipped.

    No, that is a lie. You did not respond at all.

    Why is it that far more comments get censored at warmist sites than at skeptic sites?

    Lying about non-existent moderation is just stupid. You have already been shown up badly on this thread and now you are making matter even worse.
  36. I wrote a response and it was posted or so I thought. Then it disappeared. It's possible I'm wrong, but at the time I was sure I was snipped. You didn't answer the question. Why is it that comments get snipped at warmista sites far more frequently than they do at skeptic sites?

    Is it because someone once said,

    "Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?"
  37. You didn't answer the question. Why is it that comments get snipped at warmista sites far more frequently than they do at skeptic sites?


    Argument from assertion. Not deserving question status, let alone an answer.

    And it's a squirrel.

    Goodbye, pottereaton.
  38. The entire argument for catastrophic global warming is an argument from assertion, so don't go there. It's based on trends, suppositions, speculations with huge helpings of uncertainty thrown in.

    Anyone who says they know what the climate will be like in fifty or one hundred yeas is delusional.
  39. watches


    watches


    swiss Mechanical movement replica watches





    Rolex Air King Replica Watch Oyster Perpetual Automatic Two Tone With Beige Dial New Version - $203.00 : Professional replica watches stores, topwatchesmart.co