by Judith Curry
I have just received notice of some dramatic news re the Spencer & Braswell paper.
An Editorial was just published in Remote Sensing by the Editor-in-Chief for Remote Sensing, which published Spencer & Braswell’s paper:
Taking Responsibility on Publishing the Controversial Paper “On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance” by Spencer and Braswell, Remote Sens. 2011, 3(8), 1603-1613
Here is the [link]. Some excerpts:
Peer-reviewed journals are a pillar of modern science. Their aim is to achieve highest scientific standards by carrying out a rigorous peer review that is, as a minimum requirement, supposed to be able to identify fundamental methodological errors or false claims. Unfortunately, as many climate researchers and engaged observers of the climate change debate pointed out in various internet discussion fora, the paper by Spencer and Braswell  that was recently published in Remote Sensing is most likely problematic in both aspects and should therefore not have been published.
After having become aware of the situation, and studying the various pro and contra arguments, I agree with the critics of the paper. Therefore, I would like to take the responsibility for this editorial decision and, as a result, step down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Remote Sensing.
With this step I would also like to personally protest against how the authors and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions in public statements, e.g., in a press release of The University of Alabama in Huntsville from 27 July 2011 , the main author’s personal homepage , the story “New NASA data blow gaping hole in global warming alarmism” published by Forbes , and the story “Does NASA data show global warming lost in space?” published by Fox News , to name just a few. Unfortunately, their campaign apparently was very successful as witnessed by the over 56,000 downloads of the full paper within only one month after its publication. But trying to refute all scientific insights into the global warming phenomenon just based on the comparison of one particular observational satellite data set with model predictions is strictly impossible. Aside from ignoring all the other observational data sets (such as the rapidly shrinking sea ice extent and changes in the flora and fauna) and contrasting theoretical studies, such a simple conclusion simply cannot be drawn considering the complexity of the involved models and satellite measurements.
The political views of the authors and the thematic goal of their study did, of course, alone not disqualify the paper from entering the review process in the journal Remote Sensing. As I stated in my editorial at the launch of this new open access journal  one of the premier goals of remote sensing as a discipline is to better understand physical and biological processes on our planet Earth. The use of satellite data to check the functionality of all sorts of geophysical models is therefore a very important part of our work. But it should not be done in isolation by the remote sensing scientists. Interdisciplinary cooperation with modelers is required in order to develop a joint understanding of where and why models deviate from satellite data. Only through this close cooperation the complex aspects involved in the satellite retrievals and the modeling processes can be properly taken into account.
In hindsight, it is possible to see why the review process of the paper by Spencer and Braswell did not fulfill its aim. The managing editor of Remote Sensing selected three senior scientists from renowned US universities, each of them having an impressive publication record. Their reviews had an apparently good technical standard and suggested one “major revision”, one “minor revision” and one “accept as is”. The authors revised their paper according to the comments made by the reviewers and, consequently, the editorial board member who handled this paper accepted the paper (and could in fact not have done otherwise). Therefore, from a purely formal point of view, there were no errors with the 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. This selection by itself does not mean that the review process for this paper was wrong. In science, diversity and controversy are essential to progress and therefore it is important that different opinions are heard and openly discussed. Therefore editors should take special care that minority views are not suppressed, meaning that it certainly would not be correct to reject all controversial papers already during the review process. If a paper presents interesting scientific arguments, even if controversial, it should be published and responded to in the open literature. This was my initial response after having become aware of this particular case. So why, after a more careful study of the pro and contra arguments, have I changed my initial view? The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extend also in the literature (cf. ), a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers. In other words, the problem I see with the paper by Spencer and Braswell is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents. This latter point was missed in the review process, explaining why I perceive this paper to be 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 very seriously.
JC conclusions: It is regrettable that Wagner resigned as editor-in-chief, since his editorial makes it sound like he was doing a good job in establishing a new journal. While a new journal wants to publish high profile papers in order to establish itself in the community, I can certainty understand his regret at the attention (amount and type) that the Spencer & Braswell paper received, which was way over the top.
As discussed in the original Spencer and Braswell thread, there were certainly flaws in the paper, but not particularly outrageous ones. A better editorial process should have caught some of these flaws, but it is hard to fault the editorial process followed by the editor.
My advice to Remote Sensing is this. As an online journal, I recommend going to a discussion journal format, such as ACP (Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry). The paper is open for public discussion (ACPD), and then the paper may or may not be accepted for publication in the archival journal ACP. Note Anastassia Makarieva’s controversial paper discussed here previously remains in limbo in ACPD, I suspect it won’t be published in ACP in its present form. In any event, her ideas got out there and ACPD is published as a discussion paper, but not accepted for the archival journal.
The broader issue is the politicization of the scientific review process. I have been dealing with this issue since the publication of my controversial paper in 2006. I have dealt with this by addressing the editor and telling them that I expect this paper to be controversial. I list examples of reviewers on both sides of the debate that have made public statements on the topic, and requested that they not be reviewers, and requested an extra effort to identify impartial reviewers. In my two most controversial papers (most recently the uncertainty monster paper, which is now in press), this has worked well.
The overhyping of scientific results by the author or their institution is always a mistake. Often the media takes control of something (Webster et al. 2005 paper on hurricanes and global warming is a good example), and things quickly spin out of any control that the author might have.
I interpret the overhyping of the Spencer & Braswell paper to backlash against the “consensus” that routinely trivializes (or worse) any skeptical paper. And consensus scientists are in charge of most of the editorial boards of the most relevant journals. I suspect that the editor-in-chief has no strongly held or publicly stated opinion on the subject of global warming, or he might have been more wary of how to deal with a paper by Spencer, which is likely to be associated with controversy.
So should the paper by Spencer & Braswell have been published? Ideally, it would have undergone a more rigorous peer review and have been improved as a result of that process. Spencer & Braswell make some points that are worth considering, but this needs to be done in a more rigorous manner (and with much less hype.)