Comment On The Resignation of Wolfgang Wagner As Editor-In-Chief Of The Journal “Remote Sensing” In Response To The Publication Of Spencer And Braswell (2011)

I was informed today about the resignation of Wolfgang Warner as Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Remote Sensing.  This resignation has been already communicated on several Weblogs; e.g.

BREAKING: Editor-in-chief of Remote Sensing resigns over Spencer & Braswell paper

Update on the Spencer & Braswell paper

The media are already picking up on this resignation; e.g. see

Editor resigns over climate paper in the BBC

Journal editor resigns over ‘flawed’ paper co-authored by climate ‎ in the Guardian

He resigned as a result of the publication of the paper

Spencer, R.W.; Braswell, W.D. On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance. Remote Sens. 2011, 3, 1603-1613.

as he reports in the article

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.

Extracts from his resignation read [highlight added]

The managing editor of 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.”

My Comment:  By resigning as Editor, rather than soliciting a Comment/Reply exchange between  Spencer and Braswell and the critics of their paper, he has achieved the opposite of his stated goal to have “different opinions … heard and openly discussed”. Wagner also writes“three reviewers ….. probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors”.  First, he fails to define what is a “climate sceptic“?  If this litmus test was required of all referees (that they have to be “correct” in their views of climate science), then the review process itself has failed.

Wolfgang Wagner continues

“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. [7]), 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.”

My Comment:  Wagner is not an expert on the subject of the Spencer and Braswell paper, so he must have relied on input from individuals who were critical of their paper. He cites one reference (in addition to weblogs)

Trenberth, K.E., Fasullo, J.T., O’Dell, C., Wong, T. Relationships between tropical sea surface temperature and top-of-atmosphere radiation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 2010, 37, L03702

but presents no specific scientific information as to how that paper refutes Spencer and Braswell. Moreover, if there is a fundamental flaw in their work, than publishing a Comment in Remote Sensing would have resolved the issue. That is how science is supposed to work. As it is, Wagner has further politicized climate science.

Also, if Spencer and Braswell “essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents”, they would be clearly (and easily) refuted in  a Comment in Remote Sensing. This would be an embarrassment to Spencer and Braswell, but that is how the scientific method works.

I have  read the Spencer and Braswell paper in detail, and while I agree that some of the media exposure has been exaggerated and misplaced, the science in their paper appears robust. I certainly can be wrong, but I do not see a fatal flaw in what they did (i.e. an error such that the paper should have been rejected).

If their analysis is robust (even if minor technical errors exist), it is going to make Wolfgang Wagner look very biased. The ultimate arbitrator of the Spencer and Braswell analysis and conclusions will be in the peer-reviewed literature not on weblogs, or whether or not the Chief Editor of a journal decides to resign over a paper.

Having served as a Chief Editors for the Journal of Atmospheric Science and the Monthly Weather Review this very unusual behavior.  The place to refute a published paper is in peer-reviewed papers, not in blogs (or the media). If the paper is not robust, it appropriately should be responded to by paper, not by the resignation of the Editor. In my view, he made a poor decision which has further damaged the scientific process of vetting new research results.

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