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Dispute arises over rejected climate-science paper

16 May 2014 Tushna Commissariat
Disputed claims

A row has broken out after climate scientist Lennart Bengtsson told The Times that a recent paper he submitted to the journal Environmental Research Letters (ERL) was rejected because of what the newspaper refers to as his “dissenting views on climate science”. IOP Publishing, which publishes and ERL, has responded by stating that the paper “contained errors, in our view did not provide a significant advancement in the field, and therefore could not be published in the journal”.

Review process

The paper submitted by Bengtsson, who is a researcher at the University of Reading in the UK, discusses the issues surrounding “climate sensitivity”, temperature-rise effects and the uncertainties in the data therein, looking at reports AR4 and AR5 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), along with another study published in Nature. The paper was submitted to ERL, which is a fully peer-reviewed journal, in February this year and was rejected in mid-March on the basis of two referee reports that said it did not meet the journal’s requirement for papers to “significantly advance knowledge of the field”.

Bengtsson and colleagues then requested that their paper be published in the journal as a shorter “Perspective” piece. This request was rejected in early April by members of the journal’s editorial board, who review all “Perspective” submissions, on the basis that it also contained errors and was well in excess of the usual limit for that type of article. The authors were then told that they could address the concerns raised by the referees regarding their work and resubmit another full-length research paper with a new analysis of the data, which they have so far not done.

The story in today’s Times, which appeared on the front page, includes a partial quote from one of the two referee’s reports obtained as a part of the peer-review process. It states that the paper’s results are “inconsistent”, are “less then helpful” and “harmful as it opens the door for oversimplified claims of ‘errors’ and worse from the climate sceptics media side”. Bengtsson, who has previously published in ERL, labelled the comments as “utterly unacceptable”.

Editorial standards

IOP Publishing then released a statement, responding to the Times story, together with the entire report from the referee who was quoted by the newspaper. “The referees selected to review this paper were of the highest calibre and are respected members of the international science community,” says Nicola Gulley, Editorial Director at IOP Publishing. “The comments taken from the referee reports were taken out of context and therefore, in the interests of transparency, we are working with the reviewers to make the full reports available.” Gulley adds that the paper’s rejection “had absolutely nothing to do with any ‘activism’ on the part of the reviewers or the journal, as suggested in article in The Times“, saying that it was turned down “solely based on the content of the paper not meeting the journal’s high editorial standards”.

The referee’s report says that the paper “does not make any significant attempt at explaining or understanding the differences [in the data from the various reports], it rather puts out a very simplistic negative message giving at least the implicit impression of ‘errors’ being made within and between these assessments, e.g. by emphasising the overlap of authors on two of the three studies. What a paper with this message should have done instead is recognising and explaining a series of ‘reasons’ and ’causes’ for the differences.”

The referee concludes their report by saying “I have rated the potential impact in the field as high, but I have to emphasise that this would be a strongly negative impact, as it does not clarify anything but puts up the (false) claim of some big inconsistency, where no consistency was to be expected in the first place. And I can’t see an honest attempt of constructive explanation in the manuscript. Thus I would strongly advise rejecting the manuscript in its current form.” IOP Publishing is currently working on getting permission from the other referees of this paper to make all the reports available as soon as possible.

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