In February 2013, the journal Frontiers in Psychology published a peer-reviewed paper which found that people who reject climate science are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Predictably enough, those people didn’t like it.

The paper, which I helped to peer-review, is called “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.” In it, cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues survey and analyze the outcry generated on climate skeptic blogs to their earlier work on climate denial.

The earlier study had also linked climate denial with conspiracist thinking. And so by reacting with yet more conspiracy theorizing, the bloggers rather proved the researchers’ point.

Yet soon after Recursive Fury was published, threats of litigation* started to roll in, and the journal took the paper down (it survives on the website of the University of Western Australia, where Lewandowsky carried out the study).

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A lengthy investigation ensued, which eventually found the paper to be scientifically and ethically sound. Yet on March 21 this year, Frontiers retracted the paper because of the legal threats.

The episode offers some of the clearest evidence yet that threats of libel lawsuits have a chilling effect on scientific research.

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Legal context “insufficiently clear”

In announcing its retraction, Frontiers made the following statement:

In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical, and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.

The retraction of Recursive Fury has attracted sharp criticism from the scientific community.

In the course of private discussions, I have learned that a number of scientists who had submitted work to Frontiers fired off letters to express their dismay at the retraction and to seek assurances that their studies would not be retracted under similar circumstances.

Other researchers went public with their remonstrations. One scientist who lists 23 peer-reviewed scientific publications on her Frontiers profile page bluntly challenged the journal’s judgement and commitment to academic freedom in a comment posted under the retraction announcement:

I am dumbfounded to see a scientific paper retracted by the editor because of threat of libel. The fundamental job description of a science editor should include the defense of academic freedom. I certainly expect my newspapers to defend freedom of the press; do scientific publications now hold themselves to lower standards?

The inside story

As one of the peer-reviewers of Lewandowsky’s paper, I am also profoundly disappointed by its retraction. Here, I’ll share my experience with the review, publication, and retraction processes and provide some more context to the story.

Early last year, I accepted the journal’s invitation to review Recursive Fury, a narrative analysis of blog posts published by climate deniers in response to Lewandowsky’s earlier work in which he and his colleagues showed that endorsement of free-market economics and a propensity for conspiratorial thinking are contributing factors in the rejection of science.

(A note here on the use of the term “denier.” Denial is defined as “a refusal to accept that something unpleasant or painful is true” — e.g. “The patient is still in denial.” No fewer than 97 percent of climate scientists now endorse the scientific consensus on the reality, causes and significant risks associated with climate change. The term “climate change denier” or “climate denier” describes an individual who rejects the science of climate change and the considerable body of evidence on which it is based. It has no further meaning or connotation beyond this.)

Recursive Fury was theoretically strong, methodologically sound, and its analysis and conclusions — which reexamined and reaffirmed the link between conspiracist ideation and the rejection of science — were based on clear evidence. Satisfied that the paper was a solid work of scholarship that could advance our understanding of science denial and improve the effectiveness of science communication, I recommended publication. Two other independent reviewers agreed.

The paper names and quotes several blogs and individuals. Shortly after publication, Frontiers received complaints* from climate deniers who claimed they had been libeled in the paper and threatened to sue the journal unless the paper was retracted.

After taking the paper down from its website, Frontiers began its investigation and arranged a conference call so that the journal’s manager, legal counsel, editors, and reviewers could discuss how to proceed.

The journal’s lawyer, who is based in England (as was Lewandowsky by that time), was very concerned about the journal being sued for libel. At that time, British libel laws left scientists, peer-reviewed journals and journalists exposed to potentially ruinous lawsuits for publishing fair criticism of a company, person or product. (Of all the jurisdictions in which academic journals are published, the U.K. has historically been one of the most generous to libel claimants.) That changed on Jan. 1 this year, when Britain’s libel laws were amended to reverse the chilling effect on science and legitimate public debate. Claimants must now show that they have suffered “serious harm” before launching legal action.

But in February 2013, the journal had no such protection, and the lawyer raised concerns about two sentences in the paper that had been the subject of threats of litigation. By the end of the 20-minute conference call, we had all agreed that, if the authors made minor modifications to these sentences, the content would remain intact and the paper could be re-published without fear of successful legal action.

Before the call ended, three academics, including me, argued that scientific journals must not be held to ransom every time someone threatens litigation. In response to our concerns, we were assured by the journal’s representatives that the legal matter would be considered settled once the two sentences had been amended as agreed.

Yet the paper remained in limbo while the journal’s investigation into the academic and ethical aspects of the study dragged on for more than a year. Finally, the journal reached the conclusion that there was no academic or ethical case to answer; in the meantime, Britain’s Defamation Act 2013 had kicked in to provide scientific journals greater protection against threats of litigation, by privileging statements contained in peer-reviewed studies.

It is hard to imagine a set of outcomes that would have better remedied each issue flagged by Frontiers as a matter of concern. So it came as quite a shock to hear that the journal had decided to retract the paper ostensibly because “the legal context is insufficiently clear.”

Just how clear would the legal context need to be for Frontiers to stand up to intimidation and defend academic freedom? First, the two sentences discussed in the conference call had been amended as agreed, which satisfied the journal’s lawyer even under the former libel laws. Second, Britain’s new libel laws offer science journals greater protection for precisely this kind of situation.

In any event, the journal’s management and editors were clearly intimidated by climate deniers who threatened to sue*. So Frontiers bowed to their demands, retracted the paper, damaged its own reputation, and ultimately gave a free kick to aggressive climate deniers.

I would have expected a scientific journal to have more backbone, certainly when it comes to the crucially important issue of academic freedom.

Update: Since the original article was published, Frontiers has issued a statement denying that it received “threats,” but acknowledging that it received “complaints,” and reiterating its earlier statement that the paper was retracted for legal reasons. Professor Lewandowsky has responded to the new statement here.The Conversation