Is the game up for the climate junk scientists?
May 13, 2007
Bishop Hill in Climate: McIntyre, Climate: Zorita, Climate: other, Climate: von Storch

I posted a while back about the failure of climate scientists to archive their data or to release it on request - a scandal which has been carefully documented by Steve McIntyre's Climate Audit blog.  Another post on the same subject developed a very interesting comments thread with contributions from McIntyre and Maxine Clarke, the executive editor of Nature - one of the journals who have failed to enforce their own policies on data availability.

Over this weekend there have been a couple of developments which suggest that change is afoot. The first was a comment left by the eminent climate scientists, Hans von Storch and Eduardo Zorita, on Nature's Climate Feedback blog

Another important aspect [of McIntyre's contributions to the climate debate was] his insistence on free availability of data, for independent tests of (not only) important findings published in the literature. It is indeed a scandal that such important data sets, and their processing prior to analysis, is not open to independent scrutiny. The reluctance of institutions and journals to support such requests is disappointing.

[My emphasis] 

For two such prominent scientists leave comments of this kind on this particular blog can only be seen as a pretty stern criticism of Nature's stance on the issue, and we should certainly applaud their integrity in doing so, particularly as they seem to disagree with many of McIntyre's scientific arguments.

The second development looks to me as if it could be dynamite though. In a story entitled "Lies, all lies, but who do you tell?" the Sunday Times Science Correspondent Anjana Ahuja does a pretty good job of covering the issue of replication of scientific papers, and gives us the reactions of the management at Nature.

[Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature] is considering whether some studies, especially ones that make headlines, should be replicated before going to press.

Science operates on an assumption of honesty – raw data are rarely scrutinised by either institutions or journals, and academics are encouraged to work independently. Rogue researchers feed off this culture of trust: busy superiors and colleagues often sign off research papers and grant applications without reading them. Fame ensues and grants and citations roll in.

And so it becomes hard to “out” a suspect. Do you snitch to your head of department, for example? To your vice-chancellor? Might he or she wish to conceal an issue that could make the institution look culpable? If the person moves and you divulge your suspicions to his new employer, can you be sued?

If Nature actually go through with this and enforce the policy of replication before publication, it will be a big step forward for the integrity of science in general and of climate science in particular, although I'm sure it won't be the end of the story. For a start one might well ask the question of "who will do the replication?" Someone in the same closed clique is not going to give us the same assurance as someone who is of a diametrically different opinion. And it should also be pointed out that the new policy does not absolve scientists of the duty to make their data and code available. Different researchers may bring different criticisms to bear, and while it is obviously impractical to demand that everyone should have a shot at a paper pre-publication, it remains vital that they are able to do so after the event.

But all this notwithstanding it looks as though there may have been a welcome shift in the position of Nature on the issue. I'm sure everyone who cares about science, whether believers in global warming or not, will recognise that this can only help the search for the truth. Let's hope that this embarrasses the other culprits into making similar changes.

And while we're about it, we might also note that pretty much the whole story has been played out on blogs. Well done the blogosphere. 

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