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Mystery Deepens About Editor’s Resignation

Remote Sensing’s editor Wolfgang Wagner now says the journal is not considering retracting the paper.

The editor of a journal that published a highly contentious article challenging claims of global warming has stepped down over the paper.

In a remarkable letter to his readership, Wolfgang Wagner, who until today was editor of Remote Sensing, an open-access journal that we’ve written about before, said he felt forced to resign because the review process at his journal — which, by implication, he shepherds — failed the scientific community (link added):

Peer-reviewed journals are a pillar of modern science. Their aim is to achieve highest scientific standards by carrying out a rigorous peer review that is, as a minimum requirement, supposed to be able to identify fundamental methodological errors or false claims. Unfortunately, as many climate researchers and engaged observers of the climate change debate pointed out in various internet discussion fora, the paper by [Roy] Spencer and [William] Braswell [1] that was recently published in Remote Sensing is most likely problematic in both aspects and should therefore not have been published.

The paper in question, “On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance,” was published earlier this year. Climate change skeptics responded with glee to the article, which purports to show that more heat is escaping the earth’s atmosphere than many scientists have assumed — and that therefore the planet will warm by less than computer models are predicting.

Here’s an excerpt from an overtly politicized press release issued by the University of Alabama at Huntsville, the authors’ institution, trumpeting the article:

Data from NASA’s Terra satellite shows that when the climate warms, Earth’s atmosphere is apparently more efficient at releasing energy to space than models used to forecast climate change have been programmed to “believe.”

But Wagner in his letter calls the paper

fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal.

Indeed, two bloggers at RealClimate had criticized the study, notes Tim Lambert at the Deltoid blog. Wagner defends — sort of — the peer review process in this case:

If a paper presents interesting scientific arguments, even if controversial, it should be published and responded to in the open literature. This was my initial response after having become aware of this particular case. So why, after a more careful study of the pro and contra arguments, have I changed my initial view? The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extend also in the literature (cf. [7]), a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers. In other words, the problem I see with the paper by Spencer and Braswell is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents. This latter point was missed in the review process, explaining why I perceive this paper to be fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal. This regrettably brought me to the decision to resign as Editor-in-Chief―to make clear that the journal Remote Sensing takes the review process very seriously.

We are not in a position to critique the claims. But we are curious: If Wagner feels he published the article in error, why not simply retract it? Was it really necessary to fall on his sword to make the point that he now feels he made a mistake in publishing the paper? It’s a noble gesture, and not unprecedented for editors of climate journals, but is it best for science?

Spencer, at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, had not heard about Wagner’s move when we reached him by phone this morning. His response:

Oh my gosh. That’s amazing!

Spencer said the only communication he’d received from the journal was an email this morning alerting him to an editorial about his article (which he had obviously not read yet). But nothing about the possibility that the paper would be retracted.

I stand 100% behind the science in that paper.  I can’t imagine why the paper would ever be retracted, other than for political reasons.

Update, 1 p.m. Eastern, 9/2/11: Anthony Watts has posted a statement from Spencer.

Update, 5:30 p.m. Eastern, 9/2/11: Remote Sensing’s editor Wagner tells us the journal is not considering retracting the study.

No, neither the publisher nor I have so far considered this. On the one hand, as I wrote in the editorial, formally everything was correct with the review. On the other hand we believe that it is much better to treat this issue in an open and scientific manner. Therefore the publisher is already working on inviting the science community to respond to this paper.