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'Missing heat' climate paper: Journal editor resigns

Reviewers of Spencer paper all sceptics, says Wagner

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Wolfgang Wagner, the editor of new open access science journal Remote Sensing has resigned, re-opening the debate about the politicisation of science publishing.

The August edition of Remote Sensing included a peer-reviewed paper by Spencer and Braswell [original PDF/370KB], citing satellite evidence showing that more heat energy is being lost to space than climate models account for.

Resigning is a very unusual step, notes Retraction Watch. The Spencer and Braswell paper has not been retracted, and in his statement [PDF/93KB] Wagner acknowledges protocols were followed. Standard operating procedure would be for critics to examine, and rebut if needed, the science in other journals.

But peer-reviewed publication in a journal has become a powerful propaganda weapon – the lead scientists who submit and review each others' papers are often chapter editors for the IPCC's assessment reports, the "bible" used by politicians to formulate climate policy. Several efforts where editors were pressured to keep dissenting views out of the prestigious journals have been documented.

"I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin [Trenberth] and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!" vowed Dr Phil Jones, head of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Jones and Trenberth were both co-ordinating lead authors on the IPCC's Fourth Assessment report, published in 2007.

Wagner implies that politics were a consideration, writing that "the political views of the authors and the thematic goal of their study did, of course, alone not disqualify the paper from entering the review process in the journal Remote Sensing". He has subsequently issued a personal apology to Kevin Trenberth, whose "missing heat" emails were widely cited following Climategate, and whose rebuttal of Spencer's paper can be found here.

"The editorial team unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors," Wagner wrote. He adds that he was disappointed that the University of Alabama hyped the paper in a press release, and subsequent media coverage exaggerated its significance.

"I do not believe that post-publication discussions of a scientific paper in the media or on blogs should be used as the basis for subsequently re-evaluating the scientific merit of that paper within the scientific peer review process. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned," writes Professor Roger Pielke Jr, professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The resigning editor says Spencer and Braswell should not have "ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents" – something Spencer denies. Spencer says Wagner did not seek his views after publication.

Spencer's views on the saga can be found here and here, and a long discussion follows here, on the blog of Dr Judith Curry, Professor and Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and President of Climate Forecast Applications Network (CFAN).

Perhaps a rebuttal of the Spencer paper in the traditional fashion may have given the saga much less publicity than the headline-grabbing resignation of an editor. ®

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