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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
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. 301

    “if someone wants to say someone else’s peer-review, or science, or ideas, etc etc, are a crock, they should be allowed to.”

    And they are allowed to.

    “Ideas=a crock” is not libel; “person=a crook” is, if untrue, and especially if malicious.

    Many a career has been ruined by malicious lies; libel laws allow at least the possibility of some compensation. (And at least some deterrence for would-be slanderers.)

  2. 302
    Susan Anderson says:

    Oh, sigh, the NY Times article. I agree about disagreeing with the leftish stuff (62 myself).

    But since digging in about climate science (around 2004) have seen everything turned, as I said, upside down and inside out – it’s accelerated from a few days to within 24 hours.

    As to authority on that, you should see my underlined and annotated copy of Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science. Naomi Oreskes covers some of the same ground, as do others such as Schneider. Also seemingly endless hours research – had to look up Fred Seitz and read right through the record to get it straight. It was surprising how google seemed to always put the denial stuff at or near the top. I was startled by the denial stuff and at first wondered if I would find something in it, but every hole I went down had something corrupt at the bottom.

    I’ve posted endless rebuttals of each new “expert”, often culled from you guys or elsewhere if the words did the job than I could.

    Well, this is too much all about me, but it never does to understimate the power and skill of the professional denialosphere, and the emotional ties with which it binds its acolytes.

    What bothers me is that as far as I can see they are winning as time goes sifting by.

    Oh, and re BEST, while I appreciate that if it were in any way genuine it couldn’t contradict the data, I don’t think “wait and see” has worked well so far. OTOH, do we have a choice?

  3. 303
    Punksta says:

    Should they also be allowed to tell your boss that it is a matter of record that you are, say a thief…

    Yes. Anyone should be allowed to say anything, and listners be allowed to make up their own minds about the claims, as well as the credibility of the speaker. If I want to say E&E or Nature or Science and or their writers are biased or politically motivated, that should be a-ok. That’s not to say groundless criticism is a good thing, just that the suppression of it is far worse and open to abuse. A bit like with say prostitution and drug Prohibition.

  4. 304
  5. 305

    It’s not as if they never reject anything. I once submitted a rebuttal, which resulted in my becoming embroiled in argument with the original author by email, and my rebuttal didn’t get published. So they do have standards. If you point out something in E&E is junk they don’t publish. Your rebuttal, I mean.

    Relate this and some of the things reported here to allegations the denial camp have about peer review. In general: if they accuse the mainstream of X where X is completely unreasonable there is a 0.999999 probability that the mainstream isn’t doing it but they are, a propaganda tactic beloved of tinpot dictators. Indicates where these people are coming from.

  6. 306
    Robin Levett says:

    @304 SteveF:

    “Yet another example of why we urently need libel reform here in the UK”

    Care to elaborate on this? What is the mischief here, and what libel reform would be required to remedy it?

  7. 307
    Robin Levett says:

    @Seb Tallents #289:

    “Note, I don’t think you always get your costs apportioned to the loser if you win in the end.”

    The general rule is subject to very limited exceptions; but unless you actually lose on issues (in which case your costs may be discounted), or do something particularly heinous in conduct of the litigation appallingly, it’s a safe bet you’ll get your costs.

    “Yes they did. For the first case, they paid for his legal advice and offered to pay the settlement if he wished to avoid court. What they did not do is offer to pay the dammages if he lost, nor did they support his appeal.”

    That isn’t quite the case; see Simon’s article here:

    where he says:

    “Initially The Guardian newspaper tried its best to settle the matter out of court by making what seemed to be a very generous offer. There was an opportunity for the BCA to write a 500 word response to my article to be published in The Guardian, allowing the BCA to present its evidence. There was also the offer of a clarification in the “Corrections and Clarifications” column, which would have pointed out: “The British Chiropractic have told us they have substantial evidence supporting the claim they make on their website that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. (Beware the spinal trap, page 26, April 19).”

    Unfortunately, the BCA rejected these offers and moreover made it absolutely clear that it was not suing The Guardian, but rather it was suing me personally. At this point The Guardian newspaper chose to step back.”

    So the Grauniad withdrew at the commencement of the claim; Simon fought the claim both before Eady J and the Court of Appeal.

    On the more general position; insofar as it is required after the Court of Appeal decision, I’d agree with Jack of Kent and support the extension of qualified privilege to scientific commentary on issues of public health or safety (broadly defined).

  8. 308

    I totally agree with what a previous commenter said. The peer review process is completely run-down and I’m surprised it hasn’t been reformed by now. The only that is worse is their reputation after trying to go through with this.

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