The editor of the journal Remote Sensing resigned today, saying in an editorial that his journal never should have published a controversial paper in July that challenged the reliability of climate models used to forecast global warming. The paper, by Roy Spencer and William Braswell of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, proposed that climate researchers have likely made a fundamental error by overestimating the sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse-gas pollution.
The climate-research blog Real Climate and other mainstream researchers complained that the paper was itself fundamentally flawed, but the Remote Sensing article garnered support from climate skeptics and significant press attention, thanks in part to an overly hyped press release. The editor of Remote Sensing, Wolfgang Wagner of the Vienna University of Technology, said he now views the paper as “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 seriously.”
In the unusual editorial, Wagner says “from a purely formal point of view, there were no errors in the peer review process. But, as the case presents itself now, the editorial team unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors.”
Wagner says he initially supported the publication of the paper but changed his mind after studying the arguments made for and against it. “The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extent also in the literature.” The authors, he said, ignored those criticisms and the reviewers did not pick up on that fact.
Spencer fired back on his own website, saying that he stands behind the paper: “The paper WAS precisely addressing the scientific arguments made by our opponents, and showing why they are wrong!”
Retraction Watch notes the curious point that the paper has not been retracted and asks whether it was necessary for Wagner to resign.
The story has echoes of a case I covered back in 2003 for the Chronicle of Higher Education. At that time, Hans von Storch resigned after 4 days as editor in chief of the journal Climate Research over a paper that claimed the Middle Ages were warmer than today—a paper that von Storch said he came to learn was seriously flawed. But in the case of Climate Research, von Storch resigned over a dispute about how to handle manuscripts in the future. He criticized the standards of some of the editors working for the journal.
In the case of Remote Sensing, though, Wagner praised the journal in his editorial, which only adds more intrigue to the case.