Changing the Climate for Peer Review

In what has come to be called “Climategate,” emails hacked from a server at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were leaked online in November 2009. These emails among prominent climate scientists included evidence that some have been strategizing to abuse the peer-review process to keep out dissenting research.

In the peer-review process, editorial personnel request independent researchers to review submitted manuscripts for relevance to the journal, for robustness of the data and research, for appropriate methodology, and for validity of the work. The intent is that this process results in only the highest quality research being published in these journals.

Of course, even at its best the peer-review system is imperfect. Not every paper accepted for publication is indeed of the highest quality, and not every high-quality paper is accepted for publication. And certainly, there is nothing really new about scientists attempting to squelch research that contradicts their own. Researchers in science or other fields are like everyone else: individuals with their own perspectives and biases. Further, while not ideal, it’s not surprising if researchers are more harshly critical of research that contradicts their own.

The “Climategate” emails, however, illustrate the process at its worst. Partisans of a particular viewpoint intentionally manipulated peer review to maintain the dominance of that viewpoint and set of findings. They also strove to keep out any research, regardless of its legitimacy, and to exclude any researchers who suggest anything to the contrary. The emails include discussion of the researchers attempting to use their influence to oust journal editors who are friendly to dissenting manuscripts, and bringing down altogether legitimate journals that have published contradictory research.

If this abuse of the system were in some other branch of the scientific community, it would be disappointing, but perhaps it would really be of particular impact only within that research community. It is troubling, however, that in this case the manipulated peer-reviewed literature forms the scientific basis for significant and far-reaching national and international assessments and policies.

Sound climate policy requires unbiased research results. When evidence arises that influential scientists have no problems with exercising bias in direct and indirect ways, the validity of the policy efforts is significantly compromised. How can we feel comfortable trusting the scientific “consensus” when discussion among prominent experts gives the impression that such a consensus is achieved in part through bullying and threats rather than solely a preponderance of independent research? That is not to say that the research presented in the published literature is not accurate or valid, but the peer-reviewed research has emerged as such from a process that seems to have a political agenda.

Neither the scientific community nor the public should accept this. Noted environmental science analyst Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr., put it this way: “The sustainability of climate science depends upon our ability to distinguish the health of the scientific enterprise from the politics of climate change. The need to respond to climate change . . . does not justify sacrificing standards of scientific integrity for political ends.” In this controversial field, perhaps the peer-review process itself needs a thorough peer review, followed by meaningful change.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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