Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Should academic journals challenge fashionable wisdom? 

Any academic can give you stories of papers rejected by journals over bad referee reports, editorial whim, or, in the case of those of us teaching and writing at non-flagship schools, because nobody thinks we can write anything useful. I think about a fifth of these stories are true, possibly less ... and I'm one with a drawerful of rejection letters. Dr. Benny Peiser, considered an authority on natural disasters, wrote a paper looking at a thousand studies of global warming and concluded there was no consensus among the studies, and is angered that the paper was rejected.
The controversy follows the publication by Science in December of a paper which claimed to have demonstrated complete agreement among climate experts, not only that global warming is a genuine phenomenon, but also that mankind is to blame.

The author of the research, Dr Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, analysed almost 1,000 papers on the subject published since the early 1990s, and concluded that 75 per cent of them either explicitly or implicitly backed the consensus view, while none directly dissented from it.

Dr Oreskes's study is now routinely cited by those demanding action on climate change, including the Royal Society and Prof Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser.

However, her unequivocal conclusions immediately raised suspicions among other academics, who knew of many papers that dissented from the pro-global warming line.

They included Dr Benny Peiser, a senior lecturer in the science faculty at Liverpool John Moores University, who decided to conduct his own analysis of the same set of 1,000 documents - and concluded that only one third backed the consensus view, while only one per cent did so explicitly.

Dr Peiser submitted his findings to Science in January, and was asked to edit his paper for publication - but has now been told that his results have been rejected on the grounds that the points he make had been "widely dispersed on the internet".
Peiser disagrees. A second paper with similar conclusions was also rejected by Science because, according to the rejected author, "They said it didn't fit with what they were intending to publish." In the case of Science or Nature, the two journals discussed, there is the added dimension that what is published there gets wide dissemination in the press as opposed to, say, the Journal of Monetary Economics.

If a journal publishes a paper and then receives a paper that challenges that result, and that has met peer review for being scientifically sound, the journal is under some obligation to publish. Whether or not that is the case here one can only speculate. I could imagine Dr. Peiser to be right about the motives of the journals, but the burden of proof is quite large, and there are loads of academics who think their work deserved more consideration than it got; there are also plenty of stories of papers that were rejected many times before being published that then went on to great acclaim in their fields.