We’ve been awaiting the decision on Stephan Lewandowsky et al.’s paper Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation (Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer and Michael Marriott), published, and as of recently unpublished, in Frontiers in Psychology.
The journal decided that “investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study” and yet withdrew it anyway!
On what grounds? They “did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article”. In short, they don’t have the resources to fight this out in case one of the aggrieved parties decides to lawyer up, even though they found no academic or ethical issues!
I am a huge fan and admirer of Lewandowsky, and of Cook as well. Let me emphasize that while I have doubts about many efforts in the social sciences, I find that Lewandowsky’s generally stand head and shoulders above the run of the mill. We’ve also hung out together on a couple of occasions and I hope to have the pleasure and privilege again.
However, I admit that cringed when I saw this publication in a journal. My take on it is that it was an article well worth writing and well worth reading, but rather more of a stunt than an academic contribution to get it published in a journal. The observations in Recursive Fury, of course, are sound. Anyone who’s paid any mind to the nature of climate science denial will not even find it surprising.
But there really are issues with drawing this sort of “recursion” into the literature that make it an odd foray into meta-science. We need some way to re-examine what our journals are for in the new era of free and instant publishing, but we don’t need to further muddy the waters. “Recursive Fury” would have served us better as a blog post or a piece of journalism rather than as a peer reviewed piece. The issues are not with the validity of the paper but with its suitability as a part of the literature. Of course, the social sciences may have looser standards than I’m used to.
Let me emphasize that I agree that nothing in Recursive Fury is incorrect or unethical. I just think it implicitly raises thorny issues as to the nature of the whole peer review ecosystem. Were I a journal editor I would not pass it on for review and suggest informal publication instead.
On the other hand, within the rules, the piece WAS peer reviewed and further, was INVESTIGATED turning up NO ISSUES. Is there any precedent to retracting a publication under threat of barratry? Apparently there is. Still, it seems to me that the retraction is far worse than the publication, and does far more damage to the peer-review system. We need something else.
There’s discussion of the retraction at the first link above, as well as at Retraction Watch.