A poor excuse for removing a peer-reviewed publication

I became disenchanted with the idea of e-books when Amazon reached into scores of Kindles and removed copies of (of all possible books) 1984 and Animal FarmThe notion that a major company had the power to deny access to any content they deemed problematic simply presented too many visions of reactive, totalitarian control.

I never considered that those very concerns might apply to the publishers of scientific research, who – in this age of online-only publications – have the power to remove properly vetted research articles at their whim. Now, it is not a nightmare vision but a grim reality.

The publishing company in questions is Frontiers, previously known for its pioneering approach to publication: instead of making money by charging potential readers to access the articles ($30 per article, for those not fortunate to have access through an institutional subscription), they make money by charging the researchers a flat fee to share their research. Although I was a little hesitant when I first blogged about a Frontiers article, I have since become more accustomed to the researchers-pay-to-remove-barriers-to-access idea (which I have encountered as an option at some traditional journals). I have also been part of the first round of a Frontiers peer-review process (the scientific version of quality control), evaluating the methods and conclusions of a developmental psychology submission. I was beginning to enjoy the open access to such a wide range of journals, and recent blog entries The Power of a Bedtime Story and Let There Be Meditating Light were based on Frontiers publications.

The article in question was written by Stephan Lewandowsky and is now known by its short name, Recursive Fury. It is right up my ally, investigating the psychology of belief, specifically the attitudes of those who rather vehemently object to any claims that climate change is caused by human activity. In this case, a number of bloggers and commenters had been objecting to the an earlier article by the same authors that investigated what other beliefs climate change deniers hold. Their online reactions – accusing Lewandowsky of running a scam, lying, and faking results in one way or another – were in themselves a treasure trove of what climate change deniers believe. So, Lewandowsky and his colleagues investigated them. Recursive Fury is the result of some carefully conducted Google searches to identify sites where the article was being contested, and analyzing what kind of logic and conspiracy theories were being aired.

This article successfully passed peer-review, with a careful and rather interesting qualitative analysis of the comments and how they match certain characteristics of “conspiracist ideation” – what we might more colloquially call paranoia about secret government thoughts or a conspiracy theory – and clear acknowledgement of the limitations of these particular researchers investigating the responses to just this one article. But the investigation strikes me as an entirely reasonable and very informative use of online commentary, which provides us with a treasure trove of insight into people’s thinking.

The bloggers and commenters themselves, of course, we not so pleased to see their words interpreted in this light. They complained rather vehemently to Frontiers. And Frontiers responded with an investigation that concluded that there were no “academic” or “ethical” problems with the study, but “the legal context is insufficiently clear” and therefore the article was being permanently retracted. In other words, the “public review” of a few disgruntled online opiners outweighed the peer review by fellow scientists.

The initial backlash against the retraction led Frontiers to provide a more detailed rationale for its decision, declaring “the article categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics” and an explanation that, essentially, privacy concerns overrule all else in their publishing.

Recursive Fury is now being made public by the University of Western Australia (along with the story from the perspective of Lewandrowsky itself), so lets consider just how the authors did in regards to privacy.

All of the substantive claims in the article, about the specific ways the commenters displayed facets of conspiratorial ideation, are supported by specific quotes. Those quotes are then backed up by the URL of the website where that comment was originally made. In other words, the authors took care to be open about the specific sources analyzed and providing readers with the option to read the original text themselves, which allows us to see that quotes were not altered or taken out of context. What the researchers and peer reviewers saw as careful documentation, the commenters saw as a breach of privacy – and Frontiers took their side.

Yes, providing the URLs does mean that a reader can copy and paste (this one, perhaps) to see not just the complete text from which a quote was pulled, but also whatever identifying information the commenter cared to provide along with their words. But then, this is the age of Google. To find the source of a particular sentence, a URL is helpful but hardly necessary; you can copy and paste the sentence itself, put it in quotes, and find where it originally came from; I do it to check for plagiarism in student papers all too often. It might not have worked with every quote mentioned, but it led me to several of the sites discussed. In other words, “privacy” (that is, complete anonymity) of the commenters could only have been maintained if the researchers did not provide any original quotes at all. In which case, the paper could not have built a legitimate case for its claims, because no peer reviewer would have been satisfied by vague generalizations without actual quotes and at least the overarching website (the equivalent of contemplatingcognition.wordpress.com, if not the specific articles).

The problem with calling the links to the original comments privacy violations is that the comments were never private to begin with: they were posted to public websites, at least one of which takes pride in its public nature by identifying itself as “The world’s most viewed site on global warming and climate changeI admit that we are not discussing commenters with the greatest logical skills and/or awareness of reality here, but it’s a bit disingenuous to declare that information freely given to every other random visitor of the website is supposed to be protected from the eyes of the scientists actually being discussed.

When Lewandowsky and his colleagues did have the chance to breach privacy, they very carefully did not. The original article was conducted with surveys provided on climate change blogs, with a note that 5 denial blogs were approached about the survey and declined to host it. This became a point of contention among the objectors:

Within short order, 25 “skeptical” bloggers had come publicly forward (http://www.webcitation.org/6APs1GdzO) to state that they had not been approached by the researchers. Of those 25 public declarations, 5 were by individuals who were invited to post links to the study by [the original research article] in 2010. Two of these bloggers had engaged in correspondence with the research assistant for further clarification. (p. 16)

Personally, I’m curious which of those 25 bloggers were misstating their position. But the article doesn’t reveal that; they didn’t run the risk of outright accusing any specific blogger of lying. In a way, they weakened their own position (that vagueness means they’re still vulnerable to accusations of making things up) in order to protect the identities of the people they are writing about.

So, any complaints about privacy have to be about the specific piece of “within the context of psychopathological characteristics”. It’s kosher to, say, accuse an explicitly named individual (researcher) of fraud, scams, and so on, but verboten to suggest that an online commenter might have a mental screw loose. I’m going to guess that this is Frontiers‘ take, not the commenters’, since it seems unlikely that they would self-identify as being crazy, accept that their comments showed any psychopathology, or grant Lewandowsky and his colleagues any legitimacy in passing judgment on their comments or mental state to begin with. Either way, though, the claims aren’t actually psychopathological. Believing in a conspiracy theory is not a psychological disorder, any more than a religious belief is. Analyzing either kind of belief certainly pushes people’s buttons, but identifying someone as a conspiracy theorist is not all that different, from a cognitive psychological standpoint, than identifying them as believing in a god. It’s a belief they have shown through words or actions. The difference is whether it’s a label they would like to have or not, but neither one is a mental disorder.

Meanwhile, let’s be clear: Frontiers changed its story, from originally stating that there were only some vague legal uncertainties to accusing the researchers of misconduct.  “[D]oes not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” is a violation of confidentiality, one of the central ethical principles of scientific research, and the reason that I have to maintain separate locations to store my consent forms (which have names on them) and data files (which do not). Either the publishers are not aware of that fact, and therefore ignorant of their job, or they are making some rather….unfortunate insinuations.

So far, several editors have  chosen to resign in protest over this bending to the “climate of intimidation” facing science today. The practical implications for more everyday researchers are less clear. This issue does not seem sufficient to reject all other research that is published by Frontiers; decreeing all articles from a publisher invalid would take a far more systematic flaw in how articles are accepted. I can hardly say that I would never submit to Frontiers, either, since I was never in a position to in the first place – I don’t have the kind of funding that supports the author-pay model. I am going to be more reserved about the future of Frontiers and its relevance to the future of scientific publishing. Sadly, even online publishing has some costs, and we are stuck with either big-name publishers who charge for the content but can withstand public kerfluffles and lawsuit threats, or open-source publishers who charge the researchers for the privilege of sharing their findings and don’t have enough of a war chest to defend their work. All of which will do nothing but feed the growing disbelief in science, because that science will either be hard to access, or easy to get rid of.

Frontiers in Psychology Editorial Office (2014). Retraction: Recursive fury: conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation. Frontiers in psychology, 5 PMID: 24683402

5 thoughts on “A poor excuse for removing a peer-reviewed publication

  1. The term “paranoia” is by strict definition a claim of “psychopathology.” If the original paper labeled specifjc bloggers as displaying paranoia, there would indeed be legal issues involved in suggesting that named individuals have a recognized mental illness. There is certainly an ethical issue involved even in implying as much. During the 1964 presidential campaign, certain professional shrinks felt competent to judge the “ideation” of paleoconservative candidate Barry Goldwater and publicly announce that he was some sort of mental defective. They were sharply criticized by their own colleagues, who noted that it was unethical to dish out diagnoses of a “patient” whom one has never met. If practicing clinical psychologists are not qualified to judge a total stranger’s mental status based on a handful of his public statements, are these authors any more capable of doing so?

    That doesn’t even address the fact that what we should really care about is getting to the point of meaningful societal action on climate change, and transforming the debate into one about whether those who oppose meaningful action do so because they are fundamentally inferior to those who support it can only harden positions.

    • The accusations of paranoia in Recursive Fury were actually only made by the commenters themselves: some of the comments that were being declared paranoid by Lewandrowsky in the original study, which they were not. But Lewandrowsky never accused them of being paranoid; the only times they actually use the words paranoid are in quotes, from the commenters or in two specific instances when someone else had called something a “paranoid style” or “paranoid ideation”. Any insinuations in this blog that the commenters were paranoid are mine alone, and more a result of the overall controversy than anything Recursive Fury actually says. Recursive Fury pointed out some logical fallacies in the comments being made, but their main conclusions were just that the bloggers didn’t trust the research to the point of making illogical accusations. Since we aren’t on Vulcan, I don’t think being suspicious and illogical extend to psychopathology.

      As for what we should be trying to focus our energies on, I am among those who think that in order to reach consensus and that meaningful action on climate change, we need to understand what leads people to deny it. That’s the spirit I saw in Recursive Fury as well. I taught a seminar on the psychology of belief once, and guided students to a final project where they had to use what they had learned to try to persuade someone to change their mind about something (they chose to convince people that alien abductions are unlikely, that the world was not going to end with the Mayan calendar, and that contraceptives should be given to high school students). It’s an awareness of “ah, this is going to push that emotional button and get the limbic system involved, might not be the best idea” and “if they are going to accuse me of X, I need to be ready to counter with Y”. I wouldn’t go so far to say we should cater to denial bloggers by making our methods forthright enough to stand up to any scrutiny they care to bring (the results of this study suggest that no methods could possibly be good enough), but we do need to be able to anticipate how they will respond to our evidence.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply! It seems to me that very many Americans these days have the unfortunate habit of responding to opinions or proposals they dislike for emotional or philosophical reasons not by rejecting the opinions or proposals on those grounds, but by denying the existence or validity of the facts that are said to support them. This is by no means confined to climate change deniers; I see the same thing across the spectrum, including including in spokesmen for dogmatic forms of “science”. It’s a terribly bad habit.

        I have come to believe that climate change denial is primarily motivated by fear of the economic and social consequences of attempting to mitigate climate change. Everyone but the top 1% is being squeezed harder and harder these days, and there’s no sign that the trend will reverse. We have a huge sunk costs problem. It’s hard to slash consumption in a hurry when you can’t give up your inefficient house because you’re underwater on your mortgage (disregarding the emotional difficulty of doing so, and the legal restrictions on more efficient types of housing) and there’s no way to get from that house to your job except by car. And beyond that, many have been trained to see the house and SUV and all the trappings of consumer culture as the sole source of meaning, happiness, safety, and social status. Tens of millions of Americans are on the brink, running as fast as they can to stay in the same place, and a carbon tax high enough to substantially reduce consumption really might push many of them over. They have reason to fear, but instead of admitting that they are afraid, they prefer to tell themselves that such actions can’t possibly be necessary, and that means that the facts said to necessitate such actions can’t be real.

        If we are going to do anything about climate change, we need to find some means of guaranteeing that it doesn’t become just one more way of throwing the working and middle classes under the bus. Yes, many working- and middle-class conservatives seem to approve of throwing people under the bus – but I think it’s because they have a tacit understanding that the pie, for people like them, is shrinking, and if they insist that those who have lost their slices to date deserved it, then they can tell themselves that they’re not going to be next.

  2. Good post! A few notes:
    1) Note that 3 editors have publicly resigned.

    2) Eli Rabett offers An Amway Analogy

    3) Although OA Scientific Publishing is not not the same as Open Source software (vs proprietary), the latter has a long history whose study may shed some light on the gyrations around OA publishing. When technology changes new models, people try all sorts of things, and some actually work in practice, but it often takes a few decades to figure out the right mixture.

    4) See Pseudoskeptics Are Not Skeptics, relevant to this.

    5) it is really, really good that social scientists are getting involved in studying this sort of thing, especially given related behavior by people who may well have serious psychological problems, like wrsenders of email to Katharine Hayhoe,

    6) Finally, I’ve been studying the 1900 comments arising from this event last year. That involves some of the same blogs and people, the stimulus was generated within them (not by anyone doing a survey), pseudoskeptic behavior was strong, and conspiracy ideation was strong, including generating many new ones. Among the favorites was that an Australian university lured Murry Salby from U Colorado(CU) because his ideas were so dangerous to the dogma of global warming that he had to be gotten somewhere they could hamper and suppress his research.

    Of course, they hired him in early 2008 (he was on the run from an ongoing NSF investigation and a likely serious Conflict of Interest problem at CU) and there is no visible trace of his absurd ideas on CO2 and ice cores until 2011, but even without, hiring a full professor so one can stifle their research is not a hirign practice I’ve noticed anywhere :-) Nevertheless, this was popular.

    • The Amway analogy is fascinating, particularly since I initially took it as a useful explanation for how people with a firm belief might desire to spread that belief, becoming salespeople for their cause. It’s not quite comfortable to have that in mind when I have just received my own notification about the next step in the article I’ve been reviewing for Frontiers.

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