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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. 51
    Neal J. King says:

    #44: The letter is a masterpiece!

  2. 52
    Didactylos says:

    SteveF (and happyskeptic): Simon Singh isn’t exactly a poor defenceless member of the public. Leaping from one exceptional case to wild generalisations is exactly why I’m asking for fewer knee-jerk reactions.

    The results from the McLibel case seem quite clear: costs should be proportionate to what can be afforded, and major newspapers should be able to look after themselves. People with fewer resources should be treated differently.

    Oh, and both of you – maybe you should get together and work out exactly how much it cost the Guardian (since they footed the bill). You seem to disagree quite substantially.

  3. 53

    They’re not serious about this. If they were, the first you’d have heard would be a Solicitor’s letter. This is knockabout comedy, no doubt with the spinoff that the denialosphere can have 15 minutes claiming that “RealClimate has been shown to be bogus, because E&E are suing, no smoke without fire, etc.” Expect Morano etc to say you’re now mired in legal problems and the whole warmist hoax is plainly going down.

  4. 54
    deconvoluter says:

    Re: #44.

    legal aid is available if required.

    It was. But we are being subject to ‘change’. Please check before relying on it.

  5. 55
    James Staples says:

    If Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen is so ‘proud’ of presenting the findings of ‘deniers’, then why all of the brough-ha-ha?
    Giving that giving the occasional ‘fringe lay/pro-scientist’ with some kind of an ‘unconventional hypothesis’ a break should make her feel ‘proud of her rebelious spirit’ – if her motives were perfectly, uuuuh, honest!

  6. 56
    happyskeptic says:

    @didactlyos
    That’s exactly the point I was making – Singh wasn’t defenceless , he had huge resources on his side. However 99%+ of the population are defenceless against such legal threats – whether the amount is 200,000 or 500,000 is immaterial, no one but the super rich can afford that. Nor will legal aid pay all of that, leaving behind a sum still plenty to ruin most individuals.

    Not to mention that it took Singh a year of full time unpaid work just to defend himself. Obviously media shouldn’t be able to publish lies without recourse but the current libel system is a disaster.

  7. 57
    Roger Albin says:

    This is likely a bluff and Hughes is probably not aware that recent changes in US law make it difficult to enforce foreign libel judgements in the US. See:
    http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=111_cong_bills&docid=f:h2765enr.txt.pdf

  8. 58
    steven mosher says:

    Gavin,

    The exact claim you made was that E&E effectively dispenses with peer review for ANY paper that fits her political agenda.

    Showing that they have shoddy peer review in most cases doesnt make your case
    Showing that the editor sometimes publishes according to her political views doesnt make your case. Just being a nit picker.

    Just for the record. I don’t trust the journal. I think finding stupid articles there is easy. But to the exact charge you made I think as a juror
    I would ask you this.

    You said they effectively dispensed with peer review. How did you determine that? Did you mean that whatever peer review they may have had was not up to your standards? That is, the junk that got through didnt look like it had been reviewed?

    And you said ANY paper that fit her views. Did you mean some papers? or most papers? How did you determine that ANY paper that fit her views would not be reviewed. If a paper that fit her views was peer reviewed, then would your claim be wrong.

    I think they might be taking you at your EXACT words. Not your meaning which we all get. Just a heads up. FWIW.

    and ya, the libel laws in the UK need reform. Those in Canada as well.

  9. 59
    Clippo (UK) says:

    Re: Didactylus’ comment in post # 35:-

    We don’t want a Fox News appearing in the UK; we have enough trouble with our existing scummy media.

    Well Didactylusl, in the link below, are comments from Sir David Attenborough and Mark Thompson, head of BBC, that they would like to see more ‘politically’ biased television in the UK. If you read the link, you will see that Thompson implies praise for Fox news !!!!

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/8212616/Television-news-should-no-longer-be-impartial-Sir-David-Attenborough-says.html#

    ………………………..

    Also, this isn’t idle chatter because Rupert Murdock’s attempt to buy controlling stock in BskyB is currently being investigated by our Competition Commission. It is accepted fact also that Vince Cable’s antagonistic comments about Murdoch were the reason his responsibility for media affairs within his Business Secretary portfolio was withdrawn.

    ………

    Back on E & E topic, I’m surprised the well-known blogger Poptech, hasn’t popped up to defend E & E – a good proportion of his ? 750 ? scientific papers debunking AGW are listed there and he has argued E & E’s case, (usuccessfully), all over the blogosphere.

  10. 60
    RichardC says:

    24 Greyfox,

    We need to hit peak oil while still on a fossil fuel binge. Because of the longevity of fossil fuel burning equipment, that ensures super-high prices (profits) for the next twenty to forty years.

  11. 61
    Didactylos says:

    Clippo (UK): Hence my concern.

    P.S: I usually copy and paste peoples’ names, to avoid embarrassing typos.

  12. 62
    Didactylos says:

    steven mosher:

    The thing about nitpicking is you open yourself up to some serious criticism when you nitpick wrongly.

    In this case, you seem to have turned “dispensed with substantive peer review” into “dispenses with peer review”.

    I think shoddy peer review is exactly the definition of a lack of substantive peer review, don’t you?

    Or are you going to say one thing while implying another again?

  13. 63
    Chris R says:

    E & E is farcical.

    I find the most efficient way to proceed is to ignore all research it publishes. If anything of merit gets published there (by accident?) I’ll eventually become aware of it when the issues it raises get examined in more detail in subsequent papers in a respectable journal.

  14. 64
    Didactylos says:

    happyskeptic: I thought the directives from the McLibel case had already been codified in law. I may be wrong about that, but I’m still confident that in a similar situation, aid and damages would be treated using the “exceptional circumstances” provisions (if only to avoid another embarrassing trip to Strasbourg).

  15. 65
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    #56 Steven Mosher. Of course showing a preponderance of shoddy reviews will make Gavin’s case: either the system employed at E&E ensures robust review, or it doesn’t. If an occasional robust review slips through, the editors can hardly take the credit.

  16. 66
    dhogaza says:

    Didactylos …

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

    One can believe that UK libel law goes too far, while at the same time understanding that first amendment absolutism in the US has led to libel law not going far enough …

  17. 67
    Hank Roberts says:

    > steven mosher says: 22 Feb 2011 at 2:41 PM
    > Gavin, The exact claim you made ….

    Followed by a misleading paraphrase rather than a direct quote.

    Just checking.

  18. 68

    Canada has similarly terrible libel laws. As journalist who has been sued for libel by a deep-pocket institution I can attest this isn’t about justice or proving right or wrong. Its about suppression by those who can afford to spend the most. Libel cases in Canada (even after some reforms in 2009) rarely get to court because they are too expensive too defend as Gavin points out. In my case years of expensive pre-trial nonsense bankrupted the newspaper and I would have lost my house if I hadn’t apologized for daring to speak truth to power.

  19. 69
    Mark A. York says:

    Isn’t E&E just a trade publication by a lobbying group with a vested interest in debunking climate AGW? That would make it PR, not science or even journalism.

  20. 70
    Edward Greisch says:

    Is the SPEECH Act now law?

  21. 71
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Greenfyre is amusing on E&E’s publishing methods: 450 more lies from the climate change Deniers and Poptart’s 450 climate change Denier lies. By the way Poptech popped up at Skeptical Science recently and his list of 450 peer reviewed deiner papers has almost doubled to 850 in just two years. The rest of us must be missing a lot of great papers!

  22. 72
    Donald Oats says:

    Boy this libel stuff sure is confusing. Monckton says stuff about scientists and they can’t touch him, yet F&F (sorry, E&E; it is all about pronunciation) feel confident enough that they can lob a letter at you.

    Has the letter been published anywhere else before you put it up on this site? If so, that could be very interesting to a lawyer for your defence.

    In any case, the fact that political slants are considered okay for a scientific publication in F&F breaks the implicit guarantee of a recognised academic science journal. A politics journal might be an acceptable place in which to place a personal political slant upon an article, but in an alleged academic science journal? I think not.

  23. 73
    Hank Roberts says:

    Mark, you can look E’n'E up and read the list of editors; look them up too.
    It’s not published by a lobbying group. Some of the publisher’s journals are listed by ISI. That one isn’t.

  24. 74
    Didactylos says:

    Donald Oats: It’s not that Monckton is in any way immune – it’s just that real scientists have real work to do, and can’t be bothered chasing all the stupid.

    Of course, many people wish that scientists had the time and money to give liars like Monckton the legal slapping they richly deserve.

  25. 75

    Hughes is making the same mistake Holocaust denier David Irving made when he sued Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier. If this stupid suit goes through, I sincerely hope Hughes has his asterisk handed to him just like Irving did.

  26. 76
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Clippo@#57,
    Don’t you dare conjure that imbecile, Poptart. The guy is utterly incapable of defending his list except by repeating “But I have n papers…” My recommendation would be to add his name to the spam filter.

  27. 77

    Bob 19,

    Don’t forget Jim Hansen having his papers rewritten, Ben Santer finding a dead animal on his porch as a warning, Jim Salinger getting fired, and an Australian climate scientist having her kids threatened with “brutal gang rape.” Or Limbaugh and Breitbart calling for climate scientists to be executed. If we ever start to see real action on AGW, I fully expect climate scientists to be assassinated, either with the traditional firearms in public places, or kidnapped first. Blackmail is another possibility. God knows what they would have done to Jim Pollack if he were still alive…

  28. 78

    Wolfheinl 23,

    Western PA? I’m in Pittsburgh. Where are you?

  29. 79
    SCM says:

    If this turns out to be more than the likely empty threat, I am sure many of us would chip in to a legal defense fund.

  30. 80

    Did 39: letting the media say what they like is not the answer.

    BPL: Well, that kind of outlook is kind of why we revolted against you in the 1770s. We’ve got the First Amendment, you’ve got the Official Secrets Act.

    The proper counter to evil speech is good speech, and the proper counter to lies is truth. Not suppression by the coercive power of the state.

  31. 81

    #32 Eli

    The esteemed Lomborg stepped down from E&E last year. The position wasn’t helping his reputation.

  32. 82
    MarkB says:

    Even Judy Curry appears to concur.

    “His insistence on not even responding to these criticisms leads people to regard him as a crank/crackpot. Based on Part II, he can probably get this published in E&E, but certainly not in any scientific journal of any repute or credibility.”

    http://shewonk.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/pns-pretty-nonsensical-stuff/

    Libel! Sue her!

    If libel laws were that tight, the denialosphere would be non-existent.

  33. 83
    Peter says:

    Gavin,
    Bravo for standing up to this. Indeed, this threatening email only serves to expose the inadequate review process in E&E journal and the role of a biased Editor who acknowledges her own “political agenda”. “But isn’t that the right of the editor?” … indeed it isn’t, and shame on the Publisher for allowing this to pass as a due process of science.

  34. 84
    steven mosher says:

    Well guys I think you miss my point. I think the libel charge is off base. I think the libel laws need reform. What I’m trying to EXPLAIN ( not defend) is the ANGLE I think they will take.

    \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 \

    The angle I think they will take with this sentence is to focus on the phrase
    \any papers\ gavin has said

    \It simply isn’t worth wading through the dross in the hope of finding something interesting.\

    The Angle they will use would go something like this. Gavin has said it isnt worthwhile to wade through this stuff. So he hasnt read it all. Further, he hasnt seen papers that were rejected. So, he really doesnt have a basis to say that ANY papers that follow the editors line don’t get a substantial peer review.

    is that clear? If you want to know how to beat a bogus charge that these guys are making you had better understand their best case. Now, I think their best case is BOGUS. we all know what Gavin meant. he makes that clear. BUT, if you are going to face them in court someday, you had better get a clear view of their best case.

    clear?

  35. 85
    Hank Roberts says:

    Lomborg and Skea are–as of this moment–listed as editors on the front page of the website for E’n'E ( multi-science.co.uk/ee.htm ).

    Did they actually resign back in July 2010?
    If so, why is the journal listing them as editors in February 2011?

  36. 86
    BillS says:

    Boehmer-Christiansen’s peculiar take on the world dates back to at least
    1994. Nature, V372, 1Dec.1994, pp400-402. A copy can be found at:
    nome.colorado.edu/HARC/Readings/Boehmer.pdf.

    Apparently the whole global warming thing is just an ploy to fund big computers and ineffectual scientists with political agenda. If it is, it seems to have kept her employed for a number of years.

  37. 87
  38. 88
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    Stephen Mosher #83 fair enough. Now, with apologies to Ray Ladbury:
    “exhibit a: ladies and gentlemen, a list of papers by Poptech published in E&E. The defence rests.”

  39. 89
    Hank Roberts says:

    Hm. But does the publisher consider E’n'E a “primary journal” or is it in whatever other category they have? The main page ( multi-science.co.uk/index.htm ) says:

    “Of course, all Multi-Sciences primary journals are fully refereed; the fact that distinguished editors and editorial boards lend their names and their time to the journal is one way of understanding the esteem in which they are held in certain quarters.”
    Which raises some questions about ambiguities in the text:

    Which is a “primary journal” and which is not a primary journal, for the publisher?

    What does “fully refereed” mean, and what other kind of refereed is the alternative?

    For the two editors who long ago withdrew their names, whose names still appear on the masthead, how is one to be understanding that fact?

    In which “certain quarters, and what other quarters, is this esteem?

    Too many questions.

  40. 90
    Keith says:

    Bill, the publisher says:-
    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.
    and then you quote him with:-
    ‘an editor publishes papers based on her political position’

    So what you have done is take his words mid sentence to change the focus, change some words, and then put quotes around it, like that makes it alright.

    If you are going to quote someone who is threatening to sue you, do it correctly or you will get no sympathy from me.

  41. 91
    robert davies says:

    Smack. Down. !

  42. 92
    HotRod says:

    I really don’t see any libel threat in Bill’s email, or in reality, but maybe I’m naive. So I think your escalation to libel of a polite objection to you publicly slagging off their publication a bit OTT.

    I entirely defend your right to say that you have a poor opinion of E&E standards, and that Sonja, in your opinion and perhaps by her own words, is an editor biased towards scepticism, whether for good reasons, journal balance, or whatever.

    If you view E&E as a ‘a backwater of poorly presented and incoherent contributions that make no impact on the mainstream scientific literature’, then say so.

    Free speech, innit. And only people who are childish, which she isn’t, or people with (real or imagined) commercial interests would sue.

    All a bit silly. IMHO.

  43. 93
    Sou says:

    IMO it’s probably too late for E&E to ‘start applying a higher level of quality control’ as a means of changing their current reputation.

    (Disclaimer: I don’t know the circulation numbers of the magazine, nor the demographics of its readership.) Going by the articles it publishes, I’d say that it would have difficulty in getting quality reviewers for any ‘scientific’ articles and, even if it did, they would not have much of a job to do because E&E also seems to find it hard to attract scientists to submit quality papers in their field. Not only that, the magazine would lose whatever readership it has and, because of it’s reputation, would not be likely to attract people interested in reading the work of reputable authors.

    E&E has a niche market and the letter copied in the above article is probably an ill-thought way of pandering to its existing market. There might be other ways of increasing its readership, but none that I can think of would involve better quality control in the form of peer review for science papers.

  44. 94
    Isotopious says:

    Since the relationship between “energy” and the “environment” is inherently political, E & E doesn’t have a leg to stand on in this case.

    ON the issue of bias in general, the peer review system is working fine. That less skeptical papers are published is meaningless. That’s the way science works, unless you can show them to be wrong, you don’t have a leg to stand on.

    People think climate science is sloppy?, then prove it.

    I think it’s terribly sloppy, but unless I can prove it then my opinion remains just that.

  45. 95
    Bibasir says:

    There is a great movie on libel titled “Absence of Malice” with Paul Newman

  46. 96
    Lazarus says:

    Brilliant and well referenced reply. So great to know that you will not be intimidated by such threats as this.

  47. 97
  48. 98
    Sou says:

    From a marketing perspective, maybe in writing the letter to Gavin, Bill Hughes was thinking that any publicity is good publicity, even when it is bad. A bit like the Julie Posetti / Chris Mitchell fiasco:
    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2010/11/chris_mitchellgate_posetti_vin.php

  49. 99
    sebastien says:

    I think E&E should also sue Dr Peter Ridd from JCU for libel for calling E&E a “third-rate journal” live on Australian Radio a few years back. The interesting twist to this one is that Ridd was actually referring to an article he published in E&E, lamenting that no serious journal would publish it.

  50. 100
    RealScience says:

    Perhaps someone should tell them that UK libel laws are not enforceable in the US?

    Sorry Bill Hughes, but if you want your “science” journal to be viewed as something more credible than supermarket tabloids and college diploma mills, threatening people (especially in foreign countries) isn’t the way to go about doing it.

    You could try, you know, putting actual real climate scientists on the review team instead of a bunch of heavily biased political hacks with an agenda to grind. Your review team is about as fair and balanced as Fox News pundits.

    Or perhaps you’re just working on your new marketing pitch?

    “Real science journals got you down? Tired of dealing with rejection after rejection? Then send your papers to E&E! We’ll publish ANYTHING! Our hand selected group of psuedo-science experts will give your paper the rubber stamp of approval*! Bad research? Falsified data? Poor grammar? We’ll take it all! So remember, if you’ve got a paper that can’t be published anywhere else, send it to E&E where science failures meet success!”

    *As long as it meets our political objectives.

    You can do better than this Bill. But the choice is yours. You can clean house and get some real scientists on board instead of the political hack squad, or you can continue to be known as the journal that other journals use for toilet paper and bird cage lining.

    ~X~


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