Conspiracy Theory (film)
Conspiracy Theory (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, the journal Frontiers in Psychology retracted a paper in which the authors identified an association between climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists. The paper, entitled, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” was received 05 Nov 2012, accepted 02 Feb 2013, published online 18 March 2013, and retracted 27 March 2014.

According to a New York Times analysis of the paper and the reaction to its publication, the situation is as strange as you may think:

This piece of research . . . did not take long to find its way onto climate skeptics’ blogs, setting off howls of derision. A theory quickly emerged: that believers in climate science had been the main people taking [the] survey, but instead of answering honestly, had decided en masse to impersonate climate contrarians, giving the craziest possible answers so as to make the contrarians look like whack jobs. So, a paper about a tendency among this group to believe in conspiracy theories was met by . . . a conspiracy theory.

It’s a lovely bit of recursive fury, indeed.

However, beyond the particulars of the paper above, there is an independent timeline that reveals less-discussed aspects of the controversy. It is a timeline of corporate expansion, national borders, social media, and libel laws.

Legal liability is at the core of the retraction. While the journal received “a small number” of complaints when the paper was first published, a subsequent investigation by the publisher led them to retract the paper, stating that the paper did “not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects.” As we’ll see, this concept of negligence may be the primary concern. Nevertheless, the paper was not retracted for faulty science or ethics, but because the legal risk was too great for the publisher to support the paper’s continued presence in their journal.

Apparently, the legal concern centered around defamation and libel. While some asserted that “legal threats” had been made, Frontiers said it received no threats. However, the study design itself may have been risky in the age of social media.

Retracting a paper with no ethical or academic flaws, which passed peer-review, is rather bewildering, and the blogosphere has been righteously decrying it, as the fig leaf of “unclear legal context” seems insufficient.

It’s worth harping on how solid the research seems to be. The paper was peer-reviewed prior to publication, and then reviewed again after complaints were received. No ethical or academic problems were found after publication, and clearly the science was deemed sufficiently robust to publish. One reviewer who spoke out after the paper was retracted said the paper 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.

Now, to corporate expansion across national borders.

Frontiers was founded in Switzerland, but was acquired by Nature Publishing Group on 13 February 2013, which gave UK defamation and libel laws a newfound relevance.

Suddenly, we find ourselves back in the timeline, and things get sketchy quickly.

The paper was accepted about 10 days before the Nature acquisition was final. When it was published isn’t clear. According to the timeline on the retraction notice, it was published about a month after the ink had dried. This moved the legal nexus from Switzerland to the UK, which significantly changed the libel laws brought to bear. Yet, according to Retraction Watch, the recent retraction is not the first time the paper has disappeared, having been taken down just days after it was “published” — on 6 February 2013, or one week before the acquisition as made public — because of one blogger’s complaints. You’ll note that this timeline contradicts the official timeline on the current published version of the article, a puzzling situation. Was the paper taken down early so it wouldn’t delay the acquisition? Was it redated to exist after the acquisition? How did the blogger know to complain on 6 February?

With these puzzles registered but unresolved, let’s turn our attention to the differences in defamation laws between Switzerland and the UK.

In Switzerland, libel or defamation is called “calumny,” and it occurs when the offender knows the falsity of his/her allegations and intentionally looks to ruin the reputation of another person. If Frontiers had not been acquired, I believe they would have been sued in Switzerland, and anyone accusing the authors of libel would have had to prove that the paper was false and that its authors were intent on destroying the reputation of climate change deniers. Both pose high hurdles.

The problem seems to have arisen from the fact that Frontiers’ legal counsel was from the UK once Nature acquired it, where libel laws fell in favor of the aggrieved from the start.

English law allows actions for libel to be brought in the High Court for any published statements alleged to defame a named or identifiable individual or individuals . . . in a manner that causes . . . a reasonable person to think worse of them.

A party accused of libel can argue that the statement is true, and that’s an allowable defense. However, in the UK, a private individual must only prove negligence (not using due care) to collect compensatory damages. More importantly, an offer of amends is a barrier to litigation in the UK, meaning that retracting the paper ends the legal threat.

Scientists in the UK have complained about these libel laws for years, with Richard Dawkins saying that scientists in the UK have been operating in an environment of “fear and uncertainty.”

Libel laws in the UK have been so out of keeping with those in the rest of the Western world that in 2010 President Obama signed a law making UK libel judgments unenforceable in the United States. Change comes slowly, but it’s encouraging to note that UK libel laws were changed effective 1 January 2014. These changes make it necessary for plaintiffs to demonstrate serious harm before launching libel suits.

One concern with the paper was that many of the comments analyzed in the paper came from public social media and blog sites. Hence, through a bit of assiduous online searching, the identities of those making the statements might be discovered. Did this amount to negligence, one of the levers applicable in British defamation laws when the paper was published? It’s not definite, but it casts the phrase “not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” in a brighter light, leading me to believe that this may have been the basis for the legal recommendation to retract the paper.

In other words, analyzing social media could lead to libel under pre-2014 UK libel laws, especially if you quote anyone.

But since the paper in question here was published many months before this change, the old laws applied, complete with their chilling effects.

How Frontiers looks in all this is not good, which is a shame. Skittishness and an unwillingness to defend academic freedom and your own editorial process is not commendable publisher behavior in my book. Publishers carry insurance for these kinds of situations. And there are other ways to deal with legal threats, as this tiny little blog showed last year when we were threatened with legal action over a blog post. While it took us a couple of days to sort it out, SSP stood behind the blog posts, reinstated them, and moved on. And, these were blog posts, not scholarly research papers that underwent peer review.

Some lessons:

  • UK libel laws are headed in the right direction again, finally
  • social media is not benign and laws around it are not settled
  • low barriers to litigation have a chilling effect on speech and academic freedom
  • trolls be trolls, recursive or not

Most reassuringly, this retraction situation is clearly not a conspiracy. In fact, it seems completely explicable, based on badly conceptualized libel laws in the UK, a business transaction which shifted venue for Frontiers, unclear legal standing for social scientists relative to social media users, and a publisher’s dubious assessment of risk and role.

P.S. Don’t forget to bring soda to our secret society’s next meeting. You know who you are . . .

Enhanced by Zemanta
Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


23 Thoughts on "Frontiers of Intimidation — What a Controversial Paper's Travails Teach Us About Libel Laws and Publishing"

Quite right about UK libel laws. I had a friend who published a very good US newsletter called Energy Perspectives (disclosure: I sometimes wrote for it). He said something nasty, but in typical American style, about a UK energy executive, who sued for libel in the UK and won, ruining my friend financially and killing the newsletter. I am glad to hear these judgements are now barred, since I too publish a newsletter and can now speak more openly about the UK.

You are correct that the paper was not taken down for technical reasons. However, this does not mean that the paper is technically accurate. It was, in fact, a worthless statistical effort designed to smear people who don’t agree that economic limitation and increased government intervention as a solution to global warming.

Lewandowsky literally published things about people he knew were contradicted in the record and in my case, even from personal emails, simply to smear credibility. When he gets paid taxpayer dollars for such an effort, that is a real problem. Universities actually seek out Lewandowsky types FOR their political views rather than their science, because governments generally prefer to fund them.

Yes, climate change is an issue where feelings run very high. It has its own blogosphere, which is extensive, often loud and sometimes ugly. I hope the Kitchen is not dragged into it.

I’m not sure what you mean by being “dragged into it,” but certainly publishing issues surrounding climate change science can and should be part of the Kitchen. I don’t write about this kind of thing myself, but others should be encouraged to. Note that I said “publishing issues.”

I agree completely about publishing issues, which is what Kent raised. By “dragged into it” I mean that we are flooded with people arguing the scientific and policy issues that have nothing to do with publishing, which can easily happen. The blogosphere is awash with these arguments. Moreover, some of what Kent says invites them. (I have studied these issues for 22 years. I used to track them for Electricity Daily and other publications.) It is hard to speak of the climate issue without attracting the warring hordes.

I think it is important to look at the reasons for the warring hoards. People seem to think it is only politically based and should be ignored but that is only part of the story and they are missing the point. The reality is that the science has become corrupted by the politics, and only a cursory reading of the paper being discussed here reveals that fact.

Basically, we don’t know much about climate change as a species. We do know it will warm but everything after that point is unknown. Damages, danger, magnitude etc.. The truth is that nobody knows and the other truth is that the VAST majority of even politically chosen climate scientists agree with my statement here. People like myself who point out these facts are dangerous to the politics, not the science, and to find your name in a paper written on another continent is surprising in itself. Finding it in another continent in a Journal where you are being deliberately mischaracterized for political gain is something else entirely.

Frontiers made a mistake in publishing this paper both from a scientific perspective and from an ethics perspective. They should be thoroughly embarrassed at using their journal for yellow science.

Sorry, but Jeff ID is playing the I don’t know anything therefore no one does card, however, even accepting his starting point, given that both estimates of the risk of significant rapid climate estimates and the costs of same are heavily weighted to the we don’t want to experience this side, any remaining uncertainty is not our friend. It is not a 50/50 bet but the odds are against, much against.

Ending this thread here, this is a publishing blog, so let’s keep further comments on subject.

You should get your facts straight. The person resigning was not an editor of the journal in question, but an editor of another journal of Frontiers.

This post gets wrongfooted on a few points due to a lack of knowledge of certain details. I’ll try to help:

The paper was accepted about 10 days before the Nature acquisition was final. When it was published isn’t clear. According to the timeline on the retraction notice, it was published about a month after the ink had dried.

The paper was unquestionably published on March 18th. The paper was labeled so,* as was the website.

This moved the legal nexus from Switzerland to the UK, which significantly changed the libel laws brought to bear. Yet, according to Retraction Watch, the recent retraction is not the first time the paper has disappeared, having been taken down just days after it was “published” — on 6 February 2013, or one week before the acquisition as made public — because of one blogger’s complaints. You’ll note that this timeline contradicts the official timeline on the current published version of the article, a puzzling situation.

Actually, there is no contradiction. The journal, Frontiers, routinely makes papers available prior to their actual publication. The document removed from the site on February 6th was a preprint of the paper. It was removed while a complaint was dealt with. When March 18th came around, the actual, published version of the paper came out.

Was the paper taken down early so it wouldn’t delay the acquisition? Was it redated to exist after the acquisition?

This isn’t an error, but the answer to both questions is no. Also, you should be careful. These sort of questions could get you labeled a conspiracy theorists. (The authors of the paper actually use the phrase even more loosely than that.)

How did the blogger know to complain on 6 February?

I believe he found out because on February 5th, Stephan Lewandowsky told everyone he had published the paper:

This follow-up paper was accepted a few days ago by Frontiers in Psychology, and a preliminary version of the paper is already available, for open access, here.

*If you’d like a copy of the different versions of the paper, feel free to e-mail me. I have each.

A little off-topic, but UK libel laws are not a done deal yet. Northern Ireland has blocked the new defences in the Defamation Act. See the explanation given by the Libel Reform Campaign group at which states that “Libel lawyers have already begun touting Belfast to potential litigants as a claimant friendly jurisdiction. This creates uncertainty and confusion for journalists and publishers throughout the United Kingdom”.

From the timing of this post, I am not sure if the Author is aware that Frontiers made a clarifying statement. This statement makes it very clear that the paper was retracted for both legal issues (defamation) and ethical issues (identifying subjects without their consent).

As to the academic quality of the paper – the retraction doesn’t mention anything about this issue.

However, your readers should be aware that there are serious problems with the methodology used in this paper.

It is a fact that Lewandowsky’s survey was not hosted on any skeptical website.

In his paper he explained that his sample was not skewed because his survey was hosted by a website with a small percentage of skeptic readers. The problem with this assertion is that the survey was never hosted by SKS (skeptical science).

So his survey about how skeptics think was never hosted by any skeptic site.

So the sample used in this paper is crap and biased.

I am sure we will be reading many academic criticisms of this paper in the future – because it is just that bad.

In what version of science is it considered ethical to write a paper about events in which you are deeply personally involved while in an adversarial relationship with those you are “studying”? It’s a clear conflict of interest in the pursuit of objective science. The paper should never have been published with that albatross around its neck.

If you’re unsure what I’m referring to, read Lewandowsky’s blog and other comments on the web that demonstrate his utter lack of objectivity regarding those he is purporting to study. Even simpler, just read the titles of his papers. Do they sound like someone trying to make a legitimate contribution to science? Or do they sound like a snarky attack by a man who can’t tell the difference between an academic journal and editorial page?

Your description of the review process for this article is quite flawed. The paper was reviewed by a graduate student in journalism and the editor assigned the paper. Two other reviewers withdrew. The paper does have an ethical problem and the publisher has clarified the problem in a statement yesterday. The journal does not publish papers that use human subjects without their consent. It’s an open and shut case of scientific misconduct.

it seems your analysis lacks critical details. A journal publishing material which is in breach of its own ethical guidelines, as Frontiers has clearly stated, has got publishing problems.

I believe your analysis of the corporate acquisition has got nothing to do with the issue of whether UK libel laws apply. If material is published wherever, and it is available in the UK, it is subject to UK libel laws.

Comments are closed.