The Frontiers Expert Panel

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 16 April 2014

Updated below: 17 April 2014

When Frontiers retracted our paper “Recursive Fury” (available at uwa.edu.au/recursivefury) they were very clear that the journal “…did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.”

The journal has since issued several conflicting positions, and their latest statement raised a concern about identification of ‘human subjects’ that can only be considered an ethical issue.  

Not only does this latest statement depart from journal’s previous public stance and signed agreements, but it also deviates from the opinions of Frontiers’ own expert panel that they appointed last year to examine the issues surrounding Recursive Fury.

Concerning the subject and consent issue, that expert panel concluded:

 Participant Status and Informed Consent

The question of participant status is an important and complex one.  It turns on the question of whether an individual’s (identifiable or not) postings to blogs comprise public information and therefore do not fall under the constraints typically imposed by ethics review boards.  The issue is currently under debate among researchers and publishers dealing with textual material used in scientific research. Advice was sought from the leading researcher on web-based psychological studies and his response was that “among psychological and linguistic researchers blog posts are regarded as public data and the individuals posting the data are not regarded as participants in the technical sense used by Research Ethics Committees or Institutional Review Boards.   This further entails that no consent is required for the use of such data.”  Although this view is held by many researchers and their ethics boards, it is by no means a unanimous judgment and it is to be expected that legitimate challenges, both on ethical and legal grounds, will be raised as web-based research expands in scope.  But to the charges that Fury was unethical in using blog posts as data for psychological analysis, the consensus among experts in this area sides with the authors of Fury. 
(Emphasis added.)

The consensus among experts is further reflected in the fact that the research was conducted with ethics approval by the University of Western Australia.

The consensus among experts in the area is that scholarly analysis of public speech can be conducted without requiring consent.

The University of Western Australia agreed with this consensus.

Frontiers publicly agreed with this consensus.

 

Update 17 April 2014:

Some commenters have, quite reasonably, asked me to release the entire expert report. I cannot do so because it is still strictly confidential.

I released the above section of the report because it spoke directly to an issue on which Frontiers made public statements that were irreconcilable with both an agreement they signed and their own expert report. This was done after extensive legal consultation and after inviting the journal to correct its latest public statements. I posted this unabridged relevant section only after the journal declined the invitation to set the record straight.

If it weren’t for these special and legally vetted circumstances, I would have honoured the confidentiality of this report as I have honoured all other agreements. The confidentiality of the remainder of this report remains in full force.

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78 Comments


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Comments 1 to 50 out of 78:

  1. The actions by Frontiers have been increasingly bizarre and reprehensible. Unless some truly herculean effort is made to correct their unconscionable behavior, I will never publish with them.

    Thanks for clearing the air on this. It is truly mind-boggling how mendacious Frontiers is acting.
  2. Frontiers experts clearly make the case that there are no ethical issues. Frontiers clearly agreed that there are no ethical issues. Plus, you can read the paper and see that there are no ethical issues here.

    Clearly the paper was not retracted for ethical reasons, but rather, because of some other reason; pressure from CIDs* being the best guess from Frontiers' own statement at the time. Not even a guess, really. They pretty much said it. It seems that the paper was pulled because of threats of legal action from the climate science denailist "community."

    So, everything that happened after that is suspect. The "statements" made by Frontiers after this by Henry Markram are clearly unofficial. He is a third tier editor of one of the journal's projects, NOT Frontiers in Psychology. He therefore has NOTHING to do wit this. But he does happen to be married to the CEO of the company, so clearly he knows what is going on. His posting of his opinions on blogs of Frontiers is just that ... a person with the key to the blog posting an opinion. Good for him, but it means nothing.

    I hope the Frontiers in Psychology reverses its opinion. Editors resigning should give them pause. Just THINKING about what they've done should give them pause.

    Also, if you look at the comments on the posts on Frontiers blog, it is clear that the retraction of the paper is viewed as a Big Win by the members of the denialist horde. They are having a field day over there. One witty commenter suggested that this would be a great source of data on denialists for someone to write a paper about. But not for submission to Frontiers. This is presumably because Frontiers is starting to look what we call on the street something I will not say out loud here. But it an't pretty.

    At the moment, I'm pretty sure Frontiers blog is the number one place to go to carry out climate science denialist rants, exceeding the other usual sites such as Anthony Watt's site. I'm pretty sure that if this was happening at some other major publication's site it would not be allowed.

    Putting it mildly, Frontiers seems to be intent on proving, at every possible opportunity, that it is not about science, not in support of science, not interested in science.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this very revealing bit of text. Kind of finishes the argument, in my view.

    _______________
    *Conspiracy Ideationizing Denialists
  3. 1) According to the Frontiers website:
    "Frontiers was founded by Henry and Kamila Markram. The first field journal launched was Frontiers in Neuroscience in 2007. Within the first two years, Frontiers in Neuroscience became the fastest-growing open access journal in neuroscience and it is now run by about 3,000 of the world's top neuroscientists."

    So his comments were by one of the two people who run Frontiers.

    2) In addition see his added comment yesterday:

    "‘Henry Markram My own personal opinion: The authors of the retracted paper and their followers are doing the climate change crisis a tragic disservice by attacking people personally and saying that it is ethically ok to identify them in a scientific study. They made a monumental mistake, refused to fix it and that rightfully disqualified the study. The planet is headed for a cliff and the scientific evidence for climate change is way past a debate, in my opinion. Why even debate this with contrarians? If scientists think there is a debate, then why not debate this scientifically? Why help the ostriches of society (always are) keep their heads in the sand? Why not focus even more on the science of climate change? Why not develop potential scenarios so that society can get prepared? Is that not what scientists do? Does anyone really believe that a public lynching will help advance anything? Who comes off as the biggest nutter? Activism that abuses science as a weapon is just not helpful at a time of crisis.'

    3) In 2013, Frontiers became part of the Nature Publishing Group.

    4) See an interesting item on patents.

    5) See interesting interesting commetns by Jeff Beall months ago.

    6) Finally, I observe that if comments on blogs are not public speech, then people can defame anybody they want and even use outright hate speech and it could never count. Although some bloggers might believe that, libel lawyers might have something to say on that.
  4. JohnMashey, I knew about all that but item #4. But I've also heard from scholars in various fields that they get spammed all the time.
  5. Strangely enough Joanne Nova, who was aghast at ethical issues with Recursive Fury, did not mind at all being studied "without permission" in the Amelia Sharman study "Mapping the climate Skeptic Blogosphere".

    "What an honor. Bravo Bravo. I’m touched."
  6. Hi gregladen:
    I thought you might, but your description of Henry seemed to underplay his role in Frontiers, even if he had nothing to do with the specific journal.

    It is hard to know, but this seems like:
    good idea, some good technology for OA ... and business model not there yet.
  7. I'm not actually totally sure of his role. He lists himself as "editor in chief" which as a term of art is the top dog editor, but he does not show up on their web site as such. Maybe their web site just needs updating.
  8. TenneyNaumer at 13:23 PM on 16 April, 2014
    Once criticized for retracting the paper, Frontiers doubled down with nonsense, digging quite a large hole for themselves.

    Remarkably, after being criticized for their nonsense, they react dishonestly.

    Early on in this debacle there was a point at which they could have walked back to place where real academic publishers take a stand for their authors' freedom of speech, but instead they are digging deeper and deeper and, in the process, very publicly exposing a mentality that is childish and irrational.
  9. Brandon Shollenberger at 14:06 PM on 16 April, 2014
    If you're going to quote something, you should make it available for people to see. For all anyone can know, the document quoted in this post could have recommended the paper be retracted. For example, the quote says:

    But to the charges that Fury was unethical in using blog posts as data for psychological analysis, the consensus among experts in this area sides with the authors of Fury.


    What if the next sentence said, "Fury was, however, unethical in using blog posts from people its authors interacted with while the study was ongoing"? That's a conclusion a panel could reasonably reach. They'd be saying it's okay to passively observe and report without consent, but you need consent if the study isn't passive.

    Plus, there are possibilities like the quote being inaccurate. It's reasonable for people to want to make sure that's not the case. After all, the authors misquoted at least two people in Recursive Fury's SI.
  10. That's quite a "bombshell".

    It's puzzling as to why Frontiers suppressed it from the outset, given the journals stated aspirations as a scientific publisher. They could have waved that about when they chose to publish the paper (either the first or second time) and it would have put an end to the matter.

    The expert panel finding doesn't surprise me as it's quite in line with what I've been reading about the current professional thinking in regard to ethics and internet research.

    What is even more puzzling is why one of Frontier's owners, or it looks like it from the Nature article, is coming out as "Editor in Chief" without his position being shown as such on the Frontiers website. His blog comments demonstrate he knows nothing of the situation or background (maybe I'm being kind), hasn't read the paper itself (he seemed to think it was a psych analysis of people, which it's not) and knows nothing of the ethics of internet research.

    So Frontiers went to an expert panel and got the best advice and acted accordingly (and published the paper), then backed off when a "small number" of deniers went ape-shit over it and misrepresented the paper, then finally caved to the deniers.

    Not only did Frontiers hide the fact that they are now disregarding the findings of the expert panel, their newly crowned "Editor in Chief, Frontiers" lied directly about the fact that the authors resubmitted the paper last January that removed names and internet handles, deidentified all comments and paraphrased the comments so they couldn't be traced to anyone.

    Seems to me there is another paper in this somewhere and/or a good solid piece of investigative journalism - or a court case.

    Is this the first time something has gone so awry at Frontiers? Their appalling mismanagement of this situation suggests probably not. (Did it grow too big too fast so the Peter Principle took over? Put that together with left hands not knowing what right hands are doing and it's easy to make a big mess.)
  11. BTW, fascinating to watch recursive fury live (so to speak), with a conspiracy "theory" evolving in response to the new facts (Brandon Shollenberger #9).
  12. Brandon Shollenberger at 15:02 PM on 16 April, 2014
    Sou, I find it difficult to believe a person who is in her right mind would interpret what I wrote to say or even intimate that there was a conspiracy.
  13. Dana Nuccitelli at 15:07 PM on 16 April, 2014
    It just looks worse and worse for the Frontiers editors. Why would they totally ignore and contradict their own expert review, and then throw the authors of the paper under the bus on top of it? The words incompetence and malice come to mind.
  14. Although this view is held by many researchers and their ethics boards, it is by no means a unanimous judgment and it is to be expected that legitimate challenges, both on ethical and legal grounds, will be raised as web-based research expands in scope.


    Even though the qualification "legitimate challenges, both on ethical and legal grounds" only seems to consider concerns of future research, it seems clear what we see here can't exclude concerns for the present Recursive Fury; since Recursive Fury itself announces it has a unique approach (my emphasis):

    Unlike previous analyses of web content, the present project was conducted in “real time” as the response to LOG12 unfolded, thus permitting a fine-grained temporal analysis of the emerging global conversation.


    This implication of uniqueness is not acknowledged in the above review. That is to say we see nothing regarding considerations of Recursive Fury's unique "real time" approach, where responses to blogs posted by the lead author were later used as data in RF.

    If Recursive Fury truly does have an approach "[u]nlike previous analyses of web content" then it seems less clear how the panel could conclude a solid consensus on that approach when we clearly see that this novel "unlike previous" approach's first tested outing has arrived at this clear problem.
  15. #12 Brandon Schollenberger appears to be in denial: Conspiracy theorists invoke more complicated explanations for things when accepting the simplest explanation for something is unpalatable. That is exactly what #12 does.

    It is no different from choosing to believe conspiracy theory explanations for Pearl Harbour, death of JFK, 9/11, etc. However, as David Aaronovitch (i.e. conservative UK journalist with The Times newspaper) has pointed out - in his book Voodoo Histories - conspiracy theories are bedtime stories for people who are unable or unwilling to accept the World as it is (and/or take their share of responsibility for it).
  16. Brandon Shollenberger at 19:03 PM on 16 April, 2014
    Uh... what? How is my comment #12 "no different" than believing there was a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy? All I said in that comment is I find it hard to believe anyone in their right mind would interpret what I said in #9 in a way nothing like what I actually said in #9.

    All I've done is say if a report is going to be quoted, it should be made available for people to read so they can ensure the quotation is accurate and representative. Oh, and point out a couple errors in supporting documentation for a paper.

    There is no sensible way to interpret anything I've said here as indicating I believe in conspiracies.
  17. Who were these learned reviewers and what were their terms of reference? Was it just to answer the question "is it ethical to use public blog comments in a study", or did it go beyond that to cover the reasons Frontiers are now saying they pulled the paper?
  18. I am glad that the expert panel report has been cited to rebut the ethical issue raised by the Frontiers clarification.

    The entire expert panel report should be published.

    I would like to read it.

    The "legally binding agreement" has been cited several times as well.

    The agreement should also be published.

    I would like to review the agreement also.

    I look forward to both of these documents being released, either by Frontiers and/or the Authors.
  19. So Cook and marriott had to shut down their blogs because they were working on the paper?
  20. shutting down blogs would be unnecessary... but decieving people you are researching, by interacting with them, and also publically calling them names on your own blog(Marriott) is really to be frowned upon ethically... don't you think?
  21. Anyone wasting their time here should be aware that comments critical of Lewandowsky are being routinely disappeared without record.

    This is therefore no longer a discussion blog - just an activist propaganda exercise.

    Exactly like the now-defunct paper under discussion.
  22. Eli can only believe that Stephan is leaving Volpoca's comment up as a recursive example.

    This is, as they say, doubling back on itself with a furry.
  23. Eli

    I suspect anyone endowed with more than Rabett IQ will have noticed the disappearing comments.

    I don't therefore really see the point of your comment - unless its just a ritual expression of allegiance to your leader.

    You should be spending more time with your students - I hear they're a pretty unhappy bunch ;-)
  24. I see many of the members of the Climate Change Cheka are here.

    My initial thought was, why don't they just sue and get it over with? Let the courts hash it out.

    But then I realized what this is really about. Intimidation. The hostile attack on Frontiers after an agreement they reached with Prof. Lewandowsky (which was apparently violated by his comrades) has a purpose, as did Lewandowsky's papers. Anyone who wants to publish an article on anything to do with climate science, anyone who wants to disagree with the so-called consensus, anyone who rubs climate warmists or the psychological abusers aligned with them the wrong way is going to be subjected to a sustained attack on their reputation and their ability to function in a professional environment.

    Nuccitelli's piece in the Guardian was a perfect example of how the methodology works to silence those who would defy the party line or even hint at skeptical leanings.

    That many of these people are still masquerading as scientists is tragic.
  25. Dr. Lewandowsky,

    First, I support you and your RF co-authors wholeheartedly. I think your analysis of conspiracist thinking is valuable, and should be published as science. I have no problem with identifying the individuals who are quoted in RF, given that they identified themselves when they made their comments in public fora.

    Now, I'm gratified that you quoted the consensus of Frontiers' expert panel here. I'm a little puzzled, however, that you didn't link to the source document for that. Is there any chances you could be persuaded to do so? It would be useful when rebutting claims made elsewhere that there were genuine ethical issues with RF.
  26. Pottereaton @ 25 said: Nuccitelli's piece in the Guardian was a perfect example of how the methodology works to silence those who would defy the party line or even hint at skeptical leanings.

    I count at least two conspiracy ideations in that one sentence.
    Would you care to share where, when and how you've been 'silenced'? In the interests of adding some reality to your theory.
  27. Ugo Bardi (one of the editors who resigned) has a new post:
    "Recursive Fury:" the reasons of Frontiers' blunder.

    That has some useful insight into how Frontiers actually works.
  28. Eli Rabett raises some structural issues in Frontiers of Amway.
  29. "... anyone endowed with more than Rabett IQ will have noticed the disappearing comments." from #23/Volpoca,

    If that ain't me, it would be no-one and I ain't seen no desaparecidos, because I didn't follow them. Maybe Volpoca would (and then, from there no news is good news).
  30. Thanks to John for the Prof. Bardi link and Eli for an enlightening contribution.

    What an interesting business model.
  31. The ethical problem isn't the citing of blog posts. The ethical problem is diagnosing them without visiting the authors.

    Which Frontiers understands quite well and has so said.
  32. No, Tom. The problem is the threat of barratry.
  33. RickA asks again:

    > I would like to review the agreement also.

    Rick fails to disclose:



    I practice as a full-time patent attorney.



    http://noconsensus.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/reader-background/#comment-25995
  34. Prof Lewandowsky

    Have I got this right?

    "I can't let you see the report because I agreed it would be strictly confidential - and releasing it would be totally unethical".

    "However, I have found a bit in it which appears to support my case, so obviously in that case …….

    Oh dear.
  35. Mashey

    I agree with Eli that mass vanity publishing for second rate academics may not be particularly beneficial - ethically or business wise.

    There's more than enough dross in the peer-reviewed literature already.

    He does seem to have shot himself in the feet a couple of times though ….

    1. By revealing, as I pointed out elsewhere that "editors' are ten-a-penny there and therefore having three resign is bit like losing the nickel you forgot you had in your pocket.

    2. With this, probably unintentionally, inflammatory quote - Frontiers generates papers and publishing charges by motivating the lower depths of the chain to publish..

    Who on earth can Eli mean??????? Surely not!
  36. > [T]he document quoted in this post could have recommended the paper be retracted

    Counterfactual thinking at its best:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterfactual_thinking

    People who would like to explore this counterfactual may wish to contact Frontiers and ask for the sentence that follows the one quoted.

    ***

    > Conspiracy theorists invoke more complicated explanations [...]

    Yes, and Hitler was also a vegetarian.

    Doctoral students should keep to their area of research instead of providing online diagnostics for which they would be liable were they have the proper authority to profer them.
  37. There are something like 40000 editors and reviewers. That's not even a tenth of a penny per. No doubt, Frontiers is as much of a multilevel marketing scheme as Amway and a number of recent posts here there and everywhere are coming out talking about how aggressive Frontiers is about recruiting.

    Eli thinks of his role more as a public service than a foot shooting (full disclosure: Eli is such a minor academic that he can't even recall being solicited), suspecting (at least hoping) that the unmasking of the business model will direct a lot of Frontiers solicitations to the Junk Mail folders.

    There may not be a lot more public resignations, but a lot of people are going to simply walk away.
  38. #34

    So let's just make up quotes and attribute them to Stephan Lewandowsky?

    Nefarious intent indeed.
  39. Eli

    So really, you're saying Frontiers is just a cheapjack vanity publishing operation which any respectable academic, with a reputation to protect, wouldn't touch with a barge pole.

    I think I get your drift……. you mean……..

    http://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/lew-d-bowl-man.jpg
  40. Volpoca

    So really, you're saying Frontiers is just a cheapjack vanity publishing operation

    Nope, that's not what Eli said. We are back to:

    "However, I have found a bit in it which appears to support my case, so obviously in that case …….

    Made-up stuff. Come on.
  41. tom fuller:

    >The ethical problem isn't the citing of blog posts. The ethical problem is diagnosing them without visiting the authors.

    There was no diagnosis in RF, so that can't be a legitimate reason for retracting the paper, even if Frontiers says it is.

    You can do better than this, Tom.
  42. Willard #33:

    Why is the fact that I am a patent attorney relevant?

    I would still like to review the agreement, and the fact that I am an attorney just means I will understand the agreement better than a non-attorney (maybe).
  43. RickA

    What puzzles me is that, as you are a lawyer (attorney) you asked the question in the first place. It being confidential, and all.
  44. Mal Adapted #41

    Agreed. If there was an ethical problem then the journal would have pointed to it earlier. It has had long enough.

    This is apparently just the usual CYA self-contradictory nonsense.
  45. BBD:

    Because I am a lawyer, I know that "agreements" are only confidential if that is a term of the agreement.

    I don't know that the "agreement" is confidential - so I ask if it is available to review.

    Unless the "agreement" requires that its terms not be publicly disclosed, either party is free to release it, if they wish.
  46. RickA

    Because I am a lawyer, I know that "agreements" are only confidential if that is a term of the agreement.

    Read the words:

    Some commenters have, quite reasonably, asked me to release the entire expert report. I cannot do so because it is still strictly confidential.

    Still. As in previously described as "confidential".
  47. RickA asks:

    > Why is the fact that I am a patent attorney relevant?

    RickA answers:

    > [T]he fact that I am an attorney just means I will understand the agreement better than a non-attorney (maybe).
  48. Eli thinks that Frontiers is a multilevel marketing scheme targeted at scientists, many of whom, in Eli's experience, are as naive about the world as your average Amway rep. Naive but charming, of course.

    Eli will have the carrot flavored shampoo.
  49. BBD @ #46.

    BBD - read the words yourself.

    We are talking about two different things.

    I am talking about the "agreement" between Frontiers and the Authors of Recursive Fury, which the Authors have referenced several times in connection with the language of the retraction statement.

    You are talking about the expert report, which is not an agreement (it is a report), which the Author asserts is confidential (still confidential).

    Of course, I would like to see both documents (as I said above).

    Perhaps at some point in the future, they will be release and the public will be able to review.
  50. willard @ #47.

    I still don't get your point.

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