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 . . .

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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.

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