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E&E threatens a libel suit

Filed under: — group @ 22 February 2011

Abuse of the UK libel laws is so commonplace as to require no real introduction (but see the Campaign for libel reform for more details). Because of the ridiculous costs and pro-plaintiff assumptions, it has been (ab)used by many and fought against successfully only by a few. In the realm of discussions about science, Simon Singh’s triumph over a libel suit brought by the British Chiropractors Association stands out, as does Ben Goldacre’s successful £500,000 defense against Matthias Rath – a vitamin salesman peddling bogus AIDS cures. But despite that, it remains (for now) a potent threat to throw around if you want to try to intimidate a critic.

We received this letter on Friday:

From: Bill Hughes
Cc: Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen
Subject:: E&E libel
Date: 02/18/11 10:48:01

Gavin, your comment about Energy & Environment which you made on RealClimate has been brought to my attention:

“The evidence for this is in precisely what happens in venues like E&E that have effectively dispensed with substantive peer review for any papers that follow the editor’s political line. ”

To assert, without knowing, as you cannot possibly know, not being connected with the journal yourself, that an academic journal does not bother with peer review, is a terribly damaging charge, and one I’m really quite surprised that you’re prepared to make. And to further assert that peer review is abandoned precisely in order to let the editor publish papers which support her political position, is even more damaging, not to mention being completely ridiculous.

At the moment, I’m prepared to settle merely for a retraction posted on RealClimate. I’m quite happy to work with you to find a mutually satisfactory form of words: I appreciate you might find it difficult.

I look forward to hearing from you.

With best wishes
Bill Hughes
Director
Multi-Science Publsihing [sic] Co Ltd

The comment in question was made in the post “From blog to Science” and the full context was:

The many existing critiques of peer review as a system (for instance by Richard Smith, ex-editor of the BMJ, or here, or in the British Academy report), sometimes appear to assume that all papers arrive at the journals fully formed and appropriately written. They don’t. The mere existence of the peer review system elevates the quality of submissions, regardless of who the peer reviewers are or what their biases might be. The evidence for this is in precisely what happens in venues like E&E that have effectively dispensed with substantive peer review for any papers that follow the editor’s political line – you end up with a backwater of poorly presented and incoherent contributions that make no impact on the mainstream scientific literature or conversation. It simply isn’t worth wading through the dross in the hope of finding something interesting.

The point being that if the ‘peer-review’ bar gets lowered, the result is worse submissions, less impact and a declining reputation. Something that fits E&E in spades. This conclusion is based on multiple years of evidence of shoddy peer-review at E&E and, obviously, on the statements of the editor, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen. She was quoted by Richard Monastersky in the Chronicle of Higher Education (3 Sep 2003) in the wake of the Soon and Baliunas fiasco:

The journal’s editor, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, a reader in geography at the University of Hull, in England, says she sometimes publishes scientific papers challenging the view that global warming is a problem, because that position is often stifled in other outlets. “I’m following my political agenda — a bit, anyway,” she says. “But isn’t that the right of the editor?”

So the claim that the ‘an editor publishes papers based on her political position’ while certainly ‘terribly damaging’ to the journal’s reputation is, unfortunately, far from ridiculous.

Other people have investigated the peer-review practices of E&E and found them wanting. Greenfyre, dissecting a list of supposedly ‘peer-reviewed’ papers from E&E found that:

A given paper in E&E may have been peer reviewed (but unlikely). If it was, the review process might have been up to the normal standards for science (but unlikely). Hence E&E’s exclusion from the ISI Journal Master list, and why many (including Scopus) do not consider E&E a peer reviewed journal at all.

Further, even the editor states that it is not a science journal and that it is politically motivated/influenced. Finally, at least some of what it publishes is just plain loony.

Also, see comments from John Hunter and John Lynch. Nexus6 claimed to found the worst climate paper ever published in its pages, and that one doesn’t even appear to have been proof-read (a little like Bill’s email). A one-time author, Roger Pielke Jr, said “…had we known then how that outlet would evolve beyond 1999 we certainly wouldn’t have published there. “, and Ralph Keeling once asked, “Is it really the intent of E&E to provide a forum for laundering pseudo-science?”. We report, you decide.

We are not surprised to find that Bill Hughes (the publisher) is concerned about his journal’s evidently appalling reputation. However, perhaps the way to fix that is to start applying a higher level of quality control rather than by threatening libel suits against people who publicly point out the problems? Is being known as the journal who tries to sue critics of their editorial policies (or worse, tries to intimidate critics by threatening libel suits) really going to help?

As a final note, if you think that threatening unjustifiable UK libel suits against valid criticism is an appalling abuse, feel free to let Bill Hughes know (but please be polite), and add your support to the Campaign for libel reform in the UK which looks to be making great headway. In the comments, feel free to list your examples of the worst papers ever published in E&E.

Bill, if you are reading, you can take this ‘form of words’ as a full and complete response to your email.

Update: The Guardian reports on the story, and Bill Hughes sends another email.


308 Responses to “E&E threatens a libel suit”

  1. 1
    James says:

    Bravo!

  2. 2
    penn says:

    I think Mr. Hughes would’ve been better off leaving this alone. He now has this nice post filled with additional information on the lacking peer review of E&E. I’m pretty sure he’ll back down because any actually lawsuit would require discovery of how shabby and politicized their peer review process actually is. Their reputation can only suffer further by pursuing this.

  3. 3
    Greyfox says:

    Unfortunately, this is an expansion of the denialist/corporate techniques of intimidating genuine scientists, illegally hacking into sites, overwhelming their sites with electronic ‘bots’ et al. In the states, aggressive attempts to place climate scientists in the political/legal crosshairs (e.g. Virginia AG and his threats) have made the notion of objectivity passe. We are now witnessing a regression into thuggery on behalf of a group of hyper-wealthy energy barons. Of course, nature and physics doesn’t care a whit about this; it will do what it will do. I keep wondering why they try to buy another five years before any action is taken to ameliorate CO2 production; does anyone have a guess why that figure might be important to them?

  4. 4
    Sean says:

    Things are quite different in the UK than in the US. You must have really hit a nerve. :)

  5. 5
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    The widely quoted “By the way, E&E is not a science journal….” was stated by E&E editor Sonja A Boehmer-Christiansen here in the comments to an article that is ironically partly about peer review.

  6. 6
    Marco says:

    Hmmm…perhaps it would be easier to provide a list of publications in E&E that are actually *good*, in particular when dealing with climate science.

    I’m still laughing about Arthur Rörsch telling me Beck’s CO2 history paper was the most rigorously reviewed paper in E&E. And still it was crap (did I now also libel E&E, or just Beck? Or the reviewers? Ah, who cares).

  7. 7
    John E. Pearson says:

    GreyFox (3): Can you elaborate on the buying 5 years? I had the impression that the goal was not to do anything ever.

  8. 8

    Thanks for this post. I hope E&E will respond here.

  9. 9
    Michael says:

    Haha. Barbra Streisand :-)

  10. 10
    Mike Roddy says:

    An enterprising author should take on the distasteful task of deconstructing a series of Energy and Environment issues. John Cook could do this well. The magazine is nothing more than an oil and coal company financed effort to discredit climate science, and protests to the contrary border on the comical.

    Hughes’ attempt to intimidate should be met with the kind of backbone that climate scientists are beginning to show these days. Printing lies soils the authors and those who read them, and all should be called to account.

  11. 11
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    Have you confirmed the authenticity of the message?

  12. 12
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    You article said “like E&E”.

    Given the low reputation of E&E, you ought to be concerned with libel suits from the journals like them.

  13. 13
    Tim Joslin says:

    HTLM has gone wrong in my previous post. Trying again.

    The paper referred to by Nexus6 is now at:

    http://www.lavoisier.com.au/articles/greenhouse-science/solar-cycles/Archibald.pdf

  14. 14
    Nick Barnes says:

    Good luck. I suspect they don’t intend going to court: certainly this wouldn’t be the only empty threat of a libel action we’ve seen in the last couple of years. But if they do, it can be a very costly business whether or not you are eventually vindicated.

    Presumably the peer-review processes at E&E are documented? Oddly enough they are not on the journal’s website.

    Any E&E peer reviewers want to step forward now? If they are indeed following the usual process, there should be dozens of reviewers. It’s no breach of protocol to say “I reviewed a paper for E&E” (although it might cause a loss of face).

    I don’t judge E&E by its (unknown) editorial process. I judge it by the quality of its papers.

  15. 15
    Alexandre says:

    It´s sad to see the kind of crap you guys have to put up with.

    My full sympathy, and good job criticizing the procedures of E&E.

  16. 16

    Brilliant response to a pathetic, cowardly, letter.

  17. 17

    Dear Bill Hughes,

    I am a small, hobby blogger. I post commentary and opinion across a range of aspects of Anthropogenic Global Warming – the most important issue of our day – in my opinion.

    I definitely need some stimulus to re-invigorate my blogs, maybe some publicity that might drive people to read my posts.

    Surely there is something I have written that could provoke you to launch a lawsuit against me too. I feel left out.

    Please look them over, find something you object to, and then if you could file a lawsuit, I would appreciate it. I could use the publicity.

    Thanks
    Richard Pauli

    http://www.credoandscreed.com/
    http://www.noenergytomorrow.org/
    http://climatedebatedaily.org/
    http://www.climatecrusade.com/

    P.S. I suspect you will get many requests like this one, but could you do mine next? Thanks.

  18. 18
    Nichol says:

    Looks like E&E is a prime target for the submission of nonsense-articles, just to test if they pass their peer-review process. And to subsequently blog about any possible peer-review experiences.

  19. 19

    I know scientists don’t have the time or resources for this sort of legal cr@p, but its time that some of these hard core institution backed deniers were taken to task, and exposed in a court of law.

    To date we have seen:

    • An attorney general on a witch hunt.

    • A senator ready to start McCarthy style hearings.

    • A professional journal that is using its clout to bully scientists.

    A parade of pseudo-experts and experts that lied in testimony to Congress.

    • Journalists (and their media outlets) who not only publish misleading articles, but actually make up their own facts and quotes.

    • A very professional computer hack job invasion of privacy (my own opinion as someone well versed with computers is that if it weren’t professional, they would have been caught by now — can you find any other computer hacking crime for which the perpetrator has not yet been caught? Certainly, any CRU insider would have been caught, so that favorite denial fantasy can be put to rest).

    • Famous bloggers and climate science “personalities” who have repeatedly and demonstrably libeled and slandered reputable scientists in climate change, with no sign of remorse or restraint.

    Really, after all of this illegal, immoral and abusive behavior, E&E is going to come after you with a stick because you actually called them out on their role in this?

    Wow.

  20. 20
  21. 21
    P. Lewis says:

    Someone who has published in E&E once said this in Nature‘s Climate Feedback blog:

    2. On our Energy and Environment paper from 1999 [actually it has a 2000 date], had we known then how that outlet would evolve beyond 1999 we certainly wouldn’t have published there. The journal is not carried in the ISI and thus its papers rarely cited. (Then we thought it soon would be.) We were invited to submit a piece in 1997 or 1998 and we had this in prep and sent it in.

    However, I’ll stand by the analysis in that paper (which has been discussed on our blog in depth). So if you have questions or comments about that paper, or even better, this paper (on which you are closely examining the bibliography but not the paper itself) please do share them! ;-)

    And remember that this paper [not the 2000 one] is peer-reviewed and is appearing in a pretty high-quality outlet.

    Far be it from me to comment further, but I suspect that is hardly a complimentary comment on E&E’s procedures, at least then.

  22. 22
    Arthur Smith says:

    This and the Virginia business, Monckton’s threats and others points up a clear need for grassroots funding to provide legal help to scientists. Does such a thing exist yet? Perhaps it should be part of an existing organization, similar to what NCSE does on the evolution front?

  23. 23
    wolfheinl says:

    This is off topic, but maybe I will have planted a seed.

    I am a lowly field scientist in western PA. Friday’s vote in the House should indicate that action is needed immediately.

    I think we should start using any means available to communicate the urgency of the climate situation. And, it is time for all scientists to use their blogs to organize.

    Given the seriousness of the situation, we should be hitting the streets. Nothing less then the National Mall will do. No one, other then scientists and intellectuals, is listening to what you are saying in these blogs. Yes, discussion is important, but action is now critical.

    Friday’s vote should tell you the time is now to get out from behind your desks, or lecturns, and act. This situation is about to get out of control.

    Again, I apoligize for being off topic. I am not usually this confrontational, but I have kids.

  24. 24
    Greyfox says:

    “GreyFox (3): Can you elaborate on the buying 5 years? I had the impression that the goal was not to do anything ever.”

    It’s an odd number that has cropped up repeatedly in blog rejoinders from denialists in the past few months. I thought perhaps I was getting ditzy, but then saw it again on Climate Progress, and it occurred to me that maybe there is something requiring that minimum amount of time for the Koch’s or whoever to accomplish. I might also be full of nonsense on it…or not.

  25. 25
    David Griffiths says:

    I refer you to the reply given in the case of Arkell v. Pressdram

    Non-readers of Private Eye may need to google the reference

  26. 26
    Journeyman says:

    I am disappointed in this post. You were asked for a retraction, and instead you posted a defense of your comments. The accusation of libel in this case should not require you to defend your statements. Your original statement was perfectly legal even if incorrect. Since they threatened a lawsuit, I would have preferred you refused to back down. In defending your statements, you are giving credence to the idea that it is OK to bring a libel action.

  27. 27
    Journeyman says:

    In defending your statement, you are giving credence to the idea that it’s OK to bring libel actions like this. Since they threatened legal action, I wish you hadn’t done that, and just held your ground.

  28. 28
    Adam R. says:

    Ah, the Monckton gambit. Bluster and threaten: if that doesn’t work, run away.

  29. 29
    John Mashey says:

    re: 18
    See p.1 and p.184 of CCC, last March.

    re: 19, Monckton/Schulte attack on Naomi
    See PDF @ DeSmogBlog,
    and then see Monckton’s appearance in the comments and my reply. Note that episode included demanding an apology from Naomi, copying her Chancellor and putting it out on BusinessWire.

    I haven’t seen any comment from E&E Editor Benny Peiser, but people might keep an eye on GWPF, where he is Director.

  30. 30
    J. Talbot says:

    Great post. I’m sure they have no real intention to bring this to court: the result would only be to expose even more the poor standards of this “journal”.

  31. 31
    Horatio Algeranon says:

    Peeoor Review
    — by Horatio Algeranon

    Peer Review
    Called “Poor Review”?

    What to do??

    Don’t stew…
    Or redo…

    Just sue

  32. 32
    Eli Rabett says:

    While the emphasis is on Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen Benny Peiser is also editor of E&E and the editorial advisory board includes such luminaries as David Ball of Middlesex University, Richard Courtney, an old friend, ho ho Bjorn Lomborg.

    The really worrying name there is David Cope, Director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

  33. 33
    dhogaza says:

    Here’s more of Sonja A Boehmer-Christiansen’s quote linked to above. Unfortunately, that particular website doesn’t generate links to individual comments, so you have to search for her in the thread:

    By the way, E&E is not a science journal and has published IPCC critiques to give a platform critical voices and ‘paradigms’ because of the enormous implications for energy policy, the energy industries and their employees and investors, and for research.

    We do not claim to be right, but the editor – having researched the subject since the 1980s – believes that climate is too complex to be predicted for policy purposes, and that many voices – scientific communities? – should therefore be allowed to compete for truth. Science does not progress by consensus.

    I think that fairly states the journal’s purpose and the editor’s goals contradict Bill Hughes’ complaint:

    And to further assert that peer review is abandoned precisely in order to let the editor publish papers which support her political position, is even more damaging, not to mention being completely ridiculous.

  34. 34
    Michael says:

    Great peer review of Bill Hughes’ letter and Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen statements!

    He at least is a declared supporter of peer review, so should appreciate your well-argued case.

  35. 35
    Didactylos says:

    I do get a little tired of this knee-jerk reaction to UK libel laws.

    The law has to strike a balance between the rights of the accused and the accuser, and prevent either from having undue power.

    In the case of libel, for centuries the power has been with the newspapers – able to publish what they want, and with the money to defend themselves. Therefore the law has balanced that by putting the burden of proof on the defendant. The “presumption of innocence” is applied here to whatever is asserted in the actual defamation being complained of.

    In this uneven landscape, it is no surprise that things get hairy when the situation is reversed. But in all of these supposedly infamous cases, justice has mostly won out in the end.

    And for heaven’s sake, people: don’t believe a word on the subject from any media source. They are the people who are going to benefit most from a major change in the law. We don’t want a Fox News appearing in the UK; we have enough trouble with our existing scummy media.

    [Response: You shouldn’t misconstrue the above post to imply that all libel laws are unjust, but rather that, the situation in the UK is that the costs and in-built bias for the plaintiff result in a situation where the merest threat of a suit is enough for big institutions and deep-pocketed individuals to squelch justifiable critiques. A fairer system would allow people whose comments were justifiable to at least make that case in court without bankrupting themselves – win or lose. – gavin]

  36. 36
    Russell says:

    Publicists who embark on vanity press operations generally go down by the stern after a volume or two.

    Will the progress of the case be reported in _Nuclear Winter News_ ?

  37. 37
    Dikran Marsupial says:

    Perhaps a constructive response of the realclimate readership would be to systematically review papers that have appeared in E&E and where there are clear errors, submit comments papers to E&E to explain those errors. If there is substantive peer review at E&E, this will only be possible for a small fraction of the papers they have published. The threat of libel is deplorable – criticism of the review process at E&E is nothing new and the publisher would do better to address the criticisms.

  38. 38

    A quote from Dr. Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen

    My interests are purely academic, professional and political. I am interested in the value and misuse of the peer review process.

    As suggested, if Sonja is losing sales at E&E, maybe Bill Hughes should find a better editor more interested in ‘science’ and the ‘value’ of proper ‘peer review’ to bolster their reputation in the community, rather than relying on an editor that seems to favor political views that don’t have strong scientific basis.

    Sonja seems to just not like the ‘scientific’ peer review process and favors her own version of peer review for her publications approvals for E&E.

  39. 39
    Didactylos says:

    Gavin:

    I think your response of “bring it” (I paraphrase) is spot on, given that truth is an absolute defence in both the UK and US.

    But please have a little more faith in the system. It worked for Simon Singh, and in the wake of the McLibel case, legal aid is available if required.

    Can the system be improved? Absolutely! But letting the media say what they like is not the answer. I didn’t read all the cases featured by the Campaign for Libel Reform, but those that I did seem to have been settled justly. Are the people behind it merely misguided, or is there some media group behind it? It’s hard to say, since they aren’t at all clear about what they want.

  40. 40
    Mike says:

    I don’t have full access to E&E b/c my library does not have a sub. But I noticed the abstracts don’t give submission and acceptance dates. If these are not given in the full articles or if the gap is small that would be some additional evidence of weak peer reviewing.

  41. 41
    Mike says:

    I don’t have full access to E&E, but I noticed that their abstracts do not give submission and acceptance dates. If these are not in the full articles or the lag is very short, that would be additional evidence of weak peer reviewing.

  42. 42
    happyskeptic says:

    Please fight this, even if they actually do sue and not just threaten! The Simon Singh legal case was an absolute disaster for the chiropractors:

    – The judge ruled that Singh had a legal right to criticise them as part of scientific discourse.
    – So many people dobbed chiropractors into the advertising standards authority for misleading adverts that their own association advised chiropractors to stop all advertising and remove their websites from the web!
    – The publicity around the case forced the chiros to publish their ‘evidence’, which was ripped to shreds in a sober article from the British Medical Journal

    @Didactylos:
    “I didn’t read all the cases featured by the Campaign for Libel Reform, but those that I did seem to have been settled justly”

    As to the need for libel reform: it still cost Singh a year of his life during which he had no time to work and 200,000 pounds (he was fortunate enough to be supported by a major newspaper, the Guardian). I’m sure a site like RC could muster similar support in the form of donations of money and legal expertise.

    However the idea that this is the cost of free speech is chilling, if not terrifying, and puts 99% of the population out of the game. Us ordinary people would have to retract and shut up shop if we were sued for something posted on a blog, no matter how right we were lest we be financially ruined for life.

  43. 43
    John Mashey says:

    More on Sonja:

    This, p7-8 has more words:
    “As to “peer review,” Ms. Boehmer-Christiansen has acknowledged in an
    email to Dr. Tim Osborn of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia
    (U.K.), that in her rush to get the McIntyre and McKitrick piece into print for political
    reasons Energy & Environment dispensed with what scientists consider peer review (“I
    was rushing you to get this paper out for policy impact reasons, e.g. publication well
    before COP9”). As Ms. Boehmer-Christiansen added, the “paper was amended until the
    very last moment. There was a trade off in favour of policy.”

  44. 44
    Russell says:

    I am obliged for the link to Hughes’ fascinating website, which suggests complaints might better be directed to your golf pro than E&E’s editor:

    “Ground breaking licence agreed between academic publisher and sporting body
    Multi-Science Publishing & Professional Golfers Association licence agreed
    Multi-Science Publishing Co Ltd has announced that it has signed a licence with the UK’s Professional Golfers Association (PGA) whereby PGA members will have unrestricted online access to the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, The Annual Review of Golf Coaching series, and the Sports Science Handbook, from 2010.”

  45. 45
    gavin says:

    A previous example of pushing back against unjustified threats of libel is given by Peter Gleick responding to Chris Horner of CEI and Patrick Michaels:

    http://www.pacinst.org/press_center/censorship/keker_letter.pdf

    After the letter was sent, no more was heard from them.

  46. 46
    Didactylos says:

    Gavin said: “A fairer system would allow people whose comments were justifiable to at least make that case in court without bankrupting themselves – win or lose.”

    As I said, following the McLibel case, legal aid is available if required.

    Compare this to the situation in the US, where corporations seem to be able to do what they like with impunity – no thanks.

  47. 47
    Russell says:

    Your link to Hughes’ fascinating website suggests complaints might better be directed to golf pros than E&E’s editor:

    “Ground breaking licence agreed between academic publisher and sporting body

    Multi-Science Publishing Co Ltd has announced that it has signed a licence with the UK’s Professional Golfers Association (PGA) whereby PGA members will have unrestricted online access to the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, The Annual Review of Golf Coaching series, and the Sports Science Handbook, from 2010.”

  48. 48
    SteveF says:

    Didactylos,

    Our libel system is unjust and profoundly illiberal. It can hardly be said to have “worked” for Simon Singh when he had to appeal, pay half a million pounds, over a year of his life and untold stress. There are a litany of similar cases at the moment, not to mention libel tourism. It’s quite frankly a national disgrace and I urge people to support the cause of Libel Reform. The people behind it are not a shadowy media cabal (as any cursory research of the subject will reveal), rather they are concerned scientists, people in the legal profession, journalists, organisations such as Amnesty and a variety of others. Not to mention many deeply worried citizens such as myself.

  49. 49
    Dan H. says:

    I think the one thing that is correct in Dr. Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen’s statement is that “… should therefore be allowed to compete for truth. Science does not progress by consensus.” In science, the truth will always win out, no matter what other people believe.

  50. 50
    Slioch says:

    I must confess I find myself wishing that someone would write a deliberately bogus anti-AGW paper with identifiably false data and bent statistics and submit it to E&E to see what happened.
    Yes, I know, better things to do, but the idea does make me smile.


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