The Journal that Gave In to Climate Deniers’ Intimidation


A journal’s retraction of a researcher’s work in light of a ‘small number’ of complaints from those often described as climate ‘skeptics’ raises concerns about a chilling effect on scientific research. (Reposted with permission of The Conversation.)

In February 2013, the journal Frontiers in Psychology published a peer-reviewed paper which found that people who reject climate science are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Predictably enough, those people didn’t like it.

The paper, which I helped to peer-review, is called “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.” In it, cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues survey and analyse the outcry generated on climate skeptic blogs to their earlier work on climate denial.

The threat of legal action can have a ‘chilling effect’ on academic freedom.

The earlier study had also linked climate denial with conspiracist thinking. And so by reacting with yet more conspiracy theorising, the bloggers rather proved the researchers’ point.

Yet soon after Recursive Fury was published, threats of litigation* started to roll in, and the journal took the paper down (it survives on the website of the University of Western Australia, where Lewandowsky carried out the study).

A lengthy investigation ensued, which eventually found the paper to be scientifically and ethically sound. Yet on March 21 this year, Frontiers retracted the paper because of the legal threats.

The episode offers some of the clearest evidence yet that threats of libel lawsuits have a chilling effect on scientific research.

Legal context ‘insufficiently clear’

In announcing its retraction, Frontiers made 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.

The retraction of Recursive Fury has attracted sharp criticism from the scientific community.

In the course of private discussions, I have learned that a number of scientists who had submitted work to Frontiers fired off letters to express their dismay at the retraction and to seek assurances that their studies would not be retracted under similar circumstances.

Other researchers went public with their remonstrations. One scientist who lists 23 peer-reviewed scientific publications on her Frontiers profile page bluntly challenged the journal’s judgement and commitment to academic freedom in a comment posted under the retraction announcement:

I am dumbfounded to see a scientific paper retracted by the editor because of threat of libel. The fundamental job description of a science editor should include the defense of academic freedom. I certainly expect my newspapers to defend freedom of the press; do scientific publications now hold themselves to lower standards?

The inside story

As one of the peer-reviewers of Lewandowsky’s paper, I am also profoundly disappointed by its retraction. Here, I’ll share my experience with the review, publication and retraction processes and provide some more context to the story.

Early last year, I accepted the journal’s invitation to review Recursive Fury, a narrative analysis of blog posts published by climate deniers** in response to Lewandowsky’s earlier work in which he and his colleagues showed that endorsement of free-market economics and a propensity for conspiratorial thinking are contributing factors in the rejection of science.

(**A note here on the use of the term “denier”. Denial is defined as “a refusal to accept that something unpleasant or painful is true” — e.g., “The patient is still in denial.” No fewer than 97% of climate scientists now endorse the scientific consensus on the reality, causes and significant risks associated with climate change. The term “climate change denier” or “climate denier” describes an individual who rejects the science of climate change and the considerable body of evidence on which it is based. It has no further meaning or connotation beyond this.)

Recursive Fury was theoretically strong, methodologically sound, and its analysis and conclusions — which re-examined and reaffirmed the link between conspiracist ideation and the rejection of science — were based on clear evidence. Satisfied that the paper was a solid work of scholarship that could advance our understanding of science denial and improve the effectiveness of science communication, I recommended publication. Two other independent reviewers agreed.

The paper names and quotes several blogs and individuals. Shortly after publication, Frontiers received complaints* from climate deniers who claimed they had been libelled in the paper and threatened to sue the journal unless the paper was retracted.

After taking the paper down from its website, Frontiers began its investigation and arranged a conference call so that the journal’s manager, legal counsel, editors and reviewers could discuss how to proceed.

The journal’s lawyer, who is based in England (as was Lewandowsky by that time), was very concerned about the journal being sued for libel. At that time, British libel laws left scientists, peer-reviewed journals and journalists exposed to potentially ruinous lawsuits for publishing fair criticism of a company, person or product. (Of all the jurisdictions in which academic journals are published, the U.K. has historically been one of the most generous to libel claimants.) That changed on January 1 this year, when Britain’s libel laws were amended to reverse the chilling effect on science and legitimate public debate. Claimants must now show that they have suffered “serious harm” before launching legal action.

But in February 2013, the journal had no such protection, and the lawyer raised concerns about two sentences in the paper that had been the subject of threats of litigation. By the end of the 20-minute conference call, we had all agreed that, if the authors made minor modifications to these sentences, the content would remain intact and the paper could be re-published without fear of successful legal action.

Before the call ended, three academics, including me, argued that scientific journals must not be held to ransom every time someone threatens litigation. In response to our concerns, we were assured by the journal’s representatives that the legal matter would be considered settled once the two sentences had been amended as agreed.

Yet the paper remained in limbo while the journal’s investigation into the academic and ethical aspects of the study dragged on for more than a year. Finally, the journal reached the conclusion that there was no academic or ethical case to answer; in the meantime, Britain’s Defamation Act 2013 had kicked in to provide scientific journals greater protection against threats of litigation, by privileging statements contained in peer-reviewed studies.

It is hard to imagine a set of outcomes that would have better remedied each issue flagged by Frontiers as a matter of concern. So it came as quite a shock to hear that the journal had decided to retract the paper ostensibly because “the legal context is insufficiently clear”.

Clear intimidation

Just how clear would the legal context need to be for Frontiers to stand up to intimidation and defend academic freedom? First, the two sentences discussed in the conference call had been amended as agreed, which satisfied the journal’s lawyer even under the former libel laws. Second, Britain’s new libel laws offer science journals greater protection for precisely this kind of situation.

In any event, the journal’s management and editors were clearly intimidated by climate deniers who threatened to sue*. So Frontiers bowed to their demands, retracted the paper, damaged its own reputation, and ultimately gave a free kick to aggressive climate deniers.

I would have expected a scientific journal to have more backbone, certainly when it comes to the crucially important issue of academic freedom.

*Since this article was published, Frontiers has issued a statement denying that it received “threats”, but acknowledging that it received “complaints”, and reiterating its earlier statement that the paper was retracted for legal reasons. Professor Lewandowsky has responded to the new statement here.

Elaine McKewon is a Research Associate, Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at University of Technology, Sydney. She receives an Australian Postgraduate Award from the Australian government’s Department of Education. This scholarship enables research that is in the public interest and free of vested interests.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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21 Responses to The Journal that Gave In to Climate Deniers’ Intimidation

  1. RickA says:


    If there were no ethical issues, then why did the Authors submit a rewritten paper which anonymized the study participants?

    I understand this anonymized version of the paper was quite different that the two sentence correction version you discuss above, which was ultimately republished (or re-posted).

    Frontiers continued to reject the anonymized version of the paper, for reasons I understand to be ethical (naming the participants without their consent). So how can you say there were no ethical problems with the retracted paper?

    Also – what were the criticisms of the two reviewers who withdrew?

    Did either of the withdrawn reviewers raise the issue of naming the names of the participants?

    Or did they have academic concerns with the original paper?

    • John Samuel says:

      I fail to see how quoting publicly accessible blogs is a privacy issue. And most university ethics committees would agree with me.

      I can understand that those cited may well rue what they wrote at the time and may even be embarrassed. But hiding behind privacy when posting publicly is cheeky, at best.

      • RickA says:

        It is not that they rue what they publicly wrote.

        It is that they are not happy about being called crazy, by name, by a psychologist in a journal paper and being defamed to boot!

        If you disagree with me, please reply.

        But don’t write a medical paper about me and call me crazy.

      • Barry Woods says:

        People keep attempting to frame the concerns this way, about accessing public comments.. (by the way Hi – John Samuel from Skeptical Science)

        this is just NOT the problems with the paper…

        Professor Markram (co-founder of Frontiers) has added this comment about the paper:

        “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.
        15 Apr 2014 at 06:14am

        strong thoughts, ‘mounmental mistake’, refusing to fix it’


        ‘Activism that abuses Science as a weapon’!

        • Martin Lack says:

          Markam is not an objective or expert witness in this case and, as is now increasingly clear, as a result of its ludicrous flip-flopping over this paper, his journal has lost the confidence of a great number of academics.

          You and all the others here that continue to manufacture controversy over Lewandowsky’s work could do a lot worse than read his latest clarification of a clarification over a retraction.

          Why has the UWA rejected all claims that the research was unethical? Is UWA part of a conspiracy too?

          • RickA says:

            I don’t think UWA is part of a conspiracy for continuing to host the paper.

            Do you think they will be part of a conspiracy if/when the pull it down?

            Do you think Frontiers is part of a conspiracy?

            Do you think “all the others here” are part of a conspiracy?

    • Barry Woods says:

      What was a second year PhD journalism student doing reviewing a psychology paper.. (journalism ethics very different from psychology ethics?) that a much more experienced reviewer Prof Michael Wood had already pulled out from,because his deep reservations had not been addressed.

      and exactly how anonymized was it, 2 clicks and you could find out who said what?

  2. Jim Keil says:

    It is absolutely unethical to identify the subjects of the study, who did not give permission to Lewandowsky to be included in the study, and were never interviewed by him.

  3. Miner49er says:

    That’s the pot calling the kettle black. Poor him! His warmist co-conspirators didn’t come to his defense as strongly as he thought they should.

    See Chris Horner’s book. “The Liberal War on Transparency”. If you don’t have time to read the book, refer to the footnotes. Then, of course, there is “Hide the Decline” and other fun & games.

  4. Barry Woods says:

    The Co-founder of Frontiers – Professor Henry Markram has issued this statement:

    The retracted Recursive Fury paper has created quite a blogger and twitter storm. A sensational storm indeed, with hints to conspiracy theories, claims of legal threats and perceived contradictions. It has been fury – one of the strongest human emotions – that has (perhaps understandably at first sight) guided the discussion around this retraction. Not surprisingly though, the truth is not as sensational and much simpler. The studied subjects were explicitly identified in the paper without their consent. It is well acknowledged and accepted that in order to protect a subject’s rights and avoid a potentially defamatory outcome, one must obtain the subject’s consent if they can be identified in a scientific paper. The mistake was detected after publication, and the authors and Frontiers worked hard together for several months to try to find a solution. In the end, those efforts were not successful. The identity of the subjects could not be protected and the paper had to be retracted. Frontiers then worked closely with the authors on a mutually agreed and measured retraction statement to avoid the retraction itself being misused. From the storm this has created, it would seem we did not succeed.

    For Frontiers, publishing the identities of human subjects without consent cannot be justified in a scientific paper. Some have argued that the subjects and their statements were in the public domain and hence it was acceptable to identify them in a scientific paper, but accepting this will set a dangerous precedent. With so much information of each of us in the public domain, think of a situation where scientists use, for example, machine learning to cluster your public statements and attribute to you personality characteristics, and then name you on the cluster and publish it as a scientific fact in a reputable journal. While the subjects and their statements were public, they did not give their consent to a public psychological diagnosis in a scientific study. Science cannot be abused to specifically label and point out individuals in the public domain.

    It is most unfortunate that this particular incident was around climate change, because climate change is a very serious threat for human civilization. But the importance of the subject matter does not justify abandoning our principles.

    Frontiers’ core mission is to improve peer review. One principle that we follow is that scientific publishing should sit in the hands of scientists. Frontiers implements this principle by supporting scientists to operate the peer-review process from the beginning to the end. Frontiers remains faithful to this mission, despite the risks that comes with it. We will stay the course because we fundamentally believe that authors should bear the full responsibility of submitting papers with the highest standards and that scientists should bear the full responsibility of deciding what science is published. After publication, the community is engaged and a post-publication review naturally follows. Post-publication review is facilitated by the Frontiers’ commenting and social networking platforms. This process may reveal fundamental errors or issues that go against principles of scholarly publishing. Like all other journals, Frontiers seriously investigates any well-founded complaints or allegations, and retraction only happens in cases of absolute necessity and only after extensive analysis. For the paper in question, the issue was clear, the analysis was exhaustive, all efforts were made to work with the authors to find a solution and we even worked on the retraction statement with the authors. But there was no moral dilemma from the start – we do not support scientific publications where human subjects can be identified without their consent.

    Henry Markram
    Editor-in-Chief, Frontiers

  5. Barry Woods says:

    This Yale article is just a reprint of a 2 week old article at the Converstaion and Social Science Space:

    Social Science Space published this criticism of Elaine’s article.. Elaine has yet to respond to the inaccuracies in her article

    A Critical Response

    I’m writing in regard to multiple factual inaccuracies in a recent article published at your site,”Reviewer: Journal Wilts Under Climate of Intimidation,” written by Elaine McKewon. I discussed this in some detail here (republished at a more popular blog here), but I’ll summarize here.

    The article’s first sentence is wrong. It claims the paper it discusses (Recursive Fury) “found that people who reject climate science are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.” It did nothing of the sort. It only examined one group of people (those who supposedly reject climate science). As such, it couldn’t possibly make a comparative analysis between that group and others. All it could do is say what traits that group might have.

    More importantly, the entire narrative of Elaine McKewon’s article rests on the idea Recursive Fury was taken down in response to complaints regarding two sentences. She discusses the paper being taken offline because of them, her involvement in a discussion regarding them and concludes:

    “Just how clear would the legal context need to be for Frontiers to stand up to intimidation and defend academic freedom? First, the two sentences discussed in the conference call had been amended as agreed, which satisfied the journal’s lawyer even under the former libel laws.”

    The reality is those two sentences were not what caused the paper’s final retraction. The paper was taken offline because of them, as McKewon claims, but it was then republished with changes made to address concerns regarding them. Then, when more complaints came in, the paper was taken offline a second time. That is what led to the paper being formally retracted.

    Elaine McKewon’s narrative is false. It is built upon her failure to disclose undisputed facts I presume she was simply unaware of. This is inexcusable as those facts were common knowledge amongst people who followed the topic she discussed, and they were readily available to anyone who researched the topic.

    It’s difficult to understand how an article which misrepresents basic facts would get written and published. Regardless, I must ask some measure be taken to address the problem. Either the article should be amended, a response should be published, or the article should be withdrawn. I would recommend one of the first two.

    - Brandon Schollenberger

    • Martin Lack says:

      It seems that Brandon Schollenberger is even more obsessed by this issue, and incapable of sustaining a reasoned and focussed argument, than you are, Barry.

      He also needs to answer the question as to why UWA have rejected all complaints asserting this research was unethical (as did Frontiers journal originally). Universities fight hard to get and retain good reputations, which are far too important for them to allow staff to get away with doing unethical research. If UWA has upheld the ethics of the original research, it is not because they are part of a conspiracy of silence, it is because the criticism of the research has been found to be invalid.

      Conspiracy theory has been defined the invocation of a more-complicated explanation for something (based on little or no evidence) in preference to the simplest-possible explanation (taking all evidence at face value). On this basis alone, like it or not, all those that continue to dispute the legitimacy of the conclusions of Lewandowsky et al are conspiracy theorists – who reject the findings of maintstream science only when accepting them would challenge the sensibility of business as usual (i.e. something that the IPCC has now very clearly done in AR5).

  6. Foxgoose says:

    Anyone new to this prolonged & acrimonious debate might wonder why Lewandowsky has become such a polarising figure in the climate debate.

    It might be instructive for them to read a post Professor Lewandowsky made on his own Shaping Tomorrow’s World (activist, moi?) blog – in response to people who asked simple and justifiable questions about his data & methodology.

    Maybe fellow psychologists of his, reading this, might observe a few interesting signals:-

    • Thanks Foxgoose, I’d forgotten that. I had a look at the comments, and there we were, Barry Woods and you and me, all those months ago! Three people who’ve never met, and probably have nothing in common except a no doubt unhealthy obsession with ideas like truth and honesty in the media and science, wasting the best years of our life (well, mine aren’t too bad, how are yours?) unblocking the Lew, and trying patiently to explain to his friends at Yale, the New York Times, the Royal Society, the British government (where else did a government minister get the idea of calling climate sceptics “conspiracy theorists”?) that the paper in question is a pile of Findus Lasagna.
      Anyone who wants to know the truth about Lewandowsky’s research has only to follow the link helpfully provided by Foxgoose above to get a feel for Lewandowsky’s epistemological (his word, not mine) outlook, then follow the link I give in my comment below, to one of the 28 articles I’ve written on the Professor and his work.
      It’s not very normal, is it, to write 28 articles on a single individual’s work, simply in order to rectify certain errors. Does that mean, as Lewandowsky suggests, that I am suffering from a persecution complex? Am I further given to irrational thinking, as Lewandowsky also suggests? Am I wrong when I accuse Lewandowsky, as I have done on multiple occasions, of being a liar, a fraud, a charlatan and a fool?
      Lewandowsky won’t answer. He won’t release the data behind the survey which set off this pathetic witch hunt. He won’t answer civilised questions about his research. He won’t correct the simplest errors in his article, unless complaints are accompanied by the threat of legal action.

    • Martin Lack says:

      Stop quoting ancient history, Foxgoose, and deal with the reality that, by changing their story, Frontiers have seriously screwed-up here; and probably endangered the future viability of their journal.

      As Lewandowsky has most recently – and most succinctly – stated:

      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.

      • RickA says:

        I certainly agree that scholarly analysis of public speech can be conducted without requiring consent.

        I do not think you can diagnose a person in a psychology journal and name names without consent, based on those public statements.

        Can you imagine the spectacle of a psychologist writing a paper in a journal about a mental condition of a named living movie star or politician, based on their public statements without their consent?

        They would be roundly criticized.

        Or writing a paper about a cancer patient, and naming the patients name in the paper, without their consent.

        That would be roundly criticized.

        That is what Lewandowsky et al did in Recursive Fury.

  7. I’m one of the four people named in the summary table of Recursive Fury and one of at least two who claimed that the article was defamatory.
    The problem with the paper is not just naming people without their permission. It concerns the attribution of psychological characteristics to people (feelings of persecution, irrational thought etc) that are clearly intended to demean them, and doing so on the basis of a data base which is riddled with dozens, possibly hundreds of childish errors. Quotes are mangled, attributed to the wrong person, taken out of context etc., with the result that all the ten attributions of conspiracy theory in the key summary table 3 are false.
    I’ve explained a few of the main errors at
    This is the third publication of this article by Ms McKewon that I know of. She hasn’t corrected any of the errors pointed out to her on the first two occasions. I haven’t the strength to carry on this silly game, except to point out that her definition of “climate denier” doesn’t apply to approximately 97% of the people who describe themselves as climate sceptics. A refusal to correct such an obvious factual error (one that has been pointed out again and again) is normally taken as evidence of malice.

  8. John Shade says:

    The statement linked to at the foot of the article makes an explicitness statement to the effect that no threats were received at Frontiers. Why, then, was this article written? Actually, I think I know why. The question is how come the author jumped to her conclusions in such a vivid fashion?

  9. RickA says:

    Actually, this addendum “*Since this article was published, Frontiers has issued a statement denying that it received “threats”, but acknowledging that it received “complaints”, and reiterating its earlier statement that the paper was retracted for legal reasons.” is incorrect.

    The Frontiers statement was made April 11, 2014, and this article was published here on April 17, 2014. So this article should have been updated with this vital information prior to be being republished here on the 17th.

    I also notice that the Author of this piece is not answering any of the questions at any of the cites she posted the article at.

    I would like an answer to my question above.