Peer Review Is Not What It’s Cracked Up To Be

journalsMuch is made of the peer-review of scientific papers; it is frequently held up as the gold standard that assures the quality of scientific publishing. People often ask whether some work has undergone peer-review and are then ready to accept it — confident this makes it kosher. I wish this were really true. 

Its proper functioning depends on the integrity of the editor, who chooses two or more anonymous reviewers, at his discretion, and supposedly bases acceptance for publication on their disinterested advice.

But this ideal system is easily misused. If the editor has a bias — as often happens in a controversial area like climate change — then all bets are off. The editor simply selects the reviewers who will give him the opinions he wants. Even if the author objects to particular points in the review, the editor always has the final word — and the paper is rejected. 

Some Examples

I have had three recent experiences that have disillusioned me about peer-review — involving prestigious journals; International Journal of Climatology, published by the Royal Meteorological Society; Geophysical Research Letters and Eos, both published by the American Geophysical Union.

1. International Journal of Climatology – Royal Meteorological Society: My co-authors David Douglass (University of Rochester) and John Christy (University of Alabama-Huntsville) on an IJC [2007] paper (that notes the absence of the “Hotspot” in the tropical troposphere, claimed to exist there by B.D. Santer), have recounted in an essay in American Thinker (20Dec2009) their sad experience with IJC editor Glenn McGregor; D&C base their essay on leaked “Climategate” emails between Santer and “team members;” our scientific controversy is fully discussed in Appendix A of their essay: 

Some months later, I found further serious errors in Santer’s 90-page IJC paper [2008] and submitted a manuscript to editor McGregor; at that time I had no inkling of the complicated history that D&C had pieced together. I then had extensive back-and-forths with IJC reviewers, and finally gave up in frustration when there was no backing at all from the IJC editor. Eventually, after wasting 2 years, I published a full account of the Santer’s errors in peer-reviewed (yes!) Energy&Environment [2011]* — and again in E&E [2013]**, after others had found some of the same errors and published their findings.

2. Geophysical Research Letters – American Geophysical Union: The problem here was rather different. GRL covers most areas of geophysics — and therefore appoints sub-editors for each area — with Climate handled by Noah Diffenbaugh. By chance, I learned that he had received a quarter-million-dollar grant from Google, to be used for global-warming propaganda. I was not surprised, therefore, when my submission was rejected by GRL. Of course, I complained to the editor-in-chief about this obvious conflict of interest, but don’t know if he ever took appropriate action.

3. Eos – American Geophysical Union: Here, I cite the form letter I just received from climate sub-editor Jose Fuentes (meteorology professor at Penn State University), who also transmitted three unfavorable reports from reviewers, which formed the basis of his decision to reject my submission.

Dear Dr. Singer: 

Thank you again for submitting to Eos your Opinion manuscript entitled “Geo-engineering – stopping ice ages.” Based on the recommendation of the 3 reviewers, I am not able to accept it for publication at this time. I have attached the reviewer reports for your reference. 

Thank you for the opportunity to examine this work. Sincerely, Jose D. Fuentes —————————————————————————— Reviewer #1 (Comments for Author): 

This paper should be rejected. It contains unsupported claims and name-calling. And the reference list is missing. I attach the manuscript with annotations of all the problems, but the main problems are two-fold: **The author claims an ice age is imminent, but has no evidence to back up this claim. What do climate model projections say? As I understand the science, massive global warming is imminent in the next century with business as usual, long before any astronomical forcing takes hold. **The scheme of spraying soot onto ice will have to be repeated each time it snows again. The paper claims it will be cheap, but has no data or calculations to support this claim. Furthermore, I can think of many risks and negative impacts of such a scheme, but these are not discussed. _______________________________
Reviewer #2 (Comments for Author): Comments on “Geo-Engineering– stopping ice ages” by F. Singer 

Singer argues that humanity’s urgent climate business is to prevent another ice age. To do this, he suggests a geo-engineering experiment involving the melting of ice fields by spraying them with soot, thereby decreasing the albedo and warming the planet. Unfortunately, there is already a global scale geo-engineering experiment that has been quite effective at increasing the temperatures and melting polar sea ice: the increase of CO2 via the burning of fossil fuels. It is therefore hard to see this paper as anything less than a provocation to the scientific community (a bad joke). It should not be published. _________________________________
Reviewer #3 (Comments for Author): 

This letter to Eos by S. Fred Singer responds to a recent report on geo-engineering from the National Research Council, which evaluates the feasibility and potential consequences of efforts to counteract anthropogenic greenhouse warming. He claims that geo-engineering efforts should instead focus on avoiding the next ice age, the transition to which would occur over millennial timescales. 

This was an interesting letter to read, primarily because it provides a glimpse into the mind of someone who views the issue of climate change from a truly delusional and twisted perspective. It is undeniable that over the last several decades the extent of Arctic sea ice has rapidly declined while melting of the Greenland ice sheet has accelerated. In Mr. Singer’s view, what should we do? In his opinion, we should sprinkle soot on snow fields, hastening their melting and adding to the observed sea level rise, all in the name of fending off an ice age that may be thousands of years away. It is difficult to determine if this letter is intended as a joke or if it’s meant to be a “deliverable” for some cause, because it is so devoid of reason. I could almost support the publication of this letter because it exposes the warped mindset of those who view anthropogenic greenhouse warming as the product of some UN-based conspiracy. However, the internet has no shortage of posts such as this. Eos owes it to its readership to save them the effort of filtering through nonsense to get to serious information. 

Is it worth responding to reviewers?

I think responding would be a complete waste of time, since the Eos editor’s bias is quite clear; he should have rejected opinions that are driven purely by ideology or by obvious misunderstanding of my arguments. For the record, however: Note that I submitted an article for Eos-Forum, to elicit discussion; these generally tend to be provocative and don’t cite references.

To Reviewer #1: Of course, IPCC climate models cannot predict ice ages — but many solar experts are looking to a “Little Ice Age” within decades — or sooner.

And further, the Holocene may have already ended. Since major glaciations develop only gradually, one can judge this possibility only in retrospect.

To the best of my recollection, using soot to melt snow/ice was suggested by NOAA science director Joe Fletcher around 1970 and rediscovered by Jim Hansen.

To Reviewer #2: He talks about melting polar sea ice; I talk about limiting growth of a (currently minor) high-latitude snowfield and learning by experimentation.

To Reviewer #3: I hope he rots in hell — but freezing may preserve him, alas.